Our new issue is coming soon. Get a discounted subscription today!

Don’t Call It a Comeback

As 2020 approaches, we indulge in some crass Sunday morning horse-race punditry.

Contributors
Seth Ackerman (SA)
Matt Karp (MK)
Liza Featherstone (LF)
Matthew Yglesias (MY)

A few weeks ago, Jacobin contributors Matt Karp and Liza Featherstone sat down with our editor Seth Ackerman and Vox‘s Matt Yglesias to discuss how the upcoming Democratic primaries were shaping up. A big question loomed: Can Bernie repeat the magic?


SA

Let me start with a question for Matt Yglesias. Some people really hate Bernie Sanders. As someone who knows many of them up close and personal, what is it about Bernie that pisses them off?

MY

Something people in the Bernie fan base should think about is the fact that many of the things people say they don’t like about Bernie are really what they mean — even if it seems crazy to you. For example, a lot of people who have left-wing politics also have a very dyspeptic attitude toward the Democratic Party as an institution. To them, the fact that Bernie Sanders has a little “I” next to his name rather than a little “D” seems good. If anyone has a problem with that, it just seems laughable, like it’s a crazy excuse that a stupid person is making up.

But there is actually a large minority of Americans who are really into the Democratic Party. You don’t need to agree with that viewpoint, but it’s a viewpoint that is out there. The fact that Sanders holds himself aloof from the party, from its symbolism, that he talks about the Democratic Party as an institution in a Jacobin magazine kind of way — it alienates a lot of people. There’s this old line from Henry IV, during the French religious wars. He said, “Paris is worth a mass” — if people want me to be a Catholic king, that’s what I’m going to do.

I think it’s a serious question for Bernie Sanders as a person, and the movement that’s behind him. AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is a controversial figure because she has ideas about policy. Those ideas threaten some people. They’re going to be contentious. But there is a much wider circle of people who are happy to clap for her on social media, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that she is, formally speaking, a Democrat. There’s a “D” next to her name in the AP style guide. She talks about it as “our” party that she wants to change, and Bernie doesn’t do that. That may have made sense for him in Vermont politics in the 1980s. But if you want to be the Democratic Party presidential nominee, I mean, it seems like a small thing to do.

MK

I agree generally, but I feel like the problem might be a little more fiendish than just a question of branding, or the question of a little “D” or a little “I.”

The issue isn’t just Bernie’s formal affiliation, or his inability to socialize nicely with establishment progressives. It’s because the nature of his project is an attempt to transcend the Democratic Party in the name of a broader working-class politics. So much of his ideological substance is bound up with an opposition, not just to these people and their brand, but to the Obamaish politics they espouse.

Bernie was smart enough to not actually criticize Obama too much in the campaign, given how phenomenally popular he is. But Bernie does represent a pretty substantive rejection of Obama-ism. That gives him his power, but it also means he can’t really pivot away from that and just pretend to be Elizabeth Warren.

MY

That’s the question. I think he does clearly represent a pretty substantively different view, and Barack Obama sees that and is not thrilled about it. But, again, this is a question of, do you want to win? You were saying he did well to pretend not to be critical of Obama in the course of the primary campaign. I think maybe he should try to do a better job, particularly heading into 2020.

For example, against Hillary in 2016 he talked a lot about the Iraq vote, which was smart. Because that was something that put him on Obama’s side and put Hillary on Hillary’s side. Just for practical politics in the primaries, you’ve got to find stuff like that — not abandoning the core of what you’re about, but finding things to emphasize that speak to where people are.

LF

You’re right — people who vote in the Democratic primary are often really passionate about the Democratic Party. One of the things that makes Bernie an interesting general election candidate, when we think about him facing off against Trump, is precisely that: a lot of people hate both the parties. But, yes, you do have to get the nomination before you can be in that situation.

MY

If you were to make a case for his electability in the general election, that’s part of it. Hardcore Democrats are not the people you worry about in a general election campaign. You worry about people who have mixed views, and Bernie is in tune with the feeling of, “I don’t love the Democratic Party.” So that’s good.

But if you want to win a primary — well, there are a lot of Democrats in the Democratic primary.

MK

So you’re saying we might not be able to get there just with Twitter dunks on the “Dorkacrats”? That might not do the trick? [Laughter]

SA

I wonder if he could try to embrace the symbols, not of today’s Democratic Party, but of the FDR-era party.

