The Democratic primary is still getting started. The current delegate count is uncertain, but Joe Biden’s lead is likely slight and far from insurmountable. But this is not the story that we are hearing, particularly in the televised media. Why is this? And what can the Sanders campaign do?
Leftists and progressives have underestimated the power of even weakening institutions and have been profoundly naive about the power of media effects. The very idea that—after being ignored for most of the cycle—suddenly Sanders was the unquestionable favorite was itself a questionable media narrative. That Sanders is yesterday’s news is as well. Today’s story should be about the almost unbelievable viability of a mass electoral left movement for the first time in recent history and possibly the most radical one, at this scale of success, ever. The current media circus—not to mention exit polling—makes clear at least one real, vital question (“Who can beat Donald Trump?”), but there are a slew of poison-pill “conclusions” based on the pure air of ideology.
One involves so-called “earned media.” If Sanders would only play nice with the media, this argument goes, then he’ll be given the warm treatment that the Pete Buttigiegs of the world receive. But of course, if Buttigieg had won the popular vote in the first three contests, with a blowout in Nevada, he would have been greeted as a loveable wunderkind, unthreatening to capital, flattering to the self-image of media and other elite actors, with a perfect narrative arc to convey. “Earned media” is just, apparently, the media’s name for its own ideological function. Ironically, as we saw in the last election, if there is any meaning to the phrase “earned media,” it is its precise opposite. Donald Trump, himself no media darling but viewed as an amusement more than a threat, received some $2–5 billion of what we should perhaps call “unearned media.”
Another poison-pill conclusion is that ground game doesn’t matter. Biden did have relatively little ground game, but he also could rely on traditional (even if creaky) machines and other networked party-adjacent institutions to help push an excited electorate to the polls, at least in numbers sufficient for a primary election. Voters don’t magic themselves out. Ground game definitely matters. Two of the great tests of Sanders’s ground operations came in Nevada and California: Both worked. As with so many questions, the answer here is more about particular geography as opposed to a packaged sound-bite. The idea is baseless that traditional electioneering and organizing, and newer distributed organizing efforts, are superfluous.
Some suggest that Sanders’s anti-establishment tone is alienating potential voters. This seems to be predicated on a similar theory to “earned media”; if Sanders plays nice with the party, the party will play nice back to him. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was Elizabeth Warren’s campaign strategy. The party showed her no favors, and neither did (particularly cable) news media.
Are the ideology and positions of the Sanders campaign too radical? Exit polling across the board, still shocking in the United States even for just a Democratic primary, shows majorities in favor of his brand of “socialism.” This was not only in left-leaning California but also in states thought to be quite conservative like Texas. Even in states like Tennessee and North Carolina, this means, as we speak, that there are self-identified Biden socialists and Green New Dealers walking the streets of Nashville and Durham. Some 24 percent of Biden voters view socialism—however it is they define it—as positive. The same holds true across states for specific policy positions: Medicare for All is across the board strongly supported by the Democratic electorate. Similarly tuition free public college, higher taxes, radical criminal justice reform, radical immigration reform, a Green New Deal, and so on.
There is, then, very little evidence that Sanders’s ideology or positions per se are deflecting support. If anything, they are driving his unlikely success thus far. Similarly, he remains the most liked candidate in the Democratic field and generally one of the most liked politicians in the country. Thus, trying to chase an elusive (and possibly nonexistent) “normie” vote would be a deep miscalculation. Sanders’s coalition is proving to be truly diverse—overwhelming support from Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, the ideologically committed, the disaffected, LGBTQ Americans, and the “youth” (now somehow redefined as everyone age 18-44), including significant numbers of black voters in the West and Southwest. And tax data indicate he enjoys similarly overwhelming support from politically engaged workers, across sectors, who make less than $50K a year all the way down and even decently well with those making up to $100K.
To soften or ameliorate his platform would not only betray this dedicated coalition; it would be doing so when there is no actual evidence people are repelled by Sanders’s existing ideology and program. It would also be abandoning the political project that not only the Sanders campaign but his many coalition supporters too have been building to make a resurgent American left possible.
