How Democrats Can Solve Their Bernie Sanders Problem

The first step? Recognizing that it’s not one issue, but three.

Bernie Sanders
Mike Segar / Reuters

On Super Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders delivered an angry denunciation of his rival Joe Biden to supporters in Colorado.

So we’re going to beat Trump because this will become a contrast in ideas. One of us in this race led the opposition to the war in Iraq; you’re looking at him. Another candidate voted for the war in Iraq. One of us has spent his entire life fighting against cuts in Social Security and wanting to expand Social Security. Another candidate has been on the floor of the Senate calling for cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans.

One of us led the opposition to disastrous trade agreements, which cost us millions of good-paying jobs. And that’s me. And another candidate voted for disastrous trade agreements. One of us stood up for consumers and said, “We will not support a disastrous bankruptcy bill.” And another candidate represented the credit-card companies and voted for that disastrous bill.

The speech departed from Sanders’s 2020 preference for speaking positively about his own message, and reverted to Sanders’s 2016 practice of bitter attacks on his main opponent. John Cassidy reported one of those speeches in April 2016, for The New Yorker:

When he brought up Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street companies, loud boos echoed across the park. He also took Clinton to task for supporting free-trade agreements, which he said had cost America many well-paying jobs; for consorting with Henry Kissinger; and for having a super PAC that has raised tens of millions of dollars from special interests. But he saved his harshest vitriol for Verizon, Big Pharma, the Koch Brothers, the Walton family (the founders of Walmart), and, of course, Wall Street. “This campaign is sending a message to corporate America: you cannot have it all!” he said.

Sanders did dress up some of his applause lines for his audience. For months, he has been saying that Clinton’s speeches for Goldman Sachs must have been corkers to have merited fees of more than two hundred thousand dollars each. Now he added, “It must be a speech that could solve most of the world’s problems. It must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose.”

This time, as a would-be front-runner (and in the two weeks from the New Hampshire primary to South Carolina, the actual front-runner), Sanders modulated his tone about the party he aspired to lead. Cast back into second-place status, Sanders has returned to his old rhetoric of accusation.

Sanders did soften his tone somewhat the day after. “I like Joe,” the senator said on Wednesday. “I think he’s a very decent human being.” But with that caveat, Sanders resumed the personal attack:

Joe and I have a very different voting record. Joe and I have a very different vision for the future of this country. Joe and I are running very different campaigns … Joe is running a campaign which is obviously heavily supported by the corporate establishment … What does it mean when you have a campaign which is funded very significantly by the wealthy and the powerful? Does anyone seriously believe that a president backed by the corporate world is going to bring about the changes that the working class and middle-income people desperately need?

The immediate function of these words is to energize Sanders’s faltering primary campaign. As Sanders has often stressed, his campaign regards both President Donald Trump and the existing Democratic Party as adversaries. Trump may be just slightly worse from the perspective of Sanders and his allies, but their hostility to the Democratic Party is more intimate and immediate. “It’s Armageddon time for the Democratic Party,” Sanders supporter Ralph Nader said in an interview with The Intercept in mid-February. Nader envisioned a huge surge of left-wing pro-Sanders votes that would not only defeat President Trump, but that “will sweep out the corporate Democrats in the Democratic National Committee, and it will reorient the Democratic Party to where it should be, which is a party of, by, and for the people. That’s why they want to fight him.”

The promise of millions of first-time left-wing voters looks to be even more of a fantasy than ever after Super Tuesday’s results. But the delusiveness of the plan does not detract at all from the commitment to the goal: a transformation of the rambling Democratic coalition into a disciplined ideological party like the post–Tea Party GOP, only this time built upon a much smaller and more geographically concentrated base of urban progressives.

As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has noted, Sanders did best in downtowns and in counties that Clinton won by more than 10 points in 2016: Think Austin, West Los Angeles, or the San Francisco Bay Area. In those areas, Republicans are extinct. Politics is a factional contest within the Democratic Party. There, it’s easily possible to imagine that if the activists could only somehow upend a Governor Andrew Cuomo or a Mayor Eric Garcetti and replace him with one of their own, then they could gain and wield real power.

In national politics, however, the progressive project is a two-step program. At the national level, the first step (beat the Democratic moderates) leads almost ineluctably to a painful second step (lose to conservative Republicans). The centrists recognize this truth even if the progressives do not, and so they resist the attempted progressive takeover fiercely. Since they have more numbers within the party, they tend to win. The progressives react with the seething anger you encounter on progressive Twitter, and by threatening to sit out the election or back a spoiler third party, as so many did in 2016—and, as the name Ralph Nader reminds us, back in 2000 as well.

