Why the Sanders ‘revolution’ failed

He wasn’t too populist. He wasn’t populist enough.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics USA

Bowing to the inevitable, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race yesterday, clearing the way for Joe Biden to become the Democratic Party nominee.

Sanders fared better than many had expected a self-proclaimed ‘democratic socialist’ could in the US. It was just a few weeks ago that he was considered the frontrunner after winning early primaries. He attracted passionate fans who filled his rallies, including young people drawn to this 78-year-old. He accumulated the largest financial support, based on individual donations. Sanders has been a major influence on the party’s policies, too. His fellow Democrat nominees adopted his ideas for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and ‘free college’, either outright or a variation on them.

But that was not enough, and his campaign quickly crashed. Biden won by a landslide in the South Carolina primary, and then swept most states on Super Tuesday in early March. There is some evidence that the sharp swing towards Biden was really a ‘Stop Bernie’ movement, as Democrats were scared by the prospect of Sanders as their nominee.

There were clear limits to Sanders’ electoral appeal, which emerged even in the states where he won. He promised a ‘political revolution’ based on a massive increase in voter turnout. But even younger people didn’t come out to vote for him in big numbers. He claimed to represent workers yet couldn’t win their votes, especially among white workers in the south and Midwest, and black workers nationally. At the same time, he was not attractive to the moderate suburban voters who have shifted towards the Democrats in recent years. For all of Bernie and his supporters’ complaints about the Democratic establishment undermining him, it was the rank-and-file voters – not the party bureaucrats – who rejected Sanders as the nominee.

Since his emergence on the national stage in 2016, Sanders has often been labelled as a ‘populist’. But by 2020 it became clear that his politics were not in sync with the masses, and more in tune with the upper middle-class. Sanders constantly rails against Wall Street and ‘the billionaires’ (he had to stop referring to ‘millionaires’ when it became known that he was one himself), and perhaps some think that’s evidence of a populist message. But most ordinary people are not obsessed with the wealthy and don’t bang on about evil bankers; that’s a view more likely to be found among the small enclaves of envious professionals who don’t think it’s fair that some people earn more money than they do and are pricing them out of certain neighborhoods.

Similarly, one of Sanders’ most prominent policies was ‘free college’, meaning free tuition at state universities. But ‘free college’ is not a top priority for working-class families, given that most do not send their kids to college, and that message did not resonate with them. Instead, Bernie’s policy would be more of a benefit for the upper middle-class, who predominate among the one-third of the college-aged who receive a degree. A truly pro-worker policy would focus on supporting an array of career alternatives, including funding for non-college job training, skilled trades and apprenticeships.

In 2016, it appeared that Sanders was making a pitch for workers of the industrial heartland and rural areas, many of whom ultimately swung to vote for Trump. For example, he argued for trade protectionism for manufacturing, saying it would protect workers from unfair, low-wage competition (a position shared by Trump). Yet, by 2020, appeals to workers in economically damaged regions of the country were missing from Sanders’ headlines. Instead, he called for a Green New Deal and a national ban on fracking, which was a direct threat to eliminate millions of jobs in these hard-hit areas.

Over time, Sanders increasingly took onboard the identity politics and cultural views of the woke left, further distancing himself from the working class. In 2016, he was criticised by sections of the left for excessive focus on economic issues, for neglecting race and gender issues, and for excusing a misogynist culture around his ‘Bernie bro’ supporters. By 2020, however, Sanders changed his tune, and seemed at times to be actively presenting himself as the candidate of hipster Brooklyn and Oakland.

From his stress on climate change to his call to ‘abolish ICE’ (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), from his embrace of gun controls to his promotion of minority groups like Native Americans — this all contributed to the perception that Bernie had changed and was now beholden to the woke. His campaign tiptoed around racial identity politics. According to his communications director, Sanders ‘didn’t want to speak on behalf of people of colour’, because he ‘does not have those experiences’. To top this off, Bernie’s selection of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as high-profile stand-ins seemed to reinforce the impression that he was more aligned with woke activists than working people.

