March 11, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why Bernie Sanders Will Keep Losing

Michigan was his death knell.

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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

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

4 Comments

  1. Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 8:07 am

    Bernie is shifting into the phase where he does everything in his power to reelect Trump. He started today. He held a special 1 pm news conference just to attack Joe Biden and let everyone know he’s going to continue campaigning and inflicting his insufferable persona on us for a little while longer.

    Bernie honestly behaves a whole lot like a Russian asset. Constantly attacking “the Establishment” and anyone with pragmatic, achievable goals. I’m not saying he definitely is a Russian asset, but he certainly acts like one. He’s also ducked at least two sanctions vote on Russian oligarchs since 2016, and he actually voted against Russian sanctions once as well.

    I don’t know if he likes oligarchs or just Russian ones?

    • Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:07 am

      I think this comment is a little too hard on Bernie. On the positive side, I think he helped pull both democrats and some independents toward the progressive agenda. Good evidence is Biden’s current positions (and the same was true with Bloomberg’s positions). I think Bernie and his team are very disappointed and frustrated. And, this is now showing, so they are attacking Biden, which will likely have the opposite effect of what they intend. Sad!

      Also, we need to welcome current and previous Bernie supporters in order to unite the party to elect Biden and flip the senate blue. And, to that end, tell them that we appreciate their efforts in moving dems and independents toward a more progressive agenda.

    • EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 8:07 am

      Perhaps it’s time that Democrats take a stand with Bernie Sanders: We ain’t buying your resentment or your socialism. Journalists need to just stop giving him an echo chamber…he’s just so much “blah, blah, blah.”

      I personally know of more than a dozen people who wouldn’t vote for Hillary and voted against her in the primaries, going for Sanders. In the general election, most of my friends voted for Jill Stein or wrote in a name.

      The disinformation in 2016 was overwhelming and it wasn’t helped at all by then-Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s rabid “oversight” of Clinton’s involvement in Benghazi. That was a never-ending piece of oversight and seeing how the Trump administration does business, she should have just declined to participate.

      Some of my military friends just couldn’t get over Clinton’s misuse of classified email. That was another bit of a never-ending story, and certainly not at all helped with Comey’s public announcement that the email case had been reopened because of information found on Anthony Weiner’s computer, flying in the face of every protocol the FBI and Justice Department had.

      Eleven days before the general election.

      People were also put off because of the airport meeting of Bill Clinton and the then-Attorney General… always so sure there was something hinky going on.

      And Hillary Clinton never helped herself. She never had a vision of how her administration was going to help the American people. She just wanted to be president. Her “basket-full-of-deplorables” comment didn’t help either. In one soundbite, she wrote off the white, working class.

      One thing you can say about Joe: he’ll never write off the white, working class. I think that was shown last night in Michigan.

      For all of Joe Biden’s faults and weaknesses, he engenders a sense of trust… along with the belief in his decency.

      If the Hunter Biden investigation by the Senate can be countered by those who just want to beat Trump, we’ll be okay. (Perhaps Mayor Pete can take on that fight?)

      I will always be grateful to Senator Klobuchar and Mayor Pete for suspending their campaigns after the South Carolina primary and then for their strong endorsements of the former vice president. That was the moment, the tipping point, and it was only reinforced when Senator Warren dropped out shortly afterward.

      I personally supported all three of the above candidates. I love Elizabeth Warren for her plans and her persistence. I admire Mayor Pete’s eloquence and appreciate his military service. And I just think Amy Klobuchar would have made an excellent president.

      I also believe they will doggedly work to elect Joe Biden. The alternative is just unbearable to think of.

      Bernie, your ideas are mostly okay and I can understand why the young voters would feel so passionate about your candidacy; however, the big lift is defeating Trump and from the election results so far, the math is against you.

      A wiser man would bow out of the race and work unselfishly and whole-heartedly to elect the nominee. He’d urge his passionate followers to do so as well… modeling the kind of democratic behavior that wins elections.

  2. Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 8:07 am

    Most important of John’s point: “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.” I agree 100%.

    I mailed in my FL ballot 2 days ago, and voted for Biden, my 4th choice. Warren was my 1st choice. In choosing between Sanders and Biden, I was mainly motivated by my desire to flip the senate blue. With Sanders at the top of the ticket, flipping the senate seats blue in Arizona, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, and now Montana (with Bullock just announcing) would be effectively impossible, in my view. We would also lose Doug Jones’ senate seat in Alabama.

    If we don’t flip the senate blue, we get 4 more years of Mitch McConnell’s senate, and we can forget about passing any legislation to address health care, inequality, and climate change . . .

    FYI: Amy Klobuchar was my 2nd choice.

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