I’ve been exceptionally hard on Bernie Sanders and his supporters this election cycle. Anyone that reads this blog can tell you that the majority of my posts are critical of the senator and his so-called “revolution.”
Truthfully though, there’s a lot I admire about this new generation of activists and their interest in reforming the government to work better for ordinary people. I appreciate their idealism and willingness to be involved. They dove straight in and never looked back. They’re not asking the government for a voice, they’re demanding to be heard.
Of course, that sort of brash energy has its weaknesses. Demands and ultimatums are usually rejected in the end. Notwithstanding his recent win in Indiana, and presumptive future wins in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oregon, it is a mathematical improbability and statistical impossibility for Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. No matter what Bernie’s saying publicly, this contest will end on June 7th.
Sometimes you lose.
What’s important is that you understand why you lost, because if you know that, you can avoid making the same mistakes down the road.
Problem: 2008 is not 2016.
Cycles are important to politics, because timing is everything. What’s been proven this year is that you can have the strongest, most likable, politically pure candidate ever, and still be at the mercy of historical patterns.
In early 2008, America found itself at the tail end of a two-term Republican presidency that had questions surrounding its legitimacy from the beginning. After eight years of George W. Bush, America hungered for change; ripe timing for a young, inspirational one-term senator from Illinois to capture the imagination of the electorate.
2008 was a change cycle for Democrats much in the same way that 2016 is a change cycle for Republicans. GOP voters are starving for a candidate that breaks with the traditions of the old era; a symbol of the future for the party. Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump is on the right side of the historical model for Republicans.
For Democrats, 2016 is more about staying the course than it is about “change.” The gains made by president Obama are seen as sacrosanct by members of the party and lifelong Democratic voters. Protecting and continuing the president’s legacy stands above all other priorities.
The Sanders campaign could’ve messaged their candidate closer to the current president’s policies by ditching the free college and health care. Adopting a more level-headed platform would’ve pulled in the more moderate voters Sanders needed to win, rather than the anti-establishment independents making up large portions of his electorate.
Solution: Knowing the pattern of election cycles puts you in a better position to win and allows a candidate to strategize his or her message around the political Zeitgeist. The timing may be off in the presidency, but after six years of Republican gridlock and approval ratings in the toilet, Congress looks primed for some new blood.
Problem: Inappropriate venue.
Choosing the presidency as an avenue to reshape the Democratic Party and change the face of electoral politics was problematic from the beginning. The president has very little control over legislation from a Constitutional standpoint. In fact, there’s nothing in the Constitution that even remotely suggests that crafting legislation falls into the presidents purview. It is true, of course, that presidents have had influence over legislation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the best possible path to writing and passing legislation falls under the control of Congress.
Look no further than our current president for proof. Obama’s major legislative accomplishments occurred under Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in his first term. Since then, he’s been held down under the thumbs of an opposition determined to stifle his legislative agenda.
Sanders attempt to jump directly into the White House for the purposes of rectifying income inequality and reforming a corrupt campaign finance system diminishes the complexities of the presidency, and displays a firm lack of procedural understanding. In an interview with NY Daily News, even Sanders couldn’t explain how the executive branch of government could accomplish these goals. When asked again, Sanders said that he would use the “bully pulpit in an unprecedented way to rally the American people to demand that the Congress listens to their needs . . .”
Not only does this statement fly in the face of every major speech our current president’s given over the past eight years, but it also overstates the power of the bully pulpit. If Bernie Sanders wasn’t able to rally enough support for his policies as a candidate, it’s doubtful much would change under his presidency.
Solution: To make the changes that Sanders is seeking, the movement will need to begin and end with Congress. Make a plan to change the composition of Congress over the next four to six years. Start by identifying seats in the Senate and the House you’re most likely to win. Then, organize to win Congressional majorities by identifying and running strong candidates sympathetic to your cause.
Problem: Most Americans don’t want a revolution.
While finding hard data about the demographics of Sanders’ support is problematic, we can accurately assume that young people under the age of 25 make up a large portion of his electorate. According to exit polls, Sanders has been winning young people by impressive margins since Iowa.
Because young people are at the heart of his campaign, it’s not a surprise that Sanders’ message of a “political revolution” resonates. College students with limited responsibilities have little to lose in the political turmoil a revolution would create. But therein lies the problem.
First, the age group that identifies with Sanders’ rhetoric includes a very small portion of the population. The most recent U.S. Census data show that the population of people aged 18-24 is about 31 million; 25-44 – 83 million; 45-64 – 83 million; 65 and beyond – around 50 million. Even if we assume some support for Sanders in the 25 – 44 age demographic, the numbers aren’t high enough to reach a majority.
