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A democratic socialist explains why Bernie Sanders is losing

“The Democratic Party will continue to lose or win narrowly unless it actually starts to fucking stand for something.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Time is quickly running out for Bernie Sanders.

After his string of wins on Super Tuesday, Joe Biden has become the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. For a lot of centrist Democrats, this is good news.

The argument against Sanders is familiar by now: The majority of the country simply won’t sign on to his democratic socialist agenda, and putting him at the top of the Democratic ticket would destroy any shot at keeping the House and retaking the Senate. You might have heard a version of this argument in my recent interview with longtime Democratic strategist James Carville.

I’ve gone back and forth on this debate. But the results of the Democratic primaries so far suggest, pretty strongly, that the Carvilles of the world have a point. I think Sanders’s diagnosis of what ails us is right. Yet at the same time, I’m also a realist about the electoral landscape. A lot of voters, especially in the South and the Midwest, don’t want what Sanders wants, or they do but they perceive him as too risky in the general election.

I reached out to Meagan Day, a writer for the socialist publication Jacobin and Sanders supporter (plus the co-author of a forthcoming book about him), to discuss why Sanders’s momentum has come to a halt after a promising start. In this exchange, we discuss what went wrong with Bernie’s campaign, why so many working-class whites and African Americans chose Biden, and what the democratic socialist movement looks like after Sanders.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

We’re sitting down on the heels of some devastating losses for Sanders. Why do you think Democratic voters are rejecting Sanders?

Meagan Day

Well, we can’t say that the voters have entirely rejected Bernie Sanders so far. I mean, the truth is that while Biden’s delegate lead is real and is growing, the writing is not actually on the wall yet. We don’t know what’s going to happen.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Bernie Sanders doesn’t have an uphill battle, but fortunes can change very quickly in this primary — we’ve seen that. Biden was dead in the water a few weeks ago, and his boost entirely comes down to the centrist consolidation that occurred.

Sean Illing

The conventional wisdom has been that Sanders is too left-wing for the general electorate. I was a little skeptical of that until recently, but I think it’s much harder to refute now.

A lot of people on the Sanders side like to point out that his agenda polls well among a lot of voters. But I also think a hyper-literal reading of those polls obscures a deeper truth: A lot of people are ideologically flexible but temperamentally conservative. They don’t want to rock the boat too much, and they’ve been disappointed time and again by politicians whose plans are crushed by the machinery of Washington.

So isn’t it rational — or at least understandable — for them to prioritize winning and support a candidate who doesn’t promise the moon but at least offers the hope of realistic progress?

Meagan Day

Joe Biden’s not actually promising progress — he’s promising a restoration of the Obama era. And I think that that is very appealing to people who are scared under the Trump presidency. They want things to go back to “normal.”

But here’s the thing: People have conflicting views. Even a huge chunk of Biden voters in Michigan, for instance, said they wanted a “complete overhaul of the economy.” I’ve been talking to people at their doors since September on a weekly basis, and people have very incoherent political ideologies and very unstable political allegiances. And I sort of feel like if you give people prompts, and if something sounds true in the prompt, people will often respond by reaffirming the truth that they’re hearing coming from you. But if you give them a separate prompt that also contains a kernel of truth, they will reaffirm that.

So one of the prompts is, “In order to beat a Republican, you need to hew to the center because swing voters are critical; hence you should vote Joe Biden.” When people hear that, they hear a kernel of truth. And it’s something that’s been reinforced for 40 years by the Democratic Party and by the media narrative.

But if you give the same people another prompt and say, “Look, wages have stagnated since the 1970s while CEO pay has skyrocketed, inequality has skyrocketed, and living costs have skyrocketed, and we really need a fundamental change in this society to make it more equal, to make it fairer, to make it more genuinely democratic,” people will go, “That sounds true, that squares with everything that I’ve witnessed and what I believe.”

What we’re witnessing right now is the tension between which of these narratives is going to win out, and I think a lot of people are not permanently attached to one or the other.

Sean Illing

I agree voters are ideologically incoherent, but I think party allegiances are pretty damn stable. But what’s interesting to me is that Sanders did go out and say those things in those terms, and he said it as clearly as any national politician has, and yet he still failed to win most working-class, non-college-educated whites, and he still didn’t win most African American votes.

What happened?

Meagan Day

Bernie Sanders has had a bigger stage to say those things than anybody has had for decades. But it’s also undeniably true that the mainstream media — and I know people bristle at the term “mainstream media,” but there is such a thing — have been much more favorable to Joe Biden from the beginning; anyone who doesn’t see that needs to simply go and turn on MSNBC or CNN.

