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Only Bernie Can Win This Thing

By Petr Knava | Politics | January 24, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Politics | January 24, 2020 |


It’s 2020, and—uh-oh!—there’s a politics afoot. And, frankly, it looks grim. Having limped to the finish line, bruised and bloodied, 2019 collapsed there, and with its last exhausted yet relieved breath it expired and birthed the new year. Before that year could even enjoy the sunlight of its infancy however, the shadow of the US Presidential Election—and a corpulent orange goblin hanging in the sky along with it—obscured it. And yet, despite that gloomy outlook, some hope prevails. It lives in the shape of a silver-haired social democrat from Vermont, who is not only nigh on the most progressive Presidential candidate the United States has ever had, but who also—it appears more and more with each passing day—has the best chance out of all the candidates in play of halting the disastrous Trump Presidency from steamrolling into a second term. Here’s why only Bernie Sanders can—and should—win in 2020.

N.B. Pajiba hosts a multitude of views within its walls. Well, to an extent. No-one’s a fascist, everybody loves Keanu, and we all want Trump out.Nevertheless, you’re gonna see a fair amount of slightly differing takes in the lead up to the election. That’s fine. We are not legion, but we all respect each other, and yearn for a better world.

1. Consistency.

It seems pretty clear that out of all the available choices, Bernie Sanders is leaps and bounds the candidate most committed to social and economic justice. While he is not perfect—and doesn’t go as left as I personally would prefer—his track record speaks for itself. And what a track record it is. While other candidates have now felt the changing of the winds and the shifting of the Overton window and have adopted—at least in rhetoric—the (relatively) leftist policies that the public have long since clamoured for, Sanders has championed and worked for these policies for his entire adult life. Progressive ideas that Sanders was espousing in the last presidential run—hell, even decades ago—and that he was derided as being ‘unrealistic’ for doing so, are now mainstream. The threat of climate change; a liveable minimum wage; the dangers of an unregulated Wall Street and pharmaceutical industry; healthcare as a human right that should be free from the profit motive. Sanders has stood behind these principles for a very long time. He has fought tirelessly for working people, swimming against the tide, for longer than a lot of politicians have been alive.

In politics, consistency matters. Sincerity matters. These days, it matters more than ever. The public’s disillusionment and rage with two-faced politicians in the pocket of Wall Street and with the empty promises they continuously sell is one of the reasons behind the hollowing out of the political process and the rise of despots like Trump, who attained power in part by (falsely) promising a break with the status quo. Bernie Sanders stands in stark opposition to the mendacity of both the status quo and the tyrants who have appeared to take advantage of the chaos—and the millions of ordinary people who have risen in response to his campaigns know this and believe it based on the wealth of historical evidence. People want a visionary, not a weather vane. They need a positive, hopeful message FOR something, not just an anodyne Anyone But Trump or Let’s Get Back To Normal vision. In the field of candidates for the U.S. Presidency, there’s basically Sanders, and then everyone else. In the longevity of his commitment to fighting injustice and for striving for a better world, he stands alone.

2. Methodology.

Sanders’ political ideology is reflected in his campaign methodology. It is grassroots-based, and draws from a rich historical vein of socialist organising and mass social movements. It recognises that change does not come from benevolent elites throwing crumbs to the masses; it comes from the masses organising and using the power of solidarity to claim what is rightfully theirs. The nationwide army of volunteers that has organically arisen around Sanders’ movement and that has built real, lasting links with the labour movements all across the country—and internationally—represent the only real change that can pull the country and indeed the world from the brink. No other candidate has this support base and organisational network. Celebrity endorsements won’t do it; glowing op-eds in major papers won’t. Only the people, working together, will.

The remarkable statistics around the Sanders campaign’s fundraising and donor base speaks to this groundswell of grassroots support. Sanders is the only candidate in the race who has had more unique donors and more individual donations than Trump. As of a few months ago, those figures stood at over 1 million, and over 5 million, respectively. Sanders has now had more donations from more people than anyone else in U.S. history, crossing the 1 million donor mark a full half year quicker than even Obama. The most striking things about the donations coming into the Sanders campaign are the amounts being sent in, and by whom. The average donation sits at around $20. The most common profession of donor is teacher. This is a campaign powered by ordinary people, and the working class nature of it, harnessing the raw power of hope and solidarity, threatens the very bedrock of U.S. politics. Sanders’ ‘Not me. Us’ campaign slogan distils that message, and his focus, neatly.

3. Foreign policy.

I’ve written about the scarcely imaginable terrors of the American Empire’s foreign policy many times before. I won’t repeat myself here again. Suffice it to say that though Sanders does not go nearly far enough in addressing the issues, he still has by far the most progressive record of all the candidates when it comes to opposing the entirely unjustifiable, racist machine that is U.S. imperialism.

