Revolution, interrupted

Near the start of the Russian Revolution, in 1918, Leon Trotsky called democracy a “less perfect medium for the expression of class struggle under revolutionary circumstances” that was open to manipulation by “the propertied classes” that subvert “the will of the toilers.”

It would be no surprise to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned for the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party in 1982 and 1986, sharing similar thoughts following his apparently decisive defeat in the Democratic presidential primaries to former Vice President Joe Biden. And like Trotsky, who fell out of favor with the Communist Party and was forced into exile, Sanders was betrayed by those, in the form of white, working-class Democrats, he needed most to fulfill his promise of global socialism.

The warning signs for Sanders’s eventual defeat in the primary were there from the start. The Vermont socialist lost Iowa to 38-year-old former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. It became increasingly obvious that his base of support was shrinking, rather than expanding, from his galvanizing run in 2016. Hillary Clinton narrowly won Iowa in 2016 by less than a percentage point, and Sanders was now performing worse in rural districts than Buttigieg or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

New Hampshire, where Sanders won by 40 points against Clinton last time, went even worse. Although he managed to win, his coalition there looked nothing like that of an unstoppable front-runner. He eked out a win with less than 26%, barely more than a percentage point above Buttigieg, the runner-up.

Despite promising supporters that only his campaign “is the campaign of energy, is the campaign of excitement, is the campaign that can bring millions of people into the political process who normally do not vote,” things were going horribly wrong.

Turnout wasn’t increasing in the places Sanders promised, which meant his campaign hadn’t cracked the code on generating class consciousness within the lumpenproletariat. Of course, Sanders isn’t a true revolutionary in the model of Fidel Castro or Toussaint L’Ouverture. He’s a politician. College debt relief won’t come from the barrel of the gun, but from the House Ways and Means Committee. That meant it was time for some spin.

“The young vote, of people under 29 years of age, increased by 33% over where it was four years ago and was even higher than Obama’s extraordinary victory in 2008,” Sanders told reporters after Iowa, before adding that it was “a great omen for the 2020 campaign” and that he earned “huge voter turnout.”

But that wasn’t really the case. Sanders was only referring to the proportion of new voters who participated in the caucuses this year, not the total numbers. As many as 10,300 fewer young voters showed up to caucus locations than in 2016.

In New Hampshire, voter turnout set new records. But exit polls showed the electorate significantly less liberal than in 2016, meaning it was candidates such as Klobuchar and Buttigieg who were the ones bringing in new voters, and this time, those voters were mostly composed of former Republicans. Sanders’s roughly 1-point margin of victory was fueled almost entirely by college students and young, single men.

Sanders supporters hand-waved all of these facts away by pointing out that there were simply more candidates this time around. But that’s misleading: Buttigieg, Biden, and Klobuchar don’t represent the kind of left-wing political factions that stop European leaders such as Jean-Luc Antoine Pierre Melenchon from gaining power. Leftist infighting is a tale as old as 1789, but that isn’t what was happening here.

And then there was Elizabeth Warren, the establishment pick to carry on the Sanders mantle who shrewdly avoided the dreaded S-word (socialism). But talking to Sanders supporters, she may as well have been a general in the White Army. She was no radical, they said, and her appeal was limited to those who prioritized supposed technical expertise over class struggle.

An October essay in the socialist monthly Jacobin said a potential Warren nomination represented “an unconditional surrender to class dealignment.” In other words, her supporters were fundamentally different from Sanders’s, and thus never truly in play. After Sanders won the nomination, so the plan went, Warren voters would serve as the rear guard — a fancy Marxist way of describing middle-class voters who begrudgingly back socialists because of the barbarism of the right wing.

Early primary data mostly supports this, with Warren voters almost entirely representing college-educated-and-beyond members of the professional middle class. Gender had little to do with Warren’s electoral failures: A majority of female voters picked other candidates. She did better with college-educated men than with working-class women.

But Sanders kept chugging along. And who could blame him? Like President Trump, he’d point to his crowd sizes, the surge of donations, the energy, the hip rock bands that came out to perform in small towns throughout Iowa and New Hampshire. In a callback to George McGovern’s 1972 loss, no one on social media seemed to support any candidate but Sanders.

After his resounding Nevada victory, I was most impressed by the campaign’s show of support from Latino voters. There, over half of Hispanics backed him at 4-1 margins over Biden. I discussed with some close to the campaign the parallels between Sanders’s potential general-election coalition of the downwardly mobile and second-generation immigrants with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who helped him sail to the presidency in part thanks to the backing of families up north who recently arrived from Italy.

