The Bernie Sanders campaign for president is dead. It has ceased to be, bereft of life, and rests in peace. It has gone to meet the great Campaign Manager in the Sky, to join the likes of Howard Dean, Michael Dukakis, and George McGovern. We are gathered here today to pay our respects to the Last Great Hope of Progressivism for the next twenty years. And by "pay respects" I mean unpacking all the soul-crushing realities that caused our Crusty Savior to finally bend the knee in defeat. Join me, my bitter brothers and sisters as we drink our bitter tear vodka cocktails.
I, like many of my fellow progressives, went into the nomination cycle with equal parts optimism and wariness. After the catastrophic failure of the Hillary Clinton campaign, we believed that the left-leaning voters of the country would conclude that boring pragmatic neoliberalism was not the way to beat Donald Trump. Once 2020 rolled around, our voting population would be primed and ready for the democratic socialist revolution. It may not have been Bernie's year in 2016, but goddamnit he's gonna get his revenge in four years.
This was, to be blunt, wrong as shit. The country has voted and, for whatever reason, it is the wisdom of the crowd that the shambling wraith of Joe Biden will be our champion in our fight for democracy. Hooray, I guess. But we were supposed to have a revolution guys! What the hell happened? Let's find out.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this debriefing, let me be very clear about a thing or two. First of all, I voted for Bernie in the primary because I'm a good and loyal progressive soldier. That said, you're not going to like what I have to say if you're a hardcore Bernie supporter. I'm not going to indulge anyone in their stupid conspiracy theories or dogpile on the DNC for sabotaging our dear old Bernie. If the clusterfuck of the Iowa primaries are any indication, the Democratic establishment can barely operate a simple phone app, let alone hack into a state's electoral system. Bernie lost because he did not get enough votes. I do not need to invent some sort of clandestine plot just to tell myself that I was right and everyone else was wrong because I'm not a goddamn child. It's a special talent of liberal voters to invent some schizophrenic explanation behind why their chosen candidate did not win. Look no further than the phantom "Russian hackerz" who allegedly spoiled the Hillary campaign. We overestimated our position and we lost. It's that simple. Get off political Twitter, eat the shit, and learn from it so maybe we can do better next time. That's what adults do instead of taking their ball, screaming "RAPIST", and going home to leave the world to rot as some sort of "revenge". I have no patience or sympathy for your insanity. Fuck off and grow up.
Still with me? Great. Let's go.
Let's talk about the concept of "electability" for a moment. In a conventional election, your electability is dictated by how well spoken you are, your ability to engage with a broad range of voters on the issues, and how sharp you look in your debate regalia. 2016 threw these ideas off the roof of a skyscraper and hawked a big fat loogie on it while it was on the way down. We saw one of the most well-known, well-spoken, well-connected politicians of our age get beaten by a reality TV show huckster with no political experience who has all the intellectual and emotional nuance of a thirteen year old boy. Anyone who thought they knew how electoral politics worked in America (myself included) have spent the last three years trying to figure out what "electability" means in a post-Trump landscape.
This was reflected in the colorful cast of characters found in 2020's Democratic nomination clown car. You had traditional politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker sharing space with kooky billionaires (Steyer), evil billionaires (Bloomberg), spiritual gurus (Williamson), tech entrepreneurs (Yang) and even a real robot (Buttigieg). It was the political equivalent of Netflix. There was something in there for everyone because nobody has any clue what an electable candidate looks like anymore.
Bernie supporters were especially empowered by this brave new world of politics because it meant that the old systems that had Bernie pigeonholed as a fringe/novelty candidate no longer applied. The nation had just elected a loudmouth populist from the East Coast who raged against the establishment so therefore who better to face him than another loudmouth populist from the East Coast who rages against the establishment? Obviously there are some key ideological differences between the two (Bernie wants you to have free health care, Trump doesn't care whether you live or die, etc.), but the archetypes still hold.
Our first big mistake was believing in a false equivalency between the Republican position in 2016 and the Democrats in 2020. If conservative voters were able to rally around a candidate as "divisive" as Donald Trump, then surely liberals would have no problem rallying around Bernie when it got down to the nitty-gritty of an election. Eventually they'll stop worrying and learn to love democratic socialism. All we gotta do is bully the disorganized moderate candidates with some strong showings in early states and all that sexy momentum will be ours!
Or so we thought.
This turned out to be flawed logic for two main reasons. Reason number one is the difference between party primary systems. Donald Trump was able to hijack the nomination in 2016 because of the GOP's winner-take-all primary system. In 2016, the moderate Republicans split their votes between the more conventional "moderate" candidates, leaving the field wide open for someone with a built-in core of rabid supporters who will never budge in their support (sound familiar?). Even winning a state by .1% meant you received all the delegates from that particular state. With that knowledge, it's easy to see how Trump was able to gain the support and momentum he needed to appear so unstoppable by the end. And there was nothing the establishment party could do because they were hamstrung by their own system.
