Why Bernie’s Losing

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The answer is both simple and hopeful

Unfortunately, it’s looking like Bernie Sanders is not going to win the Democratic nomination. Or if he does, it will only be through a miraculous turnaround in how Democratic voters have been casting their ballots so far. (Perhaps in combination with a number of superdelegates switching their endorsements.)

Here’s the scope of the challenge:

  • As I write this, on April 23rd, Sanders trails Clinton in total delegates 1941 to 1191, with 1631 remaining. He will need to secure 73% of those remaining delegates in order to pull out a win, while he has managed to collect just 38% of the committed delegates so far.
  • Even if we pretended there was no such thing as superdelegates, Sanders would trail Clinton 1428 to 1153 in delegates won in state primaries and caucuses, with 1467 of those still up for grabs. He would have to win 60% of the remaining elected delegates, when he has only won 45% of them up until now.
  • He still trails Clinton in the polls.
  • If Democratic primaries worked like the Electoral College, or like many Republican primaries, where the winner takes all, then there’d be a chance that Sanders could gain significant ground by eking out slim majorities in some of the larger remaining states, thereby winning all of those states’ delegates. However, Democratic primaries allocate their delegates proportionally. If, for example, you win a state with 55% of the vote, you only get 55% of its delegates, and your opponent still gets 45%.
  • Sanders has done much better in caucus states than primary states, but there are only two very small caucuses left. (Guam and the Virgin Islands.)

Even the most ardent Sanders supporter would have to admit it doesn’t look good, but where that supporter and I might disagree is on the reasons why Sanders is losing.

Some Sanders supporters would attribute his struggles to a combination of factors that I’ll call, collectively, The Establishment:

  • The superdelegates
  • The mainstream media
  • Election fraud

I have a different view. I believe that Sanders is losing simply because the American electorate is not yet progressive enough for him to win.

Making my case

I won’t be arguing that the superdelegate system is a good thing, or that the mainstream media is unbiased, or that we don’t have TONS of problems with our voting infrastructure in this country. What I’m going to argue is that, as much as these factors might have weighed against Sanders, they pale in comparison to the simple fact that, even in a perfectly functioning system, he would still be losing.

I’m going to make my argument by trying to show you the forest rather than any individual trees:

  • Exit polls have been showing that Sanders gets his strongest support from Democrats who call themselves “very liberal.” Clinton’s base, on the other hand, consists of Democrats who call themselves “conservative” or “moderate”. But here’s the thing: there are way more Democrats who call themselves “conservative” or “moderate” than there are Democrats who call themselves “very liberal.” This can be hard to believe for those of us who live in very liberal areas, or who have lots of progressive friends on social media, or who follow only progressive news sources, but this is a very big and very diverse country, and we progressives are still in the minority, even within the left-leaning half of it.
  • Clinton has won 57% of the popular Democratic vote over Sanders. (Leaving out the other candidates who have dropped out.) Note that this is slightly higher than her share of the elected (non super) delegates so far, so if anything, it could be argued that the electoral process for the deciding the Democratic nominee has slightly shortchanged her.
  • Public opinion polls roughly confirm Clinton’s general advantage. (They also, by the way, show that her advantage has been shrinking over time, which I’ll discuss at the end of this post.)
  • Clinton is already significantly on the liberal side for an elected Democratic politician at the national level. This will, once again, be hard for many progressives to believe, but one way to look at it is that the Democratic Party is not as progressive as we might think. (Don’t forget that, as reported above, four out of every ten Democrats call themselves “conservative” or “moderate”.) Based on multiple tracking organizations’ analyses of her voting record, funding sources, and public statements, Hillary Clinton is more liberal than Barack Obama, as liberal as Elizabeth Warren, and only slightly less liberal than Sanders.

Here’s the what the forest looks like once you step back far enough to see all the trees: The American people aren’t that progressive yet, and that’s more than enough to account for Clinton’s current advantage over Sanders. In fact, if anything, Bernie is probably doing better than one would have predicted before he declared. (See below for more about this.) Which leads to the heart of my argument: if these demographic factors can already account for everything, then there can’t be much left to credit to The Establishment.

The importance of being accurate

Why is this important? What difference does it make why Sanders is trailing?

