Before Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would run as a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, the establishment media was already previewing arguments that would be spread to suggest Sanders was still “unelectable.”
Jonathan Cohn articulated it best in an article for In These Times. “It is important to remember so-called electability is no more a science than astrology. Indeed, it is often little more than calcified prejudice.”
“Candidates up and down the ballot routinely disprove the notion that only white or male or centrist candidates can win a competitive election. And they do so by inspiring everyday people to put blood, sweat and tears (and money) into their campaigns,” Cohn wrote. So, when weighing which presidential candidate to back in the Democratic primary, voters should dispense with a definition of “electability” that relies on gaming out what other voters will do.”
All too often media commentators, political strategists, and individuals with past histories working on presidential campaigns seek to manipulate voters into behaving like managers of democracy.
Citizens are not managers of democracy. They do not need to concern themselves with political strategy and cynical concepts like “electability.” To the extent that voting actually matters, a citizen’s job should be to vote their conscience.
There are many arguments against Sanders — several which existed in some form back in 2016 election and were dusted off for 2020.
Most of the arguments against Sanders have origins rooted in bad faith. They depend upon some calcified prejudice held by the individuals or groups advancing these arguments.
The following is a guide to the many bad faith arguments that dominate much of the political discussion around Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the press.
Argument: Bernie Sanders has been talking about the same policies and ideas for decades, but he has nothing to show for it.
The biggest detractors have seized upon a refrain that they believe undermines one of Bernie Sanders’ great assets: his consistency throughout his career as a politician.
In July, Adrienne Elrod, a former senior adviser and spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, appeared on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” She said, “Bernie Sanders has been talking about these same policies essentially since he’s been in public service for the past 25 or 30 years, but he actually hasn’t done anything to pass them, right.”
“He’s talked about them, but we have not seen any of these policies signed into law,” Elrod further suggested.
Sanders is not responsible for the fact that his visionary policies have not been more fully embraced. That responsibility lies with influential politicians like Clinton and consultants or political strategists like Elrod.
Regardless, Elrod is incorrect that Sanders has not accomplished anything related to the policies his campaign champions.
Warren Gunnels, Senate staff director for Sanders, pointed out Sanders was instrumental in ensuring the Affordable Care Act included $12.5 billion for community health centers, which ensured millions of more Americans with expanded Medicaid or health insurance were able to find doctors and dentists.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos caved to Sanders and a coalition of activists and raised wages to $15/hour. The same tactic paid off against Disney, which led the corporation to raise the pay for 60,000 workers to $15/hour.
There are more than 40 cities and over seven states, where the minimum wage has been raised to $15/hour. Although his bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hour has not advanced, the leadership of Sanders contributed to this development.
Sanders was part of a successful effort in 2007 that led to the passage of a bill to establish a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund so the federal government could build more low-cost rental homes for homeless and low-income Americans.
While a number of senators have spoken out against perpetual war, Sanders is one of the few senators who put that into action by spending multiple years pushing for a resolution under the War Powers Act that directly challenged U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen. Although Trump vetoed it, the full Congress passed the resolution in April.
Argument: Bernie Sanders’ policies will further polarize and divide the country, moving the country away from where most Americans stand on the issues.
On February 25, during a CNN town hall, Elianna Landau, a sophomore at George Washington University and a member of the College Democrats, asked Bernie Sanders, “We’re arguably living in one of the most polarized political environments in American history. The Democratic Party is shifting more to the left and the Republican Party more to the right.”
“But most Americans tend to fall in the middle of the political spectrum. How do you plan to unite such a polarized country if your policies are moving further away from where most Americans stand?”
Such a question is premised on the notion that there is increasingly less space for moderate and less politically-engaged Americans. It is deployed by centrist Democrats in an effort to suppress the influence of progressive politics.
Centrist think tanks like the Third Way complain about “partisan polarization” and how it has reached “levels not seen since the 1890s.” However, polls consistently demonstrate there is widespread support for the agenda backed by the Sanders campaign.
Let’s run down a list of polling by sociologist Peter Dreier conducted in 2017:
— 82% of Americans believe the wealthy have too much power and influence in Washington
— 69% think large businesses have too much power and influence in Washington
— 78% of likely voters support stronger rules and enforcement on the financial industry
— 76% believe the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes
— 74% of registered voters — including 71% of Republicans — support requiring employers to offer paid parental and medical leave
— 60% of registered voters favor “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American”
— 63% of registered voters — including 47% of Republicans — favor making four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free
Additionally, a Gallup poll from March showed 57 percent of Americans favor government action to protect the environment even if it limits economic growth. A clear majority favors “higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry” and “more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations.”
