‘Few would deny that over the course of the past five years, our movement has won the ideological struggle.” That’s how Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign, and that’s the line his supporters are taking in reaction to the news. Sure, Sanders has lost the nomination to a candidate with obvious and much-discussed debilities for the second time in four years, the argument goes, but his achievement will endure: He made democratic socialism (or at least social democracy) palatable in the United States. He shifted the Overton Window to the left, earned the loyal support of tens of millions of young Americans who will remain politically engaged, and helped Jacobin gain thousands of subscriptions. “Years and decades from now, we will look back on Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns as massively transformational in American politics,” says Micah Uetricht, that magazine’s managing editor.
Will we, though? That may have been a reasonable thing to say after 2016, when Sanders notched a series of stunning wins in midwestern states while making real inroads among young voters of all races, but it doesn’t fit the evidence we have now, four years later. The rationale for Sanders’s 2020 campaign — that he could secure massive turnout among young people and the pan-ethnic working class by pitching a quasi-revolutionary message, while also mounting a challenge to Donald Trump’s claim to low-education white voters — has proven to be delusional. And while he may have gotten his rivals to embrace versions of some of his signature proposals, the Democratic Party is undergoing a long-term shift that does not bode well for his brand of politics.
Both times Sanders ran for president, he lost black voters in Southern states by huge margins. Sanders did improve among Latinos from 2016 to 2020, allowing him to win California and put up a stronger fight in Texas this time around. But he couldn’t repeat his performance among the non-college-educated whites who’d clearly favored him over Hillary Clinton, especially in the Midwest. Reporters have noted that the Sanders campaign’s theory of the electorate was misguided: He avoided retail politics in the hope that his message would eventually carry the day — that the masses would be spontaneously drawn into the movement, in Lenin’s formulation. As Joe Simonson observes in the Washington Examiner, the Vermont senator’s predictions of massive turnout were proven wrong repeatedly, suggesting he’d built his battle plan on materialist theory rather than political reality.
In fact, the triumph of theory over reality may have doomed Sanders’s second run for the White House. The American working class has plenty of social moderates and conservatives, but his campaign elevated such figures as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Linda Sarsour, beloved by the Democratic Party’s activist class and controversial outside of it. He walked back his 2016-era border hawkishness and replaced it with activist-endorsed “abolish ICE” messaging. His campaign declined to forthrightly make its case to black voters out of academic concern that Sanders “couldn’t speak on behalf of people of color” because he “doesn’t have those experiences.”
But then, Sanders has never successfully navigated American political institutions to generate the kind of overwhelming enthusiasm he’d need to either pass genuinely transformative policies in the Senate or expand his voter base in elections. That suggests a tension between the imperatives of democratic politics and the uncompromising nature of his own brand, which fed the perception that he was “unelectable.” Among his backers, this perception was often blamed on “subservience to the economic-powers-that-be” among moderates and political pundits. It’s a convenient explanation: The candidate wasn’t at fault, his voters were just being duped by the corporate media and political establishment. But as political scientists Matthew Grossman and William Isaac have written, the failure of redistributive economic policies may owe more to the procedural elements of American political institutions, which require deliberation and compromise, than to any rigging of the system against working-class interests.
In any case, Sanders’s failure has a structural explanation, too. It was identified by University of Texas professor Michael Lind all the way back in 2016. “At the beginning of his campaign, Mr. Sanders the democratic socialist focused in the manner of a single issue candidate almost exclusively on themes of class. . . . But because he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he has had to put greater emphasis on other issues, including racial disparity in policing and sentencing and the environment and immigration,” Lind wrote at the time. For Lind, this was telling: The Democratic coalition increasingly resembled “an alliance of Northern, Midwestern and West Coast whites from the old Rockefeller Republican tradition with blacks and Latinos,” the product of a deal in which affluent whites would embrace high-status positions on identity issues in exchange for black and Latino support for neoliberal economic policies. On the other side, Lind wrote, Republicans could make inroads among non-college-educated whites by tacking away from unpopular libertarian positions on trade and entitlement reform.
This theory of the partisan realignment has become conventional wisdom, and is sometimes overstated. But Lind’s view of the dynamics in the Democratic Party fits observed reality far better than that of Sanders’s die-hards. And not just in 2020: All the loose talk in 2018 about a new wave of progressive, multiethnic Democrats who would challenge the party’s establishment and demonstrate the cross-country appeal of Sanders-style politics fizzled out after the midterm elections. (A reliable weathervane of the party’s activist class, Data for Progress founder Sean McElwee, hand-picked his own weathervanes for a progressive insurgency in the 2018 midterms. They all lost. Since then, McElwee has grown louder about cultural issues and quieter about economic ones.) Instead, Democrats won back the House by taking a lot of affluent suburban districts from Republicans on the strength of candidates such as Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin, who attacked Trump’s personal grotesqueness and his record on health care but otherwise ran as moderates.
Lind predicted four years ago that a “slightly more progressive version of neoliberalism freed of the strategic concessions to white working-class voters associated with Bill Clintonism” was the future of the Democratic Party. That sounds like a pretty apt description of Joe Biden’s campaign, which in turn suggests that moderate candidates — Spanberger, Slotkin, a future iteration of Cory Booker — are where the party is headed next. Will ambitious Democrats and aspiring socialists learn from Sanders’s failure? On one hand, there are already signs that would-be inheritors of the Sanders legacy are abandoning his uncompromising politics. On the other hand, the next socialist to revise her political views on the basis of evidence would be the first.