In the field of political forecasting, almost nothing is a matter of certainty, and almost everything is a matter of probability. If Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders — who currently leads the field in Iowa and New Hampshire, and appears to be consolidating support among the party’s progressive wing, while its moderates remain splintered — his prospects against Donald Trump in November would be far from hopeless. Polarization has given any major party nominee a high enough floor of support that the term “unelectable” has no real place in the discussion. What’s more, every candidate in the race brings a suite of their own liabilities Trump could exploit.
That said, the totality of the evidence suggests Sanders is an extremely, perhaps uniquely, risky nominee. His vulnerabilities are enormous and untested. No party nomination, with the possible exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964, has put forth a presidential nominee with the level of downside risk exposure as a Sanders-led ticket would bring. To nominate Sanders would be insane.
Sanders has gleefully discarded the party’s conventional wisdom that it has to pick and choose where to push public opinion leftward, adopting a comprehensive left-wing agenda, some of which is popular, and some of which is decidedly not. Positions in the latter category include replacing all private health insurance with a government plan, banning fracking, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing the border, giving free health care to undocumented immigrants, and eliminating ICE. (I am only listing Sanders positions that are intensely unpopular. I am not including positions, like national rent control and phasing out all nuclear energy, that I consider ill-advised but which probably won’t harm him much with voters.)
Not every one of these unpopular stances is unique to Sanders. Some have won the endorsement of rival candidates, and many of them have been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Sanders’s closest rival. In fact, Sanders seem to have overtaken Warren in part because she spent most of 2019 closing the ideological gap between the two candidates, which made Democratic Party elites justifiably skeptical about her electability, thereby kneecapping her viability as a trans-factional candidate. Sanders probably wasn’t trying to undermine Warren by luring her into adopting all his policies, but it has worked out quite well for him, and poorly for her.
But Warren at least tries to couch her positions in a framework of reforming and revitalizing capitalism that is intended to reassure ideologically skeptical voters. Sanders combines unpopular program specifics in the unpopular packaging of “socialism.” The socialist label has grown less unpopular, a trend that has attracted so much media attention that many people have gotten the impression “socialism” is actually popular, which is absolutely not the case.
Compounding those vulnerabilities is a long history of radical associations. Sanders campaigned for the Socialist Workers’ Party and praised communist regimes. Obviously, Republicans call every Democratic nominee a “socialist.” But it’s one thing to have the label thrown at you by the opposition, another for it to be embraced willingly, and yet another thing altogether to have a web of creepy associations that make it child’s play for the opposition to paint your program as radical and dangerous. Viewing these attacks in isolation, and asking whether voters will care about Bernie’s views on the Cold War, misses the way they will be used as a stand-in to discredit his entire worldview. Nobody “cared” how Michael Dukakis looked in a tank, and probably not many voters cared about Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks about the 47 percent, but both reinforced larger attack narratives. Vintage video of Bernie palling around with Soviet communists will make for an almost insultingly easy way for Republicans to communicate the idea that his plans to expand government are radical.
Sanders has never faced an electorate where these vulnerabilities could be used against him. Nor, for that matter, has he had to defend some of his bizarre youthful musings (such as his theory that sexual repression causes breast cancer) or the suspicious finances surrounding his wife’s college. Democrats are rightfully concerned about attacks on Hunter Biden’s nepotistic role at Burisma, but Sanders is going to have to defend equally questionable deals, like the $500,000 his wife’s university paid for a woodworking program run by his stepdaughter.
It is interesting to think of some of these more scandalous moments of Bernie Sanders -- both of them are really compelling. The nepotism toward his family and potentially using his politics to get big windfalls for them is very damning and is so easy to spin into an anti-Socialist message. It feeds directly into the idea that the whole system is a fraud because the leadership themselves are not satisfied with just a regular life and a regular income, and they will gladly take advantage of their political connections to enrich themselves.
Moreover, the video of Sanders with the Soviets is a bit off putting... but what I found even more strange were his meetings with Sandinistas and talking about how he could be of value to them, and the same goes with his tepid praise for Castro.
While he can mount a defense of this that is appealing to his own base, there is really no way that this will appeal to moderates -- even to many moderate Democrats. Maybe if there was no Venezuela to point to right in this moment and the only socialist reference point was Sweden, it wouldn't be so bad, but that doesn't describe now.
But the truly compelling part of the article is below:
But Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat created an opportunity for the party’s left to promote an alternative theory for how the party could and should compete. It deemed Donald Trump’s win a sign that capitalism had created such distress that voters were now rejecting conventional politicians altogether and open to radical alternatives who might promise to smash the failing system. Indeed, by this reasoning, Democrats would do better, not worse, by nominating more left-wing candidates, who could distance themselves more credibly from the discredited Establishment.
