The Progressive Firebrand Failed to Understand his Base
Bernie Sanders was the only major Presidential candidate with a positive vision for America. Hillary Clinton, since winning the nomination, has campaigned on the tone-deaf notion that ‘America is already great’, the magical thinking that technical expertise is somehow a substitute for a moral core.
The blind optimism, worship of the present, and faith in American exceptionalism that once defined the American right has become the message of the ‘left’, a deformed left that looks to plutocracy and technological innovation as substitutes for principles and values. Clinton recently seeking the endorsements of Henry Kissinger and a wide array of Bush-era neoconservatives demonstrates how compromised the Democrats are.
Donald Trump may represent the worst of anti-intellectual America, but the Clinton technocrat is a paradigmatic example of why anti-intellectual America is gaining momentum. The center will not hold, and liberal journalists are creatures of great hubris. As any privileged class in any great empire always has, they will scold the working class and talk down to the public before any serious self-reflection takes hold.
Donald Trump capitalized on the moral bankruptcy of the liberal class, and the platitudes of career politicians, to harness a voting base of wrath against the world as-it-is.
So then, why did Bernie Sanders fail where Donald Trump succeeded? The answer is that he failed to play to his base in the same way that Donald Trump played to his.
Essentially, Bernie Sanders misunderstood the direction of progressive politics, the groundswell of anti-racism in America, and the value of fostering local alliances in every state.
In four points, I will try to describe why the Sanders campaign failed, and what he could have done differently to defeat Hillary Clinton in the primaries (barring the reprehensible corruption of the DNC, which unfortunately was out of his control).
Bernie Needed Black Lives Matter
Unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter was Bernie’s opportunity to win over black America. The indignity and fatalism of referring to black voters as a ‘firewall’ should have cast Clinton and her media allies as privileged elitists taking black voters for granted. Bernie should have tossed away the canned speeches about oligarchy when it came to addressing black communities, especially when Black Lives Matter shut him and Martin O’Malley down at Netroots Nation over a year ago, at the start of his campaign.
Back in July of 2015, the BLM movement needed to know that Sanders was their advocate – they could not take his bona fides as a New Deal Democrat as proof that he would stand up specifically for black lives. Instead, Sanders responded to the jeers of protesters by continuing with his pre-rehearsed speech, deriding corporate media and corporate politics, and touting his political revolution without specifically addressing black lives.
Cenk Uygur took Sanders’ side, criticizing the protesters by arguing that “Sanders is not your enemy”. But Cenk, as I also was at the time, was blinded by a colorblind admiration for social democracy – he and millions of other progressives assumed that Bernie could win the black vote just by being a true progressive, and this was tactical misstep. Black Americans had made no such assumptions. In fact, they had no reason to - Hillary Clinton was the devil they knew, and Bernie Sanders was potentially a new brand of devil. His refusal to simply “say her name” on the Netroots Nation stage was a tremendous mistake, with lasting implications.
This would become a staple of Sanders’ campaign – an inability to convey his message outside of broad speeches designed mostly for a white national audience. Given the Clintons’ record on race, there was no excuse for Sanders not to target this issue and expose his opponent’s record while emphasizing his own. By refusing to attack Clinton on race well before January 2016, he may have thrown the nomination.
Sanders, and the progressive movement, underestimated just how essential the support of Black Lives Matter was for winning the nomination. Black suffering, in particular, was conflated with economic suffering in general. This did him no favors in mobilizing exhausted and disenchanted black voters.
Donald Trump made no such mistakes in the Republican primaries. He played to white rage and he knew white rage would propel him past the canned speeches and canned ideas of his opponents. Why, then, was the legitimate rage of black America only half-embraced by the Sanders campaign? Sanders was playing to an old era, and had not yet reckoned with the rise of social justice and identity politics in the last 3 to 5 years. A life lived in ideological consistency made him rigid; he was unable to morph his rhetoric intelligently according to place and time.
This is a shorter and less complicated point, but just as important. John Fetterman, the tattooed, badass mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania was a budding progressive star launching a bid for the Senate in 2016. As a populist who re-energized a dying mill town, he had the potential to capture vast swaths of working class support in his state. He seemed a natural ally of Sanders, and Fetterman accordingly endorsed him for President. He received silence in response.
Fetterman languished in obscurity, and on April 26th he lost his Senate campaign and Sanders lost the Pennsylvania primary. If Sanders had campaigned in the state with Fetterman, conducting rallies together, marshaling local support, they could have actually had a powerful political moment on their hands in the state of Pennsylvania.
Sanders could have also campaigned alongside Zephyr Teachout in New York, and a number of other progressive candidates whose names I do not know because Sanders squandered his national spotlight and failed to share the attention.