It’s not just favorable commentary. It’s also more airtime, and a constant reiteration of the premise that I just brought up, that Joe Biden is electable because he’s more of a centrist, and we’ve all sort of accepted the idea that centrists are more electable than fringe candidates, despite what happened in 2016.

And so I don’t think that we can say with great certainty that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both have had an opportunity thus far to put their message before people equally, and that people are choosing Joe Biden instead of Bernie Sanders.

Now, I want to qualify that because I am not going to sit here and be totally triumphalist about our politics. The truth of the matter is that working-class people in this country have had their expectations diminished for decades, and have come to expect very little from politics and from the government. They expect very little in terms of what kind of society they deserve to live in, and that’s something that has actually been engineered by a bipartisan, pro-corporate, political establishment because it is a convenient way to manage expectations.

Sean Illing

I’ve heard from several people this argument that the media is largely responsible for Sanders’s failure. It’s true that the media plays a massive role in shaping voter perceptions. At the same time, I sense that you’re not really wrestling with the possibility that a lot of voters heard what Sanders was saying and simply turned it down, for whatever reason. There’s a denial of any agency at all on the part of the voters.

What I’m hearing is “Sanders’s message can’t fail; it can only be failed.”

Meagan Day

I feel like I speak to ordinary voters or would-be voters more often than other reporters do because I’m also a canvasser and an activist and an organizer, and I literally have been out there every single weekend for months. I can say with great certainty that what is playing on the media really matters to people because a lot of people are not thinking that hard about the primary. It’s not a big part of their life — they don’t even necessarily know when it is, or they certainly don’t necessarily know who they’re going to vote for until pretty late in the game.

Most people actually do rely on the tendrils of narratives that make their way to them through traditional media channels. Why? Because they’re busy. They’re working people, they have jobs and families and other responsibilities.

A lot of voters made their decision to support Biden in the few days leading up to the primaries. What was happening in the last few days? There was a huge explosion of media attention around the idea that Joe Biden was the frontrunner, so I don’t think that it’s over the line to suggest that this was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I know you’re saying that we shouldn’t lean too heavily on this, but what I’m saying is that somebody’s got to actually interject that into the conversation because the mainstream conversation being directed from the center is actually saying the opposite.

Sean Illing

Why do you think black voters in particular have dismissed Sanders?

Meagan Day

For starters, I don’t think we can take that entirely for granted. While the black vote overall has trended toward Biden, black voters aren’t a monolith, just as white voters aren’t a monolith. Age is obviously a major factor, with Bernie performing better than Biden among young black voters in many instances. And geography is a factor as well, with black voters in different regions of the country behaving differently, if not in kind then by degree.

There are black leftists who are better equipped than I to explain the dynamic in depth. Suffice to say, if I can sum up their arguments, the main thing is that older black voters in particular have experienced decades of extreme oppression and neglect. Out of this, a tendency has developed to think about politics in terms of harm reduction. Older black voters are therefore more likely to be receptive to messages of security than to take a risk on something that they can’t say is a safe bet. It’s also no secret that black community leaders have over time developed strong institutional ties to the Democratic Party, which someone like Bernie Sanders is less poised to benefit from as a party outsider.

Black voters are critical, in large part because older black voters in particular are very reliable voters. But I’d like to add that the Latino vote share is growing in this country, with Latinos eligible to become the largest nonwhite segment of the electorate in 2020, and Latinos are breaking heavily for Bernie Sanders.

Sean Illing

I’ve read pieces like this one on Jacobin arguing that black voters are too blinkered to notice that people like Biden have been betraying them his entire career and the implication is that they’re suffering from some kind of false consciousness as opposed to just not buying what Sanders is selling. Again, there’s a tendency to wipe out any agency on the part of voters. But in any case, if the reality is that these voters aren’t drawn to Sanders or his message, then there has to be some kind of course correction.

Meagan Day

I won’t speak to that article, since I didn’t write it and haven’t read it. But I will say this: Socialists are always going to talk about the fact that there is a widespread phenomenon of working-class false consciousness. It’s not restricted to black people, and we’re going to talk about it all the time and people are going to say that it’s offensive, but that’s a part of our analysis of the world.

We believe that working-class people vote against their own self-interest, and we believe that it’s the job of socialists to agitate and educate and organize and change that state of affairs. So, I think people are very quick to take offense when they see applications of that that they think they can portray as problematic, but, honestly, that’s just a foundational tenet of the socialist political worldview.

Sean Illing

I’m not denying that false consciousness is a real thing in the world. We’re talking about strategy here, right? It’s a numbers game, and at some point you’ve got to be honest about the electoral possibilities and adjust accordingly if you want to win power.

