Can Bernie Really Win Easily? A Paste Politics Discussion

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
Can Bernie Really Win Easily? A Paste Politics Discussion

Because we live in hell and in a country with a major media constantly looking to the next election, the 2020 election has officially begun in 2019’s nascent stages—which also means that it’s officially hot take season. Given that Paste politics is a leftist outlet and Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy (while citing one of our Paste politics pieces in his announcement video — we see you Bernie), and Elizabeth Warren also jumped in recently, we feel something of an obligation to hash this topic out in public. Below you will read an e-mail exchange between me and my hot take compatriot, Paste politics editor Shane Ryan, who fired the first salvo in this war by writing on the day Bernie declared that “Bernie Sanders is going to win, and it’s going to be easy.” But is he right?

I’ll now change my pronouns from pointing towards you, dear reader, to Shane as we officially kick off the 2019 2020 Hot Take Wars.

Jacob Weindling: For me, the most convincing argument you made in your piece was about name recognition. We live in a country where congress has about a 20% approval rating and about a 95% reelection rate. The prevailing thought is “everyone sucks but my guy,” and that mindset is directly informed by having very little information about anyone other than who is currently in power. I place the vast majority of the blame for this depressing fact that we don’t teach civics in this country, as well as on major media misinforming the populace—as you can turn on any Sunday show or cable news panel and watch the same Very Serious “both-sides” deficit-scold arguments from the same set of elite media folks. Bernie had very little name recognition in 2016, and now only Joe Biden bests him. That’s a major, major asset.

For any readers still not convinced about the utmost importance of name recognition, I have two more pieces of evidence to submit to the court. One, Bernie is very popular on the left and his support has basically remained the same since people learned who he was.

And two, if you ask most people who their top two candidates are right now, they’re overwhelmingly Bernie and Biden—which makes absolutely no ideological sense given that they are basically the left and right endpoints of the current ideological spectrum in the Democratic Party. As much as us policy-centric folks wish that we ran the world, we don’t. Folks less plugged-in than those of us who spend our days wading through the political muck decide presidential elections, and name recognition is one of the biggest deciding factors in whether a candidate will win.

But that doesn’t mean us policy-centric folks don’t have some power over this election. The 2018 election and the elevation of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal to the center of the 2020 Democratic platform is proof that policy is ascendant on the left, and that most people generally want to do big things to fix our very big problems. The question is how should we go about doing it, and this is where capitalism comes in to the discussion.

I semi-critiqued Elizabeth Warren’s generally awesome access to universal child care plan because “access” is code for “market-based solution.” To me, that’s the central fault line on the left. If you want to work within the framework of the current capitalist and constitutional structure of the United States, you are a liberal, whereas if you want to generally destroy and then replace/amend the capitalist status quo with something tilted towards social democracy, you are a progressive (I prefer the term leftist, personally). I’ve publicly documented my move away from capitalism here at Paste, and I think that this Bernie-Warren dynamic is another litmus test for what constitutes leftist politics, because the central narrative out there so far does not do a good enough job explaining the irreconcilable fundamental ideological fault lines between pro-capitalism liberalism, social democracy and socialism—distinctions which will be a major factor in who wins in 2020 whether they are properly covered or not.

What do you think?

Shane Ryan: Jake, I agree with you, and would cite this piece by Zaid Jilani at Jacobin which outlines that very dichotomy, and is a good read if people want to go more in-depth:

The two senators also have distinct theories of change. Sanders has long believed in bottom-up, movement-based politics. Since his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he has tried to energize citizens to take part in government. He generally distrusts elites and decision-making that does not include the public. Warren, on the other hand, generally accepts political reality and works to push elite decision-makers towards her point of view.

As Jilani points out, this is not an across-the-board truth: Warren has endorsed Medicare-for-all (despite being opposed to it five years ago and rarely bringing it up even today), and Bernie has worked within the system for goals like pressuring Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15. Those aren’t the only two examples, but by and large the pattern of political thinking is pretty constant, and pretty different, between the two candidates.

Which brings us to what I think is the most important point: Bernie Sanders’ paradigm requires a popular movement, and he has a popular movement. I don’t mean to be reductive, but speaking from a realpolitik standpoint, that really might be all we need to know. He stepped up when nobody else had the gumption after the field cleared for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it turned out that a lot of people were ready to hear a democratic-socialist, “taxes-are-actually-good” approach to governance. He didn’t win, but the reward for his courage was becoming one of the most popular politicians in America and wielding an unbelievable amount of influence over the party.