Many former Sanders supporters, including myself, have come to the conclusion that local elections are far more vital than Presidential campaigns in ffecting real change. Bernie Sanders should have been vocally pushing progressive tickets all across the country for the better part of year. Instead, he lost his nomination and left his supporters cold. Why, even now, is he not directing the momentum of his ‘revolution’ into local elections and mobilizing support there?
Why, building upon an alliance with Black Lives Matter, did Bernie not pay any attention to DeRay McKesson’s mayoral bid in Baltimore? DeRay was never convinced by the Sanders campaign and remained neutral during the primaries for many of the reasons I laid out before, but all this could have changed if Bernie had tried to partner with him, a community leader, a key figure in the BLM movement, a voice that is respected and admired among those who Sanders clearly did not reach. Both champions of social justice, they should have been natural allies.
Instead, Bernie opted to campaign in isolation and rolled out the same rhetoric over and over again at every singular stop along his campaign. The man of the hour, tragically, eats alone.
Bernie Sanders should have supported reparations if he wanted to win.
Not just because of slavery, but because of the legacy of Jim Crow, redlining, gerrymandering, police brutality, economic apartheid and psychological warfare waged against black Americans ever since the conclusion of the Civil War. The bombing of Black Wall Street, the Tuskegee Trials, COINTELPRO and the murders of prominent civil rights heroes such as Fred Hampton confirm that the legacy of white supremacy in America has been affirmed time and time again long after the last slave was freed. And this is without even mentioning the extrajudicial police murders of ordinary citizens.
Progressives, including myself, have too often made the error of assuming that economic uplift alone will create even footing for people of all races. Throughout the primaries, I was against reparations and I failed to see the cracks in Sanders’ message. I, like millions of people, was swept up in the euphoria of a democratic socialist running against the corporate-state. But the truth is that this single message was not enough to bring out the least privileged voters in America. It mostly attracted middle-class voters who closely follow politics – not the basis for a substantial political revolution.
In January, Sanders disavowed reparations because it was ‘divisive’, and the odds of passing it through Congress were ‘nil’. But white Americans who would abandon Sanders over reparations likely never supported him in the first place. The progressive base would not have found reparations any more difficult a task than universal healthcare or free tuition. Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized Sanders’ political imagination for this very reason.
Coates personally voted for Sanders, but was not convinced enough to advocate for him or endorse him to his audience. Because of Sanders’ lack of focus on black issues, black intellectuals were always lukewarm to fully support him as an answer to the degradation and suffering that is constantly faced by black communities. Of course, no presidential candidate can be that answer. But by backing reparations in January and applauding Black Lives Matter last July, Sanders could have made himself part of a rising tide. He could have become a heroic figure in the racial awakening of America, uniting radical social justice with his anti-Wall Street economic message.
That is called mobilizing the base. Donald Trump did exactly that by blowing the white nationalist dog whistle about ‘Mexican rapists’. If the base exists, extreme positions work. Trump knew that and cruised his way toward the nomination because of it.
Sanders needed more Alinsky in him.
Hillary Clinton would have never considered endorsing reparations. She would become confused and lose her ability to navigate this election. All her political hacks, all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men, would have no clue how to market Clinton as pro-reparations and still play the center in the general.
Sanders never cared to play the center. He was who he was. He was a 74-year old socialist. Had he endorsed reparations, Clinton would have faced a complete identity crisis, backing away from hard-left positions against an opponent who was utterly fearless, something she had never faced in Washington before.
She would have looked like a political hack, which is what she is.
And yet, Ta-Nehisi Coates was dead right, and Sanders’ lack of political imagination sank him. The fire was mortal, and cowed before fear.
The Wall Street Candidate
Finally, Sanders had two key moments in the Democratic debates where he quietly surrendered the nomination.
The first was a recurring phrase, and I cringed every time he said it:
“The secretary is right.”
Every time he uttered these words, he weakened his claim to being a unique politician. He affirmed the idea that he and Clinton were fellow Democrats, sharing views on most issues with only a few tweaks of separation.
There is no faster way to mute your own urgency, to destroy your own revolution, than to constantly voice your agreement with a politician who represents the corporate center you seek to overthrow.
Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War (now an indefinite war with ISIS), advocated the illegal invasion of Libya (now an indefinite bombing campaign), ran on Obama’s record of drone strikes, wholesale surveillance, antagonism to whistleblowers, and inevitably represents the Clinton White House which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, dismantled welfare, dismantled Glass-Steagall, deregulated Wall Street, waged a drug war against black America and incarcerated the sons and daughters of thousands of exhausted black Americans who voted for the devil they knew because Sanders did not go far enough.
