“No socialist candidate has ever become a vehicle for major protest in the United States,” wrote Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks in their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. The reason, they argued, was the traditional American values of individualism and anti-statism. It Didn’t Happen Here was published 20 years ago, and is now, thanks to Bernie Sanders, out of date. It is time to think about what has happened.
What was Bernie Sanders’ appeal? Why did he ultimately fail? And what does it mean?
First, his appeal. To the Left, of course, his appeal was his ideas. American youth face a job market that pays top dollar for those with numeracy, intelligence, and drive, and much less for the others, leaving them resentful. The Left says to them: “Your frustration is not your fault. The system is rigged against you. See the billionaires? They are your oppressors. We can bring them down.”
To the Left, of course, Bernie's appeal was his ideas.
Still the Left makes up only part of the Sanders movement. At the apogee of Sanders’ trajectory, when he had won the February 22 Nevada caucuses with 46.8% of support in a four-way race, Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick (Jacobin, February 22) proclaimed a socialist triumph. They called the Sanders phenomenon “a new electorate rising up, and a fundamental realignment of US politics. And a new party, thoroughly working-class and committed to egalitarian politics, quickly blooming up into the husk of the old one . . . Face it, establishment Democrats — it’s his party now.”
But it wasn’t. Sanders had won only one state primary election, in New Hampshire — and that, with only 26% of the vote. Four years earlier, against Hillary Clinton, Sanders had taken 60% of the New Hampshire Democratic vote.
Something was seriously the matter with the Sanders coalition. The weakness didn’t show in Nevada, but the Nevada victory was in caucuses, which require people to come out at night and sit in rooms full of other people and express their political views publicly. Caucuses measure the zeal of activists, not the votes of ordinary voters.
As political scientist Philip Converse famously wrote in The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics (1964), most American voters aren’t ideological. They can’t define what socialism is. Converse’s article is 56 years old, and the youth of today are more ideological than their grandparents, as are the parties. But not by that much. In the 2016 surge, many of the Sanders supporters were not hard Left. And many of them were missing in 2020.
Something was seriously the matter with the Sanders coalition.
In an era of cynical political marketing, when so many candidates sound like robots and any deviation from their programming is a “gaffe,” voters yearn for authenticity. When they hear an office-seeker, they ask: is this guy real, or am I hearing a robot programmed for lines validated by focus groups? Sanders wasn’t that kind of candidate. He didn’t use focus groups. Much of what he said was programmed by an ideology, but you have to know that ideology in order to hear it. The average American isn’t trained to hear it, and in 2016, they didn’t hear it. This year, they did.
Sanders had not changed. He had the same ideology, the same purity of belief. Other radicals can appreciate that. In “My High School Buddy, Bernie,” Walter Block, a senior fellow at the very antisocialist Ludwig von Mises Institute, recalls his days at school with Bernie Sanders at Brooklyn’s James Madison High. “Bernie has the courage of his convictions, something not all that prevalent amongst our politicians,” Block writes. “He has never ‘run away from’ any of his heartfelt principles.”
In 2016 what were Hillary Clinton’s heartfelt principles? She believed what Democrats believed. And Biden believes what Democrats believe. When Democrats drifted right in the Eighties and Nineties, Biden was against racial busing; now that they drift left, he’s for Medicare at 60 and forgiving student debt. Biden is a bubble in a carpenter’s level.
Sanders didn’t use focus groups. Much of what he said was programmed by an ideology, but you have to know that ideology in order to hear it.
Bernie Sanders never was. He wasn’t even a Democrat until he decided to run for that party’s nomination. Like Ron Paul in 2008, Bernie Sanders is a man of belief with an intense following, especially among the young — a following that puts bumper stickers on their cars and sends in millions of small donations. And Sanders has the same problem Ron Paul had: he is too radical for his party.