Yet this theory has had two clear tests, and failed both of them spectacularly. Numerous activists and intellectuals in the Sanders orbit held up Jeremy Corbyn as proof of concept for his viability. Anticipating a Corbyn victory, they argued over and over that Corbyn was showing how socialism would attract and mobilize, not repel, voters. Corbyn is more extreme than Sanders, but Sanders enthusiasts themselves drew a connection between the two, and his massive defeat obviously casts serious doubt on the model he was supposed to vindicate.
A second example, closer to home, is even more relevant. In the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Democratic Party was the subject of bitter and widespread criticism from its left wing. The party’s strategy was to flip the House by recruiting moderate candidates who would avoid controversial left-wing positions and instead focus attention on Trump’s agenda, especially his effort to eliminate Obamacare. The left predicted the strategy would fail — only an inspiring progressive agenda could mobilize enough voters to win back the House.
“Their theory of the case is to recruit old white guys who are longtime Establishment insiders who will run on a boring agenda Democrats would have run on 20 years ago,” complained Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The DCCC is doing it wrong,” insisted Democracy for America’s Neil Sroka. “In district after district, the national party is throwing its weight behind candidates who are out of step with the national mood,” proclaimed a long piece in the left-wing Intercept attacking the party’s House recruitment strategy, “The DCCC’s failure to understand the shifting progressive electorate is costing the party.” Zephyr Teachout was quoted saying, “Their strategy is stupid in the first place and bad for democracy, but then it’s really stupid because they have 26-year-olds sitting around who don’t know anything about the real world deciding which candidates should win.”
Ryan Cooper, a socialist columnist, cited the Intercept piece to ruminate just why the Democrats would advance such an obviously doomed strategy. “Their naked self-interest and bourgeoise ideology is camouflaged behind a technocratic facade of just doing ‘what it takes to win’ — but it’s a facade they generally believe wholeheartedly.” The Democratic plan was obviously doomed to fail, so perhaps their motivation was actually to enrich themselves and advance neoliberalism, while claiming it was a good strategy to win the House.
As we now know, it was a good strategy to win the House. Democrats flipped 40 seats. Tellingly, while progressives managed to nominate several candidates in red districts — Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, and many others — any one of whose victory they would have cited as proof that left-wing candidates can win Trump districts, not a single one of them prevailed in November. Our Revolution went 0–22, Justice Democrats went 0–16, and Brand New Congress went 0–6.* The failed technocratic 26-year-old bourgeoise shills who were doing it wrong somehow accounted for 100 percent of the party’s House gains.
Had Democrats failed to win back the House, their left-wing critics would have claimed vindication. Instead, the entire debate sank below the surface without a trace. Indeed, what happened instead was something peculiar. The leftists chose to focus on a handful of left-wing candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated center-left Democrats in deep-blue districts. The conservative media strategically elevated her in a bid to make AOC and her squad the party’s face. The mutual interest of the two sides made AOC the narrative center of the election. The fact that the party had just run a field experiment between two factions, and the moderate faction prevailed conclusively, was forgotten.
It's amazing to see how this trope of Socialist progress in America is completely destroyed with these observations, especially on the heals of AOC making stupid remarks about how the Democrats really aren't left. Like the pushes for the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism in the 2010s was just moderate thing that happened, and like Obamacare was not also potentially a radical step in a new direction.
Jonathan Chait is also completely right: the debate did just kind of slink off into some corner. None of the candidates have seem to have gotten the memo on this one, either, because every single one of them has attempted to stay relevant by going to the hard left of Biden, as if Biden is bumbling because he isn't flexing hard as a far left socialist and he is totally out of the current meta.
I think it can be argued that, because of online culture and echo chambers, many people feel like the populace is more representative of their own opinions than they think. Everybody is biased to seeing some glimmer of hope that there is a popular thrust in the direction that they want. Moreover, the sort of people who give their opinions on the internet tend to not be too representative of Joe Sixpack or Tanner Marijuana-Occasional-Partaker. Many people do not sit with their eyes glued to the political poop chute and are not really big into nuanced arguments for Socialism -- for that matter, they are not big into nuanced arguments for any third position of any kind.
At the end of the day, the candidate has to appeal to a broad swathe of Americans while motivating their base. Sanders can motivate his base, but his weird meanderings into the far left will completely doom him just as how any praise for race realists or rubbing-of-shoulders with, say, an apartheidist or the BNP would destroy Trump.
August 8th, 2019