And, since Bernie lost the nomination, it was revealed that Clinton benefited from political corruption of the worst kind, as Debbie Wasserman-Schultz rigged the DNC and was rewarded for her faithful cronyism with a new job - honorary chair of the Clinton campaign. It’s hard to imagine anything more tasteless, and Bernie didn’t even fight back. He didn’t even tell us what to do, other than to endorse Clinton, giving her free reign to be as corrupt and mediocre as possible simply because Trump mobilized his base and Sanders didn’t even know who his base was or could have been.
Sanders was running against Wall Street, his opponent was an oligarch, and yet he acted as if they were on the same team. Logically, he was compelled to flatly call Clinton corrupt. His integrity as an anti-establishment politician demanded it. And he hesitated to do so. He weaseled around like he did on reparations because he feared for his legacy. And now fear wins the day.
Finally, he handed Clinton another win: “The American people are sick of hearing about your damn emails!”
At the time it seemed smart.
But how smart will the Democrats look when 30,000 deleted emails turn up on WikiLeaks just days before the election? Or if Putin leaks them himself?
Those decrying Donald Trump for asking Russia to leak the deleted emails, claiming he is risking national security and committing borderline treason, have already conceded that Hillary put national security at risk. After all, Russia will only gain critical information if Hillary compromised that information in the first place.
And yes, this is just how stupid a race between two corrupt plutocrats really is.
Bernie Sanders owed it to America to fight against Wall Street. Instead, he just became a Democrat.
Trump, Populism, and the Future of the Left
Donald Trump won the Republican nomination because he understood the Republican base. Any Republican condemning Trump as a unique problem is lying to themselves.
Why did Trump ever break out of the crowd of nominees in the first place?
He sounded the white nationalist dog whistle over ‘Mexican rapists’. He mobilized the Republican base out of fear of brown bodies and demanded an America safe from those bodies.
That’s the end of the story, because it worked. The voters, not the folks at National Review, lined up in the millions to support the man who spoke to their deepest fears, while the other candidates were hack politicians who failed to capture any enthusiasm whatsoever.
Trump mastered the art of politics by addressing America at its most extreme core. The sleeping giant awoke and propelled him through the primaries. If you disavow Trump, you disavow around 30% of Americans.
While benefiting from latent white nationalism, Trump did campaign on two legitimate issues: an opposition to free trade, and an opposition to American involvement in NATO. If ten to twenty percent of Sanders supporters defect to Trump, it is over these issues.
The issue of trade speaks to the American worker. It is a common thread between Trump and Sanders. And yet, while Trump harnessed the rage of white workers betrayed by the liberal class, Sanders chose not to legitimate the rage of black Americans who are threatened by Trump and used by liberals like Clinton. That is shameful. It is why he lost, and why this election will be the worst in the country’s history.
The problem with American politics is not the anger of voters. It is the inability of the mechanisms of power to respond to that anger with anything but derision, condescension, disgust, and at best, platitudes.
Barack Obama’s Town Hall on police brutality was a betrayal of Black Lives Matter. If a white politician responded to police shootings with tales of following the law and being cautious, he would be considered a white supremacist. But American politics offers no solution for black Americans but to form ranks around President Obama, lest the Republicans destroy him.
Returning to Trump, I would say that he tactically understood populism far better than Bernie Sanders.
On the Republican debate stage he was what Sanders should have been – a wrecking ball.
He did not seek common ground with Jeb Bush. He called his brother a liar, said he did not defend us on 9/11, and dismissed him as a political hack. Clinton should have met the same treatment. After all, it was the very idea of a Clinton/Bush race that made Trump possible.
The night of that Republican debate was one of the moments when I understood that Trump would win the nomination.
When he was booed by the crowd, he correctly called them out as a bunch of lobbyists funneling money into the Bush campaign. He smashed the establishment and stood there smug as he did it. And he won.
We are attracted to monoliths. We seek to place our faith in fortresses, not the fields of Woodstock.
The good news is that progressives, at least on the national scale, can avoid being clowned by corporate politicians if they take extreme stances like reparations and advocate for vulnerable Americans with the zeal that Trump advocates for himself.
To conclude, Bernie Sanders should have backed reparations, backed Black Lives Matter, backed DeRay, been truthful and merciless in attacking Clinton, and campaigned with local candidates for office all across America.
I anticipate that Hillary Clinton will win in November. What will truly matter, then, is keeping the progressive movement alive and learning from the mistakes of Bernie Sanders. Then, after the Republican Party has been blown apart from the inside by Donald Trump, the compromised Democratic Party can shift from the party of Clinton to the party of Sanders, from the ground-up.
It took Trump one year to hijack the Republican Party from the hands of its donor class. The radical base heard the signals and took action.
If the devil can do it, why not humans with principles?
Alexander Blum is the author of 21st Century Slave.
His website on politics, philosophy, religion and art can be found here: www.alexanderblum.net