Chait: Sanders’ campaign shows how the far left fundamentally misunderstood the electorate


Back in January, Jonathan Chait wrote that nominating Bernie Sanders would be an “act of insanity.” He was one of a few voices in his party loudly warning that Sanders was not going to work out well for Democrats. As of today, Sanders still hasn’t dropped out of the race, despite a few voices encouraging him to do so. But now it looks like he’s running out of sheer stubbornness, not because he has a realistic path to the nomination. So with Sanders’ campaign winding down, Chait is back today to point out that his entire campaign was based on a misunderstanding.

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.

On the left, this explanation was accepted so widely it became foundational, a premise progressives would work forward from without questioning its veracity. The Sanders campaign argued that its connection to the white working class would enable Bernie to compete in areas that had abandoned Democrats years ago. “Some in the Sanders camp envision possibly making a play for Iowa, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as states such as Kansas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Montana,” reported Politico one year ago. Every left-wing indictment of the Democratic mainstream was made in explicit or implicit contrast to this imagined counterfactual of a Sanders-led party riding triumphant through the heartland of red America…

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.

He concludes the piece saying, “Hillary Clinton’s problem was not that she was too moderate…and Trump does not represent some final stage of capitalism.”

Hillary’s problem clearly was not that she wasn’t far left enough. But last night Joe Biden won in a lot of rust state counties where Hillary lost. CNN published an analysis piece about that today which tries to tease out what’s different this time around:

There are a lot of things that could explain why voters seem more open to Biden than Clinton. There are a lot of reasons it makes no sense at all.

There’s one obvious difference between them: Biden isn’t a woman.

For instance, even though Clinton was poised to become the first woman president, Biden actually did better among women in this year’s Democratic primary in Michigan than Clinton did four years ago: Biden got 57% and Clinton got 51% vs. Sanders…

Biden’s favorability, even when he’s struggled, has remained high. He had a 49% favorable rating in a recent CNN poll. For comparison, in March of 2016, Clinton’s favorability in March of 2016, by comparison, was 43% in CNN polling. More people have a favorable opinion of Biden than have an unfavorable opinion of him. The opposite was true of Clinton.

Admittedly, I’m skipping over a lot of the analysis, much of it having to do with ways in which Clinton and Biden are similar. But the differences can really be boiled down t a pretty simple fact: A lot of people just don’t like Hillary Clinton. She’s always been a polarizing figure and that makes her a tough sell to moderates and swing voters.

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Of course Joe Biden has a lot of other problems as a candidate but for all his faults he never comes across as inauthentic. On the contrary, he often comes across as a bit too much like a loud-mouth union worker or a slightly confused uncle.

In any case, last night was another bad night for socialism in America. The revolution has failed once again and this time it’s pretty clearly it was the voters who have made the decision, in particular black voters in South Carolina who made it clear they weren’t interested in going full socialism.

Chait suggests that maybe in a few more years that will change (he says he hopes it will). Democratic socialism will continue to be a thing, thanks especially to AOC, who remains tremendously popular. But it’s still a thing limited to a few select sections of the country. It could be a long time before a majority of America is ready to vote for the radical alternative.

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