4. Electability.

‘Electability’ is an often purposefully nebulous, shifting chimera, conjured up by the pundit class to either elevate or denigrate whichever candidate they have an agenda for. A tool for manufacturing consent rather than reflecting it. Yet when you consider the wealth of polls pointing out how much of an advantage Sanders has both in key states and among key demographics against Trump—and that against the bias that most polling organisations have against him—and of the incredibly powerful popular movement of activists and volunteers at his disposal, it seems pretty clear that Sanders is the one candidate most well-equipped to tackle the dire existential threat that is Trump 2020—and increasingly so as time goes on.

The Biden ‘phenomenon’, riding high on empty name recognition for so long until actual campaigning began, illustrates not only the vacuity and ineffective nature of his campaign, but also the turn voters will take away from any candidate they recognise as not being nearly radical enough to tackle the problems facing the country and their lives. Continuity with the status quo is not enough. ‘A return to normality’ promised by politicians like Biden is pointless when normality was already rotten. The respective trends of Sanders and Biden are neatly illustrated by a Washington Times piece from earlier this week that charts the latest shifting in the polls among the two frontrunners:

Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont picked up 7 points of support since last month to move past former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and lead the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to a CNN poll released on Wednesday.

Mr. Sanders was the top choice of 27% of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents and Mr. Biden was at 24%, according to the poll.

It’s the first time Mr. Biden has not held a solo lead in national CNN polling on the race, though Mr. Sanders’ lead is within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points for the subsample of Democratic voters.

And, even more recently, this from a Primary poll:

It is likely that this trend will continue.

There are many who say that they are very much on board with the ideas and the policies that Bernie Sanders represents, but who add that they simply cannot get behind him because he is not a ‘pragmatic’ choice, or similar reasons based on ostensibly ‘adult’, ‘practical’ thinking. Ignoring those liberals and capitalists who say this in bad faith as a means of perpetuating the status quo from which they so handsomely benefit, we can address those concerns actually made in good faith, as more and more it looks like Sanders actually is the pragmatic option when it comes to defeating Trump in the upcoming election. As Nathan Robinson puts it in The Guardian:

[E]ven those who do not share Democratic socialist instincts should get behind Sanders. He’s a pragmatic choice. Nobody is better positioned to take on Donald Trump. Sanders has name recognition and widespread popularity. He knows how to campaign well, has a network of organizers, and can pack stadiums. He does well at town halls and in debates against Republicans.

Since 2016, polls consistently show him beating Trump. Initially, there were those who doubted these numbers, saying that as voters got to know Sanders they would turn away from his radicalism. This turned out to be false. As voters got to know him, they liked him. His signature policy proposals have achieved widespread popularity among both Democratic and Republican voters.

Robinson continues, addressing the attributes of Sanders and his campaigning that make him a worthy challenger to Trump in the age of ‘post-politics’ brought on by the third way neoliberal consensus finally losing legitimacy in a post-2008 world and the populism (both regressive and progressive) that has risen to meet it:

Sanders has an unusual advantage against Trump: he’s capable of effectively countering the type of nationalist populism that elevated Trump to office, by offering a more hopeful and heartfelt appeal to popular instincts. He is capable of going to working-class communities and speaking to people without seeming patronizing or insincere. He does particularly well in the midwest, the exact areas that were so critical to Trump’s victory. His message speaks not only to rural white people, but to the black residents of Milwaukee who saw little progress under years of centrist Democratic governance.


Sanders cannot be saddled with the baggage of the congressional Democratic party, because he has preserved his independence. He can call out the phoniness of the pro-worker rhetoric coming from a billionaire who repeatedly exploited his employees. Sanders sticks to the issues, and cannot be dragged into the gutter.

Indeed as Weston David Pagano notes in this Medium piece:

Bernie has beaten Trump in more head-to-head general election polls than any other candidate, consistently winning them by some of the largest margins since July 2015. Bernie also polled against Trump much better than Clinton throughout the 2016 election, and is currently beating Trump on average in four of the six Obama-held states that she ended up losing.

This is especially impressive considering how consistently Bernie performs drastically better than polls predict. We saw this in 2016, when primary polls showed Bernie leading in just three states, yet he actually ended up winning 23 contests. Bernie even won the crucial battleground state of Michigan despite being given <1% chance of doing so!

This disconnect is due to pollsters notoriously underestimating Bernie’s support by under-representing and under-weighting the demographics he inspires to turn out uniquely well, including young people, independents (who outnumber both major parties), and those who don’t usually vote because they are disillusioned with the political process. There are legitimate qualms to be had with polling accuracy this far out, but fortunately for Bernie, when they’re wrong about him it’s usually because they’re not ranking him high enough.

