2 Interviews of Sanders campaign staff conducted by Michael Tracey, April 2020.
3 Interviews of Sanders campaign staff conducted by Michael Tracey, April 2020.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Bernie Sanders campaign, there have been many calls for serious reflection—each immediately followed by comforting explanations that negate any serious reflection. “What if Occam’s Razor applies and the explanation for Bernie’s loss is the simplest?” asked former Sanders speechwriter David Sirota. “In all of American history, a corporate-owned political system has almost never allowed an existential threat to corporate power to be elected president.”
Such post hoc rationalizations, however, elide the extreme advantages that Sanders commanded upon entering the 2020 race: universal name recognition, a nationwide organizing network, nearly unlimited sums of money, four years to plan, and even a grudging recognition from the national media that he’d established himself as a formidable political force. It should also go without saying that, having won 46 percent of pledged delegates and twenty-three contests in the previous primary cycle, Sanders held a dominating position that would be the envy of any aspiring candidate. If the “corporate-owned political system,” as Sirota termed it, was really such an insurmountable obstacle, then why did Sanders even bother running in the first place? Because he enjoys running for president at age seventy-eight, with cardiovascular problems to boot? No, of course not. Sanders and his team of advisers concluded that he stood a very good chance of winning the Democratic nomination—and they were correct in this prognosis. Until it all came crashing down.
The American Left’s now common claim, offered only in hindsight, that twenty-first-century capitalism never would have permitted a candidate such as Sanders to succeed is also belied by the inconvenient detail that social democratic parties elsewhere in the world, which adopted a different style of politics, have managed to win impressive victories in recent years. While the Left has suffered a wave of crushing defeats—most notably Jeremy Corbyn’s loss of Labour’s historic working-class “red wall” last December—there are some parties that buck the trend. The Danish Social Democrats, for instance, won in 2019 on a set of economic policies that would be considered wildly left-wing by U.S. standards, but they also supported greater restrictions on immigration. Or Sinn Féin in Ireland, which recently won a historic victory on a platform that coupled social democratic economic policies with nationalism and populism. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, is currently enjoying high approval ratings in Mexico after having won the presidency by a landslide in 2018 on the strength of a left-nationalist electoral coalition that included both the Workers Party and a socially conservative Christian party. These cases, however, are syntheses that would be hysterically denounced as “crypto-fascist”—or worse—by the dominant culture of the American Left that coalesced around Bernie over the last four years.
So, no: the 2020 result was not a foregone conclusion. It must instead be understood as a bitter defeat, delivered by popular vote—a defeat not just for the Sanders campaign but for the whole of the contemporary American Left.
The Sanders faithful commonly allege that Bernie was victimized by a brutal corporate media determined to destroy him. While there are elements of truth to this, the claim is often overstated in a manner that reinforces the fatalistic interpretation of the campaign’s demise. After all, from 2017 to 2019, the same supporters also frequently touted polls indicating that, in spite of these purported media biases, Sanders had rocketed to the status of “most popular politician in America.” In addition, he was heralded as the senator with the highest favorability rating in his or her respective state. If the corporate media was so singularly decisive in orchestrating negative perceptions of Sanders, how is it that he managed to score these public opinion plaudits prior to 2020, when his national favorability tanked at the ignoble conclusion of the campaign? And if media bias is so insuperable, how is it that President Trump achieved his highest-ever favorability ratings around this same time, despite constant media assaults for the entire duration of his tenure in office? Compare attitudes toward Sanders at the tail end of the 2016 primary race against Hillary Clinton—a rancorous, ideologically divisive campaign. In June 2016, Sanders had +9 percent favorability among all adults (Gallup). But in a Monmouth poll taken before he officially dropped out of the race on April 8, Sanders had a –8 percent favorability rating. Blaming this decline exclusively on a nebulous entity called “the media” is unconvincing because it ignores the negative correlation between media opinion and popular opinion that has characterized the Trump years.
It’s also ironic that many of the people who most indignantly object to the media’s mistreatment of Sanders are themselves influential media personalities. Far more than any other candidate, Sanders was buoyed by a highly powerful online media ecosystem. His supporters dominated Twitter and YouTube, churning out 24/7 campaign apologetics and also functioning as a get-out-the-vote chorus. Though sometimes derided as “Bernie Bros,” these social media warriors collectively wielded considerable leverage given their proximity to media elites who use the same online platforms. This was accomplished in part by the sheer force of their earnest advocacy—as well as by utilizing highly effective trolling tactics, infused with the rhetoric of emotional terrorism and moral blackmail, that had become the defining style of the online Left. And the legacy media had gotten the message; there was no “Bernie blackout” in 2020, at least nothing anywhere near comparable to what had occurred in 2016, when Sanders was condescendingly portrayed as little more than an annoying interloper. Finding positive Bernie commentary in prominent publications was no longer an arduous task.
“Rigged!” had been the battle cry of the most jaundiced Sanders supporters in 2016, who believed with ample justification that the party apparatus had maneuvered against him in order to protect their chosen favorite, Hillary. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) hid debates on Saturday nights, surreptitiously merged fundraising operations and personnel with the Clinton campaign, and encouraged party stalwart “superdelegates” to declare their endorsement of Clinton months before any voting took place. These actions gave her nomination the air of suffocating inevitability, and turned the primary process into a perfunctory, Kabuki-theater-style coronation.
But in 2020, it was all different. The party machinery—petrified that they would once again be seen as skewing the nomination process to the detriment of Sanders—spent four years making accommodations to his operatives and surrogates. They understood that they would have to mollify Sanders supporters or risk some sort of permanent schism. Even the reviled “corporate media” followed suit, ensuring Sanders maximum exposure; the volume of coverage he received was huge. By the time of the New Hampshire primary, he had been granted more valuable TV “town halls” by the major corporate networks than even the eventual nominee, Joe Biden. Media outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, and the New Yorker made a special effort to incorporate Bernie-supporting contributors so as to present something like a political balance. After the Nevada caucuses, when longtime msnbc anchor Chris Matthews made a clumsy comparison between the seemingly ascendant Sanders campaign and the Nazi invasion of France, “Bernie Bros” erupted with fury. In a matter of days, Matthews resigned his position and was ignominiously shunted off into semiretirement. In short, the newfound Sanders media sphere—marginalized in 2016 but increasingly powerful in 2020—had flexed its muscle. Even msnbc, often a bastion of petty anti-Sanders hostility, eventually buckled—and at one point sheepishly publicized its intention to bring aboard more pro-Sanders pundits as penitence. Bernie World had successfully migrated from the fringes into the mainstream.
