In February, it seemed as if every pundit and prognosticator on the planet expected Bernie Sanders to arrive at the 2020 Democratic Convention in Milwaukee with at least a plurality of delegates. Their crystal balls had all shattered by the end of March. The door had shut on any serious prospect of a Sanders nomination long before Senator Sanders officially threw in the towel and endorsed Joe Biden in April.
In a recent Areo article, young conservative Nate Hochman describes the moment at which it became clear that Sanders was starting to lose the race:
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 … had once again been postponed.
In his analysis, Hochman makes two descriptive claims and one normative one. The first descriptive claim is that the results in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday disproved the Sanders’ camp’s theory of change. They thought that they could energize potential voters who normally remain disengaged from the political process—this turned out not to be the case. The second and more interesting claim is that the primary reason why they were wrong was an ideological disconnect between Bernie Sanders’ social democratic agenda and the policy preferences of American voters—even Democratic primary voters. Finally, and most importantly, the normative claim is that voters were right to reject social democracy because Sanders’ “statist” and “utopian” proposals flew in the face of “uniquely American” ideas of “individual liberty.”
Full disclosure: one of the authors of this piece tried to summon up some optimism about Sanders’ prospects, even as that door was starting to shut, and the other hoped he was right. We’re prepared to eat our slice of humble pie along with everyone else. Even so, particular diagnoses of the causes of that failure should be approached with caution—especially when the analysts offering those diagnoses make it sound like that defeat was inevitable.
Aristotle, Hockey and Bernie
It’s important to remember the modal fallacy, made famous by Aristotle in his sea battle example in Chapter 9 of On Interpretation. Think about the statement there will be a sea battle tomorrow. Surely, this is contingent—it might happen and it might not. But, Aristotle wondered, does that mean that it isn’t true today that it will happen (if it will) or false today that it will happen (if it won’t)? And if it’s true today, doesn’t that mean it can’t happen tomorrow? Similarly, if it’s false today, doesn’t that mean it can’t fail to happen?
Modal logic is the branch of deductive logic dealing with questions of possibility and necessity, though it wasn’t formally developed until thousands of years after Aristotle’s death. Modal logicians looking back at his sea battle discussion have pointed out that the apparent problem he was pointing to relies on a subtle fallacy—the logical leap from x happened to x could not have failed to happen. Just because it was true the day before the sea battle that the sea battle will happen tomorrow that doesn’t mean that it was fated to happen. Nothing about the logic of the situation rules out the possibility that, in some other possible version of the world where all the events leading up to the sea battle were the same, the battle still didn’t happen.
Bernie Sanders could very well have become the Democratic nominee. True, he was an underdog facing a powerful Democratic establishment that was willing to unite against him in an unprecedented way. (Subsequent press accounts have confirmed that even former president Obama personally encouraged Pete Buttigieg to drop out, to clear the way for Biden’s victory. A lot of Never Trump Republicans probably felt bitter reading about that, given the failure of their own party establishment to do anything similar in 2016.) Even so, Sanders won the first three contests and, before his loss in South Carolina, both his supporters and detractors assumed that he would come to the convention in Milwaukee with at least a plurality.
Let’s take another analogy. If the Detroit Red Wings are playing the Boston Bruins and the Red Wings are narrowly ahead throughout the first two periods, but the Wings’ goal-tender Jimmy Howard starts messing up in the last period and the Bruins win the game, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that for a team from the Upper Midwest to beat a team from the East Coast is some sort of metaphysical impossibility. Concluding from the failure of the Sanders campaign that there was some deep problem with the very idea of a left-wing social democrat like Bernie Sanders beating a centrist like Joe Biden would be a mistake of the same kind.
So, what went wrong during the last period of the Sanders campaign?
Hochman’s Descriptive Claims
Hochman says that Bernie Sanders’ theory of how he could win the primaries was that normally disengaged potential voters would be “mobilized en masse by the worker-oriented populism” of his campaign. To support this claim about Sanders’ strategy, he quotes a passage from a Dispatch article about the Super Tuesday results.
For years now, Bernie’s philosophy has gone like this: the reason masses of American working-class people don’t vote is because most politicians are backscratching, capital-serving establishmentarians, whom 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. If he had alienated some moderates and independents in the general election, it wouldn’t have mattered, the theory ran, because the Bernie revolution would have activated and mobilized previous nonvoters in such great numbers.
There are two odd things about this. The first is that this claim about Bernie’s “philosophy” is not backed up by any quotations or links to anything Senator Sanders himself has said.
The second, related problem is that there’s an obvious slippage here from the general election to the primaries. In order for Super Tuesday and its aftermath to count as a failed test of Bernie’s electoral strategy, we would have to start from the assumption that this was a strategy for winning the Democratic primaries. This strikes us as largely incorrect. Bernie and his supporters commonly argued that Bernie would have won the 2016 election, that he would have been the candidate most likely to beat Trump in 2020 and that his ability to energize voters and potential voters, who might not be inspired to come out for a bland centrist, was part of the reason for this—but this is a very different from thinking that he would be able to energize large numbers of such voters in the primaries.
