If Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential bid isn’t dead, it’s definitely on life support. As of March 11, Sanders possesses 681 Democratic Party delegates versus Joe Biden’s 823. Key states like Michigan and those of the South have gone rather easily to Biden, proving that, for all his flaws, the establishment candidate may be whom Democrats prefer to take on President Donald Trump in November.
A week in politics is a long time, but, in 2020, 72 hours became the new time horizon. How did Sanders, who the Friday prior to Super Tuesday seemed unstoppable, suddenly crash?
It’ll be many months, if not years, before astute political analysts can effectively break down the how and why of Sanders’s seemingly doomed campaign. But perhaps the answer really is that simple and it lies within Sanders’s ideology.
Looks Like a Socialist, Talks Like a Socialist
Despite decades of documented history proving Sanders to be an avowed socialist, there’s been a concerted effort from his avid followership and segments of the media to prove he isn’t what he says and does. It’s an effort that goes back at least to his 2016 campaign, but more recent examples include such headlines as:
- Bernie Sanders Is a Democratic Socialist Not a Communist, Here’s the Difference
- Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist
- Here’s the difference between a ‘socialist’ and a ‘democratic socialist’
What can only be characterized, at best, as an election-year makeover campaign began to fall apart on Feb. 23 in an interview Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.” Among other things, Sanders stated: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”
Right afterward, Sanders doubled down, which was really his only play, lest he come off as a flip-flopper. Despite his proclamation “Truth is truth,” his point wasn’t clear. Does improved literacy that occurred in the context of indoctrinating the population in communist ideology redeem Cuba in any way? Should the United States become more like such countries? Ultimately, these remarks went nowhere, perhaps because there wasn’t anywhere to go but down.
Again, these remarks aren’t new and are entirely consistently with Sanders’ history. But, as even left-wing Vox conceded, it made for a bad look: “The other read, though, is more in line with Sanders’ past. Time after time, he has apologized for the actions of brutal left-wing dictatorships from Cuba to Nicaragua to the Soviet Union, partly out of a critique of America’s meddling in these countries but also – some argue – because of his ideological sympathies toward them.”
The Cognitive Dissonance Dissipated
In a single interview, Sanders may’ve forever demolished the effort to convince the American electorate the 78-year-old career politician is a perfectly benign “democratic socialist” and not the hard-left socialist he’s always been. This was a level of collective cognitive dissonance impossible for Sanders to overcome, and this weakness would’ve eventually been exposed the longer his campaign went on. His Democratic Party opponents, most notably Biden and Michael Bloomberg, tore open that wound and poured salt on it, with plenty of help from their allies in the media.
There’s always been an uncomfortable irony regarding the entire Sanders brand—if socialism’s negative connotation is undeserved, then why would it be necessary to effectively re-define it? Why bother re-casting Sanders as a “democratic socialist” when there’s nothing wrong with socialism to begin with? The fact is, Sanders has always been stuck between embracing what he believes at heart and winning over voters who don’t share his views.
That brings us to Sanders’ fatal flaw: most Americans don’t support socialism. Even Democrats, who hold favorable views towards socialism, embrace an incorrectly defined version of it, as opposed to the real thing.
Again, support for Sanders hinges on his ability to convince voters he isn’t the next Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Mao Zedong, or Joseph Stalin. Given the sordid history of countries where socialism has been implemented, Sanders’s campaign would’ve inevitably run into the roadblock of older voters cognizant of the price of “free stuff.”
Sanders does remain the choice of young voters, however, who also view socialism more favorably than older voters. But, as even Sanders lamented, voter turnout continues to be a problem among the young.
This begs the question: just how strong is the enthusiasm for socialism for young voters? Is it possible the polls are inaccurate? Is it possible that what young voters consider “socialism” is inconsistent with Bernie’s views? Finally, is it possible that, once the “democratic socialist” mirage was shattered, that maybe some young voters changed their minds about him and, instead of voting for Biden, merely abstained?
For now, these remain rhetorical questions, but the crash-and-burn nature of Bernie’s 2020 campaign suggests underlying assumptions ought to be questioned.
Talk Is Cheap. Socialism Is Expensive
Even his embrace of the “Nordic model” eventually crashed, proving that most Americans, left or right, see it as something “nice to have,” but not feasible in America nor worth the cost.
During a Fox News town hall on March 9, Martha McCallum explained, quite accurately, the Nordic countries weren’t the socialist paradises Sanders had, for years, characterized them as. The only comeback Sanders could muster was, “Look, I’m not an expert on the current economy in Sweden.”
It’s only reasonable to believe that someone who thinks the United States should become more like Sweden would commit himself to becoming an expert in that area, but Sanders apparently never saw use in doing so. This is the sort of thing that can take the wind out of the sails of a presidential bid, particularly for someone who stresses the importance of education and informed citizenship.
These are just a few of Sanders’s many contradictions, and there are many more, such as his apparent disdain for wealth, despite being a millionaire; his embrace of avowed antisemites; and his inconsistent, possibly disingenuous, foreign policy platform.
But none of it should surprise us. Bernie’s campaign just might’ve fallen prey to its litany of contradictions, just as socialism eventually collapses under the weight of its own contradictions; the centrally planned economy is superior to the market economy, yet it produces nothing of value, for example. The same is true of “democratic socialism.” Somehow, the needs of the individual are supposed to be even better-met under a system more collectivist than individualist.
Sanders’a campaign was a movement, driven by both true believers in socialism but also by many drawn to his willingness to address critical issues other politicians tend to neglect, like student debt and the expenses of health care. But the latter group would’ve also expressed the greatest amount of buyer’s remorse in the event Bernie’s platform went off the rails because, again, it might be nice to talk about socialism, but living through it’s another matter.
In 2020, Bernie tried employing the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But he couldn’t keep up the charade for long. It’s hard to do that when you’re forced to pretend to be something other than what you are.