Why Bernie Sanders (Still) Won't Win the Nomination

Last March, I predicted that Bernie Sanders would lose the race for the Democratic nomination for a few reasons, several of which have not panned out. Sanders has so far maintained a solid base of support despite other candidates taking up similarly progressive stances on issues like healthcare and the economy. AOC and the Squad have joined Sanders instead of breaking away to forge their own path. Booker, Castro, and Harris never built enough support among minority voters to pose a significant threat. And Sanders has had no trouble fundraising for his 2020 campaign. But one thing I said has held true, namely that, for many Democrats, “the rise of Trumpian politics is not the dawning of a new era in American politics, but an aberration that must be corrected.”

Almost a year after I wrote that article, as the Iowa Caucuses draw nigh and the polls tighten between progressives and moderates, the gulf between the Biden and Bernie camps has become refined and profoundly acute. On the one hand, Sanders is banking on the notion that Americans don’t just want Trump to go back into the capitalist host body from which he emerged like a face-hugger bursting out of America’s chest. Instead, Sanders is offering Americans a vision of a new way of life, a way of life that many Americans desperately want, and a way of life that would be so much better than what we have ever had before. Sanders wants to pull America forward into what he sees as the new normal for developed Western democratic nations: a strong social welfare system, protectionist trade policies, and a non-interventionist foreign policy stance.

On the other hand, Biden is relying on the idea that mostly what Americans want is to hit the reset button on the 2016 election, get a do-over, and try again with a guy who won’t embarrass Americans on the international stage and alienate our allies at every turn. Biden is offering a vision of a recognizable, comfortable, Obama-era normalcy that appeals to vast swathes of the Democratic base as well as many disillusioned conservatives. After 4 years of chaos, Biden is not offering radical change. Instead, Biden is positioning himself as the trustworthy pre-social-media version of an American politician who everyone can work with. Under Biden, Obamacare would expand incrementally, borders would open to allow more freedom of movement, and neoliberal trade deals similar to the now-defunct TPP would act as counterweights against the growing influence of Chinese industrialization. 

These are the two options the Democrats must choose between: the new normal or the old normal. (Sorry Buttigieg and Warren supporters, unless something unexpected happens, this year is not your year.) The debate is caustic at times. The Democrats’ grandpas are fighting about how to save the farm, and no one wants to pick a side. But we must choose. We must all choose one of our grandpas over the other, and the harsh reality is that, farm or no farm, the choice will likely define the party for a generation.

So let’s get down to brass tacks, as the old folks say. Who is going to win? If we had to make a prediction today about which grandpa will win the nomination—not who will beat Trump, not who will actually fulfill his campaign promises if elected, not who will save America from climate change—but who will win the Democrats over to their side during the primary season, who would we bet on? 

The problem with a question like this is that there are infinite ways of gauging how each candidate is doing. At first blush, a proper answer to this question may seem to require some deep analysis of polling data from swing counties in swing states. Or maybe we could develop a novel reading of attendance rates of Iowans at pre-caucus events as a proxy for each candidate’s ability to turn out voters in bad weather. Or better still, we could predict the financial stability of each campaign given their fundraising ability and their strategic needs over the coming months: ad spends, transportation costs, and staff-to-volunteer ratios in each state.

But if we assume for a moment that each campaign is being run extremely well by highly competent people who know much more than the average political pundit about campaigning, then we can perhaps set these details aside. In any case, we know that for every metric one side puts forward in favor of their position, the other side will put forward an equally convincing metric. The tea leaf readers are good at what they do. Too good, perhaps. One of these tea leaf readers is bound to come up with the “correct” analysis, which in retrospect should have been so obvious to everyone all along. But at the current moment, a few weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, and months before we can know for sure which of these tea leaf readers has the correct prediction, we can’t know for certain which side will come out on top just by looking at data, at numbers, and metrics. As a result, whatever the pundits and campaigns tell us the poll numbers say about what we think, whatever the politicos say they hear from us as they canvass our neighborhoods, at the end of the day, the only thing we can really trust is our own fundamental understanding of who we are as a people. Who the Democrats will choose will be decided by who we already know we are in our hearts as Americans. That is part of what makes this internal debate within the Democratic party so personal. It hurts to realize we are not the same as our family, our friends, or the rest of the people in our Party. The identity of the Democratic Party is evolving, perhaps fracturing, and these are the growing pains.

So, who are we? When we look inside, do we see the courage to build a new American society in line with our best social theories of governance and economics? Or do we see the temperance to focus on improving the beautiful and flawed society we already have? Are we swinging for the fences or are we going with the sacrifice bunt? Both options could win the ball game.

The truth is that Americans are scared. We are feeling risk-averse right now. We are suffering under a demagogic maniac who poses the greatest threat to the global order the world has seen since Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and later crashed the economy in 2008. We know that climate change is ravaging our nation and other nations around the world, yet Trump has actively worked against the policy initiatives that could pave the way toward a more sustainable future. With employment at an all-time high but inequality and poverty growing at alarming rates, with entire sectors of the economy poised to be depopulated by automation, with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement under threat from an ascendant far-right white supremacist movement—and with all of these trends seemingly attributable to the rise of the Great Orange Menace (that’s just how it seems; whether or not it is true is another question), Americans want to vanquish the beast and return to a baseline level of control. For the past 3 years, Democrats, and even many Republicans and Independents, have suffered through an existential dread. “Now is not a time to mess around with new things,” the American heart says. “Now we need safety. We need relief. We need the tried and true.”

That is the America I see when I look inside our American hearts. I hope I am wrong. But if I had to guess, based on this observation alone, which I would say has been the defining truth of the past 3 years of American politics on the left, I would say that Biden will win. To be clear, Biden is not my preferred candidate. But fear is a powerful motivator, powerful enough to overcome hope, contrary to what Obama would have us believe. Biden, like Trump, is a candidate of fear, and Americans are scared. For all of his grouchiness, Sanders is the candidate of hope right now. That is why he will lose the race for the Democratic nomination.

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