A Sanders nomination would have been a political earthquake, which would have been felt even by those voters who pay the least attention to the horserace details of elections. No one like him has ever been the Democratic nominee. While it’s hard to be certain how a Sanders/Trump election would have played out, it’s plausible that the resulting political map would have been an unfamiliar one. Just having an insurgent left candidate on the primary ballot, on the other hand, isn’t anything special. The Democratic establishment is often challenged from the left in the primary phase of presidential elections. Some of these campaigns are non-events, like Dennis Kucinich’s runs in 2004 and 2008, but some are significant. In 1988, Jesse Jackson won eleven states.
Second, even pre-energized middle-class voters, who reliably vote in every general election, are far less likely to participate in primaries and caucuses. That is doubly true of the kind of disengaged potential voters Bernie Sanders hoped to mobilize with his worker-oriented populism. In the months leading up to the general election in November, national media covers the election non-stop and, at the end of the process, everyone in the entire country votes on the same day. Plenty of people who can be counted on to vote in general elections don’t even know the date of their state’s primary or caucus.
The idea that Sanders’ loss represented Democratic primary voters’ rejection of the Vermont senator’s social democratic ideology is belied by the fact that Medicare for All was Sanders’ signature issue and—with the exception of South Carolina—every state’s early exit poll data showed that a majority of Democratic voters in the primaries Biden won supported Medicare for All. Even in South Carolina, a deeply conservative state with the lowest density of labor unions in the Union, support for Medicare for All beat out opposition by 49 to 46.
So, if Sanders was better aligned with voters’ policy preferences than Biden on at least some key issues, why did a majority ultimately reject Sanders, despite his early victories? Dustin Guastella’s balanced analysis provides a deep dive into some of the other factors that gave Biden an advantage, but at least one big part of the equation is straightforward. Democratic primary voters’ first priority was getting Donald Trump out of office. Enough voters came to believe that Biden was a safer bet in the general election to put him over the top.
Hochman’s Normative Claims
The most problematic element of Hochman’s argument is its normative dimension. Is Hochman right to dismiss the notion of a “systemic change” as a “gratuitously vague progressive idiom,” which doesn’t address real problems?
We don’t think so. Even before the second recession in little more than a decade took hold, many people’s real wages had been stagnating or declining for decades, while employment precarity and the entry costs of middle-class employment sectors increased precipitously. At the same time as these standard interest-based metrics curved downwards, American democracy took a serious hit, as workers became increasingly unimportant to the management of the workplace. Unionization had declined considerably worldwide—but nowhere more rapidly than in the United States. The workplaces can be even more of a site of power and subordination than the state. Workers have been losing what little say they had in the places in which they labor day in and day out and, according to studies by empirical researchers like Martin Gilens, capital is increasingly able to all but purchase politicians in Washington. In such a context, it should come as little surprise that many Americans believe that the powers that be have little interest in advancing the common good. Many people arrive at this conclusion on the basis of their lived experience, but it can also be buttressed by the kind of sophisticated moral reasoning one finds in the work of John Rawls, who insisted that a society is only as just as its treatment of the least well off.
In the conclusion of Hochman’s article, he expresses his approval of what he takes to be the ideological commitments of American voters:
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.
We’ve already addressed the claim that the outcome of the Democratic primaries was a result of these ideological commitments. The remaining question is whether any voters who really were allergic to what Hochman calls “government-funded entitlements” because of their commitment to an ethos of self-reliance were right.
Hochman takes it for granted that freedom and economic leftism point in opposite directions. We argue for the contrary conclusion here. But, when it comes to questions of self-reliance and government spending, we don’t entirely disagree. At least some government interventions to pick winners and losers in the economy have been pretty unsavory. Over the past decade, the American government has spent billions if not trillions backing up everything from the banking sector to airlines. This has added up to a remarkable display of socialism for the affluent and self-reliance for the impoverished.
When confronted with the reality of crony capitalism, many apologists insist that, while such may be our lot now, that is not how the system is supposed to work. In this, they resemble apologists for Soviet-style communism, who insist that any flaws in that system were due to insufficient adherence to communist ideals. But, as Adam Smith complains in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, wealthy capitalists hijack the political system for their own ends. This isn’t a bug in the system but a persistent feature. Crony capitalism is simply capitalism as it exists in the real world. Hoping that concentrating economic resources in the hands of a small minority will not to lead to a parallel concentration of political power in the hands of the same individuals is like hoping that water will flow upstream. A system that milks workers and corrodes democracy for the benefit of the few is not consistent with the moral principle that “all men are created equal.”
In a truly just system, citizens would have a more equal say in the forces that govern their lives, and everyone would enjoy fair opportunities to develop their individual talents, while contributing to the common good. The irony of defending the system by appealing to self-reliance is that twenty-first-century America is increasingly a land of inherited wealth. Three families currently own about $347 billion dollars, or about 4 million times the median wealth of US families. For the Koch, Walton, L’Oreal and other such families, this wealth has been passed on through the generations in a manner that would be familiar to the British aristocrats of the eighteenth century. We have nothing against people being successful and making sure their families are materially comfortable, but the idea that disparities on this level can be justified by appealing to the self-reliance of people who have been dead for decades strains plausibility. A fraction of such wealth could provide hundreds or thousands with an opportunity to go to college, start a business or put food on the table—things they are unable to do, through no fault of their own. We need something lot more convincing than a vague appeal to the virtues of self-reliance to justify keeping things as they are. That is why Sanders’ campaign was so important. It re-directed the American conversation to issues that had not been taken seriously in mainstream politics for many years. Its failure, while unfortunate, should not be the end but the beginning.