We may all have to be made uncomfortable

Bernie Sanders won on ideology and ideas. He inspired hope and enthusiasm in young and working-class voters Joe Biden must win over to prevail in November. Therefore, Biden must "do what it takes to unify the party." These truths are held to be self-evident.


How is it that Bernie failed to carry the day at the ballot box despite winning on ideology and ideas and mobilizing young and working-class voters like no one before him? The explanation is no surprise: conspiracy. His campaign was laid low by the machinations of the neoliberal Democratic Party establishment, mainstream media, big pharma, Wall Street, corporate cabals, &c., and I suppose elitist scribblers such as I who are with Sanders on some issues and at least sympathetic on others but recognize that some positions held with dogmatic fervor by his camp remain contentious within the ranks of the Democratic Party, and more so for the country as a whole. Really, when you lay it out, Bernie did not lose at all. He actually won. This too is self-evident.


[T]he corporate elite of this country had no intention of allowing a non-corporate candidate to skate across the finish line without serious intervention. A few phone calls from Barack Obama…sufficed to pull the moderate ducks in a row.


More important, despite majority support among the Democratic electorate for many of Bernie’s policies, when the establishment spoke, the party’s voters listened. (Heideman and Thier, Bernie’s Campaign Strategy Wasn’t the Problem)


Both [Sanders campaigns] took the Left further in electoral terms than anyone thought was possible but were impeded by entrenched establishments who viewed them less as adversaries than as menacing interlopers to be defeated at all costs.

For Sanders, this meant the unprecedented consolidation of electoral rivals ahead of a pivotal Super Tuesday vote he was hitherto on course to win—engineered by party grandees and enabled by a media determined to shut out and marginalize his campaign while boosting his opponents. (Savage, The Liberal Center Must Be Beaten)


Why, then, am I unconvinced? There is something to all of this, but not nearly as much as the progressive wing would have it. Prominent figures within the Democratic Party, officeholders at all levels, members of the Democratic National Committee, believe in good faith that Bernie's agenda is too radical to win in November. Not all of them fall neatly into convenient classifications like neoliberal or damn centrist or center-right, as some who think of themselves as liberals are disparagingly dubbed. Not all of them are on the side of the angels either. Some are too ready, willing, and able to serve the interests of political bedfellows who are not on the side of any angel. Just as surely, some act upon their own conscientious, humanly fallible judgment about how to provide for the general welfare and common good. It is just barely possible they could honorably disagree with Bernie without being in the pocket of billionaires, the insurance industry, big pharma, &c.


The South Carolina primary left Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, and Tom Steyer with no illusions about a path forward to the nomination, a bridge Cory Booker and Kamala Harris were compelled to cross earlier. United by the imperative to defeat Trump in November, more in tune with Biden than with Sanders on health care, the climate crisis, debt-free college education, and other issues on down the line, and sharing the belief that Sanders is too radical and divisive to win a national election, of course they threw their support to the former vice president. Whether they are right or wrong is debatable but beside the point. There is no need to posit nefarious intrigues and shenanigans by "party grandees" to "engineer" their withdrawal from the race and subsequent endorsement of Biden.


Barack Obama is highly respected and influential, the party's de facto leader. His voice carries weight. So does the voice of Jim Clyburn in South Carolina. Their support for Biden, implicit on Obama's part until his April 14 endorsement, was not irrelevant, but the suggestion that in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday voters simply put aside their support for Bernie's policies and blindly fell into step when the establishment spoke relies on superficial analysis of polling data and disregards the simple fact that the "socialist" label is anathema to a significant chunk of the electorate. More Americans than we might want to think, and not all of them Republicans, identify socialism with Bolshevism, the gulag, Mao's cultural revolution, and so on. Bernie Sanders may have made some headway toward countering these misguided beliefs, but there remains a way to go. It is folly to ignore this.


Elizabeth Warren's detente with Sanders frayed toward the end with the foofaraw over what he said or did not say about whether a woman could win against Trump. Her decision not to endorse him may have come as a disappointment. It could hardly have been a surprise. Her decision not to support Sanders can be explained without need to postulate backroom conspiracies orchestrated by party hacks, Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, &c.


Polls showing majority support for universal health care are typically cited as exhibit A for progressive victory on ideology and ideas. It was indeed only after Sanders' 2016 campaign that polls first showed majority support for national health insurance through a single government plan. However, the claim that the majority of Americans now support Sanders-style Medicare for All rests on a narrow reading of polling data.


A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report on April 3, 2020, shows that one need not dig too deeply to find that attitudes about health care are complicated, sometimes based on misconceptions and misunderstandings, and maddeningly inconsistent. The questions posed and how they are worded affect responses and results. Zeroing in on a single data point as evidence for what one wishes to believe only invites misleading conclusions.


KFF polling finds public support for Medicare-for-all shifts significantly when people hear arguments about potential tax increases or delays in medical tests and treatment (Figure 10). KFF polling found that when such a plan is described in terms of the trade-offs (higher taxes but lower out-of-pocket costs), the public is almost equally split in their support (Figure 11). KFF polling also shows many people falsely assume they would be able to keep their current health insurance under a single-payer plan, suggesting another potential area for decreased support especially since most supporters (67 percent) of such a proposal think they would be able to keep their current health insurance coverage (Figure 12).