Unable to reckon with the implications of this power shift, others in the Sanders sphere have resorted to blaming his defeat almost exclusively on Elizabeth Warren—under the theory that her underwhelming run “split the progressive vote.” There may be some marginal truth to the claim, but often left out of this diagnosis is that another candidate stayed in the race for almost exactly as long: Mike Bloomberg. And it was Bloomberg who spent over $1.2 billion flooding the entire country with slickly produced advertisements on an unprecedented scale, explicitly under the theory that Biden was an intolerably weak candidate and it was up to Mayor Mike (net worth: $63 billion) to step in and save the “moderates.” There is a plausible argument that Bloomberg’s presence disadvantaged Biden more than Warren’s presence disadvantaged Sanders. If you add up Biden and Bloomberg’s vote totals in California, for example, it dwarfs Sanders’s total by around three hundred thousand votes. Ultimately, Sanders did win California outright, but by a substantially smaller margin than his campaign prognosticators had hoped for.
The Warren rationalization also raises the question of why so many pro-Bernie commentators and publications were writing pro-Warren commentary until just a few months ago, with many of them even condemning her left-wing critics as toxic before moving in lockstep against her when it was too late. Notably, these same publications and personalities were ruthlessly hostile toward Tulsi Gabbard—a relatively minor candidate electorally speaking, but one who actually defended Sanders at critical junctures, including when he was under attack by Warren. After Liz ambushed Bernie with a far‑fetched story purporting to cast him as a malevolent sexist, it was Tulsi who rose to his defense. (Sanders advisers eventually admitted that the sexism attack “inflicted permanent damage” on his candidacy.) And when Warren mused that it might, after all, be just fine for superdelegates to thwart Sanders’s nomination even if he entered the convention with the most pledged delegates, Gabbard was the only other candidate to object. And when Sanders permitted himself to be “Russiagated” in the critical period before the South Carolina primary—appearing to accept the nonsensical premise of a Washington Post article alleging that the all-powerful Vladimir Putin was once again “interfering” in U.S. democracy, this time on Sanders’s behalf—it again fell to Gabbard to defend him more vigorously than even Sanders chose to defend himself. In contrast with their conciliatory attitude toward Warren, the vitriol against Gabbard in the left-wing press was unremitting—in large part because she did not kowtow to left-liberal identity nostrums that are now so foundational to their in-group culture.
Rather than account for their own culpability in boosting Warren, these aggrieved Sanders supporters, especially those with large online platforms, have turned her into a scapegoat—as if it had been Liz who single-handedly doomed the campaign’s entire prospects. The electoral arithmetic is, at best, muddled; it’s impossible to say one way or another whether her diversionary presence in the race was in fact the key variable. But even if one is dead set on some convoluted multivariate electoral explanation for Sanders’s stark underperformance, the results of the primary contests on March 10 would seem to provide rather conclusive evidence that something with his campaign went deeply, structurally wrong. In Michigan, the race had become a one-on-one showdown between Sanders and Biden. Warren had long since packed it up and admitted defeat. All that was left was a binary choice in a state that was pivotal to Sanders’s entire logic for running a second time—Michigan had given Sanders a massive boost in 2016 when he defied Nate Silver’s polling consensus and won a stunning upset victory over Hillary Clinton, solidifying his strength in the industrial Midwest. Indeed, Clinton’s weakness in the region, first evidenced during the primaries, proved fatal in the general election against Trump.
In 2020, the result there was catastrophic. Not only did Sanders lose Michigan to Biden, he lost every single county in the state—even Washtenaw, home to prime Bernie territory including Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. The limits of his youth-focused campaign strategy were thereby exposed. Sanders’s overall raw vote total declined from four years before, all while voter turnout statewide increased by an impressive 32 percent—no small feat in a state whose rate of population growth is far below the national average. In county after county that he swept in 2016—especially the heavily rural areas—his margins were wiped out.
With that outcome, the fundamental logic for his campaign was shattered. Sanders’s success in the deindustrialized Midwest formed the basis for the “Bernie would’ve won” narrative of 2016. The argument was that Bernie’s strong performance among select demographics—rural and midwestern voters in particular—that fled from Hillary Clinton in disgust after having twice voted for Barack Obama, and either voted for Trump or didn’t vote at all, demonstrated that he would’ve been the superior general election nominee. But in 2020, those very same demographics abandoned him in droves. With that, another pillar of the rationale undergirding the second incarnation of the Sanders campaign had disintegrated.
On this point, Warren’s presence in the race did have one clearly deleterious effect outside of narrow election math: she “pushed Bernie to the left,” with “left” here defined as the highly educated institutional activist and media world. With Warren long regarded as Sanders’s main competitor for this small but influential portion of the electorate, his campaign and wider “movement” orbit comported themselves in such a way as to fend off inter-progressive competition. It was in the context of this self-defeating arms race that the campaign’s ethos was primarily tailored toward consolidating the voters being siphoned off by Warren—the young, supremely “progressive” and identity-fixated Left. And courting such voters was inversely correlated with courting the white working class and rural voters that were so vital to sustaining his electoral coalition in 2016.
Sanders supporters also have a tendency to greatly exaggerate the threat that he allegedly posed to the so-called Democratic establishment, a hazily defined entity that couldn’t even get its act together until the very last minute, when the only option was a doddering, barely functional Joe Biden. The harsh reality is that, by 2020, Sanders was not quite the threat to “establishment” interests that his most ardent backers supposed. Indeed, Sanders expedited his campaign’s suspension to enter a fruitful working relationship with his “good friend” Joe, allegedly the evil establishment juggernaut that represented everything Sanders stood against. It is clearly an exaggeration to say that Sanders posed an “existential threat” to these interests when he maintained cordial and complimentary relations with not just Biden but Barack Obama. Sanders is reported to have confided in Obama via phone calls throughout the race, most consequentially as his campaign was nearing its end and a party-unifying “exit strategy” needed to be arranged. Now, Bernie and Joe are happily collaborating together on various joint “task forces.”
These “establishment” entreaties were not exactly emphasized in Bernie World, because on the surface they would seem to have contravened the “revolutionary” branding of the entire Bernie enterprise. How exactly does a “revolutionary” maintain such friendly relations with the power elite of the country’s center-left political party? This contradiction was never quite internalized by steadfast Sanders supporters, who overlooked it in their zeal to cast him as some sort of establishment-crushing renegade. But would such a committed enemy of the establishment hire an alumnus of former Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s office, Faiz Shakir, as his campaign manager?