Those guilty of further polarizing the country may be the ones who defy the majority by opposing policies with widespread support.
Argument: Bernie Sanders would get rid of the Affordable Care Act and throw average Americans into crisis by creating “hiatuses” in the process of establishing a Medicare For All system.
Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a forum in Iowa hosted by AARP on July 15. He suggested that Bernie Sanders’ plan for a multi-stage process to phase in an expanded Medicare system that covered all Americans would result in “hiatuses,” which would cause people with cancer to die.
“How many of you have lost a husband, wife, son, daughter to cancer? Raise your hand,” Biden said. “How many (inaudible) have terminal diseases, raise your hand, that lost them? Well, you know, the thing I’ve learned is every second counts. It’s not about a year. It’s about the day, the week, the month, the next six months. It’s about hope. And if you have these hiatuses, it may, it may, this may go as smooth, as my grandpappy said, smooth as silk. But the truth of the matter is it’s likely to be a bumpy ride getting to where we’re going.”
CNN fact-checked Biden’s misinformation and concluded a “single-payer Medicare for All plan would not result in people having a ‘hiatus,’ or gap, in their insurance coverage.”
At the same forum, Biden also said, “If you like your health care plan, your employer-based plan, you can keep it. If in fact you have private insurance, you can keep it,” playing to fears promoted by health insurance industry interests.
Biden later stated the “Medicare For All Act” introduced by Sanders would mean “getting rid of Obamacare — and I’m not for that.” He insisted Sanders would end private insurance and ensure that “Medicare goes away as you know it.”
This attack was similarly deployed by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. On “Good Morning America,” Clinton said Sanders would “take everything we currently know as health care, Medicare, Medicaid, the CHIP Program, private insurance, now of the Affordable Care Act, and roll it together.”
Her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, suggested Sanders wanted to scrap Obamacare and said doing so would send America “back to an era, before we had the Affordable Care Act, that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.” But FactCheck.org described the campaign’s series of attacks as “misleading.”
Former Obama administration adviser David Axelrod appeared on CNN and slapped down this attack. “Bernie Sanders is proposing single-payer, universal healthcare. You can hardly say he is trying to take health care away from anyone or retreat from Obamacare. He’s trying to exceed it. And so it’s not really an honest attack.”
Argument: Bernie Sanders would raise taxes on the middle class.
Former Vice President Joe Biden argues Medicare for All proponents like Bernie Sanders would raise taxes on the middle class to fund the program. He insists his plan to expand the Affordable Care Act would not raise taxes.
Similarly, The centrist think tank, Third Way, which has conducted research used to stunt the push to expand Medicare, promoted the idea that Sanders would raise taxes when he ran for president in 2016.
Third Way cited a Vox article that outlined how Sanders would raise payroll tax and flat income tax rates to fund his health care plan. But Third Way also noted, “The Sanders proposal would eliminate employee-paid health premiums, and — potentially — allow take-home wages to rise in the absence of employer-paid premiums.”
Sanders has been honest about increasing taxes, saying, “You’re going to pay more in taxes. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people are going to end up paying less for health care because they’re not paying premiums, co-payments and deductibles.”
The fact is groups like Third Way and Biden’s campaign, which is chaired by Steve Ricchetti, who is a “longtime lobbyist for health care and other corporate clients,” deploy this Republican talking point to shield the health care and private insurance industry.
Regardless of the flaws in Sanders’ plan and questions about how the plan would be adequately funded, none of the people using this attack believe the profit-seeking of executives poses a severe threat to citizens’ human right to health care.
Argument: Bernie Sanders did not do much to get Hillary Clinton elected president in 2016.
Liberal pundits like Jonathan Chait, as well as former Clinton campaign staff, contend Bernie Sanders bruised Hillary Clinton so badly in the primary that he contributed to her defeat against President Donald Trump. They insist he stayed in the race too long, even though he knew he could not win, and from that sentiment comes the baseless notion that Sanders did not do his part to help Clinton win.
Yet, as filmmaker Michael Moore documented, Sanders appeared with Clinton three times at joint events. He did 37 solo events for Clinton, including events in “Rust Belt” states that Clinton needed if she was going to beat Trump.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton participated in two joint events for President Barack Obama during the 2008 election. She did only 10 events for Obama between August and November to help get out the vote.
Sanders did almost four times what Clinton did to elect Obama.
In September 2016, Sanders directly addressed supporters who were contemplating a “protest” vote for a third-party candidate. “I would say to those people out there who are thinking of the protest vote, think about what the country looks like and whether you’re comfortable with four years of a Trump presidency.”
