Is Bernie Going to Bring the Dems Down With Him?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As Hillary Clinton passes the threshold of delegates needed to secure the nomination, and she and Bernie Sanders vie over the big prize today in California—which our Politics team is covering minute to minute—here’s a sharp analysis from a reader, Monica Bauer, Ph.D., that could end up being a capstone to our long-running thread on the Democratic face-off:

I’m a retired political science professor. I’ve also been a candidate who’s lost an election, and I understand there’s a natural tendency to fall into what I call “campaign psychosis,” where you only see what you want to see. Everybody understands the human desire to hold onto hope.

But here is what I’ve seen that is unique to this primary: The Sanders campaign would have been dead long ago under the old rules of presidential politics, if the only source of campaign cash were coming from rational actors (the dreaded “donor class”) who stop giving money once all signs point to failure. Bernie would have been gone in March.

If the Sanders campaign existed before social media, it would have had to spend money to communicate to supporters and would not have been able to count on the free services of millions of activists on Twitter and Facebook that are easily able to gather at a moment's notice. Gone by March.

It is the ease with which campaign cash can be generated and followers exhorted that has come only with a robust social media environment that has artificially kept a fringe candidate not only alive, but able to thrive by winning low turnout caucuses where a small number of fanatical followers can easily be translated into victory.

A second set of phenomena has been unique to the Clinton/Sanders race. 

One candidate, Hillary Clinton, has had to pull almost all her punches. Bernie Sanders has skillfully used a kind of political blackmail: “Go negative on me,” says Bernie, “and I will take my supporters further away from the Democratic party, and they could ruin your chances in November.” 

Bernie is not constrained by the typical forces that keep a wounded and angry former candidate from lashing out. Bernie doesn’t need a future in the Democratic Party, and he doesn’t give a shit about the Democratic Party. So there’s nothing to constrain him from acting, post-defeat, in ways destructive to the future of the party.

I can’t recall another presidential primary where the front-runner has basically caved to political blackmail, resulting in the hands-off treatment that Clinton has given Sanders. I think this is due to bad advice given to Clinton, which set up a vicious cycle: The Clinton campaign takes a pass on negative attacks, so naturally Sanders does not get much tough scrutiny by the press, and when this results in Sanders having temporarily higher positives and lower negatives in the polls, Sanders uses this to claim he, the self-described life-long Socialist without a single great legislative achievement to show for a life-long career in elected office, is more likely to win a general election!

If I were running an informational campaign on Sanders, no holds barred, I’m pretty sure I could get his negatives up higher than Trump’s with everyone who doesn’t wake up every morning pining for the legalization of weed. And I wouldn’t need dirty tricks or even distortion to do it, just a close look at the Sanders’s actual record, and what his idea of socialism would mean for raising taxes.

Any Bernie supporters want to present a final case for his continued fight in this contest? Drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader with a strong rebuttal, Robert Henry Eller:

Dr. Bauer facilely identifies “campaign psychosis” on the basis of one failed election, at what level we are not informed. Since this psychosis is so easy to fall into, Dr. Brauer fails to explain why Clinton and her staff have not similarly fallen in this same psychosis.

Dr. Bauer accuses Sanders of the crime of being funded by small donors. As she identifies the donor class as rational (I assume self serving) actors, she infers that small donors must be non-rational.

Dr. Bauer’s sour grapes perspective on low-turnout caucuses (empowered by the Democratic Party, of course) and their “fanatical” attendees, fails to address the obvious question: If the turnout required to win is so low, what wasn’t the formidable Clinton campaign unable to overcome such low numbers of “fanatics?” Is this not an example of the “If I lose, the results don’t count” attitude of ignoring reality that Clinton, her supporters, and Dr. Brauer accuse Sanders and his supporters of?

Dr. Bauer asserts Clinton “has had to pull almost all of her punches.” Really. Not a few people noted her, and her surrogates, doing quite the opposite. Dr. Brauer has not at least been following the campaign in The New York Times? Meanwhile, Sanders asserted in their first debate that he was tired of hearing about Clinton’s emails. Who indeed pulled punches?