Accordingly, during the roughly two weeks in February when it seemed at least conceivable that Sanders was on course to win the nomination, the so-called establishment backlash against him was conspicuously . . . muted. It certainly didn’t rise to the level of the intense, visceral intraparty revulsion that Trump inspired in the 2016 Republican primaries. During that campaign, old-guard GOP stalwarts such as Mitt Romney, the previous presidential nominee, delivered impassioned speeches imploring their fellow partisans to please—for the love of God!—not nominate Trump. Virtually every conservative intellectual and former government official with a public platform signed some sort of open letter against the party frontrunner. National Review published an entire special issue entitled “Against Trump.”
Was there some scattered consternation within the Democratic donor class about a potential Sanders nomination? Yes, but it never rose to the level of full-scale establishment intervention. One did not see, for example, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Bill Clinton wade forcefully into the public arena to kneecap Sanders. And this makes perfect sense, because Schumer (for instance) had made a special effort since 2016 to incorporate Sanders into the Democratic Party fold, most notably by inviting him into the Senate Democratic caucus leadership. (This paid dividends when, in the final stages of his campaign, Sanders helped Schumer execute the passage of the cares Act, a $2.2 trillion corporate bailout package ostensibly tied to the coronavirus.)
For all the talk of his unwavering, decades-long consistency—central to the “Bernie brand”—what did change markedly about Sanders in the interregnal period between 2016 and 2020 was his approach to inside-game party politics. Supporters’ loose talk about Bernie’s desire to destroy the “Democratic establishment” notwithstanding, Sanders and his political operation spent considerable effort in those intervening years making conscious attempts to market his candidacy as palatable within “establishment” precincts. He cowrote op-eds with, once again, Chuck Schumer, a fellow graduate of James Madison High in Brooklyn. He appeared at events alongside the reviled progressive antihero Andrew Cuomo. Later, during Cuomo’s 2018 gubernatorial primary race against left-wing challenger Cynthia Nixon, Sanders noticeably declined to support Nixon. Nonetheless, Nixon didn’t take it too personally and endorsed Sanders in the 2020 race. The former Sex and the City actress subsequently became one of the surrogates deployed by Sanders in a last-ditch effort to assuage concerns about his “electability” in Orlando, ahead of the Florida primary. (Incidentally, if this was really the best that the Sanders campaign could do—send a left-wing actress/activist who got blown out in a primary a year and a half earlier—then their political impotence was much more glaring than people associated with the campaign would care to admit.) Biden’s landslide victory in Florida canceled out whatever modest gains Sanders had made in the delegate count in prior contests, and the race was effectively over.
To the extent that Sanders supporters in the media and activist worlds are willing to engage in self-criticism, it’s usually in the form of very mild tactical second-guessing. “Bernie was too nice,” they sometimes begrudgingly concede, as though a scorched-earth crusade against Joe Biden—the avuncular former vice president who loves ice cream, wears aviator sunglasses, and worked hand in hand with the first black president—would’ve been the key to victory.
Others cite Sanders’s principled aversion to the ordinary ugliness of politics: backslapping, making undignified phone calls to potential endorsers, and so forth. Neither of these explanations holds much water. It wasn’t that Sanders declined to play the “inside game” for some purehearted reason. He did (fitfully) play that game. It just didn’t work.
Another part of the post-Bernie mythology is the idea that Biden could never have been defeated because he was some kind of relentlessly promoted, preordained establishment behemoth. In truth, for much of the primary cycle, Biden had almost comically thin support within the top echelons of the Democratic Party’s opinion-making class for someone of his stature. While Democratic elites may not have disdained Biden outright, the notion of him as the figurehead for the Democratic Party in the “era of Trump” was widely regarded as something of an affront; for obvious reasons (old white guy) he failed to satisfy the identity criteria they had set forth in their idealized vision of who should best represent the American liberal Left. Even among the constellation of operatives and pundits who served in and around both Obama-Biden presidential campaigns and the eight-year Obama-Biden administration, the zest for Joe was minimal.
Furthermore, if the party was so desperate all along to rally around Biden, then surely twenty-seven other candidates would not have run for the nomination—including at least a dozen others who could reasonably be classified as “establishment”—thereby throwing the “establishment” into fractured disarray for over a full year. Unlike in 2016, when a Clinton nomination was predetermined well in advance, for much of the 2020 primary race the “establishment” of the party was splintered, indecisive, and beset by internal feuds. Sanders had thus been provided an opening to capitalize, but because the campaign’s direction was being guided by an overconfident media and activist Left, this once-in-a-generation opportunity was squandered.
The 2020 Democratic primary campaign included numerous candidates with vast sums of money, perfectly poised stump speeches, meticulously worked out policy platforms, pristine and sensitive cultural messaging and, especially in the case of Sanders, a gigantic on-the-ground organizing network. By contrast, “Sleepy Joe” had comically meaningless slogans and contentless branding, remarkably few activist or media champions, no standout campaign positions, bare-bones organizing infrastructure, paltry fundraising, a history of “problematic” behavior and statements (a last-minute #MeToo scandal would eventually erupt), and unmistakable signs of age-related cognitive decline. Yes, he was the former vice president, and his political strengths were long underrated by a media class that schizophrenically toggled between shiny new objects like Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg. But he was still plainly vulnerable, which is why the activist Left was so nonchalant about his chances for much of the campaign.
This complacency was driven by the conspicuously low enthusiasm for Biden in the worlds these activists populate. Take, for instance, online media. If one had surveyed the broad mass of those who participate in producing political discussion online—from the elite liberal magazines and newspapers, to the few remaining left-wing offerings, to the social media “influencers” on Twitter and YouTube, to the alternative press—it is difficult to fathom even a single person with any notoriety who was known to be an overt Biden supporter throughout almost the entirety the 2020 primary campaign. Or, to put it another way: if you had conducted a secret ballot of everyone in this (admittedly amorphous) network of “influencers” in, say, October 2019, there would probably not have been a single one—literally—who would’ve identified Biden as their preferred nominee. At various points in the cycle before “Super Tuesday,” you would’ve gotten a healthy sampling of Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Harris, and, yes, Sanders backers within this online media world. But Biden?
Until the final hour, Biden had approximately zero enthusiastic advocates in online media. It was hard to imagine what an organic online Biden enthusiast would even sound like. The popular pro-Bernie podcast Chapo Trap House joked, rightly, that there wasn’t even a way of bullying his supporters because they were nowhere to be found online.
