Dear Bernie: Here's how you can still win — but the chance may soon slip away

I'm your biggest fan. Well, one of them. To win, you'll have to take on Elizabeth Warren directly — and soon

Published September 9, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (Getty Stock/ AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (Getty Stock/ AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Dear Bernie,

I’m your biggest fan. No, seriously. There was no one in the literary world who supported you as unstintingly as I did in the last campaign, and I barely dared to hope that you would run again. To have you come so close to victory last time was the heartbreak of a lifetime, but in “loss” you have gone on to accomplish what I don’t remember anyone else in American politics having done to such an extent: You have moved the entire spectrum of discussion dramatically more to the left, on every issue, than would have been imaginable just four years ago when you entered the presidential race with the ideas and beliefs of a tradition that had been all but excluded by 40 years of neoliberalism.

You have shifted the needle so much that every candidate for the Democratic nomination this time around, though they may not always want to acknowledge it, takes your ideas of democratic socialism as a starting point, deviation from which must be justified in some form or another. 

Clintonism is dead; you killed it in one resounding blow, which actually lasted a couple of years beyond the last election. You now have nine other candidates with you on the debate stage, each trying to speak the language you established so forcefully in the last four years, in some cases somewhat sincere, in other cases not so much, but they can’t waver from it too much or they would have no chance with the Democratic electorate. You took the ideas of Occupy and the long-festering academic discontent with inequality to a level of general acceptance that seems hard to believe, when we recall that in 2012 Joe Biden was about as much of a “progressive” as we could have dared to imagine; back then, he looked positively inspirational compared to Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s robot joy-killer.

Yours is a revolution of ideas that has spread far and wide, and continues to do so each day that you run this current campaign, even though we realize that the goal of the elites, as always, is to absorb the best you have to offer, treat it and polish it and prune it, until there’s not much left of any kind of a revolution. As much as any single human being can inject an architecture of radicalism into the normal American political process, you have done so. So whatever I say is meant with only the deepest respect for a figure with no comparison in American politics. 

I am deeply worried that you have stayed mostly around or under 20 percent among the Democratic candidates. To some extent it’s because of the plethora of candidates running this time, part of the establishment strategy to drown out your voice. But it seems to me that there’s more to it than that. At the start of your campaign in the spring, I would have recommended three things, which right off the bat I noticed were missing in your strategy:

  1. Don’t act like the frontrunner.
  2. Attack the media.
  3. Sharply differentiate yourself from the other “progressives.” 

As for the first point, I believe it’s always best to position yourself as the insurgent, even if you aren’t. But I understand the reality of where we were six months ago, when it was important for you to acknowledge that your ideas had found resonance, particularly among the younger generations, for whom you remained the champion. You no longer have this problem to deal with, because Biden is clearly the frontrunner, and polls are increasingly showing Elizabeth Warren in second place. 

Your natural tendency is to stay calm, gentle and respectful with the media, but the problem with that, especially on the crowded debate stage, is that there will always be an attention-grabber — like Kamala Harris when she went after Biden in the first debate — who spoils all your reasoned efforts. I think of early interviews you gave to the mainstream media, which were utterly disrespectful of you, treating you as a communist radical about to destroy America, though now they tend to act a bit more deferential, possibly because they have less to fear from you — I’m sure the recent rise of Warren has soothed their fears to a considerable degree.

Nonetheless, you’ll agree that your second debate performance was much improved, and if there is a way to channel some more of the anti-elite energy floating out there, particularly the frustration with the media, into the debates, in a way that you become the center of conversation afterwards, I hope you will do that.

Your interview with Joe Rogan, your important speech defining democratic socialism, and your interview with Robert Costa of the Washington Post are just three examples of your panoramic analysis of the changing world and what needs to happen in America to revive democracy, in a way that doesn’t seem to be getting through in the debates so much. I love how, with Rogan or Costa, you remained insistent on your refusal to give in to the fossil fuel or pharmaceutical industries or the military-industrial complex and clarified what needed to be clarified, and how you remained focused on such crucial matters as affordable housing, which is a crisis of dire proportions that seems to have escaped the other contenders.

The debate format with too many candidates and not enough time hampers this type of lucidity, but I think there’s a way to get in your transcendent philosophical bearings rather than reciting your customary words of approbation against the fossil fuel industry or Big Pharma or even the 1%, which by now, as rhetoric, have become baked into the picture of who you are. 