  • To blame oligarchical conspiracies for Sanders losing when most of our fellow ordinary Democrats actually voted against him makes the progressive movement lose credibility in the eyes of the very people we should be reaching out to.
  • If we believed that The Establishment was the primary reason for our loss, that if we had just been able to appeal directly to “the people”, we could have won, then we might be tempted to call for an independent campaign in order to bypass all that Establishment machinery. But if we’re wrong about the reason for our loss, those same Democratic voters will just split their votes between us and our opponent in the same way they split them during the primaries, and the GOP will win the presidency and control all three branches of the government.
  • If we really believed in an Establishment that was as powerful and evil and superhumanly competent as it would need to be to cause our candidate to lose even though all the people were clearly for him, we might be tempted to desperate measures…like welcoming or even aiding the GOP takeover described above, so that “the people” will finally rise up. But if we’re wrong, it’s more likely that a GOP takeover would just set back, by years or maybe even decades, the real fight that’s actually been going on all this time. (More on this below.)

The tao of Belief

I think there are many possible reasons why some progressives are so focused on The Establishment. One very good reason is that there really are lots of fixes that need to be made to our news media and our systems of party politics and voting. Just because I don’t think these factors were big enough to make a difference in this year’s Clinton-Sanders contest, doesn’t mean I don’t think they are legitimate concerns. These things can potentially swing a close election some day, and we should take steps now to prevent that from happening in the future.

But here are some other possible reasons:

  • There seems to be a militant component to our psyches that makes it easier for us to fight if we can identify a concrete (and preferably evil) enemy. It’s a lot harder to carry on the fight when the “enemy” that caused our defeat is not some Evil Cabal, but…our daughter’s 5th grade teacher, and our doctor, and our best friend, and members of our family, and so forth.
  • We also have a natural disposition toward religion, even if it’s not conventional organized religion. We construct belief systems in our minds, and then we want those systems to be able to explain everything.
  • It’s hard to see how others can see the same facts we do and yet come to very different political conclusions. Our beliefs can seem so indisputably correct that there must be some insidious force leading other people astray.
  • We’re impatient for change, as we should be. If it were just a matter of toppling some small oligarchy of Powers, that could conceivably happen quite quickly. But what if it’s really a matter of engaging, educating, and persuading 100 million of our fellow Americans? That could take a while.

The half full cup

So what, you might ask, is my point? Am I saying that the Sanders run was hopeless from the start? That there’s no point in even trying again because the electorate just isn’t progressive enough? No! What I’m saying is the exact opposite: there’s way more hope than you might think. It’s just that the real fight is not where you thought it was.

The current makeup of Democratic voters nationwide is not progressive enough to elect a Bernie Sanders, but the main point of the article I cited about this was that it’s been changing over the past eight years. 39% of Democratic voters are calling themselves “conservative” or “moderate” this year, but in 2008, that figure was 54%! And the Democratic voters calling themselves “very liberal” jumped from 17% to 25%.

Even within the span of this year’s campaign, the electorate has been changing. Bernie’s polling numbers are much better today than they were last year, and the cause for this is the real Revolution that had already been occurring, not just in the last eight years, but throughout the nation’s history: the simple education of the electorate.

The real fight

As the people become more enlightened, they elect more progressive representatives. Then those representatives, by their mere existence and their words and the laws they pass, educate the people about what’s possible and what works. So the next time around, they might elect even more progressive representatives, and so forth and so on. This cycle doesn’t move quickly — there are various mechanisms (like superdelegates, or staggered Senate terms, or lifetime Supreme Court appointments) that slow it down — but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the cycle can go in the other direction as well. And this is where the real fight lies.

As we educate our fellow voters and accumulate incremental electoral victories, we make progress. This is how it’s worked throughout our nation’s history. The only reason Bernie could even think about running this year was that the Democratic electorate got more liberal in the past eight years. Then he in turn helped to move it even more to the left, by his mere existence and his changing of the conversation. And because he chose to run in the Democratic primary rather than as an independent, he made it possible for us to secure wins this year in both the educational and electoral arenas. We can not only teach the nation more about democratic socialism, but elect a president slightly more liberal than the last one — even if no progressives believe she’s liberal enough — and light years more liberal than any possible GOP candidate.

This is why, by the way, I thought that Sanders’ going negative on Clinton was a horribly risky move. I can understand a possible motivation for it: we could get not just the educational win, but an even better electoral win. However, it also risked both. The time he spent attacking Clinton was time he could have spent further explaining his views, and it also made him look more like a typical politician. Meanwhile, he probably reduced Clinton’s chances of winning in November, and if the GOP captures the presidency, the cycle of education and election could start going in the other direction.

Fortunately, I think we’re still likely to get both wins this year. And some day, probably sooner than later thanks to the efforts of Sanders and his supporters this year, the Democratic Party will elect a true progressive as its presidential nominee. But both that future victory and this year’s probable defeat will be due to the same thing: American democracy working like it always has.