Whereas the 2016 primary race had occasioned furious social media battles between supporters of Sanders and Clinton, when it came to Biden there was hardly anyone to pick a fight with. Judging by traffic analytics, Biden was about as popular a subject on the internet as dental insurance. In 2019, for example, an editor at a major magazine bemoaned that a long, detailed article scrutinizing Biden’s political history had garnered negligible clicks.1 No one seemed to care about poor old Joe. But ironically, his lack of support in these insular, alienating, detached online worlds proved to be an extremely valuable electoral asset—because he didn’t even bother trying to humor them.
In this “postmortem” phase of the Bernie campaign experience—best understood as a continuous five-year endeavor—there has been an obstinate refusal on the left to grapple with the jarring reality that his campaign’s theory of the electorate was proven devastatingly wrong.
Over and over again, Sanders declared the mobilization of vast numbers of new voters integral to his success. “We need to have the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States,” he repeatedly projected. And sure enough, there was a large voter turnout in this year’s Democratic primary contests (at least before the coronavirus upended the logistics of voting). The trouble for Sanders, though, is that the vast numbers of new voters turning out did not support him. The “large voter turnout” he prophesied did materialize, but they rejected his candidacy.
The result of the Missouri primary, held on the same day as the Michigan election that sealed his fate, is illustrative of the general trends. On paper, Missouri might seem like an inhospitable state for Sanders. But in 2016 he essentially tied Clinton there, losing the popular vote by just 0.25 points. It was one of many states where he overperformed with voters well beyond what might have been assumed to be his natural constituency. In 2020, conversely, he lost Missouri in a dramatic landslide—shedding eighty-one thousand votes from his raw total in the previous cycle. As in Michigan, Biden swept every county. Sanders’s losses again were most pronounced in the state’s rural corridors. His highest vote share in 2016 had been in Jasper County, in the far southwest on the border with Kansas, where he had won 62 percent of the vote in 2016; in 2020, he lost the county to Biden and his vote total declined by 22 percent. This same pattern was clear throughout the country. Rural voters are what kept Sanders afloat in 2016, as a presidential primary process where delegates are allocated proportionally rewards strong performance across geography. Fast forward four years, and those voters were gone.
Sanders exceeded expectations in 2016 precisely because he demonstrated that he was not merely the candidate of “the Left.” He won by wide margins in states like Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Indiana—not exactly hotbeds of well-heeled progressive activism. In state after state, Sanders also won among self-described “conservative” and “moderate” voters, while racking up major victories among rural voters and disproving the caricature that he was merely a typical “liberal insurgent” candidate. According to exit polls, 59 percent of “moderate” Democratic primary voters supported Sanders in the 2016 New Hampshire primary. But by 2020, that number had fallen to just 16 percent. While Sanders did win the New Hampshire primary outright with a small plurality, the brief elation over this modest victory (he actually tied Pete Buttigieg in the state’s delegate count) obscured the ways in which his coalition was coming apart. The same trend had been evident in Iowa, where notwithstanding the botched and corrupted caucus process, Sanders also saw his support in rural regions drastically erode. These places were instead won by Buttigieg, the former small-town mayor who had been known to virtually no one just a year earlier. Buttigieg’s campaign dedicated serious resources to cultivating the rural vote, and his tonal emphases were clearly geared toward resonating with these demographics. At least early on, the strategy paid off handsomely: Buttigieg substantially outperformed both there and in New Hampshire, and he was on track to win the latter’s primary until a late-stage mini-surge by Amy Klobuchar. But the more consequential result was that Sanders’s share of the vote in New Hampshire had been cut by more than half since 2016, when he won a resounding landslide victory against Hillary Clinton. In 2020, the “moderate” and “conservative” elements of the Democratic electorate had fled his coalition; the only category of voters among which he continued to excel were those who self-described as “very liberal.”
Admittedly, it’s true that these ideological categories used in exit polls are highly reductive. (We, the authors, aren’t even sure which descriptor we’d select among the available options.) And perhaps it’s true that a portion of Sanders’s 2016 support was attributable to pure anti-Hillary animus. But if such animus was so strong as to drive these voters to support a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, that would be notable in its own right. And whatever their reasons for voting for Sanders in 2016, they had nonetheless become Sanders voters. So it was the responsibility of a candidate who obviously planned on running again to maintain and expand his electoral coalition. With all the money flowing in, Sanders certainly had the resources to do this over the course of four years. But his strategy failed, and all the arguments which undergirded the case, circa 2016, that he was uniquely suited to the “current moment” quickly evaporated.
Take California as one example. In 2016, Sanders’s best-performing counties in the state tended to be its poorest, by median household income. He won California’s five poorest counties by an average of 13 percent, while getting trounced by Clinton in wealthy enclaves like San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. In 2020, the socioeconomic composition of his coalition conspicuously shifted. He instead won those wealthy counties with a slim plurality, while Biden surged in rural, lower-income pockets of the state. Lassen County, located in the state’s sparse northeast corner, is instructive. There, Sanders defeated Clinton by a solid double-digit margin in 2016. In 2020, not only did he lose the county to Biden, but his raw vote total plummeted by a full 58 percent, even as voter turnout statewide increased by 12 percent. His rural voters were either switching to Biden or had left the Democratic electorate altogether.
There was nothing inevitable about these constituencies abandoning Sanders, except insofar as the cultural attitudes of the activist and media Left—which comprised the intellectual and organizing firmament in which the Sanders campaign operated—had influenced his candidacy to such a degree in the intervening years that it was impossible for Sanders to retain the qualities that enabled him to overperform in 2016. The candidate who won rural state contests in 2016 was no longer permitted to exist.
