Members Only | February 24, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Sanders Can’t Win? No One Knows
His critics say they know. They don't.
I would rather not defend Bernie Sanders. So I’m not going to. Not yet.
Yes, the Vermont senator’s victory in Nevada was clear. He has the most delegates going into Saturday’s primary in South Carolina. But I refuse to talk about him as if he has a lock on the nomination. He needs nearly 2,000 delegates to win. He now has 34.
I do not know what I cannot know until the time in which knowing is possible. We are not there yet. Therefore, I’m not going to talk about Sanders as the frontrunner until the moment in which it’s possible to discern a frontrunner. I’m not going to talk about “momentum” until it’s possible to discern momentum. I’m not going to talk about “moderate” voters balking at “socialist” policies. There are no moderates and his policies aren’t socialist. Anyway, the time hasn’t arrived. No one knows anything.
Most people saying Sanders can’t win came of age during the last ideological consensus.
Yes, there are pundits aplenty who are paid top dollar to state authoritatively that America will never elect a “socialist” president. Sure, they have some reasons to be skeptical. But being skeptical about a thing and knowing a thing are two separate things until the moment in which knowing a thing has arrived. And it hasn’t.
Many of the same people declared that America would never elect a lying, thieving, philandering sadist who now beclowns himself and the country daily. This isn’t to say they’re wrong about Sanders—I do not know because I cannot. This is to say they were wrong about Trump—I can know that. Isn’t it strange to trust them a second time?
If Sanders does win the nomination but loses the general election, these same pundits will declare authoritatively that they were right. They told ya so. But that is more coincidence than causality. They could not have known Sanders would lose (in this hypothetical) until he lost. (They can’t have known until the moment in which knowing is possible.) Presidential elections are the product of a multiverse of social factors. Claiming they were right about the outcome is rationalizing after the fact.
Here’s something normal people should keep in mind.
American politics tends to turn in 40- or 50-year cycles. That’s when the political parties organize themselves around a loose ideological consensus. From the 1930s to the 1970s, that consensus was liberal. The federal government was an increasingly active presence in the lives of ordinary Americans. It was a period of “positive liberty” during which the Democrats were the majority party. The Republican Party didn’t like it (conservative Republicans called liberal Democrats socialists), but it accepted it.
From the 1970s to the present day, the consensus was conservative. The federal government played an increasingly inactive, or hostile, role in the lives of ordinary Americans. It was a time of “negative liberty,” as the political scientists say. This era favored the Republican Party. The Democrats accepted it in order to play ball.
The presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump will probably be seen years from now as a period in which the last ideological consensus shattered and a new one emerged. I don’t know what it will be. (No one can know until the moment in which it’s possible to know has arrived.) I can say it won’t be “conservative.” It might be fascist. It might democratic socialist. It might be a return of majoritarian liberalism.
Most people saying Sanders can’t win came of age during the last ideological consensus. That’s when totalitarianism loomed large in the background and when American capitalism was the savior of the world after the Soviet collapse. People over the age of, say, 55—the oldest Gen Xers on up—still feel the sting of being called a socialist. People under 55, however, feel little or no sting at all. Indeed, for many of the youngest voters, opposition to “socialism” is opposition to public policies they want.
Sanders’ critics point to his Medicare for all plan as reason he can’t win. They say he can’t explain how he’ll pay for it. That may deter some from voting for him, but a vast number of others don’t care about the math. What they care about is Sanders fighting for them. Is that lying? Maybe. Is that buying votes? I suppose. His critics are free to claim such things. But they are not free to say they know he can’t win. They can’t.
All this is premature. Sanders has 34 delegates. Four Democrats have 46 between them. South Carolina will tell us how much black support Bernie Sanders has, and that will tell us more about his chances on March 3 (Super Tuesday). We do not know what we cannot know until the moment has arrived in which it’s possible to know.
Let’s stop pretending until then.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.