Bernie Sanders 2020: So many things went right — and then it all went wrong

For a moment, Bernie 2.0 seemed like a campaign of destiny. But its "political revolution" was fundamentally flawed

Published March 28, 2020 12:15PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders  (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Bernie Sanders ran a curiously pacified campaign all along. The huge, fervent rallies were deceptive for the depth of political compromise they concealed. The ever-burgeoning grandiose plans to remake the American economy showed less and less connection with reality as the basic presumptions of an actual political breakthrough were always sidelined. It was a policy revolution in the stratosphere of imagination, unable to take on an opponent as transparently petty as the Democratic National Committee. The campaign demobilized itself from the get-go, and continued laying down arms with each new assault. In the end, it has left its passionate believers, who invested all their faith in the messiah, worse off than when we started.

Sanders' followers have wondered throughout the campaign about manifest strategic errors and ascribed them to the man's essential gentleness, which is indisputable and without parallel in current American politics. But that's not the real explanation. From the moment I tuned seriously into this campaign early in 2019, I felt that something was off. Sanders was playing too nice with the media. There was no attempt to differentiate himself from his main opponents, namely Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. He presumed himself to be the ideological frontrunner.  

These errors of conception amplified themselves many times over as the campaign unfolded, reaching a crescendo in the last month and a half, from the near defeat in Iowa to the sweeping defeats of Super Tuesday and thereafter. 

Supporters were frustrated that Sanders let Warren get away with wearing the progressive mantle, when her platform was only a form of capitalist reformism. Sanders never made that clear. It was only Warren's own steady revelation of her true colors, particularly in failing to defend Medicare for All, that led to her implosion. Had he acquired a magic talisman to disappear opponents by single-mindedly focusing on his own message, some of us wondered in the weeks leading up to Iowa?

But that was his own left lane, and he was always master of it. Once the DNC got down to brass tacks after the Iowa caucuses, the Sanders camp had no response that made any difference. At each stage of continued unilateral disarmament, allies speculated if this was the time Sanders would finally take a stand against the DNC plot seeking to undermine his movement and its followers. He never did. Often we were teased with just a little pushback, but not enough — a pattern that has remained consistent till the end.

There was no protest after the Iowa caucus meltdown, which deprived him of essential momentum. Sanders never challenged DNC chair Tom Perez to step down, or any other involved officials, choosing to accept the media narrative of near-parity with Pete Buttigieg. His campaign actually bragged about having won the popular vote in Iowa (which, to be fair, is how most such things are decided), providing a signal to the party establishment that all further shenanigans would be tolerated. Was it a surprise that Sanders never made an issue of the manifest voter suppression and strange election results that occurred everywhere on Super Tuesday? Or that he went along with the pseudo-primaries of March 17, with electioneering suspending and a full-blown pandemic in progress? Not only did he not cal for an outright halt to such a farce, he fully conceded the results, yet again.

Many Sanders defenders have pondered, throughout the campaign, how he could possibly take on the omnipotent global oligarchy and achieve any of his policy proposals as president if he couldn't handle the sleazy schemes of the two-timing DNC elite. When the party quickly coalesced around a single establishment candidate, Sanders' campaign had no preemptive strategy to deal with it. Again, that was because the party was never seen as the enemy, just the convenient platform upon which to mount a battle of ideas.

Sanders' "political revolution" was never anything more than a revolution at the ballot box. It never had a street component, and was never meant to. It's true that Bernie Sanders himself has been part of grassroots action of every type since the tragic end of the 2016 campaign, passionately standing with teachers on strike or agitating for better conditions at Amazon and Disney, but direct action was never meant to be a part of the political revolution against the conspiratorial elites.

Without a cascading, intensifying and ever more strident street deployment by some of his legions of young supporters, particularly Latinos and other minorities, there was no chance that the DNC machinations could be counterbalanced. That option was never on the cards, and in fact that tells you all you need to know about the political revolution we were supposed to get behind, with the expectation that it would fell the global oligarchy that holds possession of every form of seen and unseen power. Such an event has never happened in world history, so either we were naïve to believe it could happen or we were taken for a ride.