Since Trump’s election, the supposedly resurgent American Left has been more than eager to expend its energies rehabilitating liberalism, or perhaps what John Gray formulated best as “hyper-liberalism,” even if these efforts were couched in disdain for the “neoliberal” Clinton. The wildly histrionic terms in which Trump was depicted by liberal political and media elites—that he was some sort of mad Nazi-empowering tyrant—were more or less echoed by the activist and media Left. In short, these leftists actively aided in creating a popular conception of Trump which, if taken seriously by the Democratic primary electorate, would make a transformative left-wing political project almost impossible. You can’t spend four years frantically warning these voters that the country has been overrun by a “literal fascist”—who is both conspiring with the Kremlin and presiding over a network of “literal concentration camps”—and then blame them when they evince no appetite for challenging the vested interests of the Democratic Party. Voters’ priority, thanks to the propaganda onslaught in which the Left enthusiastically participated, may have been finding the “safest” candidate to remove Trump as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It was in this frenzied context that for all their claimed antipathy toward one another, “liberal” anti-Trump rhetoric and “leftist” anti-Trump rhetoric became largely indistinguishable. The two tribes were synthesized into one hysterical mishmash of emotion and rage. Accordingly, Sanders himself was a participant in this unwitting left-liberal fusionist project. Whether due to political calculation or sincere belief, he became a compulsive promoter of virtually every orthodox left-liberal Trump-era fixation, albeit usually with less gusto than your average #Resistance screamer.
Take Sanders’s awkward posture toward the whole Russian collusion and impeachment melodrama. Shortly after Warren gained widespread acclamation from the left-liberal media class for being the first major candidate to declare her support for impeaching Trump—at that time, solely on the basis of allegations in the Mueller Report—Sanders ham-handedly avoided the topic for six weeks, before unenthusiastically declaring his support as well. In an alternate universe, it’s at least conceivable to imagine a version of Sanders who rejected the fallacious premises of the “Russian interference” narrative from the outset, not least because he was also named in the Mueller Report as a purported beneficiary of nefarious Russian bot activity. He might have scorned this preoccupation as a ridiculous establishment liberal blame-shifting exercise designed to divert attention away from the failures of the Clinton wing of the party. (After all, it was the fruits of the so-called Russia interference—in the form of emails from the servers of the DNC and Gmail account of John Podesta—that shone light on the malfeasance committed by party actors to smear and stymie him.) Perhaps taking a more antagonistic line against the left-liberal narratives would have alienated segments of the Democratic primary electorate, but those segments were clearly disinclined to support him anyway, and the concessions he made to liberal elite sensibilities were clearly of no tangible benefit. Even from a strategic standpoint, then, for him to have gone along with this confabulated media narrative turned out to be useless.
The lurch into a hazy, self-contradictory morass of left-liberal groupthink was a years-long transition for Sanders. Immediately after the 2016 election, he authored a message that was decidedly different in tone from the frantic, denunciatory screeds ripping across the left-liberal media at that time: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media,” Sanders wrote. “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him.”
But this never came to pass, largely for reasons having to do with the radicalization of the American “progressive” movement of which Sanders became the leading tribune. “Working with” Trump in the manner fleetingly offered by Sanders would’ve been furiously condemned as a disgraceful capitulation to fascism, racism, sexism, white supremacy, Nazism, or some strange combination thereof—perhaps resulting in his abrupt “disavowal” or “cancelation.” So it never happened.
Trump also bears blame for his missed opportunity insofar as his administration quickly caved to the priorities of the Republican donor class, squandering whatever glimmers of a heterodox policy agenda might have been achievable after his upset victory. He has shown little appetite for using his mandate to reorder the fault lines of American politics. But neither did the liberals or leftists, who chose to turn “Resistance” to Trump into a self-aggrandizing lifestyle brand.
Sanders, too, was more than willing to accommodate mainstream liberal orthodoxies post-2016 and give them a “progressive” sheen. Perhaps he personally believed, for instance, that the Russian collusion conspiracy scandal was real, or maybe he felt that making feints in this direction was necessary to win over skeptical liberals. Either way, the notion that Sanders was ever going to be the natural candidate of Democrats primarily concerned about Trump’s supposedly sinister dealings with Putin—the type of well-off voter who spends an unhealthy amount of time watching msnbc and scrolling through convoluted Twitter threads, and who primarily experiences politics as a devoted hobbyist—always seemed quite far-fetched. Yet by embracing almost every conventional anti-Trump talking point, Sanders eroded the distinctions that made him a novelty in 2016. Back then, he was presenting himself as something separate and apart from the Democratic Party. As his detractors loved to frequently point out, he was not even a registered Democrat. But in 2020, he might as well have been.
At one point, his handlers prodded Sanders into recording a YouTube livestream discussing the latest developments surrounding Lev Parnas, a bit player in the Ukraine impeachment saga who, for a brief moment, became an object of manic mainstream liberal fascination. It is difficult to imagine Sanders caring about the obscure details of “Ukrainegate” on any deep level. But for whatever reason there he was, staring ominously into the camera, opining on the alleged profundity of these impeachment developments that would be all but forgotten in a matter of months. Then he dutifully joined with his Democratic Senate colleagues to vote to remove Trump from office for a variety of unmemorable Ukraine-related offenses.
Again, why would the portion of Democratic primary voters animated by this suite of issues—impeachment, Ukraine, Russian interference, and so forth—be inclined to vote for Sanders in the first place? They had plenty of other options (Warren especially) who were more in keeping with their affluent liberal proclivities. But in fruitlessly catering to this demographic, Sanders jettisoned another quality that gave his campaign an aura of excitement in 2016, when he exuded the sense of being distinct from the rest of the mainstream Democratic Party. Four years later, there he was, participating in the obligatory anti-Trump sweepstakes—competing with the other candidates over who could inveigh the most vociferously against Trump. While Sanders never lost what always came across as a genuinely felt populist fervor against the billionaire class, he often sounded like he was half-heartedly reading from the script of a liberal afflicted with Trump Derangement Syndrome when he would go through the motions of listing Trump’s various crimes: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., etc., etc. After four exhausting years of this from all liberal quarters, many of those who chose Bernie over Hillary last time were neither convinced nor impressed.
Since 2016, most states which previously held caucuses—arcane, party‑run affairs prone to dirty tricks and chicanery—had converted to higher-turnout primaries. This was in part a reaction to the demands of Sanders supporters who had been appointed to the so-called DNC Unity Reform Commission—a body created at the 2016 convention by Democratic officials as a gesture of goodwill to Sanders delegates sour that the primaries that year appeared to have been “rigged” against him.
Left-wing press touted the final set of recommendations produced by the commission in 2018 as “a major victory for the Sanders wing of the party.” The much-maligned superdelegates—party apparatchiks seen as constitutionally hostile to Sanders—had been significantly stripped of power and denied the ability to vote for the presidential nominee on the first ballot at the next convention. A longtime fear of Bernie activists was therefore allayed; many had been utterly convinced that Democratic functionaries would move to thwart them even if Sanders entered the convention with a sizable delegate advantage. Far from being exiled to the wilderness, then, the activists were in fact invited to impose their will on the central party structure. This was just one of several major accommodations offered by a chastened “establishment,” desperate to avoid even the slightest perception that the scales were being tipped against Sanders after the divisive tumult of 2016. With that context in mind, it is more than a little preposterous for Sanders supporters to now decry the 2020 primaries as having once again been “rigged.”
