March 11, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Why Bernie Sanders Will Keep Losing
Michigan was his death knell.
Joe Biden won Michigan on Tuesday night. Six states voted in all, but Michigan was the big one. That’s where Bernie Sanders took a stand. It’s where he defeated in 2016 the “Democratic establishment.” If he could hold it, and hold its white working class, Sanders could prove everyone wrong—again. His revolution would be really real.
It wasn’t real. Not really. Not now, and not then.
Turns out lots of Michiganders who voted four years ago for Sanders voted in 2020 for the former vice president. At the same time, people who voted for Hillary Clinton last time voted for Joe Biden this time. Put all these together and what do you see? Sanders didn’t win Michigan last time due to who he was. He won due to who he wasn’t.
Hillary Clinton isn’t running, among other reasons.
Most presidential candidates want you to vote for them, not necessarily against their opponents. The independent senator from Vermont has been unique in this respect. Negative partisanship, as political scientists call it, was baked into his rhetoric and his platform from the beginning. Vote for me, he said, because I’m not Hillary Clinton, because I’m not the Democratic Party, and because I’m not the neoliberal 1 percent.
That gambit, as I have said, was aided by Russian Crypto-Czar Vladimir Putin. He, too, wanted American citizens to vote against a candidate most threatening to his influence on global affairs. The Kremlin, therefore, mounted a covert cyberwar by which Russian saboteurs successfully moved American public opinion in three states—including Michigan—against the former secretary of state. One consequence of the effort was electing Donald Trump. Another was paving the way for Bernie Sanders’ second run.
(If he decides to keep running, which is evidently the case, Sanders will continue to receive Russian aid and comfort for the balance of the primary season and the whole of the general election. Being a sore loser is one thing. Being a bottomless supply of scorn and resentment for an enemy bent on keeping Trump in power is quite another.)
If the “anti-establishment candidate” lost, does that mean the “pro-establishment candidate” won? Biden certainly represents the establishment in that he’s been a Democrat since forever. Some in the pundit corps are, moreover, framing his primary victories as the establishment’s revenge. But this view is so narrow as to distort the political factor most influential in choosing him: Donald Trump is the president.
If the “pro-establishment candidate” won, does that mean the party isn’t moving radically to the left. The Post’s Jennifer Rubin is right in saying “the entire narrative of the Democratic Party going crazy left was wrong.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is also right. He said: “This Democratic Party is far more moderate and pragmatic than most presidential candidates, political pundits, and Twitter influencers believed for years.”
But both are wrong, too. Exit polls show Democratic voters want things like universal health care, higher wages, affordable housing and the rest. They want, in other words, what Bernie Sanders was selling them. They just don’t want to buy it from Sanders. Why? Because those things, as of right now, are less important than defeating Trump.
At the same time, hell yes the party is more conservative than we thought. Michigan’s upper peninsula went entirely to Sanders last time. It went entirely to Biden this time. That suggests Sanders won in 2016 not only because he was not Hillary Clinton. He won because he’s not a woman, especially that woman. The white working class, which populates the upper peninsula, is open clearly to progressive policies of one sort or another, but less open to a woman seeking the presidential power to realize them.
Sanders is not a stand-in for leftism. Plenty of leftists gladly voted for Biden. They want to beat the president, too. At the same time, the people who were supposed to turn out for Sanders—the youth vote—didn’t. Therefore, take the concern-trolling about unity with a grain of salt. There’s plenty of party unity thanks to animosity toward Trump. Yes, Biden should court young voters, but he needn’t fear their retribution. If they didn’t show for Sanders, they’re not going to show for Trump.
If Democrat voters picked Biden because they want to beat Trump, does that mean they don’t care what Biden himself is offering? I’m sure there’s some truth to that. But his being a Democrat means he doesn’t have to explain what he stands for, as Sanders did. Biden is furthermore unlike any presumptive Democratic nominee I’ve ever seen.
He’s less candidate than vessel into which the party will pour its ambitions. I think legendary broadcaster Dan Rather was right when he said: “Joe Biden is being characterized as a ‘moderate,’ but if elected I think it might turn out that he ends up presiding over one of the most progressive administrations in American history. It’s where his party is going, and on many issues where the country is going as well.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.