MK

That was his FDR socialism speech.

MY

Sure, but he could also say, “Look, we’ve got these great new freshmen! This person, and that person, who I love.”

LF

There were some pretty significant groups that he did do well with in the Democratic primary — young people, people in rural areas. And some of those groups don’t necessarily hate the Democrats, but they do feel the Democratic Party has lost its way. That’s an ahistorical narrative, because the party hasn’t really shifted ideologically in one consistent direction. But it is a consistent narrative that you hear: that the Democrats just aren’t Democrats anymore. They used to be liberal, and now they’re not.

MK

“They used to stand for the working man.”

LF

There’s sort of a yearning for a more populist, FDR style of politics, and Bernie definitely did speak to that.

MK

I don’t want to overstate this, but I do think there was some evidence in 2016 that Bernie was gathering a different coalition than progressive Democrats have in the past, in terms of younger voters, but also to some extent more working-class voters, independent voters. In other words, people who didn’t already identify as white-collar progressive types.

Warren is in some sense the apotheosis of this white-collar progressive vote. I know Matt will disagree with me about the extent to which these class compositions will determine social-democratic outcomes. I know you’re a big proponent of the idea that suburban white-collar professionals love Medicare for All, and so on.

But for me, it’s a giveaway that the Democratic establishment is much more afraid of Bernie. Not necessarily in terms of policy — they’ll almost never put it in policy terms — but because of the more anarchic coalition of working people that he has given some indication of having the potential to summon.

MY

This is the question about Bernie. He runs one-on-one against Hillary Clinton. He gets 40–45 percent of the vote. He’s getting a broad swath of younger people, white people. And in part because of his record and in part because of how Hillary chose to attack him, he develops a bit of a reputation as a culturally conservative candidate. Maybe he doesn’t care enough about racism. Maybe he loves guns too much.

Well, a question around that is, to what extent does that just make him a catch-all protest vote? If you look at Kevin de León, who ran against Dianne Feinstein this past year, he challenged her from the left. Which makes sense: she’s pretty centrist for a California Democrat. All his criticisms of her are criticisms from the left.

With California’s top-two system, there was no Republican on the ballot in the general election. And if you look at the map of where de León does best against her, he does best in Republican counties. Why is that? Because de León’s base of support is people who really dislike Dianne Feinstein, and people who really dislike Dianne Feinstein are mostly Republicans.

Does that mean that Kevin de León actually had huge crossover appeal to California Republicans? I don’t think it does.

LF

But Bernie genuinely has some of the “Fuck You” vote. When I was canvassing in the Coney Island projects, I knocked on a door and this teenager answered. And he was like, “I’m not going to turn eighteen in time to vote, but Bernie Sanders — that’s that Jewish guy, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “That old guy, he’s gangsta.”

I think about that all the time. But in the end it was Trump who turned out to be the gangsta candidate.

SA

Yeah, we’re debating whether this formula could work for Bernie Sanders. Well, it worked for Trump. Ultimately, 95 percent of the people who voted for Trump had voted for Romney the last time, and 95 percent of the people who voted for Clinton had voted for Obama the last time.

LF

We’re always just talking about a few people who tip the balance.

SA

Right, it’s always decided by a small number of marginal, floating voters, or nonvoters who get excited enough to turn out, or habitual voters who are too turned off to care. And when people think about Trump’s political profile, at least in our collective imagination it’s the profile of a guy who won one specific type of marginal voter, which was Rust Belt working-class whites. The kind of people who you could imagine saying, “Fuck Paul Ryan.”

MK

Or, “Fuck Mitt Romney.”

SA

This is probably a gross caricature that we’ve all extracted from election coverage. But in some ways the legend becomes reality. I mean, let’s not forget that for Democratic primary voters — precisely because most of them are Democrats — the number one issue they will have in their minds is who can beat Donald Trump. That, more than anything, is what they will care about.

And whether or not Bernie Sanders actually has that kind of “Fuck You” appeal or can actually appeal to Western Pennsylvania, or turn out the kid in the projects in Coney Island, the perception is that he’s somebody who appeals to people in places where Republicans usually get the votes. And that could give a lot of Democrats the sense that he’s somebody who could beat Trump.

Because as soon as people’s minds turn to the general election, they’re going to be thinking back to election night 2016, to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and all those Midwestern states, and they’re going to ask themselves which of these candidates is going to be able to appeal to at least some of those people. It’s hard to think of anyone who appears to have a better shot at that.

