- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
Yesterday, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the US presidential race. It followed a tumultuous few months during which the socialist candidate briefly looked as if he might win the Democratic nomination before an establishment consolidation around Joe Biden swung the race in the latter’s favour.
But what were the factors leading to this defeat? Was it inevitable? And where should the American Left go now? In both 2016 and 2020, the Sanders campaign received millions of votes – something that would have been unthinkable for a socialist in America until recently.
To answer these questions, we spoke to prominent left-wing talkshow host Michael Brooks. Michael is the host of The Michael Brooks Show, the author of a new book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right and, from this weekend, is part of a new Jacobin YouTube show alongside The Young Turks’ Ana Kasparian. But here he focuses on the Bernie campaign, its strengths and weaknesses – and its legacy.
Where did it go wrong, in your view, for Bernie?
The biggest problem, frankly, was the one we have the least control over. It was the absolute uniformity of opposition in the media to Bernie’s campaign. It wasn’t as systematic as Corbyn found in the UK, but it was relentless and powerful. Cable news essentially operated as superPACs of the DNC, particularly MSNBC. It really did underline, as did the whole mess of the Warren campaign, that this alliance between the Left and liberals doesn’t work.
But there are other reasons too. In 2016, the success of that campaign showed that there was an enormous hunger for change. People were looking for solutions to the inequities in modern America, and they found them in democratic socialism and New Deal-style policies. It was distilled in the success of the Sanders insurgency. And then people saw Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez come out of nowhere, and the bubbling up of various grassroots left-wing activities, and there was this real feeling that something was happening.
But then in 2018, the Democrats won the House, and they didn’t win it because of Left insurgent energy. They won the House in large part due to relatively affluent voters, not quite Never Trump Republicans, but people in the suburban Clintonite mould. Their unifying impulse was really a hatred of Donald Trump.
I think that the Sanders campaign needed to sit down two years ago and recognise that problem. Their message needed to be, “look, fundamentally, what Bernie’s about is solving these big problems that have led to Trump, that nobody’s spoken about better or more honestly than Bernie for decades.”
In the Democratic Party you have an electorate that wants to return to a pre-Trump normality. That nostalgia has really guided the end of this race. I don’t think we realised just how powerful the media would be in that context, this unrelenting propaganda war against Bernie beamed right into the atrophied brains of the ‘#resistance’ mindset. The reality is that the people who powered the 2018 midterms are very cautious voters who don’t think systemically, they are just offended by Donald Trump. And they were the decisive factor.
There was a lot of talk about expanding the electorate and so on, and that’s great and necessary. But you don’t build a strategy around something that you don’t know will happen. From two years ago we knew the older, more moderate Democrats were going to vote. Bernie had a powerful and important 30% of working-class people behind him, Democrats that actually care about system change. But to win he needed to figure out a way of peeling off some of the other folks.
Frankly, in order to do that, you’re going to need to emphasise that you’re electable, emphasise that even though you’re calling for things that will really help people, they fit within the American tradition and this sort of thing. But look, right now, there are a lot of armchair attacks on Bernie. I don’t want to get into those. I think frankly Bernie is a once-in-a-lifetime figure that we should be thanking. I think he’s a heroic figure.
There seems to be one line, in the wake of the defeat, that Bernie lost because he couldn’t win Warren voters…
Look, Bernie needed to expand from 2016. He needed to broaden his coalition into new demographics and new areas. No doubt. But sometimes people confuse means and ends, right? For example, the incredible success that Bernie had with Hispanic voters was because of his clear policy agenda, both in terms of the rights and protections of immigrant communities, but also a much broader social democratic message. As we saw with the failure of the Warren campaign, it was not because he was in some kind of woke Twitter war, or exporting an academic intersectional language to the electorate. People don’t care about that.
Elizabeth Warren has a huge amount of media currency, but in terms of her vote totals, she was nowhere. She didn’t win a single state. The professional managerial class segment of the electorate, even in the Democratic primary, is relatively small. Biden was doing well with the suburban types, but he was also doing well with categories of working-class voters. The whole Warren phenomenon is this mirage and distraction, the real problem was reaching categories like rural white voters, older black voters, middle-aged working families. None of these were in the Warren camp.
The only moment when Bernie really began to make headway in that camp was for a brief period after Nevada – for that great couple of days. People that would never look at him before, with fairly moderate politics, were like, “well, he looks like the guy to beat Trump, so I’m going to vote for Bernie now.” So, I think the questions of Trump and electability really were fundamental. They needed a message to disrupt the coalescing of a coalition around Biden as someone who could take us back to the time before Trump.
