Could Bernie Sanders have won?

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that Bernie Sanders conceded defeat in the Democratic presidential primary.

To have won the Democratic nomination, he would have had to have gotten an absolute majority of the delegates to the nominating convention, and he never got an absolute majority in any state.

Many Sanders’ supporters blame him for running too gentlemanly and restrained a campaign.  I myself would have like to see him be more aggressive, but I don’t think that would have brought him victory..

The system was rigged against him.  I think it is remarkable that he got as far as he did.  But there were two political dilemmas that he failed to resolve, and that nobody may have been able to resolve.

One was how to win the votes of loyal Democrats while appealing to independents and non-voters who were disgusted with the leadership of both parties.

The other was how to win the votes of both the old-time New Deal liberals and the “woke” progressives.  I haven’t seen much written about this, so I’ll go into this aspect a little more.

The first group are populists.  They side with the struggling majority who are being exploited by the financial and corporate elite.  The second group is suspicious of populism.  They side with minorities who are being oppressed by the dominant majority, which is defined by race, gender and sexual orientation.  For this group, a poor and unemployed straight white male can still be an oppressor.

These two perspectives aren’t necessarily in opposition.  You can be opposed to monopoly business and opposed to discrimination against black people or gay people.  The question is the balance between the two .

An example of the problem was the controversy over Sanders’ accepting the endorsement of Joe Rogan, the popular on-line talk show host.

Rogan appeals to a mass audience who don’t necessarily follow politics closely, so his endorsement was golden.  But to some Democrats, he was unacceptable because he opposes transgendered women who are biological males competing in women’s sports, especially mixed martial arts, and he opposes puberty blockers for gender-confused children.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opposed Sanders’ accepting Rogan’s endorsement  She reportedly dialed back her support for the Sanders campaign for that reason.  If this is so, it is not an attitude that wins elections.

The other Sanders dilemma was how to appeal both to long-time Democratic loyalists, whose vote was based on which Democrat they thought was most electable, and to insurgents, who thought the Democratic Party was completely corrupt and needed a housecleaning from top to bottom.

Many Sanders supporters say he would have done better if he had been more hard-hitting, and used material such as the rejected video above.  But the one candidate Sanders never caught up with in the public opinion polls was Joe Biden, and the only thing that set Biden apart was that, in 50 years in politics, he never made any lasting enemies.

Donald Trump in 2016 is an example of a successful insurgent candidate who didn’t bother with civility.  But such tactics wouldn’t necessarily have worked for Sanders.

Trump was able to win because the Republican rules gave all of each state’s delegates to the candidate who got the most votes.  He didn’t have to win a majority in any state, just more votes than any of the other candidates.

He probably wouldn’t have won under Democratic rules, which divide up a state’s delegates among candidates based on how many votes they got.

All things considered, I think it is remarkable that Sanders got as far as he did.  He was opposed by the national press, by the leaders of his own party and by the big campaign donors that other candidates depend on.

As Lambert Strether on Naked Capitalism pointed out, he was able to offset this by doing three things no other candidate was able to do:

  • Raise as much money from small donors as his opponents were able to raise from rich donors and corporate interests.
  • Set up a grass roots canvassing operation that did not depend on the Democratic Party structure.
  • Set up a media operation so he could communicate with the voters directly without depending on the established news media, which was against him.

He and his supporters joined forces with grass-roots labor and social justice activists, drawing support from them and helping to give them a voice, in a way no other candidate did.  He and his supporters helped bring progressive ideas such as Medicare for All closer to acceptance than they ever had been before.  I favored him not so much because of his specific proposals as because of who he represented.

What will happen next?  Will Sanders’ achievement be a baseline for further advance or a high-water mark from which the tide will recede?  Much depends on whether Sanders’ organizations will stay in being and especially what happens to his small-donor list.

Biden is one of the few in the Democratic establishment who treated Sanders with normal courtesy and respect. That’s not sufficient reason for pretending that Biden is anything more than a tool of the financial industry and a militarist who is committed to perpetual war.  Sadly, Sanders’ campaign ended not with a bang, but a whimper.


Bernie Sanders made the unrealistic bet that he could win without compromising, and it almost worked by Ben Mathis-Lilley for Slate.

[5/15/2020]  I made some edits to clarify the 7th & 8th paragraphs.

[5/16/2020]  I didn’t express myself well in this post.  I believe fundamental human rights are non-negotiable and apply to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or anything else.  

I do believe that minor issues regarding “wokeness” should not override fundamental issues regarding militarism and plutocracy, and that this is what happened with the controversy over Joe Rogan.  He didn’t question the right of transgendered people to be what they are; he just an an opinion about eligibility to participate in a women’s sport.

Walter Benn Michaels on how liberals still love divert and ignore inequality, an interview for Chicago Reader (2016),  This expresses what I was trying to say.

Also, I don’t think this was the only thing or the main thing that tripped Sanders up.

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2 Responses to “Could Bernie Sanders have won?”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    Lots of us oppose transgender women who want to pose as “real” women in sports. & other places. We have no problem with them in any other facility … such as jobs, housing, etc. (basic civil rights) but when it comes to sports, health, crime, etc. a man is a man & a woman is a woman. You can not change your DNA or your cultural upbringing. This is going to be a real battle in the years to come. Men & women present differently in areas such as heart attacks. A transwoman should not be allowed to say that she’s a “woman” when she is having a heart attack … she should be honest about her real biology. This really matters! As with criminal statistics. & transwomen should not be housed with real women in prisons. This is just asking for trouble. Many men go “trans” just so they can be put into women’s populations. As for sports … these men are CHEATERS. Most of them couldn’t compete against their own kind so they turn trans & compete against women & guess what … they win. GEE, HOW SURPRISING.

    I supported Elizabeth Warren until she went full trans & then I was done with her. I put up with her waffling on M4A … she was pretty pathetic with all that. But throwing real women under the bus for fake women … for MEN … that was the end for me. Either you’re a feminist or you’re not. & she’s not. She lost a lot of support with women over that sh*t.


    • philebersole Says:

      I agree with you and with Joe Rogan. But even if I disagreed, I wouldn’t let this particular question overshadow fundamental questions of peace and war, and economic justice. To do so is what they call straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.


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