When, where, and how did Sanders threaten to take his supporters further away from the party, as Dr. Brauer asserts in quotes? Sanders has always asserted his primary interest since the ascension of Trump was to defeat Trump. Sanders has always said that Clinton was a far better choice than any Republican candidate.

On the other hand, Sanders has, correctly, pointed out that he cannot simply tell his supporters who to vote for. Sanders knows that he had to ask for, to earn, his supporters votes. But somehow, Clinton is absolved from asking for and earning the votes of Sanders supporters. (Has Dr. Brauer forgotten the PUMAs of the 2008 cycle?) And if Clinton can’t gain the support of Sanders supporters, it will only be because Sanders tells his supporters not to support Clinton?

This leads to perhaps the most glaring omission of Dr. Brauer’s “analysis:” That there might be any difference between Clinton’s and Sanders’ platforms and philosophies. Is there not a big difference between incrementalism and a wholesale change of direction? Is not asking perhaps generations to wait or to acquiesce in their own well-being, or to ask voters if they might want something now for themselves? Whatever side, if any, you’re on in this actual debate—which Clinton has avoided as much as possible—these are not even close to the same platform.

The front-runner has “caved to political blackmail?” What is blackmail? The temerity of so many voters to support and voluntarily vote for Sanders? What a betrayal toward True Believers in Clinton! How annoying democracy is! Perhaps Clinton and the Democratic establishment is simply guilty of not taking much of their supposed constituency seriously?

The title “Is Bernie Going to Bring the Dems Down With Him?” is already presumptuous, arrogant and whiny. Sanders has never shown any interest in bringing the Democratic Party down. [CB: Those are two different things; Sanders undoubtedly doesn’t want Trump to win.] All he has been trying to do, consistently, for over half a century, is to bring the country up.

If there has been damage done to the Democratic Party, it has been self inflicted. What has Sanders done that has lost the Democrats hundreds of seats in the Congress, state legislatures, governors mansions, over the at least eight years? Clinton supporters pointing fingers at Sanders are even more pathetic than Trump supporters blaming Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, women, African-Americans, for their woes.

Why, finally, does Dr. Bauer assert she could get Sanders’ negatives up higher than Trump’s? I guess she hasn’t noticed that Sanders has never hidden his democratic socialism, nor his higher taxes (but not necessarily overall public plus private costs), which have already been vilified by Krugman and other Clinton surrogates. Yet Sanders is still the only candidate with net positive approval. Isn’t it amazing that a candidate “without a single great legislative achievement to show for a life-long career in elected office” (Clinton’s achievements, anyone?) has garnered such support? Maybe commitment, integrity, authenticity, platform, ideas, actually matter to voters.

Another reader, Dave M., adds to the counterargument:

I found it a little amusing when Monica Bauer accused Sanders of being an underdog candidate doing what underdog candidates have done forever, and how frontrunners have to treat them if they want a shot at that underdog’s supporters later (“One candidate, Hillary Clinton, has had to pull almost all her punches. Bernie Sanders has skillfully used a kind of political blackmail”). That’s just politics. I thought Sanders was way too easy on her, to be honest, and a sign that in the end, he would indeed be standing with the Democrats.

Also just politics: At this point, the winner by definition now ought to be gracious. Hillary could now tack right and go with the usual Democratic Party stance of “we know you may not like it but where else are you going to go?” Given the relative closeness of this primary as far as change vs. establishment candidates within the party go, it would be foolish for the Democratic Party not to flip the usual script and welcome these energized and engaged voters with open arms, throwing them a few (meaningful) bones, rather than alienating them further by pointing fingers.

Sanders’ contribution has been immense, and has opened a lot of eyes and minds in a way no major candidate has in a very long time. It would be short-sighted to think this progressive streak is going to fold up and disappear for good. It might need a while to regroup, but it will return, with more lessons learned and improved strategies going forward.

An aside, if Dr. Bauer can entertain hypotheticals like “If there were no social media...” then I also can’t help but wonder: If it were a bland, B-list moderate Democrat like John “Reporting for Duty” Kerry running against Sanders this time instead of a major political celebrity like Hillary Clinton, would we “irrational” small donors really have been so irrational? I think the Democratic Party leadership got lucky and dodged the proverbial bullet ... this time.