Following the 2016 election, many supporters of Bernie Sanders spawned a meme: “Bernie would have won.” Notwithstanding the merits of the argument itself—of which much has already been said—the meme alone is significant: An indictment of the Democratic party establishment. And, just as in the general election, the centrist Democratic Party establishment has failed to grasp the essence of the meme.
In the general election, Hillary Clinton, representing the center and right of the Democratic Party, ran a campaign that utterly missed the point of her opponent’s campaign. To Trump’s “Make American Great Again,” Democrats offered up an insistence that America is “already” great; no doubt millions of unemployed and bankrupt Americans did not agree. In response to Trump’s message that something is terribly wrong with the American economy, Democrats insisted that we have made a full recovery; yet, while the economy has improved since 2008, that recovery has been concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest Americans. All of this missed the point of the election and the lived reality of millions of voters.
For over a year we have seen a proliferation of milquetoast “fact-checks” and pearl-clutching in the face of Trump’s casual relationship to reality, but in devoting resources to “correcting the record”—notably, almost word for word the name of Clinton’s opposition research organization—the Clintonites, yet again, have missed the point. Rather than pushing an affirmative message about how to help the suffering and the unemployed, they dedicated their resources to running after Trump, insisting, “Well, actually...” As it turns out, no one actually cared about their fact-checks—and historically, few followers of authoritarian personalities have.
Following Election Night, the Democratic Party faced a reckoning; it was forced by its shocked constituents to do some serious introspection. But establishment apologists continued to either ignore or be unable to comprehend the point of the left’s criticisms. In response to the emergence of “Bernie would have won,” centrist Democrats have—apparently to their befuddlement and/or consternation—argued vociferously that Bernie Sanders would not have won the general election and that we should not “relitigate” the primary because now is the time to focus on the Trump presidency. This, per usual, misses the point entirely. Whether Bernie would actually have won in a counterfactual general election match-up against Donald Trump is immaterial; rather, the phrase is an indictment of the elites of the Democratic Party itself. It points to the fact that they have repeatedly misjudged national attitudes about their preferred candidate and their preferred policies. It is a call for a pound of flesh; it is a demand for accountability.
By saying “Bernie would have won,” left Democrats are objecting to the failures of the Democratic Party establishment, whatever the outcome of the general election would have been. They held out Hillary Clinton to us as the “electable” candidate, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary. Time and again, Clinton partisans hammered Sanders as pie-in-the-sky and his supporters as unrealistic. Clinton herself said she felt bad for young Sanders supporters because, she thinks, we do not do our own research. Her surrogates mocked Sanders as fantastical, invoking the same “magical pixie dust” imagery that is directly from the Republican playbook.
Reality has again proven them wrong. “Bernie would have won,” therefore, is a meme, not a relitigation of the merits of the primary—but it is substantive too. It means that left Democrats have seen this election as a rejection not only of Clinton, but as a rejection of the Democratic Party’s ties to Wall Street and its consistent failure to present a meaningful agenda of economic change. If the establishment wants to respond, they should respond to that—to the charge that their particular brand of triangulating and progressivism-in-symbolism-only has been rejected and simply does not play in the face of the continued failures of neoliberal economics. That is a conversation worth having. If they want to continue to wag their figures about the importance of standing up to Trump instead of learning how to actually win the next election from our past failures, the rest of us will be actually standing up to Trump.
Throughout their efforts to pass the far-right Heritage Foundation’s health care plan from the 1990s—now known as the Affordable Care Act—Democrats scolded Republicans, “Elections have consequences.” Now, too, elections have consequences, however much the establishment apologists wish it were not so. So say it with me: Bernie would have won.