Democratic primaries, on the other hand, give out delegates in direct equivalent to your polling performance. It is not a winner-take-all. Win 34% of the vote? Cool, you get 34% of the delegates. Get 1% of the vote? You get a gift card to Buffalo Wild Wings and a high five. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
Everyone clear on the difference? Good, let's move forward.
Fast forward to February 2020. Bernie had his best initial showings in states where there were three or four "strong" moderate candidates splitting the vote, just like Trump with the Republicans in 2016. But due to the much more nuanced Democratic system, that did not guarantee him every single delegate or the momentum necessary to run away with the nomination. He split Iowa and New Hampshire evenly with ButtiBot and even his blockbuster win in Nevada was only able to secure 2/3's of the available delegates. He may have been "winning" but it was the difference between winning by point decision versus winning by knockout. Knockouts bring you momentum and hype, point decisions don't.
The second flaw in logic was the assumption that more and more voters would begin rallying behind Bernie as the pool of nominees was winnowed away. Poll after poll was released into the Twitter/Facebook/Reddit echo chamber celebrating the fact that Bernie was apparently the second choice for supporters of Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, etc. Oh happy day! It implied that once these candidates dropped out, their supporters would all collectively throw their weight behind Bernie, adding to his (hypothetical) overwhelming coalition.
That did not happen.
Losing Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar did nothing to move the dial for Bernie going into Super Tuesday. His voting margins remained in the realm of 25-35%, the same as he performed in Iowa and New Hampshire. His base of support had plateaued. The most damning result would be the results in his own home state, where he was only able to get a little over 50% of the vote. In. His. Home. State. What's more, it was 30% lower than his showing in Vermont four years earlier. Any projection of momentum for the Bernie campaign was officially deader than Carole Baskin's husband. Not even hippy-dippy California (which some people thought would be a game-changer for some insane reason), could breathe life back into it as he won the state by just 6%. That would be just dandy if it were a winner-take-all primary, but under the Democratic system he still split the state's delegates fairly evenly with Biden. Once again, the big knockout victory that he needed never came.
So...what the hell? I'm confused and so should you. The internet had me convinced that Bernie was assembling an army of young, diverse, progressive voters who were going to start a revolution in the ballot box. Where was that army? Did we miss something?
Short answer: Yeah.
I Serve The (Invisible) Base
The big conceit behind the Bernie campaign was that he would mobilize a massive coalition of youth/first-time voters, powered by his stances on free college, medicare-for-all, piss, and vinegar. Once again, poll after poll was thrown into the social media echo chamber talking about how over 50% of young voters favor Bernie. Hooray! Those are tremendous metrics! Winning young hearts and minds is key to a successful (liberal) political campaign. If you can get those kids to mobilize and vote, you can ride that wave to victory. Bernie's army of young progressives were going to march in and overwhelm the crusty old moderates who have clogged up the system for so long. For every moderate Democrat we lose because they're afraid of "socialism", we'll gain five more first time voters! Let's go kiddos! Onward to victory!
Except that did not happen. The kids never fucking showed up.
Youth turnout in Super Tuesday states ranged from 5% to 19%. That means, AT BEST, only 1 in 5 people aged 18-29 voted in the primary. That's bad. Especially when the whole selling point behind your campaign is the ability to mobilize the youth vote. It's not a DNC conspiracy when your base evaporates into thin air when it actually matters. It was one of the sadder statistics I've read in a while and I'm still vaguely depressed about what it means for the future of our country. Are we really that stupid and selfish as a generation? After all this? We deserve coronavirus and whatever else is coming if we can't be bothered to actually go out and participate in our democracy. Anyone screaming "voter suppression" is lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. Bernie needed those votes and they did not manifest. Bernie did not fail, our generation did. If you're that upset about Bernie losing, go ahead and punch a kid when you get out of quarantine. You'll feel better, I promise. You have an 80% chance of punching the right person.
That wasn't the only demographic failure for the campaign. Sanders also banked heavily on the hispanic and Latino vote with mixed results. He was able to mobilize them in Nevada to tremendous returns, but once again met stagnation and decline in more populous states like Florida, which was an electoral disaster for Bernie. Bernie's message of a beautiful socialist utopia did not resonate as much with South American/Cuban immigrants who experienced a much, much different version of socialism. To a grad student from Brooklyn, "socialism" means Medicare-For-All, state sponsored education, and delicious fro-yo for everyone. To Venezuelans, "socialism" means extra-judicial killings, corruption, and poverty. It was going to be much harder to convince them to jump on Uncle Bernie's Socialism But It's Good This Time Choo Choo Train.
Bernie also suffered tremendously with black voters. His messaging basically boiled racial politics down to an economic question, which was simply not good enough for a majority of those voters. This coupled with the fact that Joe Biden is heavily associated with that one Obama guy meant that Bernie had an uphill battle to fight in getting black voters on his side. Sure, Bernie marched with MLK. But that was over fifty goddamn years ago. Biden was the vice-president for the first black guy in American history to be president. White progressives seem to have this strange idea that Bernie marching with MLK somehow entitled him to every black vote in the country. Sorry Brandon, it doesn't work that way.
