Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Jonathan Chait offers a theory for the failure of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign:
Four years ago, Bernie Sanders put up a surprisingly strong fight against Hillary Clinton on the strength of his support among white working-class voters, who proceeded to desert Clinton in November. On the basis of those two elections, the left quickly formed a series of conclusions. The working class had become alienated by neoliberal economics and was searching for radical alternatives. Because the Democrats had failed to offer the kind of progressive radical alternative Sanders stood for, voters instead opted for Trump’s reactionary attack on globalism. In order to win them back and defeat Trump, Democrats needed to reorganize themselves as a radical populist party....

The second Sanders campaign has shown conclusively how badly the left misunderstood the electorate. It is not just that Sanders has failed to inspire anything like the upsurge in youth turnout he promised, or that he has failed to make meaningful headway with black voters. White working-class and rural voters have swung heavily against him. In Missouri and Michigan, those voters turned states he closely contested four years ago into routs for his opponent. Some rural counties have swung 30 points from Sanders 2016 to Biden 2020. The candidate in the race who has forged a transracial working-class coalition is, in fact, Joe Biden.

The factor that actually explains 2016 ... was Hillary Clinton’s idiosyncratic personal unpopularity. It turned out large portions of the public, even of the Democratic electorate, simply detested her. Sexism is obviously a very large reason, along with Clinton’s own mistakes and the media’s frequently unfair coverage of her. But the important thing is that Clinton’s toxic standing among wide swaths of the electorate was the gravitational force causing the phenomenon Bernie fans misread. Clinton hatred allowed Sanders to draw more than 40 percent of the primary vote, and Clinton hatred allowed Donald Trump to narrowly win.
This is becoming conventional wisdom: Many of Bernie's voters didn't really like him -- they just hated Hillary. They don't hate Biden, and now Biden is winning.

Let me start by pointing out ways in which these two election cycles aren't comparable. The 2016 election was like the 2000 election: We were just coming to the end of an eight-year Democratic presidency. Each of those presidencies disappointed progressives in some serious ways. But what was most important was that, after eight years, many voters had simply forgotten how bad a Republican president could be. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won popular-vote majorities, but they didn't win resoundingly, even though they were running as successors to popular presidents. Many voters had simply forgotten how important it is to keep the GOP out of power. (Also, in 2016, Trump seemed like a sure loser.)

I'm not sure Joe Biden is more beloved than Hillary Clinton was -- his approval numbers were sinking before his South Carolina comeback. I do think that men, or at least white men, are given a lot more leeway to be imperfect than women are (to put it mildly). We're tolerant of Biden in the way we are of sitcom dads, who can be lazy and bumbling and incompetent and we still love them. We give women a hard time for their failings and we dislike them when they're unfailingly competent -- ask Elizabeth Warren.

I can't say that Clinton's record made her seem noticeably less progressive than Biden's record does. I think he's being cut more slack -- because he's a man (and, at times, a lovably bumbling sitcom-dad man), because he hasn't been attacked by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy relentlessly since 1992 ... and because this year we know what the stakes are, and in 2016 too many of us couldn't quite imagine how bad it would get.

Most Democratic voters think he has the best shot to beat Trump -- the polls bear this out -- so we're going with him. If it were 2016 with the same candidates, Sanders might be giving Biden the fight of his life.

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