During the first debate of the 2016 Democratic Primary, former Virginia Senator and moderate Democrat-turned-Independent Jim Webb turned to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and stated frankly: “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come.” You wouldn’t have known that by the strangely competitive primary bid Sanders waged against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, though. Not only did the messy-haired socialist defeat Clinton in New Hampshire and tie her in Iowa, but he defeated the party scion in an astounding 23 (!) contests, with over 13,000,000 votes. Since then, many of his ideas gained prominence. For example, even ostensibly moderate 2020 Democratic candidates like John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden endorsed the idea of a federal $15 minimum wage, too bold even for Clinton in 2016. Everything seemed primed for success in 2020–Sanders enjoyed higher name recognition, huge small-donor fundraising hauls, lasting organizational networks, and support from youngster representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of “The Squad”. Sanders even led former Vice President Joe Biden in numerous national polls along the span of a month.
And yet, last week, a prominent Buzzfeed News headline described, “The Week Bernie Sanders Realized He Was Losing”. Joe Biden nearly swept Super Tuesday, winning even Texas, Massachusetts, and Maine, three states Sanders expected to do well in. The next week, he vanquished Sanders in 5/6 states contested, including Michigan, where Sanders pulled off an upset victory in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. And then, on March 17th, he swept Arizona, Illinois, and Florida by huge margins, causing him to reassess his campaign and pull online ads. It’s apparent that Jim Webb was right–the revolution simply hasn’t happened. So, in light of the supposed positives, what went wrong? Why is Bernie Sanders unable to clear around 35-40% in recent states, despite a strong ground game and a hefty online presence?
My theory is that when Bernie Sanders elevated wedge social issues and lurched leftward on them, he undermined his odds of winning. After all, the others who tried lost badly. Kirsten Gillibrand attempted to win by explaining White privilege to blue-collar Whites (a noble task, but not one likely to win elections). In an early debate, Kamala Harris relitigated school busing by attacking Biden for stances he took in the 1970s. Later, she took the exact same stance as Biden on the issue, confounding just about everybody. Beto O’Rourke suggesting ending tax exemptions for churches whose faiths contradict his progressive politics. What all these candidates have in common is that they lost before the primary even began. Bernie Sanders often called the pinnacle of consistency on his economic stances, drifted towards the party’s leftward fringe on identity issues, surrendering one of his greatest general election strengths in 2020. When he lost the economics-first populist electability argument and stopped reaching blue collar Democrats, Sanders’ political revolution fell apart.
The same Democrat who bravely addressed Evangelical hub Liberty University in 2015, seeking to bridge this country’s cultural divides, now surrounds himself with leftists like Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. To boot, he touts the support of Linda Sarsour, the polemical organizer who palls around with hatemongers like Louis Farrakhan and elevates identity politics to support anti-Israel extremists. To his credit, Sanders accepted the endorsement of Joe Rogan, a podcast host popular with the kind of disengaged young males who swung to Trump or voted third party in 2016. Prominent left-wing groups immediately dumped onto Sanders and AOC retracted speaking engagements on behalf of the candidate. But it was too little, too late when it came to mitigating connections to the rising new left. Sanders’ platform reveals as much.
The Platform Shift
Importantly, Bernie Sanders embraced the hard left on immigration. In 2015, Sanders spoke sense on the issue, noting that open borders are a “Koch Brothers proposal”. Over the years, he supported axing the visa lottery and voted against the 2007 immigration bill, (ostensibly because of lacking labor protections for farmworkers), introduced a bipartisan measure to prevent stimulus funds from going to employers hiring guest workers, and backed increased protections for US workers. He simultaneously supported the key portions of the Democrats’ agenda on the issue though, backing a pathway to citizenship and reforms to make the system more humane. Sanders’ historic record on the issue shows that you can both advocate for justice and support security.
Now, however he seeks to decriminalize illegal border crossings. In reality, the current law isn’t often enforced and its repeal won’t likely lead to open borders. Nonetheless, voices as diverse as Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and Obama-administration Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, all argue that current law deters illegal crossings and combats human and drug smuggling. So it’s probably a smart border security measure to keep around. Not to mention, a paltry 27% of Americans support this proposal, demonstrating just how radical the stance is. Moving towards what’s perceived as an open border agenda, or downplaying border security as an issue, is anything but smart for our country or for the Democratic Party. Also of note, Sanders’ frequent comparisons to Denmark miss the fact that Denmark has incredibly (excessively in my view) restrictive immigration policy.
On abortion too, a deeply divisive issue, Bernie Sanders took a deleterious leftward leap. In 2017, Bernie Sanders bravely (for the Democratic Party), campaigned for Nebraska Democrat Heath Mello, who happened to have taken pro-life stances in the past. During the 2020 campaign, however, seeking to court left-wing activists, Sanders repudiated such inclusion, claiming that “being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat”. The Democrats, after all, have abandoned the rhetoric of “safe, legal, rare”, and instead endorse abdication of the Hyde Amendment consensus. This, despite the fact that 14% of Democrats support banning all abortions while 45% are open to some limits, and that most Americans have a mixed position closer to Heath Mello’s than the Democratic Party’s. In his book, “Beyond the Abortion Wars”, Charlie Camosy cites some revealing figures: 70% of Americans call themselves pro-choice while 66% call themselves pro-life (showing the uselessness of the binary perhaps), nearly 40% of Americans don’t know Roe v. Wade is about abortion, and women tend to be more pro-life than men. By abandoning his commitment to a big tent party, Sanders risks alienating voters. The Democratic Party that embraced pro-life candidates like Kathy Dahlkemper in 2006 and 2008 still broadly stood for pro-choice principles. It didn’t actively make “pro-life” Americans feel unwelcome. Sanders has now sadly staked his claim with the gatekeepers.