While rivals such as Warren shamelessly spoke about the plight of transgender “Latinx” janitors and migrant workers, Sanders’s message remained consistent: Socialism will deliver you the future, what’s rightfully yours. Biden didn’t even bother sticking around Nevada the night of the caucus.

A modified coalition of the ascending seemed poised to bring America closer to its first socialist president than ever before, in the form of a 78-year-old Jewish man from Vermont. Sanders’s savvy, Hispanic senior adviser, Chuck Rocha, had managed to mobilize Latinos en masse away from establishment-backed candidates.

Sanders’s performance in Nevada was even more astounding when one considers that all political forces in the state were working against him. Former Sen. Harry Reid, who an individual close to him told me was ready to endorse Warren or Biden before their dismal performances in New Hampshire, spoke out in interviews against two of Sanders’s key platforms: Medicare for All and decriminalizing illegal border crossings.

When he met with unions in the state, Sanders would find himself interrupted by protesters concerned about losing their healthcare plans under his administration. Clinton won the state by more than 5 points in 2016. None of that mattered, however, when it was time to caucus.

I spoke with Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, an incredibly bright and soft-spoken Harvard-educated son of Pakistani immigrants who once worked for establishment figures such as Reid and Nancy Pelosi, following the Nevada Democratic debate about how he was feeling about the state of the race.

Every state that sees increased voter turnout, he confidently declared, will mean good news for Sanders. He excitedly gamed out the prospect of Michael Bloomberg being Sanders’s new main competitor. Their future debates, he said with glee, would be a preview of the general-election strategy against Trump. South Carolina even seemed to be in play.

Shakir went as far as to say that he believed the party would likely have its nominee after Super Tuesday, or the week after.

He was right. It just wasn’t Sanders.

Biden’s incredible Super Tuesday success lacks any comprehensive explanation. No, most Democrats aren’t socialists. But polls show an overwhelming number of them don’t mind voting for one, and a majority support Medicare for All over Biden’s healthcare plan.

Biden’s favorable ratings are high, but after following him around for over a year on the trail, I’m not sure what his candidacy represents other than “No malarkey,” a slogan routinely contradicted by Biden’s famous penchant for tall tales.

Instead, it’s likely that in a two-man race in which both candidates have high name recognition, Democratic voters will go with whom they are most comfortable with. And that means someone who doesn’t praise Fidel Castro, someone who voters can conceivably imagine working with Senate Republicans, and someone who isn’t making promises to erase all student debt magically when most people just want a president who just doesn’t conduct international relations by tweet.

In terms of turnout on Super Tuesday, Biden seemed to be the one generating it, not Sanders. Biden won more voters in Virginia than Barack Obama in 2008, and Sanders’s share of black voters actually decreased in some states.

The last-minute gambit of accepting the endorsement of Jesse Jackson had absolutely no impact on the race. To put things in perspective regarding just how poorly Sanders fared in this primary: As of right now, he’s on track to win fewer states than Jackson did in his own 1988 presidential run.

Some of Sanders’s supporters say he erred by compromising his decadeslong positions on issues such as immigration and gun control. Yet the candidates’ extremity on endorsing de facto open borders or door-to-door gun confiscation reflects how many Democratic primary voters actually feel about these things. Does anyone believe Sanders would have performed better in a place like California or even Texas, home of Beto O’Rourke, if he campaigned on “If you like your gun, you can keep your gun”?

Sanders’s rivals were already feeding streams of opposition research to me on his past rhetoric on immigration for months, and there’s no way he would’ve won the Democratic nomination had he embraced his past messaging, such as saying the Democratic Party’s line on amnesty was a result of capitalist infiltration. Much of his campaign was staffed by young activists, including a senior official who was an illegal immigrant covered by Obama’s Dreamer program. Who, exactly, would work for this campaign if he flip-flopped back to his older positions on the topic? Perhaps Jeff Sessions needs a job.

In May 2019, Sanders filed to run for reelection in Vermont as a Democrat and an independent, a peace offering with the political establishment.

“I am a member of the Democratic Party,” a pledge signed by Sanders said. “I will run as a Democrat, accept the nomination of my Party, and I will serve as a Democrat if elected.”

His second presidential primary washout means Sanders won’t have to violate his conscious any longer. For someone who so stubbornly prized political authenticity and consistency for over half a century, it’s a small victory.

Joseph Simonson is a political reporter for the Washington Examiner.

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