MY

That will also be Sherrod Brown’s argument, and Klobuchar’s argument, and Joe Biden’s argument.

Electability conversations are very important. It’s become fashionable to dump on them, but I actually think it matters quite a lot. But it’s hard to get people out of the thinking that the most electable candidate is the one I happen to like best personally. It’s hard to know what an objective argument around that is going to end up looking like.

If I was trying to make Bernie’s pitch, I would say, “Look, it’s not just that I’m personally popular or people think I have integrity. It’s also that even if you think my economic ideas are a little bit out there, the fact is that any campaign I am in is going to be focused on economic questions.” Democrats probably agree that that kind of focus is what helps in the Midwest, and that Bernie Sanders is not going to have a campaign that is all about symbols and culture war. Bernie Sanders is going to have a campaign that is about economic issues.

And, of course, the case for him winning in the general would be that the people who most hate him on a gut level are super-hardcore Democrats.

SA

Who will never vote against him in the general election. It’s pretty amazing.

MK

He has them imprisoned.

LF

He would be the lesser evil! —

MK

Can we just game out the primary a little? Because Matt was talking about how Bernie doesn’t have anything like his 40–45 percent from 2016. But this race is going to be so different. Not to get into Nate Silver-land here, but it’s going to be a very different race for all the candidates, and I think for Bernie the situation is very different than when he’s matched up against the party favorite.

MY

He wants to define it again as, “It’s me or generic Democrat.” That’s the way people who are most Bernie-sympathetic see it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a big field; it’s a big field of people who are identical, and then there’s Bernie Sanders, who is an alternative. The question is, can you get people to see it that way?

I think one interesting fact is that Elizabeth Warren is seen by insiders as different from the rest of the field and is seen by people in you guys’ universe as very similar.

LF

I wouldn’t say that I see her as similar. It’s good to pay attention to the way people on Wall Street react. They don’t think that she’s similar to the rest of the field. They don’t want to see Elizabeth Warren.

MK

I think what Zaid Jilani argued on Jacobin’s website was right. Which was, “Much better than the average Democrat but no Bernie.” But it’s the second part of that formula that’s more important, because that’s the part that determines where we would want to put our political energy.

MY

In some ways, from the standpoint of the real establishment, I would almost argue that they should worry more about Warren than about Bernie.

SA

I’m curious what the fear is of Elizabeth Warren. Not because I doubt that she has policy differences that threaten some vested interests. But at least with Bernie, there’s a very strong desire by his haters to insist that their differences are not really about policy: “We’re not afraid that he’s too left-wing, we’re afraid he can’t govern, or that he doesn’t work well with others.” Whereas Warren doesn’t have those issues. She does work well with others, and she’s definitely a confident policy person.

MY

I hear electability concerns about Warren more than anybody else out there — valid ones, I think. People are going to claim that Sanders is unelectable; I think the concerns around that were valid in the past, but for me he has held up much better under national scrutiny than I would have guessed.

Now, there was recently a bad discussion about Warren and so-called “likability” that a Politico article touched on, which I don’t care to get into. But the fact is, her election results in Massachusetts have not been great, and her approval rating in Massachusetts is not great. There’s just clearly a bloc of people who voted for Obama, voted for Hillary Clinton, and didn’t vote for Elizabeth Warren in either of her election runs. And that’s not a great sign.

Some people will say, “Well, that shows she’s too left-wing.” I think the reality is, people’s popularity does not have that much to do with their ideology one way or the other. She just does not have a great election track record.

LF

I’m surprised people don’t talk about that more. Because Massachusetts is a pretty good state for a liberal like her, and she just does not do well there.

SA

Actually, Bernie may have an opportunity to get that replay of “It’s me or generic Democrat” from 2016 because presumably he’s going to have Biden in the race. Biden is not Hillary Clinton in some ways, but in some ways he definitely is, because he’s got so much of the same baggage.

MK

He’s worse, as Matt has said.

MY

That would help him. And I could see it being mutually beneficial to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to have a big argument with each other that squeezes everyone else out of the room.

MK

“The Senator from MBNA.”

SA

It would also give Bernie an opportunity to be not just the antiestablishment candidate, but also the “woke” candidate, because Biden has a very problematic record on race.

