For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, something unusual occurred in the final weeks of 2019. As the Democratic nomination race finally spluttered towards Iowa and New Hampshire the media’s posture towards Bernie Sanders — typically some mix of erasure and downright contempt — seems to have turned ever so slightly towards the positive.
Though hardly the fawning treatment some of the contest’s other candidates have received, there has been a small but discernible shift in both television and newspaper coverage of the Sanders campaign (or, at any rate a brief lull in the usual media hostility).
The most likely explanation is that the nation’s poll-obsessive pundits have finally started to heed the numbers the rest of us have been staring at for months and are coming around, however dimly, to the reality that Sanders does indeed have a real shot — perhaps a very good shot — at winning the Democratic nomination.
Earlier this week, polling fresh out of New Hampshire and Iowa showed him respectively leading and statistically tied for first. And unless something dramatically changes in the next few weeks, Sanders seems well-placed to perform well in both and ride the momentum into Nevada and South Carolina. Adding to this were fundraising numbers from the final quarter of 2019 that had Sanders out-fundraising billionaire-backed candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden by a considerable margin (their cornering of the critical wine cave demographic notwithstanding). According to a recent CNN/SSRS poll, he also has the highest favorability rating for any Democrat in the 2020 field.
All of this undoubtedly contributed to a media cycle somewhat different in tone from those preceding it.
In a piece entitled “Why Bernie Sanders is Tough to Beat” the often-hostile New York Times reporter Sydney Ember observed, “His anti-establishment message hasn’t changed for 50 years, and it resonates with working-class voters and young people who agree the system is corrupt and [that] it will take a revolution to fix it.” Mike Allen correctly noted that the media rarely treats Sanders “with the seriousness warranted by his sustained popularity and fundraising. Like in 2016, Sanders has a legit shot to win the nomination — and an unshakable base to brace him.”
The New York Times’ David Leonhardt even broke character to pen a thoughtful op-ed about the phenomenon of centrist bias (before reverting to type and writing effusively about the dynamism of Amy Klobuchar).
Though Sanders and his campaign are doubtless enjoying this respite from the usual hostilities, no one who supports Bernie should be under any illusions about what is almost certainly going to happen the moment he racks up even a single primary or caucus victory.
If the corporate media and Washington political elite have mostly dismissed or ignored Sanders throughout the past twelve months, the genuine prospect of a socialist iconoclast who talks about mass movements and political revolutions securing the presidential nomination of a major party is bound to provoke something louder, and potentially uglier, than anything we’ve ever seen before.
A Sanders victory in the Democratic primaries would be a considerable shock to the conventional wisdom so doggedly policed by America’s media and pundit class. But more importantly, it would represent an unprecedented threat to the interests of American capital and the gilded viceroys of tech and high finance who preside over its many depredations, from the immoral private health insurance racket to the country’s robber-baron rates of taxation. The last thing such a system wants or needs is the success of a candidate who explicitly and consciously challenges the rotten bipartisan consensus undergirding it all.
Make no mistake: every institution invested in the status quo will probably do everything it can to prevent both a Sanders nomination and a general election victory even if it means aiding the despicable Donald Trump.
In the months ahead, we can therefore expect a full-blown offensive from every corporate interest group under the sun, coupled with a media meltdown that will make the 2016 Trump panic look tame by comparison. While Trump threatened norms of political decency and etiquette cherished by the political class, saying out loud the kinds of things Republicans have said at a whisper for decades, Sanders and his movement have already committed the far less venial sin of threatening their wealth, their privilege, and their power.
As the reality of that threat intensifies, Sanders supporters should brace for an elite crackup of epic proportions — and, more seriously, a relentless campaign to demoralize and demobilize them using every trick in the book.
At the very least, expect to hear roided-up versions of every time-tested smear ever sent in Sanders’s direction. Expect anguished think pieces from fanatical centrists about the impossible quandary posed by a choice between a democratic socialist and a far-right former reality show host. Expect proxy attacks aimed at Sanders surrogates and allies and regular attempts to create guilt by association.
Expect to hear again and again that the candidate with a large, enthusiastic, and demographically diverse base is actually the tribune of an online fringe consisting primarily of angry white guys. Expect to read that Sanders can’t beat Trump even as the polls show him beating Trump. Expect Democratic grandees and at least one former president to publicly lecture voters about the dangers posed by a Sanders nomination. Expect to hear the phrase “honeymoon in the USSR” in reference to something that isn’t a previously unheard B-side by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
With Sanders’s campaign looking stronger than ever ahead of the first caucuses next month, parts of the US media seem to have finally put the Bernie blackout on pause and gotten wise to the reality that the Vermont senator is indeed a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. If the current polling is borne out and Sanders enjoys success in early primary contests, expect another yet shift in the media climate: this time of a far darker, more dramatic, and infinitely nastier kind.