The Democratic primary in Virginia last night went almost exactly as the Bernie Sanders campaign had long planned: The candidate of the multiracial working class beat the polls — and overcame his rival’s massive financial advantage — by achieving record turnout through the mobilization of first-time primary voters.
But that candidate turned out to be Joe Biden.
According to exit polls, the former vice-president won non-college-educated whites in Old Dominion by a 42 to 34 percent margin, and working-class African-Americans in a landslide. Meanwhile, turnout in Virginia nearly doubled between 2016 and 2020, and Biden won a slim majority of first-time Democratic primary voters.
These trends were not uniform across Super Tuesday states. But Biden won working-class Democrats in more states than Sanders did, and Uncle Joe tended to do better where turnout was higher. At the same time, the Sanders campaign failed to translate four years of movement building — and more financial resources than any rival but Bloomberg — into higher youth turnout than it had inspired in 2016. In the senator’s home state of Vermont, voters under 30 comprised 10 percent of the electorate Tuesday, down from 15 percent four years ago.
Sanders entered the 2020 race with high favorability and name recognition among Democratic primary voters. He could have tailored his campaign strategy to the goal of maximizing his support among rank-and-file Democrats. Instead, he chose to reprise his role as an insurgent outsider, running to overthrow the “Democratic Establishment,” and stuck to that script even after his victory in Nevada made him the race’s overwhelming front-runner. This approach was ostensibly premised on the assumptions that there was a large population of disaffected nonvoters who could be mobilized by an unequivocal critique of creeping plutocracy, or that a majority of Democrats disdain their party’s leadership, or that Sanders could prevail with a mere plurality.
Last night’s results refuted those assumptions. The Sanders campaign’s losses were partially mitigated by its impressive gains with Hispanic voters. But its resilient strength in the West was largely attributable to the greater prevalence of early voting in the region. Which is to say, the fact that Sanders was able to bank votes before Biden’s victory in South Carolina and subsequent collection of endorsements makes this race look closer than it presently is. The socialist senator lost late deciders in Vermont. Super Tuesday’s returns suggest Sanders is currently down by a large margin nationally — and with Bloomberg’s endorsement of Biden Wednesday, the former vice-president’s lead is likely to swell further. Had Elizabeth Warren dropped out before Super Tuesday and endorsed Sanders, the delegate disparity between the Vermont senator and Biden would likely be narrower today. But the main challenge facing Bernie and his movement is that its theory of victory turned out to be nonviable, not that Warren wasn’t more of a team player.
None of this takes away from Sanders’s genuine achievements. The campaign’s strategic errors wouldn’t be lamentable if his movement hadn’t proved itself so formidable. In states across the nation last night, pluralities of Democratic primary voters expressed a favorable opinion of “socialism.” In revealing that a candidate could secure a hammerlock on 20 percent of the Democratic electorate, and ownership of a historically powerful online fundraising apparatus, by embracing radical social-democratic reform, Sanders changed the ideological incentives facing his co-partisans and the terms of the Democratic debate. In the 2020 field, the “moderate” candidates supported a public option strong enough to undermine private insurers’ business model, expanding Social Security, a $15 minimum wage, and multitrillion-dollar climate plans. Most auspiciously, Sanders and his supporters have ostensibly radicalized the rising generation of Democratic voters. This may not prove adequate to win progressives control of the party in 2020 — but it very well might by the time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turns 35.
If shifting America’s political discourse leftward and spreading the seeds of a new socialist movement were the most the Sanders campaign could realistically hope for, then the senator’s insurgent approach would qualify as a smashing success. But he was — and, for the moment, still is — a serious contender for the U.S. presidency. And the benefits the American left would derive from electing a democratic socialist far outweigh the costs of rhetorical moderation and tactical concessions to the necessity of coalition building.