Actually, I’m surprised we haven’t yet touched on Bernie’s alleged wokeness problem, and the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon. That issue used to be the big elephant in the room.

MY

I think there are two distinct aspects to this. One is Bernie and race. The track record of primaries suggests that African-American candidates will have a big advantage with African-American voters, almost regardless of exactly what anybody says or does.

SA

Well, I’m not sure about that. In 2008, it took a while for black voters to warm up to Obama, relative to Hillary Clinton.

There was a recent USA Today poll that looked at Bernie’s numbers among white Democrats and black Democrats. He’s actually much more popular among black Democrats than white Democrats. When I posted that on Twitter, I was thinking, “Well, one could make the argument that it’s just because he’s perceived as a top Democrat now.” But that doesn’t explain why the white Democrats were so against him.

MK

I thought about this a lot during 2016, and my sense was that there wasn’t any basic disjuncture between rank-and-file black voters and Bernie, or that they rejected a class-centered campaign. That was the consensus that seemed to come out of the mainstream media, but I think that diagnosis is pretty weak. I think Hillary Clinton had institutional advantages in terms of relationships with local party leaders, and name recognition, and historic identification —

SA

She’s married to the “first black president.”

MK

I think most black voters voted for Hillary, not against Bernie.

MY

The other issue is with women college graduates, which is a big group in the Democratic Party. And I think there is a largely accurate sense that Bernie Sanders does not think that the glass ceiling in corporate America is a big social problem. Bernie Sanders thinks the economic privilege exercised by corporate executives is a big problem, but whether or not women get a fair share of that exorbitant privilege is not a big problem.

LF

That’s right.

MY

They are discriminated against, and they feel discrimination against people like them is a big problem and that women need to have a fair shot at access to the levers of power in the United States. I don’t want to say that Bernie favors discrimination in corporate America —

LF

Of course not.

MY

— he doesn’t care. He doesn’t think it’s that important.

MK

No, I think he cares. He just doesn’t “center” it.

LF

I think he often doesn’t get enough credit for some of his attention to these issues. He was for reproductive health care as part of Medicare for All, which is something Hillary didn’t talk about. But also, some of these very same women who are concerned about women not getting their share of the corporate pie are also looking at Bernie’s program and thinking, “I don’t want to pay more taxes.”

Democratic voters making over $100,000 went for Hillary over Bernie by a full 17 percentage points. That was one of the biggest groups that did not vote for Bernie. Because they know that as much as he’s talking about the “billionaire class,” they too would have to pay for some of this stuff. People don’t want to talk about that because it sounds selfish, so instead they will focus on things that sound a little more moral, like “Bernie isn’t good on race and gender.”

SA

Now there are allegations about sexual harassment by Sanders surrogates during the 2016 campaign. There was an article in the Intercept by a woman who recounted how she was harassed on the campaign. Although she also pointed out that it happened in virtually every campaign …

LF

I will say this. As a woman, you get a lot of apologies from men over your lifetime. You don’t get that many, but when you do, you become a close reader and a close student of the male apology. And usually the apology is lacking in certain salient ways. Usually it lacks a sense that the person is taking responsibility, lacks a sense of imagination about how their offense might have affected you, the offended person. Generally speaking, the male apology tends to sound a little bit like an excuse. It often contains elements of, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The more sophisticated male will try to mask that.

The ideal apology, obviously, takes responsibility. It shows some real gravitas about the situation. With Bernie’s apology, there have now been two of them, because he’s had to apologize twice about sexual harassment coming out of his campaign, and his campaign staff not doing enough to respond to it. Now, Bernie’s apology was pretty impressive on a number of levels. One, it was accompanied by concrete changes. The campaign staff who presided over the situation, I think three of them, have been removed from his 2020 staff. That’s very unusual in the male apology, to make a change in the situation.

Another thing that really makes it a standout in male apologies is that he thanks the women for coming forward and bringing this to his attention, which is really unusual. I think I have once in my life gotten an apology that included a thank you for bringing this to the attention of said person. In his apology, he also takes responsibility and offers some thoughts about how it shouldn’t happen again. I don’t have any illusions that the hardcore professional-managerial-class Bernie-haters are going to be moved by this. But all the well-meaning people who are swayed by every little thing that happens in the news cycle — and we all know this kind of progressive person — I think if they actually read what his apology said, a lot of them, especially if they’re women, will notice that this is pretty good responsibility-taking, accompanied by action.


