Today, across America, Democratic socialists are congregating in dive bars and chat rooms to lick their wounds and plot the way forward. As Dustin Guastella wrote in the Jacobin, “Bernie Sanders had a bad night last night. Of course, it doesn’t mean we stop campaigning or that we write premature obituaries. It does, however, give us a chance to take stock of where we are, what the last five years have taught us, and what might happen after July, regardless of the outcome.”
Last night’s results contain many lessons for the Left. For instance, try as they might to couch race and gender politics within an economic critique of class inequality, the Left cannot escape the unmistakable weakness of their support among Black voters who participated in the civil rights movement of the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, one lesson is that the Left must focus on these voters more intently going forward. Currently, older Black voters do not trust leftist candidates who do not have solid Obama-ist backgrounds. Leftists may be tempted to dismiss the completely obvious weight that the Obama tradition holds within the party and point to structural reasons for the Left’s failure in Michigan and the South. They might point to the fact that Michigan voters in general by and large support Medicare for All and Joe Biden at the same time, which is a contradiction from the Leftist perspective, and draw the conclusion that the gap between the policy views of the Party base and the institutional Party infrastructure is the cause of the Left’s weakness among Black voters. But this can’t explain why Michigan voters, who delivered a surprise victory to Sanders in 2016, all but abandoned him in 2020. No, the true reason why Sanders has failed to connect with older Black voters is that people of color see rising right-wing racism as a threat to the past 50 years of civil rights progress, and they simply do not want to endanger that progress by voting for candidates who do not fall solidly within the Obama political tradition.
Another lesson could be that the Democratic electorate is looking for safety and nostalgia right now. This insight relies a bit heavily on the notion that the candidates’ branding neatly aligns with the views of the electorate, which is debatable. But granting for the moment that the results of the election indicate voter sentiment and that choice of candidate is indicative of what voters feel on some deep psychological level, whether uniformly distributed across the electorate or not, we can perhaps make some broad statements about what Americans want right now. Sanders is the candidate of real talk and determination, but he is also advocating ideas that feel new even if they are old. On the other hand, Biden is the candidate of compassion and nobility. Sure, he curses rudely and challenges people to physical fights routinely on the campaign trail, but Biden also knows how to connect with people who are hurting because he knows deep grief well. One major facet of Biden’s brand is his biography, which includes the devastating loss of his wife and child in the early 1970s, and later, the loss of his eldest son, Beau, in 2015. These raw and very public moments of vulnerability endeared Biden to entire generations of American voters over the past 40 years. Democrats feel like they know who Joe Biden is at his core. Sanders, in comparison, seems to these voters like a riled up newcomer with no credibility.
One thing that is also abundantly clear, and that Leftists are completely correct about no matter what the wider commentariat would like Americans to believe, is that the Democratic Party is no longer the party of the working class. Evidence for this comes from the continued expansion of the Democratic base into the suburbs of America metro areas. Since 2018, Republicans have steadily lost ground in suburbs as Democrats make gains among professionals and white collar workers. This trend continued to show up in the returns last night in suburbs across Michigan. “This is what happened in 2018,” the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey wrote earlier on Tuesday. “A deluge of voters — including many in the suburbs — filed into churches and community centers across the country to vote for a moderate candidate in an act they viewed as a repudiation of the president.”
This coalition of Black and suburban whites has been the key to Biden’s success, and Leftist must take note of this. In line with that reality, there are definitely openings for Leftist candidates in down ballot races who can strike the right chord with disaffected independents and working class white voters. The Democratic Party has largely eschewed any interest in courting working class voters which leaves the field wide open for groups like the Democratic Socialists of America to step in. As a result, the Left would do well to shift attention away from the presidential race soon and focus on congressional and state level races rather than try to mount a third party bid for the presidency or launch some sort of insurrection at the Democratic National Convention this Summer. With Sanders’ clearly heading for a loss in the race for the nomination, perhaps the time has come to begin thinkinging longer term.
Whatever lessons the Left learns, the truth of the matter remains the same: they got trounced last night. There’s no other way to put it. As Dustin indicates, the Left should not give up; on the contrary, in many ways the Left has just gotten started. The fact Sanders has been able to mount two major offensives against the Democratic Party establishment illustrates the growing opportunities Leftist candidates. Sanders has certainly moved the overton window to the left on topics across the board, from Healthcare to universal childcare and climate change. The young people of our nation have clearly indicated their support for him and his vision. If those young people continue to believe what they believe as they grow older, then then the future is looking very bright for Leftist politics.