Earlier this week, Bernie Sanders emerged as the winner of the New Hampshire primary. The victory comes after weeks of what can only be called a concerted effort to marginalise and diminish the most insurgent and potentially transformative presidential campaign in living memory — an effort undertaken not only by Sanders’s official opponents, but also by much of the country’s media apparatus and factions of a ruling political and economic class that would sooner see Donald Trump’s reelection than a socialist at the head of a growing popular movement secure the Democratic nomination.
Against all odds, Sanders prevailed. After nearly a year of being written off and ignored, undeniably strong fundraising and a sudden surge in the polls in January finally made the Sanders campaign impossible to ignore. What happened next was swift, ugly, and entirely predictable.
Having variously erased and disregarded Sanders, media and political opponents alike unleashed a daily torrent of attacks and engineered micro-panics designed to halt his momentum before voting began in Iowa, from the Joe Rogan fiasco to a dubious charge he had once said a woman could never be elected president that was gleefully laundered by CNN to boost its ratings ahead of a January televised debate.
A host of neoconservative ghouls, from David Frum to Jennifer Rubin, warned Democrats they might lose the votes of all fifteen Never Trump Conservatives if they dared nominate a socialist. Hillary Clinton emerged from the ether to take a few desperate shots at Sanders while promoting a forthcoming hagiographic documentary about herself and the likes of Bret Stephens suddenly got very concerned about the scourge of Bernie Bros.
When Iowa finally arrived last week, a ludicrous debacle ensued that saw Pete Buttigieg declare victory while the Democratic Party released an unreliable trickle of results over a period of a few days. Whether this combination of events ultimately came down to incompetence, malice, or (as seems most likely) some combination of the two, its implication was clear: Sanders would not earn the momentum stories that typically accompany success in Iowa and Buttigieg would get a fresh round of back rubs from pundits on cable TV designed to give the impression of a surge and thus create one in the process.
It was all for naught, with Sanders’s message and solid ground game effectively punching through the noise. With 150 staffers, 17 field offices, and a team of highly motivated volunteers, the campaign physically canvassed nearly one-quarter of residences in New Hampshire on Saturday alone.
This week, in the face of considerable obstacles, those efforts were resoundingly rewarded. For the first time in the race, Sanders clearly leads Joe Biden: whose punishing results in both Iowa and New Hampshire and cratering national numbers plainly spell the end of his erstwhile status as frontrunner. Buttigieg, his closest rival so far, does not currently look competitive in upcoming contests. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg will properly enter the race in the coming weeks in the ultimate test of just how much money can really buy.
Though a difficult contest with many more obstacles undoubtedly still lies ahead, the results in Iowa and New Hampshire are a stinging rebuke to the Democratic establishment and its efforts to neutralise a populist revolt within its own ranks — and, with any luck, they will be a harbinger of things to come. Despite being two comparatively small states, Sanders’ growing momentum hardly seems limited to early contests and all available evidence suggests he is in a strong position to expand his multiracial, working-class coalition and secure victory in many of the states ahead.
If Sanders is winning, it’s in part because his opponents lack his skills as an organiser and capacity to rally support for a popular agenda. But it’s also because institutional liberalism as we’ve known it since the 1980s is manifesting clear symptoms of ideological atrophy and exhaustion. Its leaders and intellectuals have few answers and seem uninterested in asking themselves even basic questions about how America’s right-wing hegemony has come about, how it might be reversed, or why millions of people are no longer interested in the bland centrist narratives they’re selling.
This week that complacency, at once moral and political, was served a dire warning. Facing a country beset with needless suffering, widespread despair, and Republican dominance, the executive officers at Liberalism Inc. have continued to offer up the same feeble mixture of personality politics and vague uplift — pitching a vast field of candidates intent on engineering yet another unconvincing marriage between corporate-friendly policies and a soft rhetoric of social justice.
In their more unguarded moments, some elite liberals will now openly admit they see fundamental change as impossible and perhaps even undesirable: preferring instead a politics of minor technocratic fixes, superficial gestures, and tired clichés about national unity. Bernie Sanders and his movement know better and are doing everything in their power to drag America’s politically ineffective and criminally complacent centre-left into a position from which it might actually win.
New Hampshire and Iowa may only be two small steps towards this ambitious goal. But, with any luck, they will mark a turning point from which there will soon be no going back.