Second, revolutions can be very violent and hard on regular people. Try convincing a middle-aged family of four living in the center of America that the next four years need to look like France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, or Egypt and Syria in the Middle East today, and you’re not likely to find a groundswell of support.
Solution: Language and rhetoric are important. Drop the revolutionary tone. Instead, focus on the “movement.” A movement is more palatable than a revolution, and it brings to mind the more positive progressive changes in civil rights over the past 150 years. You’ll draw more people in, and gain more support without the firebrand oratory.
Problem: The Internet isn’t real.
Over-represented and fervent online, support for Sanders spread through social media like wildfire. I wrote a lengthy post about the Sanders Hive in February, so I’ll spare you the redundancy, but we can’t ignore the fact that BernieBot behavior turned people off. Bullying Clinton supporters and harassing superdelegates are exercises in exclusion. If you want to win, you have to find a way to be as inclusive as possible.
Also, let’s dispel with the notion that you can change the world with Facebook and Twitter. Hastags don’t win elections and you can’t conduct a revolution in the comments section of a Facebook post. It is absolutely ridiculous to think otherwise.
Now that being said, we can’t ignore social media and the Internet’s tremendous organizing capabilities. It is possible to coordinate and communicate across large swaths of the country using the digital environment. People can be brought together and charged for action in ways that were impossible a generation earlier.
Solution: Toss the crappy attitudes and be inclusive. It is also crucial that the movement transition from online activism to real-world results by finding bridges between digital and analog space. America is a republican representative democracy, so treat it like one and ditch the broad strategy. Go local. Use the Internet to break large groups of likeminded individuals into smaller groups that share a zip code, county, or congressional district. The root of activism is “active,” so put down the smartphone and get moving.
Problem: A candidate of contradictions.
Partly a language problem, partly a policy issue, the Sanders paradox went a little something like this: I am an anti-establishment candidate taking on the establishment by using the establishment’s resources to build a bigger establishment. The contradiction inherent in Bernie’s message followed a circular logic that ended up not making very much sense. Running as Democrat while disparaging the party and making vague criticisms of the president didn’t help either.
Another inconvenient truth that surfaced over the primary season was the fact that the candidates spending the most money weren’t winning. Jeb Bush spent $150 million, only to drop out shortly after the voting ended in South Carolina. Marco Rubio outspent his opponents in Florida by large sums only to lose a state he was favored to win. Sanders spent more than Clinton in the last seven primaries, only to win marginal victories in Rhode Island and Indiana. When this ends, he’ll have a hard time explaining how the influence of money in politics is so detrimental to democracy that a revolution is needed to rectify its influence.
Solution: Embrace the establishment. Believe it or not, Democrats will support your cause if you stop calling them the enemy. If you need proof, look no further than the leader of the revolution’s insistence that he’ll stay a Democrat after the election is over. At some point, the movement will have to decide what’s more important: pointing fingers, or making progress?
It’s time to grow up.
What these problems reveal is an adolescence within the movement, a political immaturity that will only be resolved with some self-reflection and humility. If your knee-jerk reaction to this statement is dismissive anger, that’s my point. I’m not being smug or condescending, I’m telling you and every other Sanders supporter what needs to be heard. If you’re planning on writing in Bernie in November, or voting for Jill Stein, this post is directed at you. Grow up and let it go. Don’t throw away an opportunity at progress in favor of making a point.
It won’t work.
It never does.
Just ask anyone that voted Perot in 1992, or Nader in 2000.
You may not like Clinton, but she’s supportive of your cause. Whether you like her or not, you’re going to need some new friends.
And no matter what Susan Sarandon says, a Trump presidency will seal the movement’s fate quicker than a New York Minute.
Sanders supporters that understand the reality of what’s happening have already started to mobilize. A two-day People’s Summit is being planned by People for Bernie to coincide with the end of the Democratic Primary. Other members of the movement have begun to concede the presidency, and instead focus on building something that lasts past this election cycle. These are positive developments that need to be replicated nationwide.
And if you need help, I’m available.
Perhaps the president said it best. Speaking to a group of activists about Black Lives Matter in London, the president addressed the role of protest in our democratic system. He said, “The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.”
It’s that simple. The movement Bernie Sanders started got you in the room.
The question is, do you still want to overturn the table, or would you rather sit down and solve the problem?