Bernie is polling so well despite receiving the lowest proportional media coverage of any candidate, and he is the top second choice of more rival supporters than any other candidate. These two stats indicate he both has the most room to grow and is best positioned to unite a fractured party once the dust clears.

Sanders’ electoral coalition is formidable. It has only gotten more so since 2016. Its galvanising feature is a rejection of the status quo that has seen both major political parties cater only to big donors and industries while neglecting and harming the vast majority of the population. The much-propagated media narrative of the ‘Bernie Bro’—the claim that Sanders’ supporters are overwhelmingly white men, who by intimation are often abusive or misogynist—has proven to be what many have said since the start: A smear campaign devised by a mainstream capitalist media terrified of Sanders’ message. That is not to deny that there are toxic elements within online communities who claim to support Sanders, nor should it minimise the hurt caused to women who have been targeted by these elements. But the idea that the ‘Bernie Bro’ is somehow the defining feature of a political campaign that has united millions of people—many, many of them women and people of colour; with white males now actually making up a minority of Sanders supporters—is transparently a media invention driven by an anti-progressive agenda.

5. Three words: Medicare For All.

Healthcare is a human right. Access to it should not be determined by the ability to pay. It should always be a field free from the profit motive and the hand of the market. Sanders has been championing and fighting for the American manifestation of this ideal—Medicare For All—for a very, very long time. In the most wealthy country in the world where over forty million people lack health insurance and thousands upon thousands go bankrupt due to excessive medial bills while the for-profit medical industry grows fatter and fatter off of human suffering, everyone knows where Sanders stands on one of the most vital, pressing issues facing the U.S. To many, it is literally a life and death policy question, and it should be fought for tooth and nail. Medicare For All also provides an illuminating look into the differences between Sanders and the other relatively progressive candidate hoping to challenge Joe Biden for Democratic nominee: Elizabeth Warren. While Sanders’ position on the matter is crystal clear, Warren’s has proven at times a bit confusing, and worrying. As Natalie Shure writes in Jacobin, on the rhetoric behind the policy that Sanders has brought into the mainstream:

As a slogan, “Medicare for All” has proven to be popular but porous: it polls differently depending on how questions are phrased or what elements of the plan are emphasized, and has also been widely co-opted. Candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have both claimed to support “Medicare for All,” only to clarify later they meant something akin to an optional buy-in to a Medicare-esque program. The Center for American Progress’s “Medicare Extra,” eventually put into bill form under the title “Medicare for America,” likewise draws on the popularity of “Medicare for All” while describing a significantly watered-down version of what Sanders and Jayapal mean by the phrase.

Shure goes on to focus in on Elizabeth Warren’s particular delivery of the Medicare For All promise, and how it has already wavered and morphed over the course of her campaign:

The differences between these frameworks are substantial, yet Warren’s messaging has been just vague enough to refer to any of them. “Elizabeth won’t stop fighting until everyone is covered and no one goes broke paying a medical bill or filling a prescription,” her website now reads. Both things are absolutely true under Medicare for All. But universal coverage isn’t unique to single payer, and there’s a wide gulf between no one going broke and eliminating cost-sharing.

Later, the site reads: “Elizabeth supports Medicare for All, which would provide all Americans with a public health care program. Medicare for All is the best way to give every single person in this country a guarantee of high-quality health care . . .  No more fighting with insurance companies.” That would seem to be clearer, but still indicates nothing about whether people would be automatically absorbed by the new program, whether currently existing public insurers would be, whether it’s supported by premiums, taxes, deductibles, or copays, or how central a role private insurers would play in the health care system, whether or not patients fight with them. Nor does her updated website point to the Medicare for All bill she cosponsored in the Senate, which addresses all of these questions.

Warren’s fall in the polls in recent months falls roughly in line with her prevarication on Medicare For All.

Shure finishes by describing how Medicare For All can be seen as a proxy issue for the candidates’ respective approaches to politics in Washington:

But nailing down candidates’ visions for a just health care system is still important regardless of current institutional constraints: it’s the only way to gauge how a president is most likely to spend political capital, what they’ll trade off, and which hills they’ll die on. It’s the only way to know how they’ll deploy the power of their base, what they’re willing to be hated for, and what constituencies they’re the least likely to piss off.

It’s obvious how Bernie Sanders would answer these questions. We’re still waiting on Elizabeth Warren.