But it has to be part of the third and most important point, which remains for me unchanged from the spring, and that is to radically differentiate yourself from the other so-called “progressives,” particularly Warren, before it is too late and we get so close to the primaries that any change in perception ceases to matter.

Early on, you were being asked whether you were happy that your ideas had been seized on by the other candidates, who all seemed to be proposing Medicare for All, among other signature ideas of yours. You should have said at that point that nobody had had the guts to adopt your positions wholesale, that there remained critical differences between what you were saying about Medicare for All, not to mention free college tuition, a living wage, debt forgiveness, incarceration, or any other issue, and what the other candidates were saying. You should have said that you were happy that they were trying to sound like you, but in fact you remained the lone insurgent in terms of the degree to which your ideas were a clarion call for revolutionary change. In the emerging clash with Warren, this original problem of definition is likely to become the ultimate test for you.

Surprisingly, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the establishment’s two favorite candidates (in case Biden faltered), seem to have lost traction, which was not where we would have expected to be a few months ago. Harris especially has proved clumsy in adopting your positions, such as Medicare for All, because her ingrained neoliberal ethic means that when it comes time to explaining, for example, her stance on whether she would abolish private insurance, she just can’t, or won’t, bring herself to say what needs to be said to preserve her newly claimed progressive credentials.

Buttigieg was the other great media darling, and there’s no harm in the establishment trying him out on the national stage for a more serious future run, but he simply lacks the gravity to go against someone with decades of authentic political experience like you. When the age question was raised in the second debate, and as you stood next to him, he appeared like a man-child, not wanting to diss you, and seemed quite OK with his second-class status. 

Apart from these two, there are other candidates who have created a sort of opening for you, where you can not only leap in with your substantive differences but stake an ultimate claim for their followers. How you deal with Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Andrew Yang’s idealist constituencies, as a way to counter the heavy burden of the Biden “realists,” will go a long way toward defining this campaign.

The same applies to Tulsi Gabbard, whose anti-war stance is still out there (even though she won’t be in the third debate), ready to be snatched by someone, and Jay Inslee, whose signature issue, climate change, you have already made your own, with the release of your bold Green New Deal, the biggest and baddest of them all, which is exactly the way to go. I hope you’re working on getting Inslee’s endorsement, now that he’s out of the race. If he doesn’t come through, and goes for, say, Warren, with a much less honest climate change plan, then his lack of an endorsement must be neutralized and exposed for what it is. 

In helping Booker, Castro and even O’Rourke to manifest their inner progressive, thanks in large measure to you, these candidates have materialized with important factions that should naturally be yours. Just as with Warren coming out every so often with a “plan” to tackle a problem you have already addressed for a long time, sometimes for decades, as if she were discovering the wheel anew (although only half a wheel, and perhaps not even a wheel, perhaps only a square that refuses to roll), you offer the broadest sweep of any candidate when it comes to understanding the injustices with regard to incarceration, deportation, and even gun violence, because you connect the dots when it comes to the skewed domestic priorities being a consequence of maintaining late-stage empire.

Your anti-imperialist stance, including with respect to our flawed Middle East policy, is the clearest of any candidate, and it is with this big vision, which no other candidate offers, that you can embrace into the fold those who would like to support Booker, Castro and O’Rourke. Yang has turned the universal basic income (UBI) into a panacea of sorts for all our ills, which is understandable given his entrepreneurial background. But your broad understanding of the injustices inherent in neoliberal globalization, and the consequent erosion of political power for the average American, far exceed his simple one-shot prescription. It is your task in the fall campaign to take on and encompass each of these candidates — Booker, Castro, O’Rourke, Yang and Gabbard — in your already exhaustive explanation of the basic problem underlying American democratic collapse.

Were you a little surprised at the high numbers with which Biden entered the race, and stayed there? I was. To a large extent we can only guess that this is Hillary Clinton’s electorate, who still believe that the world before Trump was mostly just fine as it was, and that we can go back to America being great again if only we can forget about Trump and his followers and pretend that they never happened. This view of American exceptionalism is rooted in nostalgia, amnesia and often just plain hypocrisy, where the white middle class refuses to confront the ills of the past that have led to the crisis of democracy that makes Trump possible in the first place.

