What Bernie's Stunning Victory In Michigan Shows Us About Polls, The Press, And The Country
Against a mainstream media opposition that at times almost borders on the cartoonish, Bernie Sanders provided one of the greatest upsets in recent political history last night. Hillary Clinton’s campaign machine, which by all accounts was predicted to take Michigan by anywhere between 5 to up to 20 points, was forced to suffer a not insignificant blow to its momentum as Bernie’s campaign delivered a 50-48 victory.
Both the FiveThirtyEight polls-plus and polls-only forecast gave Clinton a greater than 99 percent chance of winning. That’s because polling averages for primaries, while inexact, are usually not 25 percentage points off. Indeed, my colleague Nate Silver went back and found that only one primary, the 1984 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, was even on the same scale as this upset. In that contest, the polling average had Walter Mondale beating Gary Hart by 17 percentage points, but it was Hart who won by a hair over 9 percentage points.
Indeed, my initial thought was to compare the Sanders upset with Clinton’s over Barack Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary, but that undersells what happened Tuesday night. I was in New Hampshire when Clinton won in 2008 and sat in stunned disbelief — Obama lost by about 3 percentage points when the polling average had him ahead by 8 percentage points. In other words, tonight’s error was more than double what occurred eight years ago.
Crucially for Sanders, despite still being helped by the relative dominance of white voters, Clinton’s draw with the African American voting population slipped to less than two thirds last night. This is after enjoying a support typically nestled among the 80-90 percent window, which could well be yet another symptom of the slow drip-drip of Sanders’ message finally getting through the bulwark of mainstream media opposition. Big Media, existing as it does fundamentally in the same nexus as Big Finance, is a friend to Hillary Clinton, and for good reason — despite the occasional friendly spat and periodic and horrendous sexist nonsense directed at her, all of them exist in the same ideological framework, and disagreements between them occur as slanging matches from different rooms inside the mansion. Not so Sanders, whose principle message stands in direct opposition, outside on the street. with a placard.
As much as it depresses me to talk about what’s happening on the other side of party political divide, there are parallels to be drawn between Bernie’s victory and Trump’s. Parallels that can be also noted with the Sanders-like rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece, amongst others. Ordinary working people throughout the Western world are bubbling with a slowly boiling fury over a seemingly never-ending series of broken promises made to them by a system that continues to work very well indeed for those at the top of the pile. An unprecedented transfer of wealth from those at the bottom to those at the top, combined with an increasingly cosy bond between industry, career politicians, and the media, has not gone unnoticed. Whilst the vast majority of people perhaps could not point out or describe the regulations, agreements and consolidations that have had such an impact on the direction of their families’ lives over the past few decades, after a long enough time even the most effective propaganda begins to lose its convincing sheen.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are opposite ends of the spectrum politically, but they represent the same thing: an outpouring of justified anger by a public that is looking for answers to questions that they have been asking for a long time, but that no one has been answering, or even hearing. Bernie’s class-conscious political message and Donald Trump’s xenophobic and hateful rhetoric are worlds apart — in substance as well as intent, with the former coming from a demonstrably sincere and well-meaning place and the latter from an opportunistic and egomaniacal one — but they should be viewed as two sides of the same coin. By contrast, Hillary has had a bit more trouble trying to tap into this vein, and for good reason: despite the overwhelming obstacles she faces day-to-day as a woman in politics, in many ways she is the establishment, and Bernie’s decades-long steadfast and principled progressive message has had the unfortunate effect on Clinton’s campaign of making her seem by contrast wavering, opportunistic, and, to a lot of voters, although still a thousandfold preferable to the current Republican message, just not good enough.
If it seems like I am belabouring this message then you’ll have to excuse me but it really cannot be said enough, because as Courtney wrote so beautifully yesterday, at times this does seem like a scary time for America. The crucial thing about fear, however, is that the first step towards conquering it is understanding it, and thus in order to vanquish Fear Of A Trump Planet Syndrome it must be held under a microscope and examined. Here is where parallels to Europe can be drawn again, both in the interwar period and post-Great Recession. Both eras can be characterised by a conscious awareness on behalf of the majority population that they have been left out in the cold. That the instruments of power and the machinery of the state have ceased to even condescend to pretend to carry the people’s best interests close to their heart. It is from this fertile ground that many different shoots can spring; for at the same time as progressive and populist leftist movements swell, giving a voice to the people’s anger, so too do the right-wing demagogues rise, directing that voice at immigrants, minorities, the welfare state, and other paper tiger-like ‘threats’ in an effort to consolidate power.
Which brings us back to last night, and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s victories. Michigan is, of course, an industrial state and its evisceration at the hands of modern neoliberal policy makes it emblematic of the rot at the heart of the system, and the public’s anger with it. Or, as Mr. Sanders put it: ‘If the people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America and against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.’ And make a decision they did. Donald Trumps’ continued streak of hellfire and swivel-eyed vitriol speaks to that same anger, albeit in a seriously distinct way. The issues at stake are structural, endemic, needing to be addressed on the Congressional level, and much bigger than either of the two men running on the anger palpable in the atmosphere. It just so happens that like so many times in history, passion and anger are being channeled through an individual or two.
Of course, the Michigan victory doesn’t exactly put Sanders up ahead. He still trails Clinton by a fairly significant margin — delegate count additions from her victory in Mississippi as well as the superdelegates factor being taken into account — but the most germane point holds: the diagnosis of Bernie’s campaign as ‘down for the count’ by the majority of the mainstream media has been not only proven wrong, but has revealed itself to be both chock-full of hubris and severely bereft of resonance with ordinary people — a combination of accusations that could be fairly used to describe a hell of a lot of what is happening right now in America. (A telling sign comes in the above-linked FiveThirtyEight article: ‘Either way, this result will send a shock wave through the press. Heck, as a member of the press, you might be able to tell how surprised [we are].’)
One way or another, this is an interesting time for politics in the U.S. Let’s just hope that ‘interesting’ doesn’t translate to ‘dangerously regressive right-wing hate ploughing’.
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