Like Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote for the New Yorker on November 4, 2016, days before Election Day, “Since conceding defeat in the primaries, Sanders has been one of the real champions of [the Clinton] campaign. He let his supporters yell at him and deride him as a sellout in bleak delegate breakfasts at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, as he endorsed Clinton and explained why they needed to do the same.”
“He made getting support for her his priority, putting aside any subtle, undermining gestures that might have better preserved his rebel rock star status,” Sorkin added.
Argument: Bernie Sanders supporters are toxic. They poisoned the primary in 2016 and must not be allowed to do so in 2020.
During the 2016 election, columnists like Arthur Chu, Jill Filipovic, Amanda Marcotte, and Rebecca Traister helped fuel the mythology around “Bernie Bros,” the bands of misogynistic supporters of Bernie Sanders who had no tolerance for civil discourse on the internet.
The “Bernie Bro” trope was primarily conceived by Robinson Meyer, an Atlantic staff writer. It smugly mocked the enthusiasm of those turned on to the political process by Sanders with a grimy veneer of cleverness.
It was a useful term for those who did not want to engage with substantive critiques of Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. It also exaggerated the importance and inflated the number of online personas on social media, who had very little influence over the trajectory of the campaign.
On January 3, over a month before Sanders announced his 2020 campaign, David Brock wrote an editorial for NBC News, “Bernie Sanders’ fans can’t be allowed to poison another Democratic primary with personal attacks.”
Brock is a Democratic Party consultant who founded Correct The Record, a SuperPAC that helped Clinton’s 2016 campaign respond to statements about Clinton. He was upset about journalism published about Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s congressional voting record and campaign contributions, particularly from the fossil fuel industry.
It was Brock, who was involved in spreading dishonest attacks and rumors during 2016 that would benefit Clinton.
This is the key: as long as criticism helps establishment politics maintain its stranglehold over discourse in the media, then it is acceptable. But if it challenges orthodoxies, aspersions will be cast to drag down candidates like Sanders.
Argument: Bernie Sanders’ response to sexual harassment allegations against his 2016 campaign was to shrug and say he was a “little busy running around the country trying to make the case [to be elected as president].”
When the New York Times reported allegations of sexual harassment against staffers who worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, Sanders apologized to women who were treated inappropriately.
But he also was asked on “Anderson Cooper 360” if he was unaware of the allegations when he was a 2016 candidate. “Yes, I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
That has been seized upon as evidence that Sanders does not take sexual harassment allegations seriously. However, what he was saying bluntly was that he was not involved in handling such matters. Allegations were the responsibility of others delegated to deal with them.
In 2018, Sanders ran a Senate re-election campaign in Vermont, where new protocols were setup for handling sexual harassment allegations.
For the 2020 campaign, Sanders and staff members developed “sweeping new guidelines to combat sexual misconduct” as well as “discrimination among his campaign team,” according to The Guardian. It not only was intended to reckon with sexism but also a culture that was “too white” and “too male.”
The guidelines sought to address issues, like “lack of diversity among staff and leadership” and “pay disparity.” The campaign believed they could be a “blueprint” that other candidates and campaigns would follow in 2020.
In March, staff voted to unionize, which was a “first for a major party campaign.” Unlike most other Democratic campaigns, this will provide staff a modicum of protection when dealing with sexual harassment.
Argument: Bernie Sanders still has a long way to go with black voters.
In 2016, surrogates of Hillary Clinton adopted a strategy of contending Bernie Sanders was “late to the party on racial justice. The tactic was employed to poison the well for his campaign and help ensure Clinton did not lose the support of black voters who previously helped Bill Clinton win his presidential election.
CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers, who was a surrogate for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, appeared on television in early March and resurrected this attack.
“I think that Bernie Sanders has a long way to go,” Sellers declared. “There’s a certain part of me that believes that ship has already sailed. I mean, it’s not the fact that Bernie Sanders marched with Dr. King in the ’60s. I think that was one of the first things that he said.”
Sellers added, “The question was, where have you been and what have you done since then? Where has your activism been since the ‘60s? And show me your legislation as mayor of Burlington or why you’ve been in the United States House or United States Senate to positively effect change in the African-American community. And he wasn’t able to articulate that answer.”
Back in April 2016, Sellers suggested Sanders was responsible for the fact that “African Americans are ten times more likely to be incarcerated than white people from Vermont,” even though he was never in a political office, where he had the responsibility of setting state prison policies.
