The mood in the Bernie Sanders campaign headquarters was grim in the early morning hours of Wednesday 4 March. A diverse array of signs, boasting of the various ways in which Sanders was offering to bribe the electorate with its own money (or, alternatively, his bold policy proposals, depending on one’s point of view) hung dejectedly at the sides of youthful campaign volunteers. The proletarian uprising—eagerly anticipated by the bright-eyed barista-activists of the progressive movement—had once again been postponed.
I wasn’t there, of course. But that’s how I like to imagine it.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Sanders camp was less than exuberant following the Vermont senator’s devastating Super Tuesday defeat at the hands of Joe Biden. Despite being widely thought to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s fourteen-state primary contest, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, positioned as the leader of a working-class coalition that would bring a revolution to American politics, was met with a resounding rebuke from voters across the country. The comparatively moderate Biden carried ten of the fourteen states and all but clinched the nomination from out of Bernie’s wrinkled, ever-gesticulating hands. Following subsequent victories in states like Michigan and Missouri, and a litany of high-profile endorsements from prominent Democratic politicians throughout the country, the former vice president increasingly seems to be the presumptive Democratic nominee. Despite coming tantalizingly close to victory as a result of his dominance in the early primary contests, it seems likely that Sanders will be defeated by a comparatively moderate establishment opponent for the second time in the span of four years.
Why did this happen? Bernie Sanders and his surrogates built their campaign on the idea that they were assembling a diverse coalition of working-class voters, who had long been disengaged from electoral politics, but would be mobilized en masse by the worker-oriented populism of the Sanders campaign. According to this hypothesis, such an unstoppable coalition would provide the democratic mandate necessary to bring about the promised revolution. As the folks over at the Dispatch put it:
For years now, [Bernie’s] philosophy has gone like this: The reason masses of working-class people don’t vote in America is because most politicians are backscratching, capital-serving establishmentarians who these voters don’t believe will materially improve their lives in any meaningful way. But those people could be reached and tapped into by a candidate with a trustworthy record, a powerful campaign machine, and an uncompromisingly pro-worker agenda—a role for which Bernie Sanders was uniquely suited. Alienating some moderates and independents in the general election wouldn’t matter, the theory ran, because the Bernie revolution would activate and mobilize previous nonvoters in such great numbers.
But that coalition never materialized. And it’s not because the vulnerable assemblage of Sanders voters were suppressed or nefariously led astray by the Democratic establishment, as Bernie often claims. It’s that Americans—even Americans in the Democratic base—are still the most conservative electorate in the developed world. The multiracial, working-class coalition of voters showed up, all right. In fact, they produced the record turnout that the Sanders campaign had predicted—but they didn’t cast their ballots for the socialist revolution. Overwhelmingly, the Democratic electorate went with the candidate whose main message was that of a Hardingian return to normalcy: Joseph R. Biden.
For decades, left-wing activists have bemoaned their inability to assemble a powerful, New Deal style electoral majority behind their legislative agenda. In the face of their perpetual failure to do so, progressives often point to a number of supposed boogeymen (corporate interests, dark money, racism, the media, the Electoral College, the Senate, etc.) as the real barriers to political victory. But the simple truth is that Americans, by and large, just aren’t that interested in revolutionary politics. To the great chagrin of radicals like Bernie Sanders, even the vast majority of left-leaning voters are quite attached to the enormous privileges afforded them by the unique freedoms of the American system, and rightfully regard any politician promising to overturn it with deep suspicion.
Understanding this, progressives have usually won on a message of reform rather than revolution, offering a vision of expanded access to the American system, rather than advocating its destruction. As Barack Obama cautioned during a recent speech to Democratic activists: “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. They like seeing things improved. But the average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system to remake it.”