It’s therefore imperative that the left does not respond to last night’s disappointments by retreating into conspiracizing or scapegoating. It is not anti-democratic for moderate candidates to consolidate their support. Yes, the corporate media is biased against the left. But that’s always been a given. Yes, some segment of Democratic donors aren’t sure whether they prefer democratic socialism to Trumpism, while many moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill are less concerned with gauging the popularity of the left’s agenda than maintaining their future employability in the lobbying sector. But many Democrats, elite and otherwise, do genuinely fear that Sanders would lose to Trump. And as tendentious as their conceptions of “electability” may be, Sanders failed to demonstrate his own viability. Over and over, the Vermont senator has insisted that he cannot defeat Donald Trump unless he inspires unprecedentedly high turnout; and over and over, he has not done so. This reality — combined with the failure of Corbynism in Britain — should put to rest the notion that embracing radical economic reform is such an obvious electoral winner only closeted reactionaries could possibly question the near-term electoral wisdom of campaigning on the Sanders platform. Abandoning a Manichean understanding of all intra-Democratic conflict does not mean that progressives should cease inveighing against the party’s many malicious “moderates,” or challenging archaic forms of political realism, or denouncing suicidal strands of substantive complacency about an ecologically and democratically unsustainable status quo. But it does mean that we should approach the latter tasks with the humility of a movement whose own intuitions about electoral politics haven’t always panned out. Put differently, progressives should give their co-partisans the benefit of the doubt when they express concerns about the electoral viability of our program, unless or until their bad faith is made manifest.
Because there is no alternative. The left doesn’t have its pick of coalition partners. At least not for now. Both Sanders-aligned socialists and Warren-supporting progressives have a tendency to invoke an idealized conception of nonvoters as a means of escaping the distasteful compromises that building majority coalitions among actually existing voters would undeniably entail. Each faction can identify this pathological tendency in the other: During the Joe Rogan endorsement controversy, many Bernie backers correctly argued that (contrary to the claims of some Warren supporters) there is not actually a majority coalition for progressive change in the U.S. that does not welcome voters with retrograde views on at least some issues. Meanwhile, throughout the primary, Warren voters insisted that — contrary to the claims of some Berners — professional-class suburban women are becoming an indispensable flank of both the Democratic Party in general and its progressive wing in particular, and the left must therefore take that cohort’s interests and sensibilities into account.
Progressives of all stripes are correct that nonwhite and low-income Americans are underrepresented in the U.S. electorate, and that this places real constraints on the bounds of political possibility. Democratizing civic participation is a vital moral and strategic goal. But there’s little evidence that declining working-class voter participation is solely a product of the center left’s ideological triangulation since the 1980s. If ideological positioning were sufficient to progressively remake the electorate, Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister, Elizabeth Warren’s mastery of intersectional argot would have spurred record nonwhite turnout in the 2020 primary, and Bernie Sanders would be the presumptive Democratic nominee. Mobilizing and realigning working-class voters and other marginalized groups likely requires rebuilding civic and communitarian institutions — above all, trade unions — and enacting laws that offer Americans large incentives to show up at the ballot box. And to do any of that, the left must first win with the electorate it has, not the one it wishes it did.
Fortunately, there is a lot that progressives can accomplish with the existing Democratic electorate. While the party’s base is more ideologically diverse than progressives are inclined to admit (the diversity of political opinion in the black and Latino communities gets routinely elided in left discourse), that base is also more ideologically malleable than some fear. It is in the enlightened self-interest of most college-educated suburbanites to support social democracy, and a great many of them do. Meanwhile, trusted Democratic elites have significant power to reshape the cultural attitudes of strong partisans, even on subjects where reactionary views are deeply rooted in religious practice and social convention. Before Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage in 2012, only 41 percent of African-Americans supported that civil right; afterward, 59 percent did.
But the left isn’t going to maximize its ideological influence over Democratic voters, or its power within the party, by pretending that it commands an enormous army of nonvoters who are ready to storm the Democratic castle as soon as Sanders gives the signal. If the Vermont senator had assembled such an army, then it would make sense for him to campaign as an enemy of the Democratic Establishment (even after taking the lead in the party’s primary), or for one of his senior advisers to declare Bernie Sanders a threat to the job security of every professional Democrat in the Beltway. But the revolutionary proletariat isn’t actually at the DNC’s gates. So none of that makes much sense if the goal is to win control of the Democratic Party this year.
