Yes, Bernie’s Campaign Strategy Was the Problem

Jacobin’s Paul Heideman and Hadas Thier wrote a piece this week defending the strategy of the Sanders campaign. It is meant to serve as a refutation of Zack Beauchamp at Vox and of my own widely-read article and analysis here at Washington Monthly that the Sanders campaign’s failure to consolidate more than 30% of the Democratic primary vote was a result of its flawed theory of the electorate–one that the left will have to abandon in the future if leftists want to win in the future. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs also wrote a similar piece.

As lengthy as these defenses were, they rest on a few shaky foundations. Their upshots are essentially that Sanders wasn’t really running a campaign but rather a movement; that left policy cannot succeed without Sanders’ anti-partisan movement; that it wasn’t Sanders’ failure to win more than 30% of the Democratic primary vote that doomed the campaign but rather the establishment’s consolidation; that Sanders would win the general election and transform the country with an anti-partisan class-based revolution if only Democrats would let him and similar candidates win the primary; that there really is a mass group of independents and non-voters to the left of the Democratic Party who open to far-left politics, if only sabotaging center-leftists will get out of their way. As passionately held as these opinions are, they require long essays to support them largely because the evidence underpinning them is so weak.

First, a footnote on Marx in relation to this debate: Zack Beauchamp and I called these assertions about the electorate “Marxist,” but in truth that gives them too much credit. Marx, of course, didn’t write much about elections: any application of Marx to electoral politics relies on one’s interpretation of Marxism, and there are almost as many different interpretations of Marx as there are Marxists. They really represent a class- or economic reductionist approach to elections that has long been out of vogue in respectable Marxist circles, which long ago accepted Gramscian and intersectional critiques about the need to broaden notions of class and cultural approaches to class conflict. The Sanders campaign’s defenders would argue this is unfair and that the campaign was steeped in intersectionality. But while this is true in its internal politics, externally the campaign still relied on old reductionist approaches to minimizing cultural issues and partisanship to create a working-class unity that pulled in cranky independents and Joe Rogan voters in the hope of a broad worker’s revolution. Their approach might more properly be called a “class reductionist” theory, but their approach to Marxist theory in electoral spaces is now dominant–and it’s incumbent on Marxists with a more sophisticated approach to supplant them in the public arena if that is going to change.

As to the actual arguments, a few points require repeating:

1) Independents and non-voters. There remains absolutely no evidence that there exists a mass group of independents and non-voters well to the left of base Democrats–or that even if they do exist, a more explicitly socialist politics is how to mobilize them. Sure, large numbers of Americans support policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. But then again, so did most Biden voters! Yes, people under 45 lean much farther left than older voters (a generational heist locking you out of the housing and basic economic dignity that was available to your parents and grandparents will tend to do that), and yes there was some difficulty in voting around some college campuses, but whatever it takes to mobilize them to actually vote, the Sanders and Corbyn approach didn’t do it. Many Republican voters ostensibly support some leftist economic approaches, but it doesn’t stop them from voting Republican no matter whether a centrist or socialist Democrat is on the ballot. Whatever is causing Democratic voters to support candidates like Biden even though they support Medicare for All, it’s not a lack of alternatives.

To continue to assert that these people would all vote their real best interests, in Thomas Frank’s formulation, if only they were courted in just the right way, infantilizes them and denies them agency. Democrats have been moving farther and farther left on economics for the last 20 years, but the white working class shifts farther and farther to the right. Democratic socialist candidates have been on both the primary and general election ballot with increasing frequency in the last five years, yet the youth vote has not significantly increased and independent voting patterns remain unmoved. There are many theories about why this is true, but one certainty is that it’s not for a lack of leftist candidates on the ballot. If there is a way to persuade them to vote and vote for Democrats/leftists, the Sanders/Corbyn/Justice Democrats haven’t come close to finding it.

2) The movement. It is obvious that many in the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns were more interested in building a movement than running a campaign. But that’s not a defense–it’s a condemnation. Campaigns do call themselves movements all the time because it sounds engaging and inspiring. But in real terms, the needs of a campaign and the needs of a movement are very different. Movements are designed to last for years, to grow and change with many different arms, some of which consolidate power while others marginalize themselves to push the Overton Window. Campaigns, on the other hand, are short-lived organizations whose purpose is to win a majority of votes by a specific date. Movements try to lift mountains and change public opinion; campaigns don’t have the time to do this, and must meet voters insofar as reasonable where they are.

Sanders’ defenders assert that leftist policy cannot be implemented without a class-reductionist movement. But as Eric Levitz points out in his own excellent refutation at New York Magazine, there are enormous and nearly insurmountable reasons why such a movement does not exist in America, and why these trends are observable even across most other developed democracies. The alignment of more educated, more urban and suburban liberal whites and people of color on one side, and reactionary, exurban/rural and less educated whites on the other is not likely to change anytime soon. The fault lines, rather, are likely to grow deeper.

In terms of implementing leftist policy, it will be far easier to convince older suburban liberals to support candidates backing Medicare for All than it will be to shatter the entire cultural and educational alignment of modern politics. But crucially, it will be important for leftists not to alienate these voters by attacking them and their cherished identities–not least of which is their passionately held partisan alignment.