I’m not going to waste breath talking about the other candidates still left in the Democratic race, but Elizabeth Warren is a better candidate than America has had in a long, long time, and it would be a huge step in the right direction if she became President. But there are aspects of Warren’s candidacy that should worry progressives, most of which stem for her basic ideology. She is, by her own admission, a capitalist. She believes that the system we have is fundamentally okay and that it has just gotten a bit out of control, and it needs a friendlier face. A slightly stricter hand. Thirty or twenty years ago, that might have been something. In 2020, as we stand on the brink, that is no longer enough. Only radical solutions stand a chance of saving us, and of reaching people on the campaign trail in the first place. As Zaid Jilani puts it, regarding the fundamental differences between Sanders and Warren:

Sanders tends to focus on “post-distribution” remedies, meaning he prefers to use the government’s power to tax and spend to directly meet Americans’ needs — or replace the market altogether. His social-democratic ideas, like free college and single-payer health care, are now policies most Democrats have to tip their hat to at least for electoral reasons. Warren wants to empower regulators and rejigger markets to shape “pre-distribution” income, before taxes. Less likely to push for big-ticket programs, she wants to re-regulate Wall Street and make life easier for consumers.


The two senators also have distinct theories of change. Sanders has long believed in bottom-up, movement-based politics. Since his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he has tried to energize citizens to take part in government. He generally distrusts elites and decision-making that does not include the public. Warren, on the other hand, generally accepts political reality and works to push elite decision-makers towards her point of view.

When I worked at PCCC, I was once told that Warren decided to run for the Senate after witnessing the amount of power she had as an oversight chair for the bank bailouts. She believed that “being in the room” with decision-makers in the Obama administration was essential to creating change. While Warren wants to be at the table with elites, arguing for progressive policies, Sanders wants to open the doors and let the public make the policy.


As soon as the next president takes office, they will likely face intense pressure from powerful interests, especially big business. The choice between Warren and Sanders may very well determine if that president confronts those interests with careful reasoning and principled advocacy or the force of a mass movement.

Your mileage may vary depending on your own political ideology. There is no disrespect meant to anyone who considers Warren their number one pick, nor to anyone who aligns themselves with her or treats the fact that it is way past time that America had a woman president as a priority consideration. That last part is undeniably true. Nevertheless, it’s my belief that in the field of available candidates at the moment, it is Bernie Sanders who most closely represents the worldview and the politics that stands the best chance of beating Trump, and of helping deliver the world some salvation from the lethal mess that neoliberalism has brought.

In her influential 2018 book, ‘For a Left Populism’, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe describes the particular historical moment, decades in the making, that has led to the rise of right-wing authoritarian populists like Trump:

The current situation can be described as ‘post-democracy’ because in recent years, as a consequence of neoliberal hegemony, the agonistic tension between the liberal and democratic principles, which is constitutive of liberal democracy, has been eliminated. With the demise of the democratic values of equality and popular sovereignty, the agonistic spaces where different projects of society could confront each other have disappeared and citizens have been deprived of the possibility of exercising their democratic rights. To be sure, ‘democracy’ is still spoken of, but it has been reduced to its liberal components and it only signifies the presence of free elections and the defence of human rights. What has becomes increasingly central is economic liberalism with its defence of the free market and many aspects of political liberalism have been relegated to second place, if not simply eliminated.

Mouffe continues her diagnosis:

As a result, the role of parliaments and institutions that allow citizens to influence political decisions has been drastically reduced. Elections no longer offer any opportunity to decide on real alternatives through the traditional ‘parties of government’. The only thing that post-politics allows is a bipartisan alternation of power between centre-right and centre-left parties. All those who oppose the ‘consensus of the centre’ and the dogma that there is no alternative to neoliberal globalisation are presented as ‘extremists’ or disqualified as ‘populists’.

Mouffe goes on to examine how—for various reasons—it is the Right that has more successfully capitalised on the groundswell of popular opinion against this deleterious status quo, and how the Left can fight back by doing so too—how, in fact, it needs to, if it wishes to stave off the worst of economic nationalism, ecological fascism, and the rise of a far-right international. In order for it to do so, the Left urgently needs to intellectually and practically grasp the moment, and counter the Right with a wide-ranging, unifying, grassroots, progressive vision. One that transcends the policy wonk, technocratic conception of politics sold to us for the past few decades, and instead one that reaches out to ordinary working people of all stripes and helps them lift themselves and each other up. A populist moment, in other words, calls for a populist candidate. That is how Trump got in. It is Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and his campaign alone—along with the millions of ordinary people it has inspired to believe in politics’ capacity for change and the new wave of Democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez getting elected on the back of that hope—that is offering the only viable counter to that right-wing populism winning again in 2020.

‘Not Me. Us.’

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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