KFF polling finds more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer voting for a candidate who wants to build on the ACA in order to expand coverage and reduce costs rather than replace the ACA with a national Medicare-for-all plan (Figure 13). Additionally, KFF polling has found broader public support for more incremental changes to expand the public health insurance program in this country including proposals that expand the role of public programs like Medicare and Medicaid (Figure 14). And while partisans are divided on a Medicare-for-all national health plan, there is robust support among Democrats, and even support among over four in ten Republicans, for a government-run health plan, sometimes called a public option (Figure 15).

My seat of the pants sense is that the pendulum began drifting leftward during the rule of Bush the Younger and Cheney the Diabolical, given impetus by the Iraq debacle, less than stellar federal responses to natural disasters, and the great recession. Bernie's campaigns gave that drift focus and a passionate, articulate voice to rally around. At the same time individuals all along the political spectrum have been radicalized by the awful mess of selfishness, narcissism, cynicism, nepotism, cronyism, incompetence, corruption, arrogance, rejection of expertise, authoritarian instincts, casual brutality, and laziness that mark the Trump regime. Bernie Sanders was and remains a factor in bringing progressive ideology and ideas into mainstream political discussions. His accomplishments are significant, he matters, but it is not all about Bernie.


Joe Biden will need every vote he can round up in what is likely to be a close election and will certainly be an ugly campaign. He needs the votes of young and old, working class and college educated, who backed Sanders and Warren, but not at the price of abandoning moderates and traditional liberals who were with him in the primaries. Biden could also use the votes of Never Trumpers and alienated Republicans who dislike Trump but would vote for him or sit out the election if Sanders were the candidate. It is not a matter of moving to the right to appeal to the latter but of offering a choice they can rationalize as a lesser evil, something many could not do with Hillary Clinton in 2016 and would never do if Sanders were the candidate. Bringing these factions into one tent will not be easy.


What exactly Biden must do to satisfy progressive demands that he "do what it takes to unify the party" is by no means clear. How far will these demands be pushed? Biden's instinct is to build coalitions. Once he became the presumptive nominee, he wasted no time before making conciliatory overtures to Sanders, Warren, and their supporters. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded by saying that Biden must be made "uncomfortable" and calling his proposal to lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 "almost insulting." Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and Guardian US columnist, echoed Ocasio-Cortez, saying the proposal "almost seems like a deliberate insult," and expressed disappointment about Biden's student debt proposal.


Robinson implied that Biden will be writing off progressive voters if he fails to embrace "one of the big left policy proposals such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal." That may well be. But how many will be written off? At what price will they be appeased? Biden will not bring the party together by taking up Bernie's banner that was rejected by primary voters and throwing overboard these voters whose support carried him to victory.


All factions, left, center, center-right, Never Trumpers, are right to press their case and use what they leverage they have to influence Biden and the Democratic Party platform. How they do it matters. Their causes, many of which are my causes, are not well served by loose analysis, fanciful narratives, and absolutist demands. Compromise often comes with a bitter taste. Nonetheless, it is what we have to work with. We can only keep at it, hacking away chip by chunk, with the terrible knowledge that for the climate crisis it may not be enough. We may all have to be made uncomfortable.

Postscript scribbles. I have used the terms progressive, left, moderate, and centrist quite loosely throughout. None of these groups is monolithic. Each encompasses disparate individuals and factions that can be as much as odds with each other as with more ideologically distinct adversaries. The imperative for me is to be as clear as I can manage when, for instance, I am speaking of a faction within the progressive wing that I believe saw the Sanders campaign in part (stressing "in part") as a vehicle for the hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, whereby it would be transformed into a socialist party. Their influence is limited, but it would be irresponsible to turn a blind eye to them. Nor do I have in mind all Sanders' supporters when I criticize what I hope is a small coterie that may either sit out the election or cast a third-party vote that will redound to Trump's benefit.


FiveThirtyEight published a staff discussion about just how much Biden needs the Sanders vote. Here are a few observations and opinions that stand out for me as worthy of consideration:

  • According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 82 percent of Sanders supporters say they would vote for Biden in the general election, and just 7 percent said they would vote for Trump. And Quinnipiac University found that 86 percent of Sanders voters would vote for Biden, 3 percent would vote for Trump, 2 percent would vote for someone else, 4 percent wouldn’t vote, and 5 percent didn’t know who they’d vote for.

  • …it’s worth separating the cohort of people under 45 from the "Sanders-or-bust" people. Overall, I think the under 45 group will be fine with Biden because they hate Trump more. (Perry Bacon)

  • So the tradeoff for Biden in 2020 may be that he loses youth turnout but gets more votes from suburban moderate types who are older. Given that older voters are more reliable voters, that might be an OK trade for Biden. (Geoffrey Skelley)

  • Biden won every county in Michigan in the primary, but he obviously won’t do that in the general. Winning white working-class Democrats isn’t the same as winning white working-class independents or Republicans. (Nathaniel Rakich)

I am beset by doubt as I dither over whether to publish this essay. Does any of it matter to anyone other than partisan drudges, scribblers, and Twitter hacks who are for the most part talking to themselves, just as I imagine I am for the most part talking to myself with some blog entries? Do critiques such as this one only deepen divisions and make it more difficult to consign Trump to the dustbin of history come November? Or would silence cede the field to factions whose agenda and demands make it more difficult for Biden to bring on board voters from a host of contentious and cantankerous factions? My answer to these questions, as ever uneasy, lies in sharing these thoughts for what they may be worth. With them and a few bucks you could buy a cup of coffee if you find coffee shop open in your part of the world.


References and related readingHow Much Does Biden Need Sanders Voters To Beat Trump?, FiveThirtyEight, March 25, 2020

David Matthews

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