This has always been true of the American electorate—a unique concern for individual liberty, written into our founding documents and imbued in the material character of the American experience, has made America more leery of the creeping statism to which many contemporary liberal democracies have succumbed. We’re the only country in the history of the world to have been founded on an idea: a radical belief in the dignity of the human individual and the capacity of a people for democratic self-governance. Consequently, America continues to be sustained by a self-reliant citizenry, who guard their liberties with a persistent jealousy, instinctively understanding what we stand to lose.
Ironically, those who do find appeal in the politics of systemic change—that gratuitously vague progressive idiom—are hardly the voices of the oppressed that they purport to be. In fact, political radicalism seems to be a luxury of the chattering classes, largely appealing to the most privileged echelons of American society. The American working class is much more conservative than its wealthier counterparts, and the college campus progressivism that drove the campaigns of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is hardly indicative of the political sensibility of the American electorate writ large.
This is not a partisan phenomenon. Working and middle-class Americans in both major parties are significantly more conservative than the Sanders campaign posits. Much ink has been spilled about the Republican Party’s increasing monopoly over the white working class, but this is only part of the story. The relative conservatism of lower-income Americans crosses both racial and partisan lines.
Despite their continued aversion to the GOP, African-American and Hispanic voters still sit solidly to the right of their white peers in the Democratic Party. And both groups are largely made up of working-class earners. While the Sanders campaign has performed much better with Hispanic voters than it did in 2016, that has largely been the result of aggressive on-the-ground organizing in Latino communities nationwide. But, despite this effort, Sanders only managed to garner a plurality in Super Tuesday states—even in the progressive stronghold of California. The Sanders campaign failed to win an outright majority of the Hispanic vote among registered Democrats. In addition, slightly under a third of the Hispanic voting bloc voted for Trump in 2016, and many polls suggest that the president’s approval rating has only improved with the group since then. This isn’t surprising, given that Hispanic Americans are broadly more conservative than the left wing of the Democratic Party on almost every issue. And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the prospect of a left-wing revolution.
This is all the more true of African-American voters, who are more conservative than white progressives on every issue—including race. Both in 2016 and 2020, they were completely uninterested in the Bernie Sanders brand of systemic change progressivism. This deep rift could explain the persistent suspicion that many leading figures in the black community express about the Sanders campaign.
Asked about free college schemes, Rep. Jim Clyburn (the Democratic House Majority Whip and African-American civil rights icon from South Carolina) responded: “I hate to hear that … I don’t need to hear that! Because we got people who want to be electricians, who want to be plumbers, they want to be a lot of things—barbers. You know, my barber has both of his sons in the barber shop with him. That’s what they want to do.”
Later in the same interview, he added:
This country doesn’t need to be made great—it is great. The problem we’ve got is making that greatness accessible and affordable for all … People want to earn their keep. People don’t want you to give them everything. We want to remove the stumbling blocks so that it can be accessible. Move all of the areas that would make it unaffordable. That’s what people want.
Clyburn’s response is indicative of a larger cultural disconnect between upwardly-mobile, college-educated progressives and the American working class. This disconnect is reflected in the political priorities of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who often cater to the middle and upper classes with policy proposals like free college and student loan debt forgiveness—legislative initiatives that would do little for the swath of working class voters who do not want their tax dollars to subsidize the four-year college degrees or student loan debt of their wealthier peers.
This reveals the persistent conservatism of the American electorate—and their indignation at the socialist promise of overabundant, government-funded entitlements, which would remove much of the entrepreneurial, self-reliant character of the American system. Socialism is an insult to the idea of a free, independent individual, and the left’s vision of a paternalistic state is built upon a deep skepticism of the capacity of the working class to achieve economic self-determination. Despite the significant gains made by technocratic progressivism over the decades, this is still something that the American people understand. Ours is a country that places enormous value on the idea of a pluralistic sphere of individual freedom outside the auspices of the state, comprised of voters who object to the condescension of a socialist ethic that implicitly suggests their inability to prosper in such conditions.
So when a leftist demagogue comes knocking, offering an all-too-utopian statist future in exchange for political power, Americans of every color and creed respond with a single—uniquely American—voice. Not here.