One thing we’ve learned is that we have to work with the electorate as it is. I think the tragedy is that if Bernie was running for re-election in 2024, and people have gotten their student debts lifted, and millions more had health care, then he could run on the ‘expand the electorate’ strategy. Because people would have seen how this politics could change their lives. Until it happens, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to create this huge transformation in the political landscape and bring in non-voters, or enough young or working-class people.
There is a huge lack of belief that things can change for the better. That doesn’t mean things aren’t changing at all. I certainly know younger people who watch my show, or read Tribune or whatever, who have been politicised and engaged by this period. That happens, and it’s real. But it’s not scaling up yet. It’s not enough to win a presidency on.
Of course, over time the electorate is going to change. Not in the sense of being expanded, but if we keep following the trends we’ve seen in this election, it’ll change politically and demographically. It’s looking increasingly like younger and even middle-aged voters are going to keep demanding system change and the right-wing will have to shed the economic orthodoxy of the last several decades. The risk with that is the Democrats don’t follow the trend, don’t become economically radical. They just starting to look like… I mean, honestly, the party of a very narrow set of basically suburban concerns.
How should we understand Bernie’s particular weakness among older black voters? And what about his failure to win the postindustrial voters in the Midwest who supported him in 2016?
Well, on the first question, as you said, it’s older black voters. The Bernie campaign cleaned up with young voters of every single demographic in 2016 and 2020, and that’s the future. But in 2016, the numbers show that by the time the campaign got to the industrial Midwest, Bernie was becoming much more competitive with black voters of all ages. That didn’t happen this time — and I think we need to be real that a large part of it was the fact Joe Biden was Obama’s vice-president, and Obama remains very popular particularly among older black voters.
I don’t know how they would have resisted this. It was a problem from the outset to allow the narrative be set that South Carolina was the first big test of this singular thing called the black vote. We knew that South Carolina was going to be a bit more to the right politically. People are on the receiving end of both a deeply racist political tradition in South Carolina, as well as a union-free state where voting is often a defensive activity against some of the most rapacious Republicans in the country. Biden’s message of holding ground and keeping things stable was always going to be more appealing than one of revolution, right?
The line that says ‘we need to ensure we survive, not figure out how we thrive’ makes complete sense if you look at specifically South Carolinian politics. One figure who managed to transcend this was Jesse Jackson. Maybe if he endorsed earlier, that would have helped. As far as I can tell, they didn’t try to get Jim Clyburn’s endorsement in South Carolina. Now, they weren’t going to get it. Jim Clyburn is a corporate Democrat. No doubt. He’s not going to support Bernie’s agenda. He’s a machine politician. But also, if you’re playing the game, you’ve got to play the game. What they could have done maybe was get him to issue a generic statement endorsing Biden, rather than pulling out all the stops. Clyburn kicking his political machine into gear made a huge difference in South Carolina, and that set things in motion for the consolidation before Super Tuesday.
There was a lot of talk about other candidates — but Biden was always going to be Bernie’s challenge. Yes, he did badly in the early states. But his numbers held up in South Carolina. He had the Obama factor, he had the DNC support. And maybe if the campaign had been clearer on that earlier, they could have focused more on stopping Biden’s path, rather than thinking about a whole field, Kamala Harris, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Warren, whoever was the media favourite that week.
In the postindustrial Midwest, the fact Biden was not as unpopular as Hillary was important. This can be overplayed — remember that this is still a Democratic primary and Hillary would be popular relative to the general population. But yeah, Biden was less tarred with NAFTA, maybe, he was Obama’s vice-president, there was the auto bailout. Also I think we’ve got to recognise that the postindustrial workers we’re talking about, a lot of them are just not Democratic primary voters. Maybe Bernie does better in a general election. But this time it’s clear Biden’s coalition was enough within the party itself.
How should Bernie approach the presidential election? He’s staying in the race at least on paper to try to amass delegates and influence the party platform…
I don’t know. I mean, Bernie’s the leader of the Left in this country. I get that people are upset, and obviously, I think some people have valid and important criticisms of the campaign. People are frustrated with Bernie for not being more aggressive and so on, and that’s all fine. But I think we actually need to sit back and say, “Look, this guy’s done an extraordinary amount of work for us. He held the torch for decades when it was commonly accepted that capitalism couldn’t be challenged. We cannot allow him to be marginalised.”