Heideman and Thier insist that “There is no path to the Sanders agenda that does not run through a radicalized working class.” But this assertion is without evidence. The right-wing working class is radicalized toward fascism. Suburban liberals will eventually enact social democratic policy if they believe it’s electorally safe to do so, and if leftists aren’t actively going out of their way to alienate them. Indeed, candidates who support Medicare-for-All like Katie Porter and Katie Hill have won in tough, purple districts–but they avoided much of a cranky, aggressive anti-partisanship that has characterized much of the Sanders “movement.”

3) The torches-and-pitchforks theory of change. This point is pretty simple: the Sanders theory of change relies on a torches-and-pitchforks mass mobilization of anger to intimidate politicians into doing its bidding. Sanders supporters felt that the focus on social media bullying was an unfair media effect highlighted by thin-skinned reporters and pundits on twitter, but the online behavior and the theory of change are intrinsically connected. The movement’s entire theory of change rests on utilizing the anger of the masses to push people into action.

But the two weaknesses of this approach are immediately apparent. First, that burn-anyone-in-your-way approach to populist anger alienates a lot of people, including media influencers in a position to help or hurt your campaign. But second, it clearly isn’t terribly effective at actually bringing people out to vote. If your army won’t even turn in a ballot, it certainly isn’t going to maintain the sustained, engaged activism required to change policy after the election–even if it were true that furious white-hot anger from the left flank were the best way to motivate Democratic politicians into bolder action.

4) The establishment. A common complaint in Sanders-aligned circles is that the strategy would have succeeded if the establishment hadn’t aligned behind Biden. This is true insofar as it goes, but it’s also a somewhat comical argument. The Sanders campaign strategy was explicitly predicated on a divisive approach to locking down 30% of the Democratic primary vote, under the assumption that it would take a plurality to the convention against a divided field. To say that this would have worked if the other 70% hadn’t consolidated against it is axiomatic. It’s true, but it’s not a defense of the strategy. Especially after Sanders famously declared on twitter after the Nevada primary that “the Democratic establishment cannot stop us,” it would have been incompetence and malpractice for the center-left of the party not to react accordingly. In truth, what was remarkable was how late the reaction came. Many were already resigning themselves to a Sanders nomination and making peace with it, but the aggressive triumphalism that followed Nevada clearly spurred many into action.

And much as the establishment is said to have moved heaven and earth to stop Sanders, it didn’t actually require a great deal of effort. All it took was three endorsements. Clyburn was likely to endorse Biden, anyway, locking down South Carolina. And Buttigieg and Klobuchar were dead in the water in most Super Tuesday states, having banked on dominance in the first three states that did not pan out. It did not take a great deal of imagination to think that they might drop out and endorse the winner of South Carolina, with or without the urging of former President Obama. Many Sanders partisans blame Obama for this outcome as if his interference were somehow illegitimate. But relationships do matter in politics! The fact that the Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden campaigns remained friendly with one another even in competition is to their credit as coalition builders regardless of how one feels about their policies, as is the fact that they maintained a good relationship with the most popular person in Democratic politics. It is entirely possible that a more leftist candidate who had not gone out of their way to alienate the former president and the other candidates from whom they would need to build support might have done better–or at least not mobilized so much united energy against them.

5) 2018 and Corbyn. While many of the defenses of the Sanders electoral approach find excuses specific to the 2020 and 2016 campaigns, the biggest refutation of the theory is the 2018 midterms. Sanders-style Justice Democrats won their primaries and got to test their electoral theory in districts all across the country and came up short. Democrats making a more explicitly partisan cultural appeal dominated in the suburbs.

Importantly, it would be an overstatement to say that these suburban Democrats were “moderates.” Many were, but not all. Some explicitly supported Medicare for All and other leftist policy. But they didn’t run as populist anti-partisans, but as commonsense Democrats who argued for Medicare for All as part of a commonsense Democratic policy agenda.

Also, American leftists like to say that the destruction of Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was specific to the British experience and the uniqueness of Brexit. But that overstates the case. Corbyn’s approach to the white working class failed in a very relevantly similar way to Sanders’ approach to the Democratic primary. While American hyperpartisanship means that Sanders and Biden would likely perform similarly in a general election against Trump, it’s very unlikely that Sanders would have any better luck making inroads into the white working class here than Corbyn did in Britain. Or, for that matter, than leftist parties have done across Europe or Asia in white/ethnic-majority working class communities.

In sum: the problem really was the Sanders campaign strategy. Leftists and leftism can win in the future, but it has to 1) stop alienating liberals who agree with them on policy; 2) stop treating campaigns as movements and start meeting voters where they are to win; 3) abandon the notion of winning the mythical leftist independent/non-voter, and focus on winning the voters who actually exist; 4) work to consolidate the establishment behind the leftist agenda, rather than attempt an aggressively hostile takeover that insults the notion of partisanship itself, thereby alienating voters who respect longtime party leaders and are loyal to its cultural institutions.

Leftist policy can succeed and leftist candidates can win. But it will require a change in both theory and electoral practice.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.