Anchors gulped for air in the MSNBC newsroom yesterday as they processed Bernie Sanders’ stunning victory at the Nevada Caucuses. The unthinkable was happening. Bernie Sanders, they grudgingly conceded, was the front runner. Immediately the soul searching began. How did this happen? What had they missed? What did the future hold for a Democratic Party led by a socialist? Chris Matthews worried about echoes of the French Revolution when Madame la Guillotine dispatched elites and nobility to the afterlife with industrial efficiency. Would it be better perhaps for liberal moderates to “wait 4 years” for another election than to vote for Sanders, Chris wondered? In other words, should moderates let Trump win a second term in order to prevent Sanders from winning the presidency?
The concern at MSNBC was and still is, shared by many moderate liberal Democrats. To them, Bernie is just as bad as Trump. Or, well, maybe not “just as bad,” but if Trump is Hitler, then Bernie is Stalin or Trotsky, and that’s not much better (and might be worse). Doesn’t Bernie openly display his disdain for “millionahs and billionahs” and talk about taking all their hard-earned money away like some Americanized version of the Cultural Revolution? It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl, the moderates say. Worse still, Sanders seems to have tricked the youth of this fine nation into following him down this dangerous path. He’s like the pied piper of socialism.
Poor Pete Buttigieg, they say. Third place does not look good enough. If only he had done x or y or z, everything would have been so much better. Warren, the so-called "unity" candidate, also needed a stronger finish, but maybe she’ll get a boost in South Carolina. And hey, Biden finished in second place! Sure, Sanders beat him by 27%, but hey, second is second, and he will do well in SC. Maybe he’s still got a shot at taking Sanders down after all, the moderates say.
Underlying all of the concern is a question, voiced many times in many ways on MSNBC: How did this happen? How could we have gotten to the point? How did no one see this coming?
Moderates have misunderstood many things about Bernie Sanders, but there have been a few core problems in particular that set them up for failure early on. Chief among these is one simple fact: Moderates have always been focused on defeating Trump instead of building a positive vision for the country. The moderates have not been wrong to focus on defeating Trump. But their mistake has been in thinking they could do so by advocating for a return to pre-Trump American politics. The truth is that elections are won via positive visions for the future, not just by negative reactions against a common enemy. The focus on a common enemy is helpful for unifying the party, but that positive vision based on a thoughtful ideology is what will build a movement. Unlike the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, which has no core ideology and has no economic message for the working class, Bernie Sanders has an ideology focused squarely on the working class, and he has never varied from this message in 40 years of politics. His consistency and clarity are the envy of moderate Democrats who have neither. From this fundamental weakness has flowed all of the moderates’ misunderstandings of Sanders.
To Sanders’ singular focus on reforming the health care system and pushing Medicare for All, moderates have responded with various forms of “now is not the time” or “America is not ready for this right now” or “let’s slow down and start with a public option.” Despite the fact that health care is the number one concern for most Democrats (climate change is a close second), moderates have sought to downplay the urgency of the issue. At best, moderates have dismissed the idea of Medicare for All as pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. At worst, moderates have even spread misinformation about Sanders' plans.
To Sanders’ brand as a maverick outsider, moderates have responded with the claim that he is unelectable. For one reason or another, moderates have convinced themselves that Sanders suffers from electability issues despite the fact that, as the Atlantic put it recently, “Regular Democrats just aren’t worried about Bernie. Many in the party elite remain deeply skeptical of the Vermont senator, but rank-and-file voters do not share that hesitation.”
To Sanders’ entire platform, from Medicare for All to student debt relief, moderates have responded with some form of “it’s not politically possible right now.” To get any of this stuff done, they contend, Sanders would need majorities in the House and the Senate, and there is no way he could help the Democrats’ chances in the Senate. He could only hurt them with his radical ideas. The moderates hold fast to the notion that this situation makes Bernie a non-starter despite the fact that all of the other candidates would be fighting just as hard a battle to get anything done as well. Bernie may or may not help Democrats win the Senate, just any other candidate may or may not help. That’s impossible to predict. But either way, the Republicans are going to resist working with any Democrat who wins the presidency no matter who they are. All Democrats are radical socialists to them.
To their credit, MSNBC did recognize the parallels to 2016. Just as they had underestimated Trump then, they have underestimated Sanders now. But MSNBC and moderates, in general, have missed the point of this comparison. They are now focussed on drawing comparisons between Trump and Bernie. Their logic is understandable: if they got Bernie wrong in the same way they got Trump wrong, then maybe Bernie is the Democrat’s Trump. Thus, they have wasted no time in pointing out all of the comparisons they can think of. Like Trump, Bernie has some populist elements in his message. Like Trump, Bernie is from New York City. Like Trump, Bernie claims to be anti-establishment. Like Trump, Bernie draws enthusiastic crowds. And so on and so forth. The scariest thing about it all is how well it fits: the sheeple, the moderates point out, will follow a Bernie or a Trump off any cliff.
But of course, while these comparisons are not entirely wrong, the moderates are still missing the lesson of their latest blunder. The one thing they have yet to realize, apparently, is that they should not listen to themselves. As with Trump, they have been wrong about Bernie. As with Trump, they have peddled conspiracy theories about Bernie instead of giving him a fair shake. As with Trump, they have dismissed his supporters as uncivil and offensive instead of listening to them. As with Trump, they failed to recognize the working-class anger that has fueled Bernie’s campaign. As with Trump, they have listened too much to like-minded voices without taking the opposition seriously. What credibility do moderates have any more? Is it not possible that the moderates of the Democratic Party are just plain wrong, in general, about how politics works in a post-Obama world? Is it not possible that moderates are out of touch with the working class in general - Left, Right, and Independent?
What moderates do not realize is that their brand of politics is increasingly outdated. The sooner they understand this fact, the faster they will be able to mount a concerted effort to restore a workable brand of centrist liberal or neoliberal politics in America. Bernie’s ideas are not going anywhere even if he loses the nomination somehow. If moderates don’t figure this out soon, they might simply fade away from mainstream politics over the next 10 years. It’s time to grow a thicker skin. It’s time for moderates to get their heads in the game. Instead of worrying about Guillotines and populism, moderates should worry about the working class. What do moderates offer the working class that is new and different? Why should moderate liberals be given the chance to run the country again instead of progressives? Until they answer these questions, moderates will never understand Bernie Sanders.