In the media today they’re talking about plenty of other people as serious national figures, and as vice-presidential options, people who aren’t remotely as successful or as historically important as Bernie Sanders. He’s won multiple states both times he ran. He put together groundbreaking and historic field operations, fundraising operations. He’s brought huge numbers of people into politics. He’s had a major influence.
Now, I’m not saying this to make us feel better. We’ve lost and we’re in a terrible situation, but it is an objective reality that Bernie Sanders is an enormously successful, important politician, and he’s the leader of the Left. So, we should not accept the narrative of him as a loser. He’s not. We did not win. But this is not Harris, Warren, Buttigieg. This is a guy who almost pulled off a major upset 2016, and had some incredible successes in this race. He won several primaries, including a huge win in Nevada, including California. He turned out young people and Hispanic voters and basically exactly the people the Democrats are going to need to win in the future, right?
I hope that Bernie’s message is “I’m a leader, I have millions of people who care deeply about our platform, because it’s their lives, and I’ll tell you what: if I don’t get my pick of vice-president, and forget the Democratic Party platform, but actual policy positions, I will not endorse the Democratic nominee.” Now, that hasn’t been the path he’s followed, and I think there’s a number of obvious reasons for that. He does not want Donald Trump to be president. Bernie Sanders, I’m sure, has more basic human concern about the suffering caused by the Trump administration than anybody else running for president. But I think right now the way Bernie has played his hand means he doesn’t have a credible threat to make. Maybe he could say, “Sure, I’ll endorse Joe, but I’m not going to campaign my ass off like I did for Hillary unless X, Y and Z happens.”
What should the Left in America do next? It has had this incredible moment, but there isn’t a mass organisation to direct all these millions of Bernie supporters into.
Well, to be frank, the work that we’re both doing is both totally overrepresented on the Left! If it doesn’t become something beyond a media phenomenon then obviously it’s never going to gain power or achieve anything. I think the question now for of all of these millions of people who’ve done this incredible work for Bernie is… Well, we can’t do this with the coronavirus but, you know, when we’re allowed out of our apartments, we should sit down and have a drink and say to each other, “Okay, who’s running for city council? Who’s running for school board?” Or, “how are we going to turn this into a tenants’ union” Or, “can we organise our workplaces?”
I think actually the notion of the Bernie campaign being a movement was important, even if it was off-putting to some people, because it was true. I mean, electing Bernie Sanders would be the best thing America could do for itself and for the world, but it wouldn’t be a revolution. It would just be basic sanity and decency, basic social democracy, which is billions of years ahead of where this grotesque, dysfunctional country is at. What made it something more was the movement. Millions of people were politicised, and building all of the other antennas, and you can definitely see that. You run into people at the Bernie rallies, and they’re plugged into these alternative media networks, they’re working for Bernie, and then they’re doing some incredible work around labour organising, or solidarity with victims of ICE, or whatever else.
The defeat was bad. There’s no point in hiding from it, or saying “well, now people talk about Medicare for All.” It was a bad loss, and at a bad time with the coronavirus crisis and the recession. On top of all this, the Democrats are going to do their best to lose to Trump, with a disastrous candidate and no enthusiasm or excitement about their policies. They have beaten us without being on the top of their game, so we have to recognise that. But, on the other hand, it’s very important to not just retreat into pessimism and write it all off. The truth is that politics has radically changed — and specifically among young people, you see all the right kind of poll numbers about Medicare for All, about interest in socialism. We built this incredible ship, and it didn’t get to the destination we wanted to get to, but we still have this ship, and now we have to take it to some other place, to build other campaigns.
We need to be running electoral campaigns. We need to be exploring mutual aid. We need to finally figure out if there’s a possibility of building a mass labour movement again in America. It seems to me that there’s no way socialist change happens without a mass labour movement. It’s going to have to look different in than the past, it’ll have to be really inclusive of all the workers struggling in the freelance economy, workers who are unemployed now. It will have to fight to change society, not just be defensive. A labour movement that protects little tiny slices of the economy for itself, even as it can’t pass anything on to its children, and endorses Joe Biden, isn’t going to get us anywhere.
We need to think through some things. We didn’t figure out a formula to break through the maze of the Democratic primary, but we came pretty damn close, and millions of people are now activated. So, I think we have to, in that very grounded way, take on what’s next.