Sanders did have an opportunity to win over working-class Trump voters, but you can understand why he didn’t. His opposition could have focused on Trump’s unfulfilled promises to working people across the country, from jobs in the Rust Belt to urban revitalisation. Instead, he joined the establishment Democrats in promoting Russia-gate hysteria. He introduced his own bill condemning Russia and Trump, claiming (falsely) that Putin had stolen the election from Hillary Clinton. Sanders then led the calls to impeach Trump. Impeachment was the biggest test to US democracy in many years – threatening to overturn the people’s vote on flimsy grounds – and Sanders failed it.

Indeed, a positive emerging from the new populism, in the US and globally, is a demand from working people for more of a democratic voice. Yet Sanders’ brand of ‘democratic socialism’ never really connected with that emerging desire. His vision is mostly a conventional welfare-state one, which traditionally has been an elite strategy of buying support at times of social distress. While the US safety net could definitely use some repair, Sanders’ message is not one that engages with the desire for greater agency.

Today, most working people are more concerned with being part of a dynamic economy, having good jobs and supporting their families, than they are about relying on the state handouts that Sanders or others may promise. They want to have a voice in determining their lives – at their workplace, in their towns, at the ballot box. They do not want a politician like Sanders deciding to eliminate an industry that employs them, without even asking them. And they want to be free to express and debate different cultural beliefs, without the likes of Sanders’ woke allies telling them to watch their words.

Some will say that Sanders lost because he was too populist. The truth is, he wasn’t populist enough.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty.

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Katrina Mid

10th April 2020 at 5:53 pm

Some Enjoyable Moments….Read More

James Hunt

9th April 2020 at 10:06 pm

This article should’ve delved into his support among middle class youths rather and his total rejection by middle class over 35s. The American middle class is not like our middle class and conceives of itself as more oppressed. They are not as pro-state and micromanaging there and you can see it in the American middle class’s more chillaxed response to the corona virus, which has only really caused politicos to piss themselves there. That doesn’t mean the American chattering class doesn’t behave like the British chattering class in its relationship to Trump voters, but it does not have the patrician mode available to it like Brits.

James Hunt

9th April 2020 at 9:59 pm

Even if Sanders was as populist as possible, he still wouldn’t have won because wealth redistribution is unpopular in America. There is nothing populist about the Democratic party, which is a coalition of middle aged and older Black and Latino social conservatives, middle aged and older white moderates, bourgeois liberal Obama-ites, and woke chattering class progressives. It is nothing but an anti-right wing coalition and its base of non-Whites and White suburbanite moderates is fundamentally opposed to all forms of populism. Bernie’s radical foreign policy ideas and his supporters’ obvious cynical disdain for the American dream as well as their unbearable self righteous triumphalism cost him the election. People were repelled by the nastiness of the supporters and feared a hypothetical Bernie presidency because of it. Most Americans still believe in the promises their country has made and feel threatened by those who think that American virtues and prosperity are a sham. I think his defeat was good news.

David George

10th April 2020 at 2:02 am

“I think his defeat was good news”
Yes, agree with that although Trump would have easily thrashed him in the election, so a bit more of a challenge for him now.

James Hunt

12th April 2020 at 12:19 am

Americans are freaking out and call Biden “senile” and mentally incapable just because Biden sometimes has gaffes. They don’t feel that way at all. A lot of conservatives have completely abandoned the pathetic fake principles they adopted during Metoo and constantly call him a rapist for being awkward and uncritically believe all sex assault allegations against him. Whatever the twitterati say on both sides, the blue collar whites like him so he will be harder than Sanders and threaten Trump.

Mark Beal

9th April 2020 at 5:45 pm

If Corbyn actually understood what happened in December he could have got on the phone to Sanders and told him that most people are fed up with all the woke nonsense, and that they’re savvy enough to understand that a load of free stuff always comes at a cost.

James Hunt

9th April 2020 at 9:46 pm

Sanders is a life long woke 60s marxist who was pro-trans all the way back in the 80s and would never tolerate right wing blank slatism in his movement. same goes for corbyn really. they genuinely believe this stuff

David George

9th April 2020 at 5:45 pm

“he called for a Green New Deal”
It’s not difficult to see why that alone would have led to his demise.
Shut down the oil and gas industry, mining, modern agriculture, half the electricity generating capacity, long haul trucking and the airline industry and open the borders and free everything to the 7 billion “undocumented Americans” around the world. Genius!