Super Tuesday exit polls indicated that the broadly left/progressive wing of the Democratic Party has won the war of ideas for most Democrats and among independents and even some loosely identified ordinary Republicans. This is uniquely unacceptable to most party figures. The Democratic Party and the mainstream media seem to view both “big structural change” and “democratic socialism” as fundamental threats. (If you’re primarily working as an intermediator between plutocracy and the quickly evaporating apparition of liberal democratic legitimacy, you might not be wrong about that.) But there are also individuals within the party who do truly wish to defeat Trump and can also see where ordinary, self-identified Democrats are leaning.
While the Sanders campaign does need to stanch the bleeding in some places, perhaps by messaging recognizable Democratic figures who do or have viewed Sanders positively, it would be an error to abandon the anti-establishment positions that are broadly appealing. The country is geographically and sociologically fragmented.
The last dose of poison is the argument that the election thus far has disproven the campaign’s theory of a “political revolution”—that turnout can increase, that historically unlikely voters will participate. This depends on where we look. There are two drivers running right now through the Democratic electorate: (1) antipathy for Trump and (2) excitement for transformative radical politics. If the Sanders campaign and the broader left ever thought that building mass political movement, action, and consciousness was going to happen in just an election cycle or two, it was dreaming. In some states, a version of the Sanders’s theory proved more or less correct (California and Nevada being obvious cases): turnout increased, youth percentage increased, underrepresented minority participation increased, and institutional authority was bucked. There are states to come—including one of the biggest remaining prizes, New York—where an augmented version of this theory can still be implemented.
Turnout in this primary is up, voters are polling left on the issues, and yet on Super Tuesday late deciding voters broke for Joe Biden. This is not an argument about voters’ being poor judges—quite the opposite. Most people have a well-earned cynicism and skepticism toward formal politics. It is, though, a question of proving the case to voters that Sanders is the candidate to beat Trump.
Numbers and models do not of themselves tell a story. Models—based often on sports and games with static rules and neutral conditions—are ill-prepared for out-of-the-ordinary events, rule breaking and shifting, unique situations, and of course all forms of structural power. I am not simply lamenting the power of positivism to reify social and political life, to make something which is in reality dynamic, relational, and changing appear solid and static. One of the reasons that I am interested in all this data is it gives us glimpses, partial pictures, half-written sentences that contain no small amount of truth. The imaginary “neutral” model universe that predicted a Sanders blowout right after Nevada could have been true—in a political landscape that was actually neutral.
While models might predict a bounce, they do not account for a round-the-clock condemnation of Sanders, leading into the “miraculous” unification of so many candidates and party stalwarts around Biden. Almost all of the support for Biden materialized in the immediate aftermath of his South Carolina turnaround. Bernie will lose to Trump, all voices said in unison, and Biden is here to save us.
What should truly frighten those voices is that Joe Biden’s “theory of change” has no chance. It might be enough with a sympathetic liberal media and institutional inertia to eke out, maybe, a primary victory. But not only is Biden trying to run the exact same losing 2016 strategy—he’s facing a much more fired-up, solidified right, lined up in lockstep behind Donald Trump. Biden strategy still believes in the myths of Panera Bread voters and Never Trump Republican nobles. One of the truly lucky advantages his campaign has enjoyed in this cycle is how far it has managed to shelter Biden from scrutiny and lengthy engagements with actual voters. Democrats may think Trump is a constant gaffe machine, but he has a keen showman’s instinct for playing a crowd, for channeling a range of emotions into a kind of politics. Biden has shown no remotely similar capacity. Some may laugh at Trump’s seemingly garbled grammar, but he conveys a clear message, while Biden only performs confusion and incoherence. Others may think that Trump wants to run against Sanders, but Biden is the living embodiment of the Trump argument: He is bad trade deals. He is the Iraq War. He wants to take away your Social Security and your Medicare. He is “the swamp.” “Biden works for the banks, while Trump works for you.” Democrats might think that this all reeks of hypocrisy, but that does not matter. Trump’s role is to play the heel; it’s why he’s likely more popular than he polls.