Sanders’s base is strongly ideological and weakly Democratic. But the bulk of blue America’s primary electorate is the opposite: weakly ideological but strongly partisan. Median Democratic primary voters like the Democratic Party and its leadership. They may be open to the idea that Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Nancy Pelosi, and Pete Buttigieg subscribe to a misguided notion of political possibility, but they’re going to be resistant to the claim that they’re all amoral toadies for the billionaire class. Meanwhile, because Democratic primary voters generally like their party, “Beltway Democrats” have a lot of influence over whose side they take in intraparty disputes. Which means that it’s actually important to at least try to cultivate the goodwill of Democratic insiders, rather than actively working to alienate them. Tailoring one’s critiques of the status quo political economy to the sensibilities of normie Democrats, and the egotism of Establishment ones, is not the most cathartic mode of political engagement. Seeking to defuse tensions between liberals and socialists in critical moments, rather than forever and always trying to heighten intra-left contradictions, may be suboptimal for preserving the brand distinctiveness of your Twitter account or alternative media product. But if your goal is to build electoral power and secure progressive reforms in the near future, then you need to make those concessions to coalition building, or else offer a detailed explanation of why Sanders’s example has not revealed such concessions to be necessary.
The 2020 primary offers the broad left other unsexy lessons about electoral politics. For example, there is little to no evidence that large field operations are an efficient use of limited campaign resources in presidential elections. Progressives of all stripes have an attachment to canvassing as a tactic because it feels (and generally is) more human, civic, and democratic to have conversations with one’s fellow Americans than to bombard them with televisual propaganda. But while community organizing is indispensable, knocking on strangers doors and proselytizing for a candidate isn’t community organizing; it’s just a persuasion and mobilization tool that should be used in contexts where it appears effective (like low-turnout local elections) and dropped in contexts where it isn’t — and the 2020 primary appears to be one of the latter.
Candidates who concentrated their time and money on assembling armies of canvassers drastically underperformed those who prioritized paid and earned media. Warren made enormous investments into her Iowa “ground game,” and got third place for her efforts. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, prioritized earned media, accepting virtually every interview and profile opportunity he was offered and working to ensure that reporters had a lovely time when covering his campaign, and rode that free press to a brief moment of improbable contention. Joe Biden, meanwhile, had virtually no field operation or ad campaign in Super Tuesday states and still dominated on the strength of a great news cycle. The corporate media’s biases will always work against left candidates to some extent. But that extent is at least somewhat variable (Elizabeth Warren did win the New York Times’ co-endorsement after all). And given the power that the media wields, it actually probably makes sense for progressive campaigns to do “bullshit” like wishing reporters “happy birthday” and not disparaging entire news outlets in response to negative coverage, even when that coverage is unfair.
Which is to say, electoral politics in a modern capitalist society where unions are on life support and social movements are weak is extremely lame! And many radicals may see little point in spending their time and energy on elections, if winning them entails masking one’s contempt for the Democratic Party and mainstream media or outrage over the myriad atrocities that each has abetted. Which is fair enough. There is plenty of vital political work to be done outside the electoral sphere. We have no overabundance of workplace and community organizers in this country.
But the stakes of electoral politics at this moment are exceptionally high. And the opportunities for left-wing movements to win and exercise power through the Democratic Party are abundant. Electing a Democratic president in November probably won’t make Medicare for All a reality; but electing some of the most conservative Democrats in the country to governorships in Louisiana and Kentucky was sufficient to extend public health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income Americans and thus to keep many people’s loved ones on this Earth and out of bankruptcy. Are they not worth fighting for? By primarying Joe Crowley, supporters of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez secured a megaphone and massive fundraising platform for radical environmental and economic reform. By running in the Democratic Party primary for Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner has progressively remade criminal justice in America’s sixth-largest city. And, of course, a socialist remains within striking distance of the Democratic nomination, trailing a front-runner whose personal liabilities are so profound and conspicuous the party’s moderate donors were unwilling to finance his campaign until the last possible moment.
To fully exploit its opportunities for making America a less cruel and undemocratic society in the near term — and laying the groundwork for more radical change in the long run — the left will need to make peace with the concessions and compromises inherent to electoral politics. All I am saying is give that peace a chance.