Dear Bernie Voter,
Unlike many Clinton supporters, I am not writing to you because I think you’re naïve, or misguided, or sexist, or dumb, or any of the other patronizing and condescending crap that Hillary voters often say. In fact, I probably agree with you on most issues. I am writing to you because I am sincerely worried that you will hand this election to the Republicans, and I want to do my best to convince you not to do so.
The point of primary elections is not to select a president; it’s to select a candidate. For that reason, “electability” is not just one among many issues: It is the central issue. Yet despite having absorbed several dozen pro-Bernie articles and videos, I have yet to hear a plausible path to victory for Bernie Sanders.
Let’s tease apart two very different arguments.
First, let’s concede that Bernie is more progressive on just about every substantive issue: the economy, health care, foreign policy, the Iraq War, campaign finance, environmentalism, corporatization—even LGBT equality, if you want to hold Hillary’s past against her. I have no idea why the Clinton campaign is pretending she is more progressive than a democratic socialist, but let’s agree that she isn’t. Let’s even concede that she is beholden to Wall Street, a Washington politician (with all the ethical problems that entails), and, basically, part of a broken system.
But let’s separate all of that out from the questions of who can win in November, and what’s at stake.
From that perspective, the problem isn’t that Clinton isn’t liberal enough; the problem, according to the best data we have, is that she may be too liberal. Every time a Sanders supporter criticizes Clinton for not being progressive enough, to me, that’s a good thing, because she’s still left of center. Let’s look at the numbers.
First, I know, there are head-to-head polls right now that show Sanders doing even better than Clinton against Rubio, Cruz, and Trump. But the reason these polls are meaningless is that most people still have no clear idea of who Bernie Sanders is or what he stands for. This may sound ridiculous to those of us who follow politics closely, but it’s the sad reality of American democracy.
Meanwhile, everyone has an idea of what Hillary Clinton stands for. We’ve been barraged with anti-Hillary messaging for most of the past 25 years. Her negatives are “baked in.”
But when voters are asked about Bernie’s positions, rather than his name, the numbers are brutal. In a Gallup Poll taken last June, fully 50 percent said they would not vote for a socialist. Some 40 percent said they’d never vote for an atheist, which Bernie also basically is. Most of those are probably Republican voters anyway, but many are the swing voters in the seven states that will likely determine this election. (This is not like Obama in 2004: Only 7 percent of Americans said they would not vote for an African American to be president.)
This view tracks with age, as Nate Silver pointed out recently. Only 30 percent of voters 18-29 view the term “socialism” unfavorably, compared with 60 percent of those 45-64. (Silver noted that younger voters are also less averse to the term “libertarianism.”) Just as older Clinton supporters seem out of touch with how younger voters see the world, so younger Sanders supporters seem out of touch with older ones for whom “socialist” is toxic. (And it doesn’t matter that Bernie is a “democratic socialist.” As my colleague Michael Tomasky pointed out, Republican attack ads will not parse the difference.)
But there’s much more.
According to polls, most Democratic and Republican voters agree on the top four issues in the campaign: national security, the economy, unemployment/jobs, and Obamacare. Bernie is an electoral disaster on all four.
First, even Bernie’s supporters concede that he’s inexperienced on foreign policy, especially in contrast to a former secretary of state. He’s also more dovish than Clinton, and the average American (not you or me, but the swing voters who will determine this election) already thinks that President Obama has been too “weak” and “soft” on our enemies. The last thing they’ll do is vote for someone even softer.
On the second and third issues, i.e., Bernie’s core, his promise to raise taxes on both the upper and the middle classes is the opposite of what nearly all voters want. Fifty-two percent of Americans say taxes are too high, 42 percent say they’re about right. Only 3 percent agree with Sanders that taxes are too low. (Three percent had no opinion.) He loses on this issue 94 to 3!
In fact, you’d have to go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 to find a winning candidate who said he’d raise taxes not just on “the rich” but on pretty much everyone. A trillion dollars in new spending? This is way out of the mainstream and there is no plausible strategy for how to change that. People are not going to just “wake up” and agree with socialist political positions. They sure haven’t so far.
Finally, on question of health care, 53 percent of Americans still disapprove of Obamacare, yet Sanders wants to go even farther in the direction of big government, to a single-payer system that would require new taxes on the middle class, truly socialized medicine with fewer choices for those who can afford to make them, not to mention “death panels” and, somehow, the end of private health insurance.