Ironically, another key demand of Sanders supporters on the Unity Commission—to greatly expand participation in caucuses—had incentivized the switch by numerous states to government-administered primaries, and this ended up severely backfiring on Sanders. In every state that transitioned from a caucus in 2016 to a primary in 2020, Sanders’s share of the vote collapsed dramatically. Four years ago, he won the Washington state caucus by a massive 46 points over Clinton. This March, he received less than 37 percent of the vote in what should have been some of his most friendly territory in the country, the Pacific Northwest, and lost the state outright to Biden. And it wasn’t a matter of suppression: voter turnout in Washington state increased by a staggering 94 percent compared to 2016. Just as the Sanders-appointed members of the commission had anticipated, large numbers of new voters were enfranchised by this administrative change—except they weren’t voting for Sanders.
It was the same story in Maine. There, Sanders won the caucus in 2016 by 29 points. Having converted to a much higher-turnout primary this year, his share of the vote was cut in half, and he lost the state overall to Biden. Minnesota: same situation. Idaho: same situation. Even in Alaska, which adopted a quirky “firehouse primary” system in which the state party conducted a mail-in vote, Sanders lost by double digits to Biden—whereas in 2016, Alaska had given him his biggest victory in the country aside from his home state of Vermont. (In Vermont, although Sanders did of course win the 2020 primary, Biden managed to collect a nontrivial number of delegates. In 2016, Clinton received zero delegates in Vermont.)
Sanders’s only truly commanding victory of the entire cycle was in one of the few full-fledged caucus states that remained, Nevada. And this turned out to be completely illusory: caucus states place a premium on ground-level organizing, which is the area where the Sanders campaign obviously excelled: if there’s a need for left-wing activists to go agitate at complicated meetings (such as caucuses), that need was certainly able to be filled. In a cruel twist of fate, the Sanders representatives on the Unity Commission would’ve been better off lobbying for the retention of corrupt party-run caucuses, because these were evidently more favorable ground for Sanders than high-turnout primary elections—a paradox that directly countervails a central conceit of his campaign.
The myopia of the activist Left was most fatal in the crippling blow that it inflicted on Sanders in the South Carolina primary. Notwithstanding the multifold campaign failures already outlined, there is still a plausible counterfactual scenario wherein Sanders overcomes all these hurdles to win the nomination. But this scenario was contingent on him not getting completely blown out in South Carolina.
Just days before the vote on February 29, internal campaign polling data suggested that Sanders was a mere 4 percentage points behind Biden. If this had held true, and Sanders either won narrowly or kept Biden’s margin of victory in the single digits, it’s far from certain that the other “establishment” candidates, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, would have so quickly coalesced around Biden before Super Tuesday. In that case, the Sanders strategy of clinging to a tenuous plurality coalition may have worked.
But the strategy never got a chance to work, because Sanders’s South Carolina operation was bogged down by astounding dysfunction. After Sanders’s devastating 29-point defeat in the primary, we (the authors) heard from several South Carolina staffers and associates about shocking levels of ineptitude, complacency, waste, and even fraud in the organization there. The most basic elements of campaigning—such as hiring minimally competent personnel, distributing absentee ballots, and doing standard outreach to relevant local officials—had devolved into maddening impossibilities.
Part of the explanation for this lies in the 2020 iteration of the Sanders campaign being predicated on multiple concessions to bad-faith critics. Immediately upon his official entry into the race last February, Sanders apologized for the 2016 campaign having been “too white and too male-oriented.” While seeking to make inroads with new voter demographics is obviously a rational objective for a second-time presidential campaign, Sanders needlessly put retroactive moral tarnish onto the previous version of his own operation by accepting the most uncharitable depictions of his earlier efforts. (Critics who would invoke such spurious logic were never going to be satisfied with whatever adjustments that Sanders made in version 2.0 anyway—hence why they were acting in bad faith in the first place.) To make amends and preempt any future identity-related attacks, the 2020 campaign staff was heavily diversified. And at least in the case of South Carolina—in retrospect the most important primary state of the 2020 cycle—many of these personnel were hobbled by remarkable incompetence, while internal campaign criticism became impossible.
Much of the day-to-day logistics of the Sanders South Carolina campaign were run de facto by Nina Turner, a talented orator and popular media surrogate, but someone whose skill set was clearly not suited to bolstering the image of a socialist from Vermont among southern black voters. For one thing, Turner’s political background was in metro Cleveland, which provides no necessary insight into best practices for winning over elderly, churchgoing black Democrats in the Deep South.
In November 2019, Turner installed Jessica Bright as state director. Former staff members said Bright, who served as a Hillary Clinton delegate at the 2016 national convention, was hired in large part because her mother had filled the seat of Clementa Pinckney—the state senator killed in the 2015 Charleston church shooting. The idea was that such a transactional arrangement might compel the mother to endorse Sanders. “She couldn’t spell, she couldn’t speak coherently, and her mother ended up endorsing Biden,” one anguished former staffer recalled.2 Not only did basic tasks go unfulfilled, phone-banking and canvassing data were outright fabricated, multiple former staffers alleged, and sent to the national campaign headquarters to give the false impression of good progress being made in the state. “But you can’t say anything,” one staffer recounted thinking, “because you’d be called a racist.” Communicating rationally with the twenty- and thirtysomething campaign staffers who dominated the South Carolina operation, this person said, was virtually impossible—almost like some kind of impenetrable generational and ideological divide had been erected. “I felt like I was in a daycare facility. These kids were just so clueless, and so full of themselves,” the person lamented. “It was a really dystopian feeling to work there, it was not like anything I’d ever been involved with.”3
This staffer also found it “ominous that all of our rallies were attended by white people, even though we had this large black staff.” The staffer was generally devastated by the avoidable failings of the South Carolina operation, given that the state had been hollowed out by predatory neoliberalism for which, the staffer fervently believed, Sanders’s agenda was the needed antidote. “We could see that this was a train wreck.”
Precipitating Bright’s appointment in the fall of 2019, just as efforts in the state theoretically should have been ramping up ahead of the all-important primary, was the ouster of the previous state director, Kwadjo Campbell. Campbell had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with another left-wing organizer, or so the rumor went—as though that should have been of concern to anyone other than schoolmarmish busybodies, whether true or not. But by November he was removed, and the South Carolina campaign descended into further turmoil.