This contention of having a “long way to go with black voters” is similarly trite. A January 2018 poll by Quinnipiac showed that 70 percent of black voters had a “favorable” opinion of Sanders.
Significantly, in that same poll, voters were asked, “Would you be inclined to vote for Bernie Sanders for president or not?” Sixty-eight percent of black voters responded yes or that they would be inclined to vote for Sanders.
Sanders engaged in civil rights activism with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) when he was a student at the University of Chicago. In the 1960s, he joined with black and white students to force an end to segregation in housing units that the university owned. He also engaged in civil disobedience against school segregation in Chicago public schools.
When Sanders spoke at the NAACP Convention in July, he received a standing ovation from attendees.
Sellers and other establishment Democrats dismiss Sanders’ activism and seek to ensure he is unpalatable to black voters so they can maintain a coalition of voters needed to fend off progressives. Black Democrats, in particular, wield their identity against Sanders, a white candidate, in order to make his claims of supporting racial justice seem phony. They pretend like fighting for low-wage Big Box store workers and struggling for a living wage is not hugely beneficial to poor and working class black Americans.
With older generations of black Democratic voters, it worked in 2016. Certain Democrats hope this divisive tactic will benefit them again.
Argument: Bernie Sanders’ financial status undermines his authority as someone who has “railed against millionaires and billionaires.”
At a CNN town hall on April 22, Ellen Burstein, a freshman at Harvard University, asked Bernie Sanders, “Your tax returns recently revealed that you are, in fact, a millionaire. How would you respond to concerns that your financial status undermines your authority as someone who has railed against millionaires and billionaires?”
Burstein was the outreach coordinator at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics for former Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Gary Cohn, when they convened a study group from February to April. Heitkamp is a centrist Democrat, and Cohn was the chief operating officer for Goldman Sachs and President Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser.
POLITICO ran a feature, “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” that was criticized by progressives, including Ocasio-Cortez, for what they viewed as anti-Semitic imagery (Sanders was depicted next to a money tree).
Sanders’ millions did not come from preying on homeowners with subprime mortgages nor did it come from promoting the interests of corporate executives while in Congress. Rather, Sanders made millions off a book that promoted his agenda for challenging the influence and power of corporations and the top one percent.
The wealth he accrued from his book demonstrates the opposite. He is an authority on how to resist corporate power and reorganize government in a manner that upholds economic human rights.
Argument: Bernie Sanders refuses to condemn Latin American “dictators,” particularly Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Bernie Sanders has probably received more scrutiny for his statements on Venezuela than any politician, particularly because he has a record of opposing U.S. interventions. He also spoke out against U.S. regime change efforts in Latin America in the 1980s, and opponents have disingenuously accused him of supporting “strongman” leaders like Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Nicolas Maduro.
Nevertheless, in January, as President Donald Trump’s administration escalated a coup attempt in Venezuela, Sanders reacted, “The Maduro government in Venezuela has been waging a violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society, violated the constitution by dissolving the National Assembly and was re-elected last year in an election that many observers said was fraudulent. Further, the economy is a disaster and millions are migrating.”
“The United States should support the rule of law, fair elections and self-determination for the Venezuelan people. We must condemn the use of violence against unarmed protesters and the suppression of dissent.”
“However, we must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups — as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic,” Sanders added. “The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries. We must not go down that road again.”
Irrespective of what actually transpired, what Sanders declared was clearly a condemnation of Maduro. Yet, because Sanders included some nuance instead of a full-throated defense of American foreign policy, centrist Democrats, along with establishment media pundits, ignored this statement and pounced on him.
Sanders was asked by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer during a town hall in February, “Why have you stopped short of calling Maduro of Venezuela a dictator?”
Representative Donna Shalala, a Miami Democrat who once was on the board of United Healthcare, said, “He is not going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party. He has demonstrated again that he does not understand this situation. I absolutely disagree with his imprecision in not saying Maduro must go.”
Ahead of the first Democratic debate in Florida, Democrats like Shalala, Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz attempted to box in candidates like Sanders by suggesting more Democratic candidates needed to speak out against Maduro. They paired that with a request to curtail advocacy for socially democratic policies.
Just as President Donald Trump and the Republican Party invoke Venezuela to spread fear that democratic socialism will plunge the U.S. into turmoil, establishment Democrats engage in this tactic as well to suppress opposition to their corporate politics.
Argument: Bernie Sanders’ notion of democratic socialism has failed in nearly every country where it has been tried.
