MEMBERS ONLY: The Unfortunate Bernie Sanders Paradox

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders announced his bid to seek a third term in the Senate this fall. The move has provoked more speculation about his potential run in 2020, and filled many on the left with a sense of hope or dread about the future of liberal politics in America. If Sanders decides to run, we could see his movement learn from its mistakes and win the presidency, or he could repeat the divisive 2016 presidential primary that tore the party apart and ensure Democrats lose in 2020. Sanders is a pivotal figure in left wing politics, and his presence could well determine the future of liberalism in America.

When Bernie Sanders announced his bid for the presidency in April of 2015, I became very excited by the prospect of a genuine left wing candidate taking over from President Obama. The vicious right wing attacks on Obama had crystallized the notion that 30-40% of the country was basically unreachable anyway, so I felt that it didn’t really matter who ran on the left. America had proven that it could think outside of the box, and if a black man could win the presidency, then so too could a Jewish socialist.

Despite the rumblings from many centrists and traditional Democrats, Sanders was promoting a vision for America that most Americans actually agreed with — affordable healthcare for all, free college tuition, and a higher minimum wage that people could actually live on. Sanders was creating a movement around him, one young and old found inspiring, and it promised to upend decades of Democratic pandering to corporations and the center.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken into consideration one rather inconvenient aspect of the Senator from Vermont’s movement: his rabid supporters.

Sanders quickly became a savior figure to (mostly white) liberals who created a militant cult around him that would paradoxically make it completely impossible for him to win. The Sanders fanatics turned Hillary Clinton into a pariah — an establishment figure who represented everything wrong with America and the Democratic Party. The vitriol leveled at her was truly astonishing, and many of those who supported Sanders initially, including myself, became disillusioned with Sanders and his movement. While I agreed with him on policy, I did not see Clinton as the evil embodiment of American corruption and thought she was presenting a solid set of liberal policies that would keep American on the right track. Furthermore, Clinton also seemed to grasp the realities of the American political system more than Sanders, who had great ideas but no coherent plan to get them past an Republican controlled congress. Clinton was not offering voters freebies, but the knowledge and skill of how to actually push through a liberal agenda.

Sanders repeatedly refused to curb the aggressiveness of his supporters, and continued running well after it was abundantly clear that he was not going to win. Given the divisiveness of the campaign and the terrifying threat of a Trump victory in the Republican primaries, it clearly would have been better for Sanders to pack it in and endorse Clinton early in order to unify the party. After getting thoroughly trounced in the primaries, it took weeks for Sanders to come around and endorse Clinton. While I have no doubt Sanders always intended to endorse Clinton and waited until his supporters had calmed down, it was in hindsight, a move that could have been done months earlier. Sanders should not be held accountable in any way for Clinton’s loss in 2016, but one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the Democrats had been unified earlier and the militant Sanders supporters prevented from relentlessly damaging Clinton.

Sanders remains a thorn in the side of Democratic politics, and the organization ‘Our Revolution’ formed by his top operatives after the 2016 election has continued to split the party by backing only the most progressive of politicians throughout the country. One can be a progressive and see the fatal flaw in this strategy: if the progressive can’t win (and for anyone familiar with the political climate in say, Georgia, it’s clear they really can’t), then why spend resources to damage the prospects of marginally less liberal politicians who could? Those on the far left continue claiming that the Democrats can only win if they adopt far left politics, yet seem completely incapable of explaining why their far left candidates almost never win. The notion that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump is a particularly popular theme amongst Sanders fanatics — a dubious claim given Clinton thoroughly demolished Sanders in the primary. This would be like saying the runner up in the semi-finals of a 100 meter race would have won the finals if only they had been given the chance. If Sanders was the right person to beat Trump, then he would have beaten Trump.

‘Our Revolution’ is also in turmoil due to a serious lack of leadership and no coherent strategy, yet the prospect of it wading into the next presidential primary remains as strong as ever. Leftist ideologues it seems, are not particularly bothered with the ethical functioning of their own political movement, preferring to blame others for their failures and criticizing everyone else for being “corrupt”. This refusal to take ownership of their inability to win anything almost guarantees that they will never win anything in the future.

I do not feel any joy criticizing Bernie Sanders and his movement. There are many positive aspects to his propulsion into mainstream politics. Sanders introduced many left wing ideas long forgotten by the political establishment and made them relevant again. His supporter have proved that there is a genuine thirst for a social democracy in America, and that the right cannot continue to shift the country further and further to the right without consequence. Sanders is showing that laissez faire capitalism is not inevitable, and that other solutions are available to choose from. It was unthinkable 15 years ago that the word “socialism” could be uttered in a public political debate in America, yet Sanders not only made it possible, he made it mainstream.

Unfortunately though, Sanders is not the right person to see any of this through — a paradoxical twist that he does not seem to grasp. The tribalism and extremism displayed by his supporters serves only alienate the center, and without the center, winning at a national level is next to impossible. While liberals don’t like to accept it, America is still a deeply conservative country, so much so that Donald Trump is now president. To win the country back, the left must build a unified coalition under the leadership of someone who can reach out to all elements of the party. Again, Bernie Sanders is not that person and never will be.  Because the only thing stopping Bernie Sanders and ‘Our Revolution’ is not the reviled corporate centrists or the Clinton machine, it is Bernie Sanders and ‘Our Revolution’.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.