As Biden advances to the nomination, he advances also toward an exquisite problem: How to reconcile the irreconcilable? In 2016, Hillary Clinton failed to reach such an accommodation. Bernie Sanders was not seeking consolation prizes: a policy concession, an appointment for himself or for his people. Sanders does not bargain for what he wants, because no bargain can give him what he wants. A sympathetic article in The Daily Beast explained why Sanders has such a negligible record of accomplishment in his three decades in Congress. He did not aspire to “accomplish things” in the usual congressional way of accomplishing things. His vision of change rejected deal making by insiders. It rested instead on a dream of inspiring a mass movement that could change government from the outside.

The revolutionary mass movement itself is the thing that Sanders wants. Just as the prophet Habakkuk instructed the people of Israel to await the Messiah even if he should tarry, so Sanders has patiently awaited his revolution. The revolution may come. It may not come. But no conventional politician can make it come. And since they cannot, there is nothing for Sanders to talk about with such politicians.

So if a Biden cannot negotiate with Sanders, how does a Biden prevent Sanders and the Sanders movement from playing a spoiler role?

Maybe begin by segmenting the Sanders problem into three constituent pieces: the candidate; his staff, surrogates, and core supporters; and less committed Sanders voters.

The candidate

Sanders was slow to make peace with Hillary Clinton after his defeat in 2016. But once he did make peace, he worked hard for her election. In the final two months of the 2016 campaign, Sanders made 39 appearances in 13 states on Clinton’s behalf. Loner that he is, he does have a sense of public responsibility. At the Philadelphia convention, the unruly behavior of some of his supporters shamed him into a mass text to his delegates: “Our credibility as a movement will be damaged by booing, turning of backs, walking out or other similar displays.” The values that led him back into the fight against Trump in the fall of 2016 must still work within him in 2020—maybe even more so, since his animus against Biden to date seems less fierce than his animus against Clinton four years ago.

The staff, surrogates, and core supporters

On March 3, the former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson—now an officially accepted Sanders surrogate—tweeted an arraignment of the results of the Super Tuesday vote as a “coup.” She deleted the tweet some hours later, but the next day seemed to have second thoughts. “God forbid we have radical truth telling,” she said on the Joe Madison radio program Wednesday.

Sanders’s speechwriter and principal digital surrogate posted on March 3: “Joe Biden is a full-employment program for the Beltway Democratic establishment. He makes sure that for them, nothing would fundamentally change. That's a huge part of why they support him.”

Sanders has attracted a radical entourage, many of whom define themselves in opposition to their own Democratic Party fully as much as to President Trump and his Republicans. From their point of view, a Biden victory in 2020 could be a very dangerous development, one that might prove the hated establishment right about electability, and prove them wrong. Unlike Sanders himself, they may not feel the responsibility that comes with visibility. If Sanders loses the nomination, they may prefer to see Trump win the election. There may not be very much anybody can do about that, either.

Sanders’s core supporters behave even more recklessly. They make Facebook videos bragging about intimidating Biden supporters into leaving their neighborhoods. They form the online-troll army that insults and harasses supporters of other campaigns. Their behavior has been so bad that at least a few Democrats have taken to calling themselves “Never Bernie,” less because of the candidate than in reaction to cyberbullying by Sanders’s angry supporters. Sanders himself reprimanded the “viciousness and ugliness” exhibited by some of his supporters, suggesting that the worst of them may be Russian false accounts. That sounds like an excuse, but it likely also contains much truth.

Here again, though, there may not be much anybody can do. Unlike Trump, Sanders has never given explicit permission for bad behavior. Sanders’s moral certitude may blind him to wrongdoing on his side, but he has never urged his people to take anyone out on a stretcher, the way Trump did at a 2016 campaign rally.

Instead, it seems there is something about the Sanders campaign that attracts angry people. They were angry before, and they will be angry after. Anonymity disinhibits them. The mob-forming possibilities of Twitter empower them. The utopian Sanders message justifies them. Sanders does not offer the usual Democratic formula: incremental steps toward a somewhat better world, limited, of course, by fiscal realities. He promises the whole enchilada. Like Homer Simpson’s voters, they demand and reward “crazy promises,” because they value the thrill of that promise more than any workaday result.

