Bernie Can’t Win
But unless other Democrats take a page from his book—stressing the practical over the theoretical, the universal over the particular—they won’t prevail either.
“Left but not woke” is the Bernie Sanders brand. If anybody failed to recognize it before, nobody can miss it now. Last week, the mega-podcaster Joe Rogan endorsed Sanders. The Sanders campaign tweeted a video of the Rogan endorsement from Sanders’s own account. That tweet then triggered an avalanche of disapproval from other voices in the Democratic coalition.
Rogan is not an ally to the cultural causes that have come to predominate on the contemporary left. He even mocks many of those causes, while also dancing around conspiratorial thinking of the left and right fringes: 9/11 denialism, Obama birtherism, and speculation about dark deeds concerning Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
As The Atlantic reported in a memorable appreciation of Rogan back in August, Rogan is a voice for men:
Guys who get barbed-wire tattoos and fill their fridge with Monster energy drinks and preordered their tickets to see Hobbs & Shaw ... Like lots of other white men in America, [Rogan] is grappling with a growing sense that the term white man has become an epithet. And like lots of other men in America, not just the white ones, he’s reckoning out loud with a fear that the word masculinity has become, by definition, toxic.
Former Vice President Joe Biden replied to Sanders’s Rogan tweet with a pointed tweet of his own.
Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time. There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.
That’s a criticism of Rogan, perhaps the most visible skeptic of expressions of transgender identity in public life.
After the transgender mixed-martial-arts fighter Fallon Fox began—literally—smashing opponents’ heads, Rogan said this on his podcast:
Look, [Fox is] huge! She’s not just huge, she’s got a fucking man’s face. I mean, you can wear all the lipstick you want. You want to be a woman and you want to take female hormones, you want to get a boob job, that’s all fine. I support your life to live, your right to live as a woman.
Fight guys, yes. She has to fight guys. First of all, she’s not really a she. She’s a transgender, post-op person. The operation doesn’t shave down your bone density. It doesn’t change. You look at a man’s hands and you look at a woman’s hands and they’re built different. They’re just thicker, they’re stronger, your wrists are thicker, your elbows are thicker, your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.
Many Democrats would find the above opinion, and the people who would uphold or express it, abhorrent.
But Sanders is a Marxist of the old school of dialectical materialism, from the land that time forgot. Class relations are foundational; everything else is epiphenomenal. Sanders may have outgrown the revolutionary socialism of his youth. He seems to think in terms of ameliorating bourgeois hegemony rather than overthrowing it. He is not necessarily hostile to transgender claims. He has co-sponsored the current version of the Equality Act, which includes transgender people in the classes to be provided equal public accommodation and to be protected from job discrimination. But Sanders certainly does seem to think that such concerns are secondary. Compare and contrast the answers that he and Elizabeth Warren gave at the December 19 Democratic debate in Los Angeles.
Yamiche Alcindor of PBS asked:
Senator Sanders, at least 22 transgender people were killed in the United States this year, [most] of them transgender women of color. Each of you has said you would push for the passage of the Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBTQ civil-rights bill. But if elected, what more would you do to stop violence against transgender people?
Sanders’s answer quickly pivoted away from the cultural to the material.
We need moral leadership in the White House. We need a president who will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination against the transgender community, against the African American community, against the Latino community, and against all minorities in this country.
But above and beyond providing the moral leadership of trying to bring our people together, what we also need for the transgender community is to make sure that health care is available to every person in this country, regardless of their sexual orientation or their needs.
And that is why I strongly support and have helped lead the effort for a Medicare for All single-payer program, which will provide comprehensive health care to all people, including, certainly, the transgender community.
The question went next to Warren. She plunged directly into the question of identity.
The transgender community has been marginalized in every way possible. And one thing that the president of the United States can do is lift up attention, lift up their voices, lift up their lives.
Here’s a promise I make. I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year. I will make sure that we read their names so that as a nation we are forced to address the particular vulnerability on homelessness. I will change the rules now that put people in prison based on their birth sex identification rather than their current identification. I will do everything I can to make sure that we are an America that leaves no one behind.
Sanders checked a box of support for the identity issue, then returned to regular programming. For Warren, the identity issue was the regular programming.
Bernie Sanders is a fragile candidate. He has never fought a race in which he had to face serious personal scrutiny. None of his Democratic rivals is subjecting him to such scrutiny in 2020. Hillary Clinton refrained from scrutinizing Sanders in 2016. It did not happen, either, in his many races in Vermont. A Politico profile in 2015 by Michael Kruse argued that Sanders had benefited from “an unwritten compact between Sanders, his supporters, and local reporters who have steered clear” of writing about Sanders’s personal history “rather than risk lectures about the twisted priorities of the press.”
The Trump campaign will not steer clear. It will hit him with everything it’s got. It will depict him as a Communist in the grip of twisted sexual fantasies, a useless career politician who oversaw a culture of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign. Through 2019, Donald Trump and his proxies hailed Sanders as a true voice of the people, thwarted by the evil machinations of the Hillary Clinton machine. They will not pause for a minute before pivoting in 2020 to attack him as a seething stew of toxic masculinity whose vicious online followers martyred the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee.
“Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it,” Hillary Clinton says in a forthcoming documentary. She stood by those words in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last week. At the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this past weekend, Clinton told Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, that Sanders—alone among the Democratic aspirants in 2020—had refused to meet with her. If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, you will hear Clinton’s negative assessment of him repeated so often by pro-Trump talkers that you will almost think Clinton is Trump’s running mate.
Trump will terrorize the suburban moderates with the threat that Sanders will confiscate their health insurance and stock holdings, if not their homes. Trump accused Democrats of pro-ayatollah sympathies for noticing that his story about the killing of Qassem Soleimani was full of holes. In 1980, Sanders joined a left-wing party whose presidential candidate condemned “anti-Iranian hysteria around the U.S. hostages” being held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, suggesting that “many of them are simply spies … or people assigned to protect the spies,” as Ronald Radosh reported in The Daily Beast. Imagine what Trump and his team will do with that.
The members of the team around Sanders are experts in Democratic Party factional infighting. Few have dealt with people who do not play by the rules of the mainstream Democratic Party. They have always been the rule breakers, the people who got inside the other team’s decision cycle. They have been the Minutemen fighting the Redcoats, picking off the other side’s regulars from behind trees and fences. Now they are about to experience what happens when a militia faces off on an open field against a ruthless modern army with cluster bombs and napalm. They will be shredded and torched.
As for Sanders himself, if there is one thing that the political world has learned about him by now, it is this: He does not cope well with criticism. He does not cope well with interruption.
The Sanders campaign is a bet that the 2020 race can be won by mobilizing the Americans least committed to the political process while alienating and even offending the Americans most committed to it. It’s a hell of a gamble, and for what? To elect to the presidency a person with a proven record of accomplishing little for the causes he espouses, despite almost 32 years in the House and Senate?
Yet for all of Sanders’s personal deficiencies, his two campaigns have discovered something important. The left-but-not-woke idea does have power—including with many members of racial minorities. Sanders seldom talks specifically to nonwhite voters. His message to them is the same as his message to everyone: universal health coverage and student-debt relief, more redistribution from rich to poor, reducing the power of money in politics. The latest CNN poll showed Sanders erasing Biden’s lead among nonwhite voters—perhaps in spite of Sanders’s indifference to identity politics, or maybe, just maybe, because of that indifference.
Possibly the CNN poll is an outlier. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found Biden holding steady, with a narrow lead over a surging Sanders, largely due to his 51–15 percent lead among black voters. The CNN poll, which subsumes black voters within the larger category of nonwhite voters, may understate Biden’s support among the voters who are, in many ways, the true base of the Democratic Party.
But the constellation of issues that predominates among highly online and very well-informed anti-Trump voters matters a lot less to millions of other people who could potentially decide the 2020 election. That observation applies to a lot of issues that are authentically important. The integrity of democracy matters. Enforcing the law against power holders matters. Defeating corruption matters. But it’s easier to concentrate on those issues when you have good health insurance and a job that provides a stable middle-class livelihood—including the possibility of a college education for your children. And too many Americans lack those things.
It’s a testament to the power of the Sanders approach to politics that it has elevated as irascible and negligible a person as Bernie Sanders to the top of the Democratic pack. If the Oval Office is to be cleansed of Donald Trump, it will not suffice to defeat Sanders’s candidacy. The ultimate winner will have to plagiarize from his campaign, copying not Sanders’s literal ideas, but his themes: the practical over the theoretical, the universal over the particular.
Trump campaigned in 2016 as a different kind of Republican. He has governed as a cartoon of a bloated monopoly capitalist.
His tax cut delivered little for ordinary people, and almost all of that little has been devoured by his tariffs. Despite the rising economy, fewer Americans are covered by health insurance today than were covered when Trump took office.
He has delivered lavish benefits to rich cronies, while breaking faith on his promise to build new roads, bridges, and airports.
Now Trump seems to be plotting cuts to Medicare and Social Security if reelected.
Those are the points of vulnerability. Listing them is easy. Pressing them is hard—because to press them successfully, candidates must first establish an emotional connection with the voters they hope to sway. Suburban women and African Americans are two of the groups least impressed by Sanders—and the two groups whose greater or lesser enthusiasm will make the difference for a Trump challenger in November. African Americans will show up if inspired; they did in 2008 and 2012. Suburban women almost always show up. Joe Rogan listeners? They are a longer-odds bet.
The same CNN poll that showed Sanders tied with Biden among Democrats showed that Biden still leads Sanders 45–24 on electability. That seems a shrewd intuition. If Biden falters, Democrats have other options available: Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg, who are also exploring the left-but-not-woke terrain blazed by Sanders.
There are many ways to divide the Democratic field: by ideology, by gender, by ethnicity, by age. But perhaps the most important is this: For Buttigieg, for Bloomberg, as for me and very likely for you, reader of The Atlantic, one of the most decisive days of our lives was the day we received the fat envelope of acceptance from a selective educational institution.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden speak to Americans for whom the fat-envelope/thin-envelope decision means little, if it means anything at all. It’s not accident or name recognition that explains why they lead the field. They are both being carried by something big and real. The challenge for the person who will succeed in beating Trump in 2020 is not merely to ride that force, but to guide it.