So we have established that Bernie's supposed massive base of support was MIA and he was struggling with getting his message out to people outside of the "college educated white person" bubble. If he was going to have a fighting chance in coming back from his momentum stagnation, he was going to need to evolve. We needed to see something new.
We still didn't get it.
Stage 1, Denial
After Super Tuesday, I saw the writing on the wall. The plurality of voters were lining up behind Biden and not Bernie. His stronghold states were exhausted. There were no Progressive Riders of Rohan coming down the hill to save us. Shit, shit, shit, fuck, fuck, fuck. What now? OK, we have a couple more debates coming up. All is not lost just yet.
My only hope at this point was that Bernie was going to come up with a big political move, some gesture, some pivot that could restore some energy and vitality to the campaign. A political Hail Mary. Remember when Beto said he was actually going to take everyone's guns away? That's what I'm talking about. Crazy shit like that. That's a political Hail Mary. A last minute move to steal your rival's thunder and get back into the headlines. It didn't work out too well for Beto (RIP) but if we're gonna try and win this thing, you gotta try.
That did not happen.
Understand that everything I say, I say out of love. My biggest gripe with Bernie, and this goes all the way back to 2016, is his lack of ability to pivot from his stump speech in a debate. He's the AC/DC of politicians. He plays a damn good song, but it's the same goddamn song everytime. No matter what the subject, whether it's economic reform, criminal justice, or foreign policy, always always always boils down to "The 1% have all the money and the establishment is broken". I agree with both of those points, but that cannot be the only fucking thing that you talk about in a debate situation. Not when you're trying to convince people that you're the best person to be in charge of the Entire Country.
Once again, electability comes down to your ability to speak to a wide range of voters on a variety of issues. If you put a gun to my head and asked me what Bernie's position was on America's place in a globalized economy, I could not tell you. If you asked me where Bernie stood on military intervention in the Middle East, I'd have nothing. Bernie is a two-dimensional candidate. He has so many wonderful things to say about domestic economic policy and climate change, but that's his bread and butter. He could have nailed Biden's ass to the wall on the ongoing coronavirus crisis, but he didn't. He could have attacked Biden for his role in escalating the drug war in the 90's or for bussing in the 70's, but he didn't. There were so many flanks that he could have attacked Joe Biden on but he didn't because he can't. He only knows one song. That's why the shortlist of Bernie's running mate candidates skewed heavily into the military. Other than denouncing our absurd military spending, it's a complete blind spot for him.
The Bernie that we saw this year was the carbon copy of the Bernie that we saw in 2016. There was no evolution or growth. He could have spent the last four years shoring up his position with African-American voters and learning their issues, but he didn't and his numbers suffered. He could have spent the last four years hitting the books and surrounding himself with people to shore up his foreign policy, but he didn't. The people who were behind the messaging for his campaign should be shot for how incompetent they were. I found myself screaming at the TV whenever Bernie was given an opportunity to expand his views on certain issues, but it always always always morphed back into the stump speech. This is why his base of support had stagnated. Anyone who was going to be swayed by Bernie on his economic policy was already convinced. But that base wasn't going to be enough to beat Biden's coalition of voters. We needed something more from him and we didn't get it. This was a failure on Bernie's part and we need to acknowledge that if we're going to learn from any of this.
The Now, Now
So what happens next? A lot of us are still hurt and disappointed. Me too. But we have to move forward. I hope this essay gives you a halfway basic explanation for why the campaign failed to take off the way we all wanted. There was no conspiracy, no malfeasance, no Men in Black stuffing hundreds of thousands of Bernie votes into a furnace somewhere. We played the game and we lost. That doesn't mean we get to flip the table and game board along with it. American voters are so short-sighted. Despite overwhelming Democratic turnout in the primaries (except for the dumb kids), despite the blue wave of the 2018 midterms, despite all of these other indicators, many of my progressive friends have decided to just roll over and give up on the general election because their guy didn't make it. You goddamn spoiled babies. Did you really think that Bernie being elected president was going to magically change everything in our country when our legislature and judicial system is filled with fat, conservative, corrupt bloat? It took Obama two years and most of his soul just to get Obamacare passed and that was before Trump turned everything into liquid shit.
Grow the fuck up. We live in an imperfect universe. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to get action or are you going to cry about it on Twitter to all your imaginary friends?
If we want to advance the progressive agenda in this country, we have to do better than just supporting it every four years. This shit isn't a hobby or a fashion. If you actually care about progressive politics and not just surrendering your ego and self worth over to a single politician, do some free thinking for yourself. Find some local politicians who support these issues and donate/canvass for them. Start helping people in your community. Do all the shit that you said you were going to do when Trump got elected, but never did because you were too depressed or complacent. There will be other candidates like Bernie in the future. Young, charismatic, and dynamic politicians who will need your support just like Bernie did. If we abandon hope now, then you're dooming every single one of those potential stars. It took just six years for Bernie Sanders to go from an unknown senator on the fringe of our national politics to the most important socialist in our history since Eugene Debs. If you want to throw that legacy in the trash can just because you're mad, then don't come crying to me when the real Nazis show up at your door.
To quote my old high school football coach after losing our sixth game in a row: "We gotta get better."