Booker has been very good in taking on the legacy of deportations, and other human rights violations, such as those pertaining to mass incarceration, by directly confronting Biden; this should have been your role in the first debate, because the opening clearly was there. Who will take on Bill de Blasio’s valuable role in directly confronting Biden to put the false nostalgia about the Obama years in true perspective? You, or someone else? Whoever does so, will benefit. 

I think there’s a way that you can go after Biden, while you present your grand philosophical case for why our democracy has deteriorated so much and how it can be revived, because both Biden-Obama, and the continuation of that legacy that Warren to a large part represents, must be part of the critique. It is there, but it needs to be sharpened, as you did so well in the Rogan and Costa interviews, or in your powerful democratic socialism speech.

And in taking on Gabbard’s anti-war mantle, and Yang’s too on the collapse of economic democracy, the critique of the Biden-Obama years — where inequality became much more sharpened and violations of human rights proliferated, as in the mass deportations — must be more forcefully presented. Biden's supporters will be the last to come around, if they ever do. I think your best bet is to ignore their ingrained biases, as you have been doing, and concentrate on differentiating yourself from Warren, your leading “progressive” challenger, which will, by definition, make Biden look bad too. 

Whenever you get an opportunity to go full-on radical, you must, as you correctly have. Nothing is to be gained, at this point, by soft-pedaling any initiative. Your Green New Deal was exactly the right approach, setting the bar so high that no candidate, least of all Warren, can come up to it in setting firm timelines to end the reign of fossil fuels. You’re the one setting the standard, rather than those who have lately discovered some aspect or other of progressive politics — usually one or two issues that each candidate, like Booker, Castro, Yang, Gabbard or Inslee — likes to claim as their own territory. 

So for instance, your response to the open borders question was rather tepid. Instead of sounding as if you’re with the others — which, actually, you’re not, because you have a far-reaching understanding of empire and its follies that the others don’t share — in advocating for “comprehensive immigration reform,” you could have said something like this: “Yes, I’m for open borders if it means that anyone with skills to offer, whether as a farm worker or an engineer, if they’re adding to our economy and culture and not taking away from it, is free to enter the United States whenever and however they want. In my administration we will take such good care of all workers that migrants won’t be seen as a threat.”

Or, to outflank Castro and O’Rourke on this one, “Yes, I’m for open borders if it means that we create dramatically altered conditions in Central America, as I’ve proposed to do with a bold hemispheric initiative, which ease the climate of political repression and establish a needed flow of seasonal and permanent workers seeking to contribute to our country.” This would be far more exciting than the “comprehensive immigration reform” mantra.

In another area, gun control, particularly when it comes to answering what to do about the guns already in circulation, a similarly bold response would not be remiss. Reparations are another example, though I understand that your claim of authenticity rests on not catering to identity politics of the shallow type. In short, you must seize the boldest, baddest, most honest and confident initiative — just as you did with the new Green New Deal—on every issue, and then turn it into an immediate disadvantage for Warren, because she surely will never go for the full-on response to any problem.

Which brings us to Warren — or haven’t we been there all along? She's your ultimate nightmare, an empty vessel of sorts for naïve voters who in another era would have gone for Obama or Hillary or even Bill, and who have now turned into her vocal supporters who don’t feel her threatening the existing social order in the way that they, quite correctly, perceive you to be a threat. Warren is the house progressive for all those who like to hear progressive talk — well, up to a certain extent — but would be mortified to death if an actual progressive action, drastically reducing inequality, were to be on the table.

It must be galling to you to see a one-time conservative professor, a disciple of the laissez-faire “law and economics” movement, and a registered Republican until the ripe old age of 47, running around acting as if she is the first one to come up with a “plan” to break up the Facebook, Amazon or Google monopolies, or as if she just had a light bulb go off in her brain when it comes to dealing with student debt or the wealth tax. You’ve encompassed all of these solutions, and more, in a coherent analysis of our democratic collapse for a long time, and you’re not just offering watered-down, fragmented, bits-and-pieces “plans,” but include all of them in what for you has to be an all-encompassing political revolution, rather than the “fighting” rhetoric right out of the Bob Shrum/Al Gore campaign handbook.  