James Hunt

9th April 2020 at 9:47 pm

Why are you pretending that right wingers are the ones who vetoed him? Idiotic response. It was democrats who voted against him, and they did so for far more complex reasons than the ones you give.

David George

10th April 2020 at 1:57 am

I’m not pretending anything of the sort James.
I thought it was clear enough, I’ll try and clarify for you:
The policies he was promoting (GND, immigration etc.) were against the interests and aspirations of the Democrat voters, they dumped him. I also said that was sufficient but not the only cause.
Obviously for the “right wingers” and the broader electorate he was unwelcome and un-electable.
Is there any need to be so offensive, you only had to ask and I could have explained it for you. Have a nap.

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9th April 2020 at 3:54 pm

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Hugh Bryant

9th April 2020 at 2:03 pm

‘Socialism’ nowadays is just a middle class affectation. There’s a lot of talk – but suggest they might help the housing crisis by giving up the second home or contribute some of that unearned property wealth to the cost of their own social care, and you pretty quickly find out just how altruistic these people genuinely are.

Jonnie Henly

9th April 2020 at 12:03 pm

“But by 2020 it became clear that his politics were not in sync with the masses, and more in tune with the upper middle-class.”

Well that’s obvious nonsense, or else Sanders would’ve done much better with upper middle class voters in the primaries.

“But most ordinary people are not obsessed with the wealthy and don’t bang on about evil bankers; that’s a view more likely to be found among the small enclaves of envious professionals”

Yeah that’s also nonsense. Go ask the ordinary person what they think of bankers.
The responses won’t be kind.

Neil McCaughan

9th April 2020 at 1:39 pm

All hail the Cluck, who knows everything. Hail Cluckie.

Jonnie Henly

9th April 2020 at 3:13 pm

Neil still saying nothing.

You are aware what Trump has been saying about this, right Neil?

Oh I forgot, you only care about what the Guardian and Independent say.

Melissa Jackson

9th April 2020 at 7:00 pm

So who exactly was Bernie’s constituency then? If it’s not the working class, who are largely Trump supporters, and it’s not the middle class, who is it? Surely not just the 1% of trendy millionaires? Shouldn’t a presidential candidate know who he is trying to attract?

As for the average perception of bankers – Yes, most working people don’t think a lot of them. But that is a long shot from obsessing about bankers. Most people don’t think much of vandals and graffiti artists either, but they can’t be won over just by that. They might get some schardenfreude from seeing bankers taken down a peg or two, but that doesn’t actually impact their lives and they know it.

Jonnie Henly

9th April 2020 at 7:38 pm

“If it’s not the working class, who are largely Trump supporters”

The working classes are not largely Trump supporters. At the 2016 election those on lower incomes overwhelmingly voted against Trump.

Bernie’s constituency is not one that has much hold in the Democratic party. The Democratic party likes upper middle class liberals. That’s their core vote.

Remember, the primaries are about winning over the party, not the country.

Bernie would probably fare better as an independent candidate than as a Democrat, though of course given the dominance of two party politics he’d still be miles away from winning.

James Hunt

9th April 2020 at 9:51 pm

Bernie’s base was young people of all races and classes, but mostly young middle class whites. They were attracted to him by millenial self pity and narcissism which caused them to be attached to his nice guy persona and his utopian promises of free university tuition in public universities and healthcare hysteria. Middle aged white upper middle class people backed Buttigieg, Biden, Klobuchar, and Warren. The intersectional Guardian reader vote that Sean Collins is talking about in this article actually went to Warren.

Jonnie Henly

10th April 2020 at 12:53 am

It’s laughably stupid to claim narccisim and self loathing are behind people’s support for universal healthcare. Drop the snobbery and listen to why people want them.
Is the UK made up of a majority narcissists of all ages and classes then? I think not.

It’s also been repeatedly clear that it was Bernie’s policies that attracted young people to him, not his “persona”.
And it had nothing to do with any of the sneering reasons you claim.

James Hunt

12th April 2020 at 12:23 am

Bernie’s base is made up of a majority of Generation Z and Millenial narcissists who think they speak for their entire generation. They are hysterical and uninformed people who do not know what “Socialism” or “capitalism” is. Their obsession with universal basic income is ignorant of the turmoil that that would bring to the US economy and really based on hysteria about worst case scenarios and the self pity surrounding that.

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