Maybe these positions are good things to progressives, but they aren’t to most Americans. They’re the left-wing equivalents of Trump’s Mexican wall or Cruz’s call to abolish the IRS: They play well to the base, but alienate the middle.
Try this: Imagine yourself as someone who sometimes votes Republican, sometimes Democrat. You’re white, middle-class, basically fiscally conservative, moderate on social issues, and concerned about terrorism. You’ve got a family, and you live in the suburbs of North Carolina or Ohio. Are you really going to vote for a 74-year-old cantankerous socialist calling for revolution and a trillion dollars of big government?
Sure, Bernie will (hopefully) bring out younger voters. But those will be outweighed by mainstream Democrats, let alone swing-state swing-voters. And, large rallies notwithstanding, it hasn’t happened yet; in New Hampshire, overall turnout on the Democratic side was 233,993, down from 282,000 in 2008. It would take a statistical miracle for these new voters to swing the election. It’s magical thinking.
Obama’s approval rating is 47 percent not because he is not liberal enough (as we on the left think) but because his policies are more liberal than the mainstream. In this light, Bernie reminds me of Michael Dukakis, who lost 40 states to 10 in 1988. I was in high school at the time, and I remember how we all thought Dukakis was great, and how polls had him beating George H.W. Bush. Then came the Republican attack machine, painting Dukakis (in racist ways) as a soft-on-crime liberal. The election was a disaster.
Show me why this won’t happen to Sanders, please.
Now, some of my pro-Bernie friends say that even if Bernie isn’t ultimately electable, they can’t vote for Clinton in the primary because she’s so awful on, well, insert your key issues here. That is, of course, a coherent position to take. If Clinton’s negatives, or Bernie’s positives, are so high as to be worth losing the general election, then of course it makes sense to vote your values.
But let’s remember what’s at stake. We’ve all seen those simplistic ads making Clinton look more like the GOP than like Bernie. But as Sanders himself said, both he and Clinton are 100 times better than any Republican candidate. Specifically, a Republican president would mean:
- Further tax breaks for the 1 percent including income tax breaks, capital gains tax breaks (Rubio wants to eliminate the capital gains tax entirely), and estate tax breaks. More cuts to the social safety net to pay for them.- New conservative Supreme Court justices that will overturn Roe v. Wade and same-sex marriage, plus Obama’s executive orders on LGBT people, and allow new restrictions on contraception.- No action on climate change—indeed, denial that it even exists—and the undoing of the Obama administration’s executive actions on it, and undermining international efforts. Plus potentially eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency entirely (!) and rolling back regulations on logging, mining, and drilling.- No acknowledgement that white privilege exists, that black lives matter (in the way BLM means it), or that racism persists in housing, voting, and employment. On the contrary, more voter suppression and racist gerrymandering and housing policies.- Warmongering in the Middle East, either overt or covert Islamophobia at home, the growth of the surveillance state, and the return of torture.- Stripping 18 million people of health insurance by repealing Obamacare, or at the very least restricting its implementation, with no alternative plan in sight.- Not only no campaign finance reform and money in politics, but even more “freedom” for corporations and 1 percenters to buy our government.
Is it still worth it? I’m not asking you rhetorically; maybe you think it is. Maybe you think we need a political revolution, even though only around 25 percent of Americans agree with you, and this is the only way forward. Maybe you’re “tired of the status quo.”
To me, though, I couldn’t look someone struggling with poverty, perhaps in a community of color, perhaps in an urban context blighted by a century of the new Jim Crow, and say that I helped bring this about. I couldn’t explain my vote to a civilian family we bombed in Iraq or Syria, or to my children who will have to deal with a changed climate. Hell, I couldn’t explain it to my own husband, who will be legally un-wedded from me within half a decade if a Republican president delivers on his campaign promises.
Show me a Sanders path to victory, or admit that you’re making that choice, and putting the Republican Party in charge of all three branches of government.
Finally, and at the risk of alienating you a little, I think that preferring my moral/political purity over these life-or-death questions is a privileged position to take. I think one reason Bernie’s supporters tend toward the white, young, and privileged is that we don’t have as much skin in the game as others who would be affected by a Republican victory. Moral purity is a luxury not.
It’s not compromising, selling out, or picking the lesser of two evils to choose a candidate that can appeal to the broad middle of America—it’s democracy.