Less committed Sanders voters

If Sanders personally can be called to conscience, and if Sanders’s inner circle is largely beyond reach, then what of Sanders’s voters? The online noise invites commentators to imagine all Sanders supporters as terrifyingly committed fanatics. But that’s plainly not true. Sanders appeals most strongly to those least engaged in politics. A 2019 Morning Consult survey of Democratic primary voters found that among those who describe themselves as “not at all interested in politics,” Sanders led with 31 percent support. (Among those who describe themselves as “very interested in politics,” Biden led with 28 percent.)

Sanders’s appeal to the politically disengaged was always the weakness of his campaign. The politically disengaged are politically disengaged. They cannot be relied upon to cast a ballot, especially if that ballot awaits them only at the end of a long queue. And indeed, the claims of Sanders and his supporters that they would draw a huge turnout of young and first-time voters have been falsified at every turn of the primary contest. It is Biden who is drawing “first time” supporters. I put “first time” in quote marks because it’s important to understand that the exit-poll question asks not “Is this your first time voting in any contest?” but “Is this your first time voting in a Democratic primary?” When you hear “first-time voter,” you are invited to imagine a 20-something person altogether new to politics. But the poll question also captures the older person who, to date, has voted only in Republican primaries or only in general elections. In fact, that’s probably the best way to make sense of Biden’s sweep of first-time voters in Virginia, where he beat Sanders in the first-time category by 10 points.

The 2020 electorate looks likely to resemble the 2018 electorate, powered by the same coalition that won the House of Representatives for Democrats: African Americans, suburban moderates, and college-educated voters—especially women. But Sanders did identify and motivate one key constituency that has eluded Democrats since Obama’s last campaign in 2012: younger Latino voters, especially men. It’s doubtful those young Latino men are the online hecklers. Much more probable, they belong to the category of the politically disengaged—and Sanders somehow engaged them. How did he do it? That’s worth close study. But one stance that might have particularly appealed to these and other young voters was his position on college debt.

The University of North Carolina has historically been one of the nation’s most affordable four-year state universities. In 1982, the year I graduated from college, tuition at UNC cost $436 for in-state students, $2,260 for out of state, plus $256 in compulsory student fees. From 1982 to 2017, those costs would rise by 1,600 percent: $6,882 for in-state tuition; $31,963 for out-of-state students; plus almost $2,000 of compulsory fees.

A college degree is even more indispensable to entry into the middle class now than it was 30 years ago—and it has been priced ever further out of the reach of those seeking that entry. For young Latinos, many of them the first in their families to attend college, this barrier looms, especially daunting and upsetting. Universal debt forgiveness, regardless of need, seems the wrong answer. But Biden’s current college program is wholly inadequate. It offers some lower-cost loans and grants to people who may start college in the future. It does not address the cost of four-year college or the debt burdens of recent graduates. Biden can’t steal Sanders’s idea here; there isn’t an idea to steal. But he can steal his insight into the most urgent source of frustration for many young people: the debt peonage into which they are forced.

Here’s the core of the college-education problem: Over the past generation, states have diverted funding away from transportation and higher education to prisons and Medicaid. (The complex trend was explored by Inside Higher Ed in 2015 in a series of charts.) That redirection of state funds has shifted costs from taxpayers to students. In response, the federal government and the private sector have encouraged students to borrow to pay their tuition costs. Student debt has replaced state spending. State spending has shrunk in large part because health-care costs have surged. More and cheaper debt will not remedy the problem, which will continue to get worse as health-care costs rise. Only health-care cost discipline can save the promise of higher education. (I have a lot more to say about all this in a forthcoming book, but that’s the gist.)

So here is another true Sanders insight. The linkage between price inflation in health care and price inflation at colleges is strong. The latter is another symptom of the former. “Medicare for All” is a slogan, not an idea. But if Sanders did not and could not offer an answer, he intuited a grievance. A more responsible politician can hold many of Sanders’s voters by seizing Sanders’s best intuitions, divorcing them from his socialist mumbo jumbo, and offering workable ideas more ambitious than those heard from the Biden campaign to date.

As with Trump and immigration, so with Sanders on college: Demagogues don’t become demagogues by talking about things people don’t care about. They talk about things people do care about—things that more responsible politicians have failed to address. Democrats on Super Tuesday successfully did what Republicans failed to do in 2016: check the rise of their extremist candidate. But they will not have won until they hear and heed the warning in his message, and deprive him of his power by responding more responsibly to the grievances he prophetically identified.