Elizabeth Warren’s approach requires popular support, but not a movement. It only requires winning elections and then commencing the work of reforming the system. Her problem—and to me, it’s an insurmountable one—is that she’s going against Bernie Sanders, and against him, you need a movement to win. But there’s just no oxygen on that terrain, is there? Sanders raised more money in about three hours than anyone else raised in a full day after announcing their candidacies, and Warren’s problem is that she’s trying to occupy a similar leftist space. If the votes exist, for her, they exist among Sanders supporters, and the bleak reality is that as of last Tuesday morning, Sanders is already standing in her spot.

Here’s where we get to the superficial part of politics, and talk about instincts and charisma and etc. Because look, if Warren was some kind of transformational political personality, I’d still give her a shot. She isn’t—policy aside, I’m very bearish on her as a candidate. I thought her response to the Native American heritage was an unbelievable blunder, and her weird “I’m gonna get me a beer” video with her stiff husband was about as cringe-worthy as it gets, particularly in its obvious thirst to co-opt AOC’s social media savvy. Like it or not, that kind of stuff informs perceptions of authenticity, and when you combine it with the fact that she’s going to be preaching a less sweeping vision of progressivism than Sanders, I really do not see how she drums up the kind of critical support she needs. To be perfectly frank, it wouldn’t shock me to see her drop out before Iowa.

In short, I’m with Amber A’Lee Frost, who wrote:

She’s not charismatic and appears to have absolutely zero understanding of what voters want in a candidate, as indicated by her pre-campaign soft launch on a bit of specious family lore about Native American heritage. Literally, no one cares, and yet she keeps doubling down on it. She chokes, she flinches, she reacts every time Trump insults her, and thus the public is far more familiar with her defensive “Orange Man is Mean to Me” ethnic delusion than they are her “Accountable Capitalism Act”…

So, here’s my perspective: I agree fully with your breakdown of what it means to be a progressive/leftist versus what it means to be a framework liberal. I identify with Sanders on that front, and I think it’s a more exciting and appealing proposition for most voters. And while I like Warren’s policies, and she’s certainly my second choice, and she distinguishes herself from the rest of the pack, from a practical standpoint I don’t think she has a prayer. And I have to say, based on her “work from within the system” mentality, it’s not a shock to me to learn that she was a Republican as recently as 1996, supported charter schools, and etc. I trust her now, and I’m not snarking on her the way I will hopefully get to snark on Kamala “Seriously Progresssive Since 2017!” Harris, but I think it’s a sign of the times that our second-most progressive candidate for president probably voted for Ronald Reagan.

Now, should we move to the other candidates who might have a shot at dethroning Bernie, or is there more to say about Warren?

Jake: I largely agree with your assessment of Warren, so I won’t turn this into a game of “yes and,” but I do want to expand a little on my point about the vital importance of her platform to the debate of capitalism versus Democratic Socialism. As much as folks want to conflate hers and Bernie’s platforms, they’re not the same. They only feel the same because that’s how far right the Democratic status quo has shifted since 1980. Bernie wants to blow up the system and enact an FDR New Deal-type market infrastructure while Warren simply wants to lay waste to the monopolies dominating the markets.

I was a capitalist and now I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in markets. Capitalism has brainwashed us into thinking that capitalism = markets, but markets have existed as long as humans have. They’re a natural consequence of our respective talents, and they are extremely effective at producing a lot of money and resources. Capitalism says that markets should be dictated from the top-down in a private profit-based model, while Democratic Socialism wants the government to heavily regulate markets so the focus is on providing maximum value to the consumers of the market. Capitalism claims to achieve that end through profit-based competition, but, well…look around. Does it look like we have highly competitive industries dedicated to serving the interests of their consumers?

Warren is not trying to change that fundamental top-down capitalist paradigm—she’s just trying to aggressively intervene in markets to free them up to work the way capitalists say they’re supposed to work, as demonstrated by her fantastic idea to make workers represent 40% of boards—but 40% still means that workers have less power than capitalists who definitely haven’t demonstrated any desire to repeal harmful regulations. Bernie is a New Deal Democrat who wants to fundamentally change major parts of the economy in the same style as America’s longest serving congressman, the late great John Dingell — while Warren, like you said, probably voted for Reagan.

