Can Bernie Sanders be stopped?
Consider this: Sanders is on a path to winning the Democratic nomination with a plurality, but not a majority, of the delegates. On the bright side, for those of us who aren’t socialists, this means that more Democratic voters prefer a nominee whose name isn’t Bernie Sanders. So if these non-Bernie Democrats could just coalesce around one alternative, the theory goes, crisis would be averted...
Don’t count on it. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that by the time a “Stop [insert candidate’s name]” movement gets started in earnest, it’s already too late.
Take it from a Never Trumper. Back in 2016, I proposed a last-ditch idea to deprive Trump of delegates that was based on the Whigs’ 1836 strategy (it didn’t work to stop Martin Van Buren, and it didn’t work to stop Donald Trump!). Later, I proposed a Ted Cruz-Carly Fiorina unity ticket. (Amazingly, they took my advice; not amazingly, it floundered.) Still, desperate times called for desperate measures.
Today’s mainstream Democrats are likewise entering the stage of grief called “denial.” As was the case with Trump, the notion that Bernie has a limited ceiling of support… the idea that he can be stopped through strategic cooperation (or Mike Bloomberg’s money, or superdelegates at a contested convention)... all fail to recognize the myriad of invisible forces working to undermine cooperation.
For one thing, who decides which candidate gets to be the moderate alternative to Bernie that everyone else coalesces around?
Just last week, I suggested that Amy Klobuchar should be the one. That seems less plausible after Nevada. Pete Buttigieg made a huge play Saturday night to be that person. Urging voters to “take a sober look at what's at stake” before “we rush to nominate Senator Sanders,” Buttigieg said that “Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.” It’s a good line. But ironically, Buttigieg can't seem to win black votes. Conversely, Joe Biden is a former two-term vice president (!) whose whole strategy is based on winning African-Americans in South Carolina. He came in an (albeit distant) second in Nevada. Why would he get out? And Mike Bloomberg, who has spent more than $400 million on TV ads won’t even be on the ballot until Super Tuesday. What is the argument for any of them, much less all but one of them, to do the sacrificial thing for the good of the party?
We look at what is happening to the Democratic Party, and it appears insane. We see that Donald Trump has done so many egregious things, and yet, in a country with more than 327 million people, Democrats are about to nominate a democratic socialist who just had a heart attack—and the other Democrats are just going to let that happen? This seems insanely risky and stupid.
And yet, these candidates are not behaving irrationally. Indeed, what they are doing makes perfect sense. Most of us respond to incentives. Let’s take the last debate in Nevada, for example. You know, the one where everyone attacked each other, and generally let Bernie Sanders alone? As crazy as it sounds, there was a method to the madness. It was perceived that Bernie had Nevada locked up, which means the real contest was for second place. Further, it is perceived that Bernie’s fans are unshakable—which means attacking them gets you nowhere. And so, he skated. Next to Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders seems to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
But it’s not “luck.” Maybe you’re familiar with the hypothetical game called prisoner’s dilemma, where acting in your own self interest results in a suboptimal outcome. That’s basically what we are now witnessing. The non-Bernie candidates have a collective action problem. This “tragedy of the commons” situation means that these candidates are behaving according to their own self-interest. (The paradox is that, in so doing, they are depleting their shared resources.) This is all a long way of saying that human nature suggests Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic nominee.
But that’s not the only thing stopping cooperation. The notion that a given voter is either with Bernie (or Trump) or against him is also highly dubious.
Sure, it sounds rational to assume that if Pete is your favorite, then Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar would be your second favorite (and Bernie would be unthinkable!). But ideology is not the primary driving factor for many voters.
Maybe you see the “outsider” vs. “insider”/”ruling class” paradigm as being the defining dichotomy. If that’s the case, then a supporter of Pete (a major) might actually prefer Bloomberg or Bernie to DC insiders like Joe Biden and Klobuchar.
On top of that, there is a human element. Turf battles are ugly. Domestic disputes are often the most dangerous violent altercations. Amy and Pete are particularly hostile to each other, and this makes perfect sense. As Anthony Trollope wrote, "The apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice." People tend to hate the person living in the next room more than they hate the person who threatens to burn the house down (see Jeb Bush vs. Marco Rubio).
Of course, this problem wouldn’t have arisen in a pre-internet world where elites and gatekeepers maintained control of their own party’s nominating process. In the past, someone like Bernie (only nominally a Democrat) or Trump (only a nominal Republican) would never survive a smoke-filled back room full of party bosses.
Does the fact that this dynamic has happened two elections in a row mean that some power should go back to the party bosses? In a nation that increasingly fetishizes transparency, rights, participation, and direct democracy, rolling back our out-of-control primary process seems not just unlikely, but impossible.
Revolution is in the air. And the odds of smothering it get longer with every passing minute. This is now Bernie’s race to lose.