Part of what’s happening right now is that working-class voters are just not getting behind Bernie in the way they need to for him to win. And at the same time, the left party is becoming a party of college graduates and the highly educated. So if working-class voters aren’t responding to the democratic socialist agenda in the way they need to, and if education is trumping income as a predictive measure of voting for Democrats, then the electoral possibilities for someone like Sanders look pretty grim.

Meagan Day

Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but coming out of Michigan, Bernie Sanders won voters who made less than $50,000; coming out of California, Bernie Sanders won people without a college degree. So if the implication is that Bernie is more popular among college-educated and more affluent people, that’s actually just not true across the board. The two of them are jockeying for different segments of working-class support in different geographical regions of the country.

Sean Illing

I was just speaking in general about the voting trends for Democrats, and that matters if the Democratic Party is going to be the vehicle to power for Sanders or anyone like him.

Meagan Day

Yeah, so that is a real problem and, frankly, I think that’s why we need to run Bernie Sanders against Joe Biden, in order to prevent the Democratic Party from becoming a bastion for college-educated, coastal elites. And I say that as a member of that group, and I’m guessing you are, too.

The Democratic Party and left parties around the world are becoming bastions for people who fit that demographic description and have very socially liberal ideas, but they’re shedding their working-class support, and you saw that certainly in the UK in the last election with Jeremy Corbyn.

What I think Bernie Sanders’s campaign represents is the hope that the left in the United States would represent not just the lesser of two evils for working-class people, but actually a force that is united to fight for working-class people at the expense of the capitalist class.

One of the things that I find most refreshing about Bernie Sanders is his theory, which he regularly expresses, that in order to win gains for ordinary people, the elite are going to face consequences for which they will not be compensated.

Bernie Sanders is very unique in that. Elizabeth Warren came close, in that she was willing to put her fists up against billionaires, but she would always kind of hedge or qualify it by saying things like, “I have no beef with billionaires, it’s just two cents, don’t worry about it.” Bernie Sanders literally was, at one point, I think, selling stickers or making graphics that said “Billionaires should not exist.”

Sean Illing

There’s a conversation about what’s right, as a matter of principle, and there’s a conversation about what’s electorally achievable. I feel like this distinction is ignored in some of these intra-left disputes, and so everything gets framed in binary terms — you’re either down for the cause or a neoliberal shill. But many of these agreements are tactical, not moral, and that’s a big distinction.

Meagan Day

I think we’re very lucky to be living in a time when people actually have some backbone. I think it’s fucking great that there are lots of people out there who say “Medicare-for-all or fuck off” because that’s the kind of energy that we need to actually win something like Medicare-for-all. We’re not going to win it any other way.

We’re not going to win anything like that unless we have a passionate base that says, “I want this and there are going to be consequences for you if you don’t give it to me.” So I’m not too worried about it. I know that it hurts people’s feelings when they get called a “neoliberal shill,” but, frankly, I think it’s actually indicative of a very positive phenomenon, which is confidence. There’s a certain amount of confidence among the progressive left right now, and thank god there is because we’re not going to win anything without it.

Sean Illing

Right, but is “Medicare-for-all or fuck off” going to help the Democrats keep the House and retake the Senate? Because if it’s not, none of this shit matters anyway, right? Eighteen percent of the country elects over half the senators. It doesn’t matter who the president is if the balance of power doesn’t shift.

Meagan Day

Well, the contention from the left is that the Democratic Party will continue to lose or win narrowly unless it actually starts to fucking stand for something.

Sean Illing

Have you considered that the changes you’re seeking may require an actual revolution, and not the soft revolution Bernie proposes but a genuine overthrow of our entire system of government?

Meagan Day

We think and speak about this at length in the organization that I am a part of — the Democratic Socialists of America. And yes, of course, there may come a point when the obstacles that we are facing are too great for us to surmount through ordinary or polite means, and extralegal, extra-parliamentary means will be necessary to effect the change that we want to see.

The theory that I and many others subscribe to is a theory called the “democratic road to socialism,” which means that you use the democratic apparatuses available to you to build your forces because you need to build your forces no matter what. If you want to have a revolution, you’re going to have to have people with you, or else you’re going to be crushed. There’s no hope of anything if you don’t have millions and millions and millions of people on your side. How would you possibly get millions of people on your side? That’s the question.

And the answer is that we can’t simply plant our flag in the ground and say, “We want to have a revolution,” and then expect people to come to us. We need to be in there, where people are experiencing struggle, where people are experiencing conflict, and where people are experiencing politics. We need to be in there, educating, organizing, and building forces. If those forces could, when they are strong enough, effect the change that we want to see, without a violent revolution, then that would be great.

But in any case, right now, we obviously just need to be reaching people with the message that a better world is possible because people’s expectations are so diminished. That’s our number one task.