Who you support between the two says a lot about what you think about economics.

I became a Democratic Socialist because I realized that there were far too many markets I believed should not be driven by a profit motive to justifiably call myself anything but a Democratic Socialist. I still believe in market competition (but not in the existence of a “free” market), I just don’t think that a lot of major industries like health care or energy should be private and profit-based, and this is going to be the crux of the 2020 debates: what markets should and should not be controlled by the government? Democratic voters are functionally unanimous on the topic of enacting socialized health care, even though many (definitely-not-insurance-company-backed) politicians like Amy Klobuchar are not. I don’t think Bernie should have to worry about anyone who comes out against his Medicare for All plan because 85% of Democrats want it and health care was by far the number one issue in the 2018 midterms.

If I were sitting in the Bernie camp, I would consider Warren to be my most immediate threat, given that she’s the only one who could plausibly steal votes from his ideological base (*raises hand*). But given her political missteps and her lukewarm MA numbers, her ceiling does seem very low. I think Warren’s likeliest path to the nomination is co-opting Biden’s supporters. Bernie’s biggest threat, as always, is the Democratic establishment. They’ve created a rabid hurricane of disinformation around him, and many less plugged-in folks have internalized the incorrect assertion that he’s too divisive to win. Given that you’ve planted the flag in the ground on Bernie’s impending victory, which establishment-backed candidate(s) do you fear most?

Shane: My fears:

1. Joe Biden
2. Kamala Harris
3. Nobody else

There’s a rabid base of Bernie-haters online who still carry the secret flag for Hillary Clinton and believe with all their hearts that Sanders cost her the election (despite mountains of evidence showing that Sanders loyalists voted for Clinton in the general at a far greater rates than her own supporters backed Obama in 2008), and that all his supporters are racist, sexist white men (despite mountains of evidence that he polls way better with women and minorities than he does with white men). To them, these are almost religious truths, and they spend their days alternating between delusional victimhood and outright attack. They really, really don’t want Bernie to be president, and you hit on a good point—if they were smart, maybe they’d back Elizabeth Warren and try to usurp Bernie’s support from the left.

Maybe they sense the same weakness in Warren that I do, though, or maybe they just hate even the hint of progressivism, because at the moment it appears that they’ve coalesced behind Kamala Harris. The fact that Warren can’t even land this demographic only solidifies my belief that she’s a dead candidate walking.

So, first, I fear Kamala. Unlike Warren, Kamala Harris projects strength, and she’s charismatic, and I think she’s going to do well in the spotlight and will hold her own in debates, where she’ll probably be more nimble than Bernie, who basically sticks to his stump speech. She has a chance to score a big early primary victory in her home state of California and forge a lead early if she can survive the first four (the nullification of the early southern primaries that buried Sanders is a good thing for him, but also her). She’s just progressive enough to pass muster on big issues like universal healthcare and free public education, and who knows, maybe she’ll capture the black or female demographic in the way her supporters hope. I’m not exactly sure how, but she’s already boxed out everyone else in her lane, especially Booker and Gillibrand, so she’s certainly not a political incompetent. I don’t think endorsements really matter that much (unless Obama picks a side), but the fact that she got Barbara Lee, who everyone had pegged as a Bernie surrogate, is at the very least a surprise.

I think her shady past as a prosecutor and AG is really going to hurt her with progressives, though (read here and here for the best background), and when you couple that with the fact that her leftist transformation is very recent, I don’t think she’s going to have much trust with the Bernie wing. Whether she can catch on with everyone else and present herself as the moderate choice who can beat Trump pretty much depends on Joe Biden. If he runs, she’s toast.

In terms of the other candidates, nothing scares me. Along with suffering on the name recognition front, Gillibrand spent her formative days defending big tobacco executives, Booker is a known Big Pharma flack, Klobuchar is a psychopath who abuses her staff, Sherrod Brown doesn’t even have the courage to endorse Medicare for All, and nobody else has the profile to even matter. The collective strategy here seems to be “play very safe,” except that only works when you have a lead. Playing safe from behind is a great way to remain anonymous. You can’t fly under the radar and win, and if any of this secondary crew last as long as Iowa, it will be an act of stubbornness and/or delusion. They’re not threats.