The conciliatory Sanders of 2020 bought into the entire argument against his own electability when he went along, as a respected if somewhat begrudged elder statesman, with the Democratic Party's refusal to deal with its own political malfeasance, which had allowed Donald Trump to become president in the first place. Instead, Sanders helped make the case for Biden all along, if only unintentionally, by participating in Russiagate and impeachment, self-absolving paranoid spectacles that catered to cowering Democratic voters and their desire to return to the deeply dysfunctional status quo ante of 2015. If you are never willing to take on the failings of Barack Obama directly, what argument do you have against his lieutenant?

This explains the lost chance to take down Biden in what was likely their only head-to-head debate. That was perhaps the peak moment of disappointment for Sanders believers as he passed up opportunity after opportunity to discredit Biden as a key instigator of the failed Affordable Care Act and the disgraceful Wall Street bailout — both of which had newly converged in the coronavirus pandemic and the impending economic collapse — and also absorbed repeated body blows aimed at the credibility of his own political revolution. Except for a 20-minute arousal, when Sanders exposed Biden for his repeated vows to cut Social Security — and his repeated lies about that in more recent years — Sanders did little or nothing to defend himself and his followers against vicious bullying, validating one of the establishment's most potent lines of attack.

In this moment of incipient despair, it would be too easy to credit the Sanders campaign with some success for moving the political discourse leftward. As the panic around the coronavirus demonstrates, however, it's easy to maneuver the electorate back toward measures that sound practical yet only reinforce neoliberal inequality. The massive stimulus package just passed on Capitol Hill, although made marginally less noxious at the insistence of Sanders and others on the Democratic left, offers a classic example. The post-9/11, post-constitutional order is due for another rapid consolidation.

What really failed was the whole idea, beloved of some millennial popularizers in the last five years, that the Democratic Party can actually be realigned through the painless act of voting alone. This "inside-outside strategy," which seeks to expose the perfidy of the elites by mounting openly progressive electoral campaigns within the Democratic party, has been shown to be a resounding failure. If Sanders couldn't make it work in his second successive campaign, with even more of a mass following, then who can? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, already being suggested as the inheritor of the inside-outside strategy, is already being set up to meet a similar fate at the hands of party insiders.

Sanders won't mount a third-party challenge this time around, just as he didn't four years ago. His 2016 campaign was more potent and dangerous because that threat was always on the table. He had said he wouldn't do it, but nobody really knew what he would do. Conditions were ideal then, and there's a good chance he might have ended the two-party duopoly once and for all. This time around, his pledge of allegiance to the eventual nominee has given free license to party elites to undermine him by every conceivable means. There was no way that Bernie 2020 was going to win without that threat as a recurring subtext.

All of Sanders' strategic errors, then, follow from the original philosophical misconception. A "political revolution" interpreted strictly as an electoral revolution, disavowing every parallel strategy at the disposal of the contending elites, was bound to fail. Sanders could never take on Warren or Biden because he was always running as an establishment candidate of sorts, pleading that his ideas were non-threatening and mainstream. Yet the force of his policy proposals was always fatally diluted by his association with the party's message that Donald Trump is the singular existential threat we face, while thoroughly excusing a discredited character like Joe Biden, who was behind literally every policy malfeasance that led to Trump.

It is remarkable that though Sanders has offered a detailed program for every conceivable social and political ill, there isn't any section specifically devoted to civil liberties on his website. I always thought it was fatuous to believe that we could have Medicare for All or student debt cancellation while keeping the post-9/11 Orwellian state in place; the pandemic-fueled stampede toward the candidate of authority and status-quo order has made that clear. Sanders also doesn't have any proposal to loosen the party duopoly by easing ballot access or encouraging proportional representation. But then again, for all the centrist whining that Bernie "isn't a Democrat," he has become a party man now in all but name.

Sanders could still prove this entire analysis wrong by seizing the greatest opportunity that has yet been gifted to him, a far bigger one than the Biden debate. Relegating the primaries to the fog of confusion where they belong, he could still make an all-out case that only his social welfare philosophy can meet the crisis posed by the coronavirus and similar large-scale societal breakdowns. He could throw the gauntlet to the elites, write off the last three months as a bad dream, and ask to meet them at the (virtual) convention with the result up in the air. He could mobilize his tens of millions of passionate adherents by making them think beyond the logistics of pure electoral politics. By not bowing down to party pressure to concede to Biden and endorse him soon, he could yet reshape the entire landscape of the general election, with his movement front and center. But of course that's a fantasy. We already know what he's going to do, don't we?

By Anis Shivani

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