These are two prominent issues, but Sanders has staked out left-wing positions on a number of others that threaten his ability to win. On guns, too, Sanders once voted to protect the Second Amendment. In 2015, he sought an incremental approach based on consensus and a longstanding respect for Vermont’s rural culture and attachment to firearms. Now, he proposes banning assault rifles and doesn’t talk about his previous moderate pro-gun positions. While common sense measures like background checks are popular, the implementation of gun bans opens up much room for controversy, especially in rural areas. This is a weakness shared by Joe Biden, who largely evades the other weaknesses Sanders possesses. Moreover, Sanders wants to outright ban fracking, which despite environmental worries, sustains 1.7 million jobs, many in rural parts of swing states. Furthermore, Sanders suggested that the Boston Bomber and other violent criminals be allowed to vote from their cells. 69% of voters disagree with allowing felons to vote, and 89% disagree with allowing terrorists to vote. The list goes on and on…
Why It Matters
Here’s the problem for the “Revolution”. The voters Bernie Sanders needed to win in both the primary and general aren’t woke leftists. Sanders often invokes a supposed upsurge in turnout of non-voters, minorities, and blue-collar types who will be excited about his campaign.
First, non-voters are more socially conservative than Sanders cares to admit. Yascha Mounk, who studies populism and elections, aptly noted: “Nonvoters are also far less progressive than is commonly believed. They are more likely than voters to support constructing a wall on the southern border with Mexico, less likely to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, less likely to support abortion rights, and less likely to favor gun control … on the defining cultural issues of the moment, they are markedly more conservative.” Shifting to the left and emphasizing divisive stances on these issues is unlikely to create success for a movement that requires activating new voters.
Second, a large, reliable element of the Democratic base doesn’t appreciate aggressive left-wing posturing on social issues. African-American and Latino voters are more socially conservative than the White liberals advocating open borders and taxpayer funding for abortion, suggesting that wokeness doesn’t reflect the party’s diversity. Within the party, these voters are more likely than Whites to hold pro-life beliefs. In fact, one of the most prominent elected pro-life Democrats is Katrina Jackson, an African-American female Louisiana State Representative. The only 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate to publicly affirm support for limits on third-trimester abortions (while still undoubtedly pro-choice) is a woman of color, Tulsi Gabbard. Sanders banked on increasing support among these groups in 2020, levying attacks on Joe Biden (non-radical on social issues) on criminal justice and playing up his own record on civil rights, to the joy of online leftists. To his credit, Sanders has organized strongly among Latino voters; but Biden is catching up quickly and defeated Sanders among the demographic in some states like Florida. Crucially, Sanders continues to lose African-American voters badly, perhaps because of his drift leftward. Especially in the general election, this is a liability for Democrats. If we can’t turn out our most reliable voters, how can we win?
Finally, social issue gatekeeping won’t reach the millions who flipped from Obama to Sanders from 2012 to 2016 and cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. The Voter Study Group’s comprehensive survey demonstrated that Donald Trump won significant numbers of economically-left-leaning voters who espouse socially conservative positions. If you actually step outside the pundit class, there are few voters for Democrats to gain by lurching leftward on social issues. Clinton decisively carried liberal voters but only barely beat third parties among the populist voters alienated by wokeness. Most Obama-Trump voters and nearly half of Obama-“other” voters are in this category. These groups are crucial to general election victory and often overlap with others where Democrats have lost ground. For instance, Democrats won 45% of White Catholics in 2000 and 47% in 2008. In 2016? A weak 37% showing doomed Hillary Clinton in communities like Green Bay, Wisconsin and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This demonstrates a clear need for the Democratic Party to at least stymie the bleeding and accept big tent positions on social issues.
The Evidence from 2020
The 2020 primary so far evidences my concerns. In 2016, Sanders won 68% of non-college Whites in New Hampshire, 57% in Michigan, 47% in Florida (where he lost badly overall), 59% in Wisconsin, and 50% in Pennsylvania. He only won this group by 5% in New Hampshire and lost them 49%-39% to Biden in Michigan. The odds don’t appear favorable for later primaries either, where Sanders trails.
Among religious voters, the picture is even grimmer. As of late January, Pew polling showed Joe Biden with a 37%-14% lead over Bernie Sanders with White Catholics, a 37%-12% lead among White Evangelicals, and a crushing 33% lead over Sanders among Black Protestants. In 2016, 40% of voters saw Sanders as somewhat/very religious, while 48% said the same about Clinton. By 2020, 34% saw Sanders in this light while 55% did Biden. Sanders’ base this time around reflects a growing divide; religious voters have largely backed Biden while atheists and agnostics, still the minority of the public, support Sanders. The picture isn’t favorable in the primary results so far.
Currently, Sanders leads Trump in polling averages by 5% and Biden leads by 6.3%. However, the aforementioned statistics should sow worry into the hearts of those seeking to defeat Donald Trump. There is still a conservative case for Bernie Sanders, articulated by Ross Douthat and my numerous pro-life friends who support Sanders. However, that case is likely weaker in the court of the American public. I don’t, as some interestingly proposed, suggest that Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump run as Democrats. My point, instead, is that we need a populist, but not excessively radical Democratic Party. We need a party that challenges bigness in its many forms, as Fred Harris did, without pushing away socially moderate-to-conservative voters. In 2008, pundits noted how Clinton occupied the “beer track” and Obama the “wine track”. Obama’s unifying hopeful rhetoric, moderate stances, and anti-GOP appeal fused these two in the general. Bernie Sanders missed his opportunity to be that candidate in 2020 by lurching leftward on social issues and instead ended up pulling little more than “kombucha-track” voters.