But Biden is my number one fear. He’s popular, he’s got name recognition, he might get Obama to endorse him, and even if he doesn’t, he’ll be seen as Obama’s guy. He’s the nostalgia candidate, and right now he’s even polling better than Bernie. We’ve talked about why we think he’s at his peak popularity right now, and I’ll let you delve more into that.

Jake: Yeah I have a rule I’m calling the President Giuliani Rule for all early 2020 coverage, and that’s to take all early polling as far more indicative of “I know this name” than “I want this person,” and I’m of the opinion that most of Biden’s support right now is “oh yeah, the Obama guy!” As Senator Biden—who echoed proud segregationist Strom Thurmond’s racist “forced busing” phrase in the 1970s to stymie the effort to integrate our schools (despite saying he was for it in theory)—becomes a more significant figure in the 2020 primary, Biden’s popularity will wane as everyone runs to his left and he’ll either have to defend his unpopular Senate record or repudiate it (although Amy Klobuchar’s “you can’t have anything” CNN town hall is making me rethink the “everyone” part of that conviction). I wrote up a piece about polling from New Hampshire revealing that of people who have currently declared a preference for a 2020 primary candidate, 82% are willing to change their minds by the time the primary rolls around in less than a year. If I’m Joe Biden, that’s the kind of figure that keeps me up at night.

It’s probably just because I’ve planted my flag on the “Biden won’t win” hot take, but I see Harris as Bernie’s biggest overall threat because I think she is the likeliest to receive the biggest chunk of people who agree with that 82% for all the reasons you laid out above. One of the biggest things people seem to want is something new, and Bernie doesn’t have that advantage over most of the field now that he’s a known commodity. That said, I think that’s an advantage that almost goes away in the debates.

The new stuff that really matters are all the new policies on the Dem platform this time around, and once the debates start, people are going to start stumping for their big ideas. Here’s my prediction for how they will go, given that per the candidates’ declared positions to this point, everyone is basically just hacking off popular parts of Bernie’s 2016 platform to center theirs around:

Gillibrand: “I have major policy A and it’s great!”
Harris: “I have major policy B and it’s also great!”
Booker: “Major policy C is super coolio yo!”
Bernie: “I agree, policies A, B and C are all great and that’s why they’re all on my platform.”

Policy wonkery won’t be the main reason someone wins, but it’s going to become harder and harder to paint Bernie as divisive and anathema to the Democratic Party when every Democratic candidate spends their time stumping for different parts of his platform, and he then spends his time pointing out how right they are to push for big ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

I hate that my brain goes to this, but Mark Cuban likes to harp on Shark Tank about how dominating a small market can be a massive money-maker, and I think that can be said of gaining votes too. Bernie’s central appeal is leftist policy, and of the people who prioritize very liberal policy above all else (as to how big this portion of the electorate is, hard to tell, but we can start at the 43% of Dems who voted for Bernie in 2016), he gets most of those votes. Biden and Harris are running on personality as much as they are policies (Harris still doesn’t have a policy section up on her website as of this writing), and there are far more ways to split the votes of the kind of Democratic voter who prioritizes personality than to split the votes of those who prioritize policy. That built-in lead among a significant part of the Democratic electorate, plus the name recognition factor and the astounding amount of money he raised in the first 24 hours prove to me that on paper, Bernie Sanders is a major presidential contender and only Joe Biden can objectively be put above him as of right now. I mean, these fundraising figures for a Democratic Socialist in the United States of America are mind-blowing.

Because I’m convinced that Biden is going to fall victim to father time and have his support scattered across the political chessboard, I can’t see anyone else other than Bernie as the Democratic frontrunner at this point. Given that Trump is the weakest incumbent in our lifetimes, it’s pretty likely that a Democratic Socialist is the current favorite to be our next president, and that’s pretty remarkable given where this country was just four years ago.

Shane: Jake, to close us out, I’ll just point out that since we started emailing back and forth, Bernie has registered one million volunteers and passed the $10 million mark in fundraising, and a new Morning Consult poll already has Sanders within two points of Biden. It’s worth remembering that in 2016, Sanders’ upward trajectory never stopped—he got closer and closer to Clinton, but he just started from too far behind to make up the gap. If you believe that some politicians just know what they’re doing, and if you believe he can withstand a year of establishment propaganda aimed at him, it’s hard not to see the early indicators as more evidence that he’s going to cruise to victory. In the meantime, all eyes are on Biden. Stay tuned!

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