In a perceptive article posted April 10 on Vox, Zack Beauchamp argues that Sanders’ “unapologetically socialist politics” does not fit American political culture. “Sanders’ defeat is a hammer blow to the Left’s class-based theory of winning political power,” Beauchamp writes. He continues:
The Sanders theory rested in part on a Marx-inflected theory of how people think about politics. A basic premise of Marxist political strategy is that people should behave according to their material self-interest as assessed by Marxists — which is to say, their class interests. Proposing policies like Medicare-for-all, which would plausibly alleviate the suffering of the working class, should be effective at galvanizing working-class voters to turn out for Left parties. But this isn’t really how politics works, at least in the contemporary United States . . . Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.
Americans vote their tribal affiliations. It may be a racial, ethnic, gender, educational, or political-party tribe, or some “intersectional” combination. And when it came to it, too many of these tribes decided that Sanders was not one of them.
Sanders has the same problem Ron Paul had: he is too radical for his party.
His defeat was sudden. He was up, horribly and fantastically, and then he was down. The signal to pull him down came from Democrat insiders. It’s one thing, a year before the November election, to have a socialist senator on the debate stage with six or seven other candidates, several of them egocentric billionaires and one or two of them downright goofy. At that point, the Party is talent scouting. It needs to look democratic and to keep the show interesting. And early on, the voters can be as whimsical as they like, favoring one candidate or the other. But after testing party sentiment in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, play time ends. By late February 2020, the Democratic Party was choosing its nominee. Political power is serious business, and this year the Democratic bigs worried that Bernie Sanders was not the right guy to win, and that if he did win, he wasn’t going to listen to them.
The media took him down. At a CNN Town Hall in Charleston, CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Sanders to defend his praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy programs. The praise was decades old; Cuomo said he’d gotten the question from Democrats in Florida’s delegation to Congress. It was a classic “gotcha” question: Here is a cow pie. If you’re such a “authentic” guy, step in it. And Sanders did. He said Castro did have admirable literacy programs in the early years of his regime, and it should be no crime to say so. That’s Bernie Sanders.
As long as Sanders compared his vision of a socialist America to Denmark, which is really a capitalist welfare state, he was safe. Praising a Communist, Fidel Castro, left Sanders wounded. In leftist lingo, he had been “redbaited.” Having redbaited Sanders myself, I thoroughly approved. And I noted that it was done by CNN, a network of Democrats. Good!
Political power is serious business, and this year the Democratic bigs worried that Bernie Sanders was not the right guy to win.
Cuomo wasn’t the only redbaiter. The political columnists piled on Sanders. At the Washington Post, Megan McArdle had a feisty column on February 18 titled “Bernie Sanders Is Not Just a Garden-Variety Social Democrat.” McArdle is a libertarian, but the liberals piled on, too. At Common Dreams, leftist Laura Flanders complained that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman “redbaited Bernie for the umpteenth time, deliberately distorting democratic socialism as Stalinism and accusing Sanders of ‘demonizing the engines of capitalism and job creation’.” Her column was titled “Thank You, Bernie Sanders. Screw You, New York Times.”
The Left complains about media bias, too. To them, the New York Times is “corporate media.”
The sudden reversal of the Sanders campaign came in the South Carolina primary of February 29. South Carolina is only one state out of 50, and not a big one. Why should it be more important than Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada? In South Carolina, the majority of Democrats are black. African Americans have electoral weight in the Democratic Party — and moral weight, too, as the victims of racism and the standard-bearers of the Civil Rights movement. And African Americans were not enthusiastic about the pink-faced man from lily-white Vermont (1.4% black) who in their view talked too much about economic inequality and not enough about racial inequality. Some no doubt remembered when he was confronted in 2015 in a rally in Seattle with the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” and Sanders, who believes deeply in egalitarian universality, replied, “All lives matter.” Joe Biden would not have made that mistake.
Unlike Sanders, Biden had been a lifelong Democrat, and he hadn’t been picking any roses for Fidel Castro. Biden had also been the loyal vice-president to America’s first African American president. South Carolina’s black Democrats gave their votes to Biden. In a seven-way race, Biden took 49% of Democratic votes, beating Sanders by more than two to one. It was Biden’s first victory after a weak showing in the three previous states.