All of this unfolded in the context of a campaign whose launch video featured imagery of Sanders hugging a feminist protester in a “pussy hat,” and after several years of public #MeToo accusations that ran through the whole culture of progressive politics. Sanders had responded to questionable accusations of systematic sexism in his 2016 campaign by apologizing and saying he would “do better next time.” Longtime adviser Jeff Weaver pledged that it would be a “priority to remedy on any future campaign.” At least in the case of South Carolina, minimum standards of competence and pluralistic mass appeal were sacrificed to appease proponents of these brand-new, niche psychosexual dictates.
Such chaos, drama, and ineptitude might have been excusable for an upstart campaign operating on a shoestring budget. And it might have even been defensible in 2016, when Sanders had barely broken onto the scene as a viable candidate. But for this to be the case in 2020—after four years to plan, unlimited cash inflows from a gargantuan pool of largely working-class donors, and all the other manifold advantages Sanders enjoyed—indicated that something was fundamentally defective in the campaign’s internal culture, and by extension the wider political culture which it inhabited. Over four years, this strain of turbocharged identity politics had turned the activist Left into an unnavigable minefield, which in the end made it more hospitable to destructive personalities and more alienating to ordinary members of the very demographics that the whole exercise was meant, in theory, to include. After the South Carolina fiasco, Sanders went on to lose heavily black states across the South by even bigger margins than he did in 2016, and his campaign’s window of opportunity had been emphatically slammed shut.
The story arc of the whole Bernie phenomenon rests on what seems like a major contradiction. Sanders defied expectations with his success when he ran against a highly competent establishment candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who had enormous support in the media and within the party. But he performed much worse in 2020 against a significantly less daunting rival, Joe Biden, despite having the force of an entire national movement behind him. In other words, the growth of Bernie’s “movement,” far from benefiting his candidacy in 2020, may have instead been his greatest disadvantage. While a vote for Bernie in 2016 was a vote for Bernie, in 2020 it was hard to divorce the candidate from “the Left” that had ballooned in the intervening years—loudly citing him as their inspiration, making up much of his activist base, and influencing his messaging and policies.
At issue here is not simply another chapter in the interminable debate between warring progressive factions about the importance of identity versus class, though this conflict has continued after Bernie dropped out. The liberal faction claims Bernie’s defeat as evidence of the failure of Marxist class politics, while writers at “movement” organs like Jacobin magazine retort that the Left’s visions of class war were such a threat that its triumph was inevitably thwarted by the elite corporate Democratic establishment. Both of these are based on the delusional premise that the Left in 2020 was a tribune of the material interests of the American working class.
For years, polling data has been telling us very clearly that the vast majority of the public is to the left of the status quo on matters of economics and to its right on matters of culture. The Left is incapable of absorbing this truth, because to do so would mean genuinely putting the will of the actually existing American working class first—instead of trying to ride them to power in the interest of waging a vindictive culture war. As an old-fashioned social democrat who relentlessly hammered the importance of taking on Wall Street, promised greater infrastructure spending, opposed wasteful military interventions, and offered refreshing skepticism of both identity politics and free trade agreements, the Bernie of 2016 still had the qualities that enabled him to appeal to constituencies beyond the activist Left. Bernie 2020, inextricably linked to this increasingly domineering activist Left, atrophied votes because of it.
The primary cycle was, above all, a resounding defeat for left-wing factions animated principally by parochial culture war obsessions. While Joe Biden won in states he didn’t even campaign in—and where he had zero paid advertisements or staff—Elizabeth Warren suffered crushing losses most at odds with expectations, including in her own state. Amazingly, exit polls show that she lost to Biden even among voters with an advanced degree—in Massachusetts! Sanders campaigned with an entire movement behind him, the biggest activist and volunteer network on the ground in American electoral history, and raised more money in just the month of February ($47.6 million) than Biden spent in five months combined. In South Carolina, the site of his most fateful loss, Sanders actually spent more than twice as much as his next-closest rivals—Biden and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.
From Beto O’Rourke’s headline-making “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15” proclamation, to Cory Booker speaking in badly accented Spanish, to Julián Castro promising free abortions for transgender women, to Elizabeth Warren claiming she was victimized by Bernie’s sexism, the candidates that played most to identity suffered the biggest losses—even with everything else in their favor, from corporate donors to flattering media coverage. The hotly anticipated TV debates were a boon to younger, more telegenic candidates like Kamala Harris, who ambushed Biden in an attempt to depict him as an old man clueless on race and gender. This sneak attack was the high point for Harris—at least according to adulating media observers who favored her for the nomination, on the ground that she embodied what the standard-bearer for the modern Democratic Party should putatively “look like.” The broadside she unleashed on hapless Joe effectively amounted to an admonition that “I’m not saying you’re a racist, but. . . .” This caused the left-liberal punditocracy to swell with glee, and Harris rose briefly in the polls. Her gains, however, were concentrated among white liberals, and southern black voters later told focus groups that they found Harris to be cynical and distasteful. Not long after, she too collapsed. In the end, the most popular candidates by far were two “old white guys”— Bernie and Biden. While those who fully embraced the new politics of identity-scolding were flatly rejected, Bernie sat uncomfortably between these two worlds—never quite woke enough to satisfy the outermost circles of the activist Left, but different enough from his 2016 self to turn off many erstwhile supporters.
The cultural pathologies endemic to the present-day American Left created a set of conditions whereby Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the lighting-rod freshman congresswoman from New York City, could somehow become the most sought-after “progressive” endorsement in the entire country—presumably on the blinkered assumption that she could use her fearsome social media clout to tip electoral outcomes. In reality, “AOC” is only a nationally known political figure because she won a single low-turnout primary race in Queens and the Bronx over a sclerotic incumbent, thanks to a few thousand Twitter-conscious gentrifiers who populate Astoria. From this, many in the media drew the fallacious conclusion that the AOC style of politics is both culturally ascendant and electorally popular. That it was she who the Sanders brain trust chose to dispatch to Michigan ahead of that make-or-break primary shows how painfully aloof the campaign ultimately was.
