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Bernie 2020: What Went Wrong?

Sanders could still make an all-out case that only his social welfare philosophy can meet the crisis of coronavirus and other similar breakdowns.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arrives at the Capitol for a vote on a coronavirus bill amendment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It was a curiously pacified campaign all along. The huge fervent rallies were deceptive for the depth of political compromise they concealed. The ever-burgeoning grandiose plans to remake the American economy showed less and less connection with reality as the basic presumptions of an actual political breakthrough were always sidelined. It was a policy revolution in the stratosphere of imagination, unable to take on an opponent as transparently petty as the DNC. The campaign demobilized itself from the get-go, and continued laying down arms with each new assault. In the end, it has left its passionate believers, investing all their faith in the messiah, worse off than when we started.

Sanders followers have wondered throughout the campaign about manifest strategic errors and ascribed them to the man's essential gentleness, which is indisputable and without parallel in current American politics, but is not the real explanation. From the moment I tuned seriously into this campaign early in 2019, I felt that something was off. Sanders was playing too nice with the media. There was no attempt to differentiate himself from his main opponents, namely Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. He presumed himself the ideological front-runner.  

These errors of conception amplified themselves many times over as the campaign unfolded, reaching a crescendo in the last month and a half, from Iowa to last Tuesday's primaries.

Supporters were frustrated that Sanders let Warren get away with wearing the progressive mantle, when her platform was only a form of capitalist reformism, which Sanders never made clear. It was only Warren's own steady revelation of her true colors, particularly in failing to defend Medicare for All, that led to her implosion. Had he acquired a magic talisman to disappear opponents by single-mindedly focusing on his own message, some of us wondered in the weeks leading up to Iowa?

But that was his own left lane, and he was always master of it. Once the DNC got down to brass tacks ever since Iowa, the Sanders camp had no response that made any difference. At each stage of continued unilateral disarmament, allies speculated if now was the time Sanders would finally take a stand against the DNC plot seeking to undermine his movement and its followers, but he never did. Often we were teased with just a little pushback, but not enough, a pattern that has remained true till the end.

There was no protest after the Iowa caucus meltdown, which deprived him of essential momentum. Sanders never challenged DNC chair Tom Perez to step down, or any other involved officials, choosing to accept the media narrative of near parity with Pete Buttigieg. His campaign actually bragged about being ahead in the popular vote in Iowa, providing a clear signal to the party establishment that all further shenanigans would be tolerated. Was it a surprise that Sanders never made an issue of the manifest voter suppression and strange election results that occurred everywhere on Super Tuesday? That he even went along with last Tuesday's pseudo-primary, with electioneering in suspension and a full-blown pandemic in progress, not only not calling for an outright halt to such a farce of an election but fully conceding the results, yet again?

Many Sanders defenders have legitimately pondered throughout the campaign how he could possibly take on the omnipotent global oligarchy and achieve any of his policy proposals as president if he couldn't take on the two-timing DNC elite with their sleazy scheming. If the party quickly coalesced around a single establishment candidate, where was the preemptive strategy to deal with it? Again, it wasn't there because the party was never seen as the enemy, just the convenient platform upon which to mount a battle of ideas.

Sanders' "political revolution" was always only a revolution at the ballot box. It never had a street component to it, and was never meant to have any. It's true that Sanders has been part of grassroots action of every type since the tragic end of the 2016 campaign, passionately standing with teachers on strike or agitating for better conditions at Amazon and Disney, but direct action was never meant to be a part of the political revolution against the openly conspiring elites.

Without a cascading, intensifying and ever more strident street deployment by some of his legions of young supporters, particularly Latinos and other minorities, there was no chance that the predictable DNC machinations could be counterbalanced. That option was never on the cards, which tells you all you need to know about the political revolution we were supposed to get behind with the expectation that it would fell the global oligarchy in possession of every form of seen and unseen power. Such an event has never happened in world history, so either we were naïve to believe it could happen, or we were taken along for a ride.