Warren’s persona is that of an astute financial planner, with her folksy “my Mama” and “my Daddy” anecdotes often involving financial planning, who will regulate us into some semblance of a democracy, relying on the elites to have the sense to come together for the country’s good. Whereas you are explicit — and that’s what you mean by democratic socialism — that only a political revolution can bring about the necessary changes and therefore talk incessantly about the 1%, the corporate oligarchy who exercise total control over all the levers of power, Warren’s analysis is that there is a corrupt Washington elite who must be replaced, reformed and regulated, and voilà!, we will be back in the promised land of middle-class prosperity. You can happily keep your first $50 million, she says, she doesn’t resent that at all, but just 2 cents on the dollar beyond that will take care of all our problems, with no pain, no discomfort, no sacrifice involved for any middle-class person.

I can’t think of a more penetrating look into Warren’s mind than the writings of her long-time friend and counselor, Ganesh Sitaraman, including his new book, where he offers a program strikingly similar to what Warren has been rolling out piece by piece: all patchwork regulatory initiatives supportive of market efficiency, often aiming for some overarching new bureaucracy, and involving little involvement from the public because the minute regulation comes about as a result of Washington consensus. I would counsel you and your advisers to take a deep look at Sitaraman’s legalistic scholarship to understand how Warren’s mind works. It all seems to me a last-ditch attempt on the establishment’s part to save neoliberalism, even though the program is marketed as an alternative to neoliberalism. 

Your whole philosophy empathizes with the working-class, the powerless, the exiles, the unwanted, the helpless, whereas she is addressing the vulnerable middle-class, those who feel somewhat on the fringes but not quite outcast, and believe that a little boost from a regulating regime might just do the trick for them. There is no comprehension or explanation of American exceptionalism, American empire or American violence in Warren’s worldview, all of which are central to your exposition. Hence the difference, from what I’ve seen everywhere, in the audiences the two of you attract: working-class, marginalized, and people of color in your case, white, middle-class, and optimistic in her case — though the media, of course, presents it exactly the other way around, always having libeled you as the candidate of the comfortable white middle-class with no support in communities of color. 

I find it hard to believe, as some have claimed, that there is some sort of arrangement between you and Warren, a ceasefire for the duration, in order to take on the larger enemy, which is said to be Biden. I find this impossible to accept because Biden is not the bigger enemy — he exposes himself in verbal diarrhea at every moment, he cannot keep his real intent in check, just as Obama and Hillary were never able to hide their true colors — whereas Warren would be to your radical ideas as deceptive a foil as … well, I’m having a hard time thinking of a suitable comparison, because in modern American politics there has never been such a sharp contrast between the establishment progressive view, such as Warren represents, and the radical attack on corporate power, such as you signify. 

Every time Warren stands shoulder to shoulder with you, as in the optics of the second debate with Biden waiting on the other side, she gains in power, presenting herself as the safe, unthreatening, acceptable progressive alternative to a Sanders about whom no one knows how far he might actually go in taking on entrenched power. This optic, having been allowed to go on unchallenged for so long, must come to a quick end, or before you know it, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will bring the campaign to a crashing climax, beyond which there will be little hope of redemption. You’re already faced with the challenge of an unrelentingly critical or dismissive media, and you don’t need to add to it by letting anything blur the sharp, almost diametrical, distinction between you and Warren. 

I would take every opportunity between now and the third debate to rattle her: Warren doesn’t handle direct criticisms of her recent reinvention very convincingly. She had no good response when the interviewers on the radio show "The Breakfast Club" needled her in the way corporate media never does, such as when Charlamagne tha God pestered her, “You had a lot of confusion back in the day, Ms. Warren. You thought you were Native American, you thought you were Republican. When did you get on the right track?”

On the other hand, with capitalists she has a tendency to sing, unbidden, the glories of capitalism, as she did sitting down with John Harwood in a casual setting at CNBC, exclaiming joyously: “I am a capitalist! I believe in markets!” You should empower an army of young internet tacticians to generate colorful memes about her recent discovery of her inner progressive, coming up with plans which superficially sound like yours but are actually always hedged by some qualification or limitation (student debt forgiveness up to a certain amount and only for those below a certain income, and so on for every single “plan” of hers), which put them in the realm of neoliberal initiatives rather than the universal New Deal-type proposals yours always are. 