SA

Here’s another question for you, Matt. How do establishment party insiders see the rest of the field, apart from Bernie Sanders?

MY

People in D.C. generally feel that there is not a huge difference in practice among how a big range of the people in this field would actually govern. It obviously makes some difference who wins, but not a huge difference.

With Bernie, it’s an interesting question. It’s clear that people in Washington fear that if Bernie Sanders becomes president, he will try to govern the country by appointing the Middlebury faculty and the editorial board of Jacobin, or something.

SA

That’s our calculation, too. [laughter]

MK

White House chief of staff, Bhaskar Sunkara.

MY

But that is the idea some people have. It’s the hope of a lot of his supporters and the fear of a lot of his enemies that this is going to be like throwing the money changers out of the temple.

On some level, I don’t see the evidence for that. Sanders was not deeply involved in personnel battles during the Obama administration. He was there in the Senate voting on nominations, voting on confirmations. But the real thorns in the White House’s side there were Warren and Sherrod Brown, not Bernie. He’s not focused on that kind of insider politics, it’s not so much what he cares about.

Obviously I think he would govern differently from a more main-stream Democrat, but it’s just unknown what he would actually do. He’s been on the margins for so long. He’s very focused on social movements and that kind of thing. I have no real guess as to what the Sanders staff is going to look like.

When Trump took over, it was supposedly going to be this whole revolution and everything was going to be different. But then it turned out to actually just be the same people. I feel like there might be an element to that to a Sanders administration.

MK

Foreign policy is something that increasingly distinguishes Bernie from the field.

SA

On foreign policy he has biographical credibility, in the sense that he was on the Left then at a time when other Democrats were supporting mainstream Cold War foreign policy. He protested against the Vietnam War, he was friendly with the Sandinistas. Who would have thought that at this point that could be a net plus in a presidential election? “I wrote positive letters about Daniel Ortega.”

MK

It’s true, I think that is a net plus.

LF

I think as far as a lot of donors are concerned, Elizabeth Warren is a Sandinista too.

MY

But a challenge for anybody is that you have to move beyond your core fan base. And with Bernie, he has all of the cultural signifiers of left politics in America. The people who love him most love him specifically for that reason, which is something Elizabeth Warren really doesn’t have.

I think the two of them have converged to a great extent on policy over the past ten, twenty, thirty years, and arrived at somewhat similar places on main domestic issues. But they have very different stories of how they got there. Bernie is grounded in left thought and left traditions and the signifiers of left political identity. But that is just not like most Americans. And what he did in 2016 was appeal to a much bigger group of people, who were disgruntled in some more generic sense.

I think this is a lot like your favorite band. You heard them playing small shows at small venues when they were on an indie label, and you have mixed feelings about them selling out and signing with the big label. Every time a famous Republican dies, whether it’s John McCain or George H. W. Bush, Bernie puts out a respectful, formal politician statement about it, and some people online are like, “What are you doing, man? That guy sucks.”

Then, some other people are like, “No, what are you doing? He’s a United States senator. He’s doing normal stuff.”

<

MK

But for a lot of the people who I would consider to be Bernie’s true fans, the people who bought Bernie’s first album, to use your analogy — that album was the class-war album. It wasn’t about the Sandinistas. Those were just the trimmings. Those were nice things, but they were like random eps. It was fundamentally a class-war band.

MY

I think Bernie’s core economic thesis is much bigger than this narrow sort of sectarian left politics. But it’s also a bit out of step with where most political arguments in the Trump era are. Do you get dragged into everything that’s going on? Or is he able to define a race around that kind of message? Because it’s a very different moment politically than 2016 was. Trump is there now, and he’s such a dominant figure. Basic economic conditions have gotten better. The unemployment rate is lower.

I think there’s a case to be made that these times make Bernie’s message more relevant than ever. We’re not dealing with an acute economic emergency; we’re dealing with systematic imbalances and injustices. But on the other hand, it’s harder: you can imagine a world in which people say, “Wait, why is he talking about this? This isn’t what’s going on.”

In a lot of ways, it’s been his strength as a messenger that he doesn’t get pulled along with ups and downs of the new cycle. On the other hand, there’s a reason politicians tend to chase the news cycle — that’s what people are talking about.

SA

I think that’s a good place to stop. Any last comments?

MK

I’m going to go home and listen to Bernie’s first record, Kill All CEOs. I’ll see you guys after that.