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The conciliatory Sanders of 2020 vintage bought into the entire argument against his own electability when he went along, as a respected if somewhat begrudged elder statesman, with the Democratic party's refusal to accept any of the political malfeasance that had given rise to Trump in the first place. Instead, he was making the unintentional case for Biden all along when he participated in Russiagate and impeachment, self-absolving paranoias catering to the fearful Democratic voter's desire to return to the status quo ante. If you never take on Obama, how do you stop his lieutenant?

This explains the lost chance to take down Biden in their head-to-head debate last Sunday. It was the peak moment of disappointment for Sanders believers as the Senator passed up opportunity after opportunity to not only discredit Biden as a key instigator of the failed Affordable Care Act and the Wall Street bailout, both of which had newly converged in the population's vulnerability to the coronavirus, but also absorbed repeated body blows aimed at the credibility of his own political revolution. Except for a 20-minute arousal when Sanders exposed Biden for lying about Social Security, the rest of the time he did not defend himself or his followers against vicious bullying, giving a powerful new leash of life to the establishment.

In this moment of incipient despair, it would be all too easy to credit the Sanders campaign with some success for moving the political discourse leftward. As the panic around coronavirus demonstrates, however, it's easy to maneuver the electorate back toward measures that sound practical yet only reinforce neoliberal inequality. The post-9/11 post-constitutional order is due for another rapid consolidation.

What really failed was the whole idea, beloved of some millennial popularizers in the last five years, that the Democratic party can actually be realigned by the painless act of voting alone. The so-called "inside-outside strategy," which seeks to expose the perfidy of the elites by way of mounting openly progressive electoral campaigns within the Democratic party, has been shown to be a resounding failure. If Sanders couldn't make it work in his second successive campaign with even more of a mass following, then who can? Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, already being suggested as the inheritor of the inside-outside strategy, is likely to meet the same tragic fate at the hands of party insiders.

Sanders won't mount a third party challenge this time around, just as he didn't earlier. His 2016 campaign was more potent because that threat was always  on the table. He'd said he wouldn't do it, but nobody really knew what he would do. Conditions were ideal then, and there's a good chance that he would have ended the two-party duopoly once and for all. This time around, his pledge of allegiance to the eventual nominee has given free license to party elites to undermine him by every conceivable means. There was no way that Bernie 2020 was going to win without that threat as a recurring subtext.

All of Sanders's strategic errors, then, follow from the original philosophical misconception. A political revolution interpreted strictly as an electoral revolution, disavowing every parallel strategy at the disposal of the contending elites, was bound to fail. Sanders could never take on Warren or Biden because he was always running as an establishment candidate of sorts, pleading that his ideas were non-threatening and mainstream. Yet the force of his policy proposals was always fatally diluted by his association with the party message that Trump is the existential threat we face, not a discredited character like Biden who was behind every policy malfeasance that led to Trump.

It is remarkable that though Sanders has offered a detailed program for every conceivable social and political ill, there isn't any section specifically devoted to civil liberties on his website. I always thought it was fatuous to believe that we could have Medicare for All or student debt cancellation while keeping the post-9/11 Orwellian state in place; the coronavirus stampede toward the candidate of authority and status quo order has already made this clear. Sanders also doesn't have any proposal to loosen the party duopoly by easing ballot access or encouraging proportional representation, but then again, he is a party man now, isn't he?

Sanders could prove this entire analysis wrong by seizing the greatest opportunity that has yet been gifted to him, even more than the Biden debate. Relegating the primaries to the fog of confusion where they belong, he could still make an all-out case that only his social welfare philosophy can meet the crisis of coronavirus and other similar breakdowns. He could throw the gauntlet to the elites, forget the last three months as a bad dream, and ask to meet them at the (virtual) convention with the result up in the air. He could mobilize his tens of millions of passionate adherents by making them think beyond the logistics of pure electoral politics. By not bowing down to party pressure to concede to Biden and endorse him soon, he could yet reshape the entire landscape of the general election, with his movement at the front and center of it. But we already know what he's going to do, after a bit of teasing, don't we? 

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