During a CNN town hall on April 22, Samantha Frenkel-Popell, a sophomore at Harvard, asked Bernie Sanders, “My father’s family left Soviet Russia in 1979 fleeing from some of the very same socialist policies that you seem eager to implement in this country. So my question is, how do you rectify your notion of democratic socialism with the failures of socialism in nearly every country that has tried it?”
Frenkel-Popell is the co-founder of the Harvard Undergraduate Centrist Society. When the club promoted this standard red-baiting, they wound up retracting their message because of the backlash that came from equating socially democratic policies to authoritarianism in the Soviet Union.
The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk also concern-trolled Sanders following his speech on democratic socialism, complaining about the manner in which “suppression of free markets has repeatedly fostered a different kind of oppression over the past century.”
Sanders, when he was mayor of Burlington, took a 10-day trip in 1988 to the Soviet Union. Particularly from right-wing conservative media, this trip has been used to spread fear about his support for socially democratic policies, like Medicare for All and free college tuition. But tapes from the trip show the trip was mostly boring.
Invoking the Soviet Union is a right-wing diversionary tactic, a way of disrupting meaningful conversation about the substance of policy proposals from the Sanders campaign.
Argument: Bernie Sanders is a has-been candidate who will not last in the 2020 election because there are many liberal voices running for president — unlike in 2016 when he garnered protest votes against Hillary Clinton.
The essence of this argument is that Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, is taking voters away from Bernie Sanders. Effectively, Warren and Sanders are splitting the vote, especially since Sanders’ coalition is not as strong as many supposedly thought. This potentially helps a more centrist Democratic candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden.
Phillipe Reines, a former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, articulated this argument on MSNBC. He boosted Warren, suggesting Warren is showing Sanders was the “lesser of two less-liked candidates” as opposed to someone who ignited a political movement.
Warren has apparently emerged as a kind of “compromise nominee” for centrists or the more corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which must withstand another presidential campaign by Sanders. These forces are likely to tarnish her as they use her campaign to try and ensure the party does not move too far left. That could have quite a toxic impact on the primary, fomenting friction between supporters of Sanders and Warren.
When Sanders announced his campaign, Reines was one of the first Clinton Democrats to appear on television and bristle at the fact that he was running again. He attempted to relitigate the 2016 primary by insisting Sanders supporters deny “basic arithmetic” that shows Clinton beat Sanders.
Reines also claimed Sanders had not reached out to any of the 17 million who did not vote for him in 2016. This is false. Sanders visited several states in the south in April 2018, including South Carolina, to make inroads with black voters that likely backed Clinton. Sanders toured the country in 2017 with Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez.
What Clinton Democrats are trying to do is create anxiety over his so-called electability among progressive voters so they believe very early that Sanders is a spoiler candidate. He will spoil Warren’s chance at the nomination. Or they will open a path for Biden by taking each other’s votes.
If Clinton Democrats make people believe there is a lane with room for only one candidate, then they can spread all sorts of canards about Sanders being in it for himself or Sanders being unwilling to step aside and let a woman have a chance. It could prove hugely effective in suppressing or diminishing the Sanders campaign’s agenda.
Argument: Bernie Sanders is not a “real Democrat.”
It was insinuated and plainly suggested by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign that Bernie Sanders is not a “real Democrat.” Supporters, like former Senator Barbara Boxer, went on television and sneered at Sanders for being a lifelong independent and not a Democrat.
Sanders has his own differences with the Democratic Party, which to an array of supporters makes him even more appealing. He will always be an independent. Yet, because of the two-party system entrenched in our electoral system by the Democratic and Republican Parties, Sanders maintains he must campaign for the Democratic nomination if he is to run for president.
“The dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party…you’re not just running a race for president, you’re really running to build an entire political movement. In doing that, you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected — the [Ralph] Nader dilemma,” Sander said in 2014. “The bolder, more radical approach is obviously running outside of the two-party system.”
“Do people believe at this particular point that there is the capability of starting a third-party movement? Or is that an idea that is simply not realistic at this particular moment in history?”
What establishment Democrats do not like is how Sanders runs within the political party but agitates against the leadership. They will never forgive him for challenging Clinton because to them it was Clinton’s turn to be president. So, he was not a team player.
Centrist Democrats are particularly irked by the manner in which he advocates for socially democratic policies that force them to defend their weak bipartisan brand of politics, as well as their complicity in policies of the Obama and Clinton presidential administrations that helped fuel the rise of Trump.
The idea that Sanders is “not a real Democrat” serves the same function as any label deployed by powerful elites to control dissent. Detractors aim to otherize Sanders. They act like he makes the political party impure so voters will distrust or fear what might happen if he wins the Democratic Party’s nomination.