Politics

Margolis: Bernie Sanders’ loss provides some lessons for the future 

Sanders Las Vegas Caucuses
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally the night before the Nevada caucuses. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

Jon Margolis is a VTDigger political columnist.

Now that the crusade to put Bernie Sanders in the White House has ended – this time for good – and before its memory fades, a post-mortem may be in order, less to reevaluate the past than to inform the future.

Besides, here’s a chance to read (and indeed to write) about something other than Covid-19.

As always happens after presidential campaigns fail, plenty of reevaluating the past is going on elsewhere, with the various factions blaming each other. Maybe Sanders could have won had he reached out to make peace with Democratic moderates after his big win in Nevada, one side says. No, says the other; he should have attacked Joe Biden more forcefully.

Let them blather on. It’s all in the past. But there are some interesting lessons for the future to be learned from Sanders’ failure, especially the future of American liberalism in general and Vermont in particular.

Vermont because while it is not nearly as far to the left as some Vermonters optimistically suppose and others fearfully dread, it is one of the more liberal states. So a lesson for liberalism at large has what folks in the newspaper biz call a local angle in Vermont.

Start the lesson by ignoring all those “coulda been” accounts about why Sanders lost. He was always going to lose because his strategy for winning was based on a mistake.

“We are running a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class of this country,” Sanders proclaimed on Facebook the day before the Iowa caucuses. “When we bring millions of working people, people of color and young people in the political process, there is nothing we cannot accomplish. Together, we are going to transform this country.”

Victory was possible, he said, because millions of “young people and disenfranchised working class people” who had not been voting would flock to the polls for a candidate who championed real “working class” positions: Medicare for All, free tuition, a $15 minimum wage.

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 At least two mistakes there. The minor one is that nobody has been ”disenfranchised.” Some people have just been deciding not to vote.

The bigger mistake is that while it is true that millions of people have not been voting (almost 40% of eligible citizens didn’t vote in 2016), those non-voters are not likely to be disgruntled working class folks longing for an unapologetically “socialist” candidate.

Non-voters, it seems, aren’t all that different from voters. An extensive new study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, based on a survey of “12,000 people who chronically do not vote,” found that if all 100 million non-voters went to the polls this November (or mailed in a ballot) the outcome would be … well, not all that different than it would be without them.

Non-voters, the survey found, are “evenly divided on current political issues.” They “skew center-left on some key issues like health care (but) they are slightly more conservative than active voters on immigration and abortion.”

It isn’t just that there is no massive reserve of working class citizens ripe to be inspired by a sufficiently leftish candidate. It’s also that in this country millions of voters (and non-voters) do not categorize themselves by “class” at all. Instead they associate themselves politically with what are unfortunately called “identities”: religious, ethnic, regional, vocational, education level, entertainment preferences, even leisure activities. This may be the first society in history in which some people have greater loyalties to their fellow snowmobilers, backpackers, or RV campers than to those in their income bracket.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, on Monday, ahead of the state's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. Photo by Anna Watts for VTDigger
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Durham, New Hampshire. Photo by Anna Watts for VTDigger

If there was ever a time when most Americans were “class-conscious,” whatever that may mean (there are books disputing its definition), that time is long gone.

For Democrats, the good news is that polls show that a majority of people take left or center-left positions on most issues. That could explain why the policy positions of the “moderate” Biden are by any objective analysis substantially to the left of those in Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016, which in turn were to the left of the platforms Barack Obama ran on in 2008 and 2012.

The problem for Democrats is that many people don’t base their votes on policy issues alone. They want candidates who understand (or seem to) their aspirations and their fears, which transcend their financial status or their opinion about global warming and the minimum wage. Most voters take the liberal side on both of those issues. That doesn’t mean they’ll all vote for the candidate who agrees with them. Successful candidates know how to connect with voter sentiments as well as their policy preferences.

Sanders did that with 25%-30% of the Democratic primary electorate by appealing to their anger at various “establishments” as well as exciting them with his “socialist” proposals.

The other 70% was less impressed. They agreed with some of those proposals but worried that too many voters would be repelled by the “socialism.” One of their “identities” was to the Democratic Party itself, so the more Sanders assailed “the Democratic establishment” (never defined; does it exist?), the worse he did.

Ideologues left and right are so convinced of their own wisdom that it’s easy for them to forget that most people aren’t even that interested, much less persuaded. If Bernie Sanders’ defeat teaches the political left this lesson, it will have served a purpose.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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