Beating Trump requires more. It’s not simply the numbers; Sanders has the record and the better message to take on Trump, and a strategy well-suited to a general election with large numbers of independents. Sanders does indeed represent a movement, one that can address the general crisis of this country and offer a broad vision for socioeconomic and ecological sustainability. Not only can Sanders beat Trump, but even a stymied Sanders program, just with executive action on issues like climate, war, and migration, can do more good for Americans and the world than Biden’s passing many of his actual policies. Biden’s climate policies embrace a catastrophic 3–4°C of warming. All this should incentivize the Sanders campaign to go on the attack.
That doesn’t mean supplanting Sanders’s positive vision. But it does mean reminding voters of who Joe Biden is. The campaign is already running ads on Biden and trade in the Midwest. But they could go deeper, and include his atrocious history on everything from labor, foreign policy, and segregation to abortion and sexual harassment. Politics is a blood sport, and the Sanders campaign can embrace that.
To change course, the Sanders campaign and its allies must also coalesce. Already we see absolutely heroic Warren organizers, surrogates, and even delegates during a deeply painful moment coming out and joining the Sanders campaign. Jesse Jackson has just endorsed and joined the Sanders campaign. Right now, a potential Warren endorsement of Sanders—and even her joining the campaign—is the most plausible way to achieve her own legislative goals and those of her progressive supporters. Warren would be an unparalleled, powerful figure in a Sanders presidency. While actively reaching out, Sanders must make bold moves quickly—naming a narrative-changing VP, for example.
While Sanders appears in mainstream media coverage as an intransigent, recalcitrant fire-breather, the candidate is surprisingly genial, reticent about emotions, and often mild in his direct criticism of others. Here’s hoping he quickly becomes comfortable making the (easy) case against Biden, who, in addition to his retrograde positions and troubling history, is almost certainly unable to beat Trump. This may not be Sanders’s style. But in doing so, he could show that he is the best bet to beat Donald Trump in part by demonstrating a kind of ruthlessness to match.
The Sanders campaign may have little hope of making the same play for “unearned media” that paid dividends for Trump or the “earned media” that smiles on figures like Biden (even in absentia). But it can try to force media coverage and amplification of its core messages both by going on the attack and by going big.
Not only is it possible for Sanders to embrace media-ready spectacle without sacrificing his positive message; it is plausible to do so while increasing the radicality of his message and the messengers who can deliver it. Now is the time for his existing coalition to amplify its popular message by turning events, messaging, and rallies up to 11—not simply in terms of size and scope, but in leaning into ideology and diversity. He can fill his stages and events with immigrants, trans people, Native Americans, Muslims, African Americans, and others who already are embracing his brand of democratic socialism—and who will be to right-wing media the same kind of train-wreck catnip that Trump seemed to the media in 2016.
In fact, the right-wing media will likely salivate, and cover the threat of “Islamo-queer-Mexican-socialism” 24/7; this is precisely the point. They would give Sanders his greatest press, demonstrating just how broadly popular programs and policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, military drawdown, immigration reform, wealth taxes, etc., are. The Sanders campaign (controversially) embraced and amplified the endorsement of Joe Rogan without moving an inch from its staunchly pro-queer platform (and has maintained overwhelming LGBTQ support already despite a great deal of hostility from establishment gay and lesbian orgs). It could do the same with Miss Major’s endorsement. Her message? He can beat Trump, because we can beat Trump.
None of this supplants the importance of radical ideology and policy, the challenge to a widely loathed political and economic establishment, building the turnout machine, organizing strategy, or expanding the electorate. These moves would broaden Sanders’s reach right now within the Democratic electorate and prepare the campaign for the real struggle against Trump in November. In my research on climate politics, I have become increasingly convinced of the significance of affect in political life, perhaps even more than rigid sociological understandings of class or identity. Each one of those Biden socialists or Biden Green New Dealers—and each one of us—is a bundle of feelings. The Biden campaign and the media are currently playing on their fear of Trump and an empty and false nostalgia for the status quo ante. Now is the time for Sanders to reach out—to current supporters, to prospective ones, to anyone who is exhausted by America as it is now—to let them know and (just as importantly) feel that together we can beat Trump, that they are part of the us in #NotMeUs.