African Americans were not enthusiastic about the pink-faced man from lily-white Vermont who talked too much about economic inequality and not enough about racial inequality.
Following the vote, two of the losers, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, gave up and endorsed Biden. Nobody endorsed Sanders. That sent a message: Not Bernie. On Super Tuesday, March 3, primary voters in 10 of 14 states across the country did their Democratic duty and made Joe Biden the presumptive nominee. That Sanders carried California, the largest prize of the 50 states, didn’t matter.
What does it mean?
Sanders has lost. He has run twice and lost twice. And he’s 78. He’s done. The United States is not going to have a socialist president on January 20, 2021, or a socialist vice president, either. (And even when a Sanders election seemed possible, it did not mean we were going to have a socialist America.)
Sanders did raise a socialist standard and ran with it — and a good deal further than Ron Paul did with his libertarian standard, 12 years ago. Sanders has repeatedly said, in his Marxist lingo, that he has won “the ideological struggle” within the Democratic Party. He has pushed the mainstream leftward, particularly in regard to lots of free stuff from the government. Right now, in the Great Coronavirus Emergency, our Republican government is shoveling money out by the trillions, and Democrats are nodding, “More, more, more.” But the emergency will fade, and the debt will remain. By the time the private sector recovers, the burden of carrying the federal debt may be much larger than people now envision. With the federal debt already above one year’s GDP, expanding the giveaway state in a non-emergency year will not be easy.
Nobody endorsed Sanders. That sent a message: Not Bernie.
Predictably, voices on the Left are trying to salvage what they can of the Sanders defeat. In a piece called “The Importance of Bernie Sanders and Socialism” in the New Yorker, John Cassidy argues that the Democrats will need Sanders’ socialism to counteract economic inequality. Edward Isaac-Dovere makes a similar argument in The Atlantic. “Nationalized health care, a Green New Deal, and student-loan forgiveness used to be as hard to imagine happening as the stockpiling of toilet paper,” he writes. “Ideas that the supposedly smartest people in Washington, in both major parties, wrote off as too expensive or impractical are getting pulled into the mainstream.”
They were getting pulled into the mainstream. The question is whether they will stay in the mainstream without a Sanders for President campaign. Libertarians who were inspired by the Ron Paul campaigns will appreciate this point. Presidential campaigns are hugely important. They raise the stakes. They motivate people. They draw media attention. And they put the winners into positions of power. Where the Left goes from here will depend partly on who wins the November election and by how much. It will depend even more on whether someone can fill Bernie Sanders’ shoes and stage a run for President in 2024. The first name mentioned is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was too young this year to become Bernie Sanders’ running mate. She will turn 35 in October 2024, making her legally just old enough to run.
Whether Americans would put a 35-year-old radical in the White House seems doubtful; then again, I was sure they would never put Donald Trump in the White House, and they did. And between now and 2023, when the new campaigns will begin, is plenty of time for another leader to rise. If this coronavirus mess turns out worse than people expect, the opening for the Left will be greater.
Where the Left goes from here will depend partly on who wins the November election and by how much.
For the cultural reason cited by Lipset and Marks in It Didn’t Happen Here and the political reasons cited by the writer in Vox, I don’t think the hard Left has much of a chance of taking power in the United States. I’m not so sure it will just go away without influencing the country, though. Consider that the Left’s historic high was during a 10-year depression. In the 1930s many Americans had a fascination with socialism and communism because the capitalist engine was putting along with 10-to-25% unemployment, year after year, seemingly unable to recover. When private industry did recover, the Left went away. Its recent revival — which is not as strong as in the 1930s — came at a time when the economy was firing on all cylinders. The Left saw the economic system when it was working, and said, “We don’t want it.”
That’s new. And that is the legacy of Bernie Sanders.