While Sanders and many of the liberal candidates were ceaseless in courting the activist Left, Biden’s approach to such people was described by the Washington Post as “the most standoffish of any Democrat with a shot at victory.” He simply skipped events with professional progressive networks like Indivisible and the Center for Popular Democracy, ignored interview requests from Medicare for All activists, and pretended like he never received questionnaires from the ACLU—all while being denounced by the Green New Deal pressure group Sunrise Movement and dismissing immigrant rights activists like Movimiento Cosecha. As it turns out, this was a sound strategy: it was better politically for Joe to stay snugly in bed than interact with these organizations.
The four years since 2016 were supposed to usher in the return of a more “radical” Left. Perhaps the most conspicuous marker of this resurgence was a huge expansion of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA went from six thousand original members to nearly sixty thousand members. At one point, the organization’s median age went from sixty-eight to thirty-three. The biggest one-day membership increase in its history occurred the day after AOC’s upset primary election victory in June 2018.
The organization, founded during the Cold War, sought to redefine the Left as a movement distinct from the authoritarianism of Soviet-era socialism. In doing so, it married the socialist economics of the Old Left with the radical cultural projects of the New Left. At its 2019 convention, DSA officially endorsed “open borders” (in a resolution using exactly that phrase), formed a prison abolition working group, engaged in a host of bizarre practices including a prohibition on clapping so as not to trigger attendees with PTSD, and even proposed a measure to remove the offending “A” from DSA. The DSA not only endorsed Bernie but passed a resolution refusing to endorse anyone else. Their subsidiary organization Democratic Socialists for Bernie was created to coordinate volunteer and activist support for his campaign across the country, and they were a regular presence on the ground in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. The DSA and Bernie brands became so intertwined in recent years that every online mob of Bernie defenders looked like a sea of “red rose” emojis.
Motivated by intra-elite signaling, for four straight years the “push Bernie left” activist and media chorus, drawn from this milieu, applied constant pressure on his campaign to adopt unpopular causes of interest only to the insular world of left-liberal activism. While Biden was able to channel a familiar progressive Americanism that is still the norm in the Democrat-voting mainstream, between 2016 and 2020 Bernie was increasingly surrounded by a left-wing intellectual firmament in which something as basic as revering the American flag would have been considered a shameful appeal to retrograde jingoism. This dogmatic disdain for even the most basic iconography of American civic life is rooted in, among other things, Maoist influence on the ’60s student left, which viewed the first-world working class as a “labor aristocracy” and the American public as tainted settler-colonialist oppressors. Any gesture which gave the faintest whiff of signaling national pride or love of country would be instantly denounced as a fascistic betrayal by the cadre of activists and journalists who successfully memed themselves into an outsized platform since the election of Trump—and glommed avidly onto Bernie. George Orwell once remarked that the average member of the English intelligentsia would feel more ashamed at standing to attention during God Save the King than stealing from the poor box. In the absence of anything that could be termed an intelligentsia, the same principle broadly applies here to a niche of educated millennials who were the driving force behind what became known as “the great awokening.”
This cultural shift was never an organic fit for Sanders. As a former close associate put it, Bernie on a personal level “hates identity politics to a large degree.”3 But his 2020 campaign existed in an activist Left political environment in which it was essentially required that issues of personal identity be—to use the favored jargon term—“centered.” His policy focus also concretely changed between 2016 and 2020. While many of the key agenda items remained the same, namely a $15 minimum wage and public health care, new sloganeering flash points such as the vague, dimly understood Green New Deal, decriminalizing border crossings, abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and villainizing “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic” Donald Trump were pushed to the forefront where infrastructure spending and strident opposition to free trade agreements had previously been.
This shift in emphasis also coincided with one of the starkest contrasts between Biden and Sanders voters in 2020—voter education levels. Polling shows that Biden had more than double Sanders’s support nationwide among voters with a high school education or less. While educated people stood to benefit in a very direct way from Bernie’s sweeping student debt forgiveness policy proposal, it was of little help to the two-thirds of Americans who do not have a college degree. Young, downwardly-mobile, and chronically indebted graduates often make the most assertive political activists and movement organizers, but for the general population, education still correlates with social class and higher income. Here the Bernie campaign suffered from a flaw remarkably similar to many Left parties in Europe—most recently Britain’s Labour Party—whose defeats have highlighted the perils of an overly youth-focused set of campaign priorities.
There were also, of course, historical factors outside the campaign’s control that changed the landscape of 2016 versus 2020. Some incremental but undeniable improvements in the economy under Trump—at least before the current cratering due to coronavirus—may have diminished the desire for anything resembling a “political revolution.” When Trump and Sanders enjoyed unexpected success in 2016, they both advocated for some variation of antiestablishment political warfare at a time of mounting disaffection with a fossilized status quo. By 2020, the “new normal” had become nonstop political chaos. Four long years of this perhaps created an atmosphere less conducive to political risk-taking. Whatever cross-ideological rupture had occurred in 2016—when even the most basic tenets of both parties’ coalitions were called into question—by 2020 it had subsided back into banal partisan predictability. The new range of political possibility briefly on display four years ago had reverted to the mean, showing 2016 to be an historical anomaly rather than anything like the “new normal.”
In the end, Bernie may well be the last domino to fall for the entire Cold War–era Left fusion of social democratic economics mixed with radical liberal culture wars. Upon the final suspension of his campaign, Sanders supporters and even Bernie himself declared with confidence that “our movement has won the ideological struggle.” But the point of his 2020 campaign was not merely to win some ill-defined “struggle” or “battle”—it was to win power. That endeavor was an unambiguous failure. Instead, it would appear that the sleepy and confused Joe Biden was the one who presented an ideological vision more in sync with the desires of the Democratic primary electorate. In so doing, he in fact won the “battle”—while the activist Left succeeded only in preserving its own moral vanity, thereby derailing the greatest electoral opportunity for major social democratic reform likely to be seen in a generation.
Since the rise of Trump, many of the more astute conservative writers and thinkers have set about dismantling the Reagan-era fusionist project of libertarian free markets, military adventurism, and social conservatism, recognizing the contradictions inherent in this increasingly obsolete formula. In 2016, it felt for a brief moment like Bernie had miraculously opened up a similar potential for a radical reformulation on the left. Ultimately, however, left-wing fusionists proved themselves willing to self-annihilate in order to save liberalism. If any kind of open intellectual culture were permitted on the American left—a dubious proposition given its stultifying conformity—this defeat could at least present another opportunity for such a reformulation. But it would have to start with an acknowledgement that something has gone grievously wrong.
2 Interviews of Sanders campaign staff conducted by Michael Tracey, April 2020.
3 Interviews of Sanders campaign staff conducted by Michael Tracey, April 2020.