On many issues, Warren developed a plan in the last six months or a year. On other issues, she hasn’t issued a plan yet. On all issues, she’s looking at your long-held beliefs to see how they can be modified and repackaged as acceptable alternatives to the low-information liberal voter. And she really doesn’t have a convincing answer for why she was a Republican for so long, when exactly she discovered these reform plans of hers and why, and what led to her political transformation. She was very astute in acting as though she stood side-by-side with you on Medicare for All, refusing to divulge a plan on that particular signature issue, which you decided to make the centerpiece after the first debate, and this is very telling.

You should challenge her directly in the next debates if she shows any signs of wavering on abolishing private insurance. Any air that you sense between yourself and her on Medicare for All should become a litmus test — as it did with Kamala Harris — for whether that candidate should be the party’s standard-bearer. The differences between you and her on the Green New Deal provide another opening, but Medicare for All resonates with voters in a way that no other issue does, so you should never have let her get away with saying “I’m with Bernie” on that for so long. 

In short, as we head into the crucial fall campaign, attack, differentiate and spread a sense of urgency. Whenever possible, if the media provides an opportunity to do so, do not hesitate to call them out. I think we’ve moved beyond the need for an outright contemptuous or dismissive attitude toward them, which would have helped in the early going, because their animus toward you, as they have succeeded in establishing Warren as the progressive co-front-runner, has greatly receded.

But the differentiation between you and Warren will necessarily involve a certain amount of attack, including by surrogates, who seem to be largely missing from the scene in your case — which is understandable, given your insistence on running a campaign of pure ideas, meant to last the distance until the convention, but there has to be a renewed sense of urgency. 

And on this last point, you must be clear that this is our last best hope, that if you don’t win this time, all will be lost. Your radical ideas — which follow a direct line of descent from critics of modern technocratic civilization, from Rousseau and Marx to Goodman and Illich more recently — have nothing in common with Warren’s technocratic planner’s perspective, which ultimately refuses to place the people at the center and is just as elite-driven as anything it wishes to take on. This sense of last-minute urgency, which we could all feel so palpably in the spring of 2016, is missing so far from your campaign, despite the large crowds and the increasingly reverential attitude toward you from the candidates in the lower tiers. 

What can you do to bring this sense of dire urgency back? It’s not as if we’ll have another chance if this opportunity is lost. We simply cannot allow the idea of possible concession to creep into the backs of our minds. It’s a miracle that you’re running this time around, and it would be the worst thing imaginable, after you’ve come this far, for a rah-rah optimistic progressive like Warren to take on the whole burden of what beckoned as a real political revolution.

What you promise is on an order of scale as great as what FDR accomplished, and potentially with greater meaning for the rest of the world as it seeks to decide between hierarchical nationalism on the one hand and revival of egalitarian political democracy (your democratic socialism) on the other. Instead of having to face the ultimate agony, if you differentiate yourself, as sharply and insistently as possible, from Warren, and at the same time reach out to those more sincere on the increasingly progressive center-left, like Booker, Castro, O’Rourke and Yang, then what we thought unimaginable in our lifetimes might still happen. 

The media has always wanted the Democratic voter to imagine that there are no substantial policy differences between you and Warren, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Also, I have always believed that only you can beat Trump, because you provide the honest ideological confrontation that no other Democrat does. These two ideas are interconnected, and they also make the case for your superior “electability.” Solidify this connection and push it hard. 

I’m hoping you’ll pull it off. If anyone can, given what you’ve already accomplished, it’s you. Give ‘em hell, Bernie, and keep giving it your all, as you have. Half the world, the part that thinks and speculates about the real causes of suffering and pain rather than surface manifestations, stands behind you. You have no equal on the political scene, and your lifelong authenticity, as countercultural activist, mayor, representative, senator and leading presidential candidate, radically extends the bounds of imagining what’s politically possible in a century that looked like it was a lost cause to a neoliberal orthodoxy engaged in a fight to the death with the planet itself.

If you don’t make it, none of us will. I want to see this desperate urgency come through. Be the first to challenge Warren to one-on-one debates, where, if they happen, you must go all out, and also ask for debates with just the top three contenders, you and Biden and Warren alone, where you must not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Warren, since Biden is the kind of challenge that will either take care of itself or won’t ever, whereas Warren is something it’s your sole responsibility to overcome. 

Your biggest fan still and always, 



By Anis Shivani