After Bernie, Does the Left Need a Rethink?

What to make of the fact that Sanders ran the campaign progressives have been dreaming of for years, and lost

Bernie Sanders' candidacy raises questions about the belief among some progressives that left-populism can't fail — it can only be failed, by the machinations of a corrupt establishment. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty

For as long as I can remember, there's been a deeply held belief on the American left that if a Democrat would only stop pandering to the mushy middle and run an unapologetically liberal, unabashedly populist campaign, he or she would win in a laugher. For too long, the Dems have offered nothing more than Republican-lite candidates, according to this view — and why vote for the "lite" version when you can have the real thing?

Call it the "What's the matter with Kansas?" theory of politics. In his 2004 bestseller of that name, liberal writer and political analyst Thomas Frank argued Democrats' embrace of neoliberalism and disastrous trade deals and their coziness with Wall Street left a huge opening for the right. Conservatives had swooped in with a bait-and-switch: They promised to clean up our "depraved" culture and lead the fight on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but as soon as they were in office, they turned around and gave those Americans cheap public services and a bunch of tax cuts they were too poor to use.

The answer seemed simple: Give low- and middle-income folks — i.e., the majority of the country — an opportunity to vote in a way that would better serve their economic interests. This would bring "Reagan Democrats" and socially conservative blue-collar types back into the fold, giving them reason to stop bitterly clinging to their God and their guns.

This was also seen as an answer to the midterm drop-off effect — the tendency of key Democratic constituencies to only vote in presidential years — that's long bedeviled the party and, in recent years, delivered unified Republican control of 30 statehouses and both chambers of Congress. After the 2014 midterms that Barack Obama called a "shellacking" for the left, Frank told Salon we were seeing Democrats demonstrate "a logic that's very familiar here in Washington, D.C. You move to the center, you always move to the center. But it's a logic that's just going to lead to more and more disasters down the road." He warned that "if they do enough of this triangulation, they'll become a party that has become so similar to Republicans, then why bother with them?"

I'm a big fan of Frank, and I've always believed this story. People don't give up their deeply held beliefs easily. In fact, they tend to construct elaborate defenses when those beliefs are threatened. But we just had a natural experiment with this theory in America: Bernie Sanders ran the campaign left-leaning Democrats have been dreaming of for years. He wasn't a one-trick pony, as some characterized him; he talked about climate change and criminal justice reform. But he focused relentlessly — and accurately — on how the 1 percent had made out like bandits and left the rest of us sucking their exhaust fumes.

Sanders did better than anyone expected. He's poised to end his campaign with the highest favorability ratings of any candidate this cycle. According to a recent survey, he's the most popular senator on Capitol Hill. His policy provisions poll well. But Sanders lost. He ran the campaign we dreamed about but couldn't make it through the Democratic primaries. He lost to a candidate whose own supporters acknowledge she has deep flaws. And it was closer to a curb-stomping than a squeaker — with only D.C.'s contest left to go, Clinton has won 57 percent of the popular vote, and races in 16 of the 20 most populous states. She never led by fewer than 7.5 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight's weighted average of national polls.

A campaign like Sanders' wasn't supposed to play out this way — but it did. Where does that leave us?

Maybe voters just saw him as a shitty standard-bearer — too old or too shouty or too Jewish for enough folks to vote for him.

Many of my fellow Sanders supporters will say that he only lost because the system was rigged — he was screwed by the DNC's debate schedule and a corporate media blackout that kept his message from getting out to the American people. Left-populism can't fail; it can only be failed by the machinations of a corrupt establishment.

But maybe it's the other way around. We wanted to see the game as rigged against the guy running the campaign we always dreamed of rather than confront the failure of economic populism to win hearts and minds — or at least the hearts and minds of a broad enough swathe of left-leaning voters to beat Hillary Clinton. Again, people don't give up their deeply held beliefs easily.

Sanders appeared on the Sunday talk shows 52 times in 2016, more than anyone else in three years. Despite what some Facebook memes allege, his media coverage has been more or less proportional to his standings in the polls, and studies show he got a larger share of positive coverage — and a smaller share of negative coverage — than Clinton. With the addition of three debates and a bunch of town halls, Americans ended up getting just a little less exposure to the Democratic candidates in 2016 than they did in 2008.

There's also the hard truth that most people don't vote according to ideology or after a cool appraisal of a candidate's policy proposals anyway. As political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen wrote last month in The New York Times, "Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments." Voters, broadly speaking, tend to choose a candidate they like and then work backward to make the politics fit. "Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental," they wrote.

That seems to be borne out by the consistent nature of this primary race. From beginning to end, Sanders did well with young voters, white voters and Dem-leaning independents, while Clinton did better with older voters and dominated among African-Americans. Unabashed populism held little magic beyond his core base of support.

We should at least acknowledge that people are risk-averse. Psychologists tell us that people hate the idea of losing what they have. They hate it more than they like the idea of gaining something new. We celebrated Sanders' big ideas, like single-payer healthcare, and pointed to polls showing that it's really popular, at least in the abstract. But when it comes down to it, a policy that takes away people's crappy insurance policies is a hard sell.

And maybe we shouldn't spit on "incrementalism." It got us Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and those have worked out pretty well. It might be easier to grind out progress than it is to foment revolution.

We can't abandon the left-populist agenda in this new Gilded Age. Most of the policies Sanders championed represent a necessary prescription for runaway inequality. But maybe the problem isn't Kansas — maybe it isn't the 99 percent voting against their economic interests — but our embrace of a flawed idea of what motivates people to come out and vote. We should at least consider the possibility. 

"Our major success so far is laying out a broad progressive agenda," says Bernie Sanders. Watch Sanders' campaign.