It doesn’t matter if Bernie would have won
“Bernie would have won”
“But he lost”
This is a common refrain in the social media battles between the American Left and Liberals. Though its ubiquity had begun to wane as the Trump Era moved past its infancy, the surprising victory of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party in the UK has rekindled these battles.
On both sides of this debate are accusations of groupthink. Liberals and leftists alike accuse the other of having savior complexes and forming personality cults around their preferred political icons. And to some extent, this critique is fair. American politics has always been rife with tribalism, and Bernie is no exception.
While valid on its face, this entire line of reasoning does no favors to anyone. Its problem is its reliance on top down retrospectivity. The assumption is that the culture itself is unremarkable; just another in a long line of political hero worship fantasies. But that’s not quite what happened here. The virulence required for an entire subculture to emerge where there was none before isn’t an arbitrary phenomenon. It requires a vacuum — an unattended need for the collective consciousness to latch onto.
As recently as 2015, Bernie Sanders was mostly known as a crotchety, rabble-rousing independent; left of the mainstream Democratic Party on enough issues to reject the party, but far from a household name. There’s legitimate question as to how seriously he expected to be taken when he joined the party and announced his candidacy for president in early 2015. If you were to profile Bernie as a political candidate during the early days of the primary, there was little that was remarkable about him. He’s not young or charismatic. He’s not especially cunning or quick on his feet. He’s an awkward public speaker with a deep Brooklyn accent. His public statements and press releases tended to be low risk and rely on boring, boilerplate language. Aside from opposing the Iraq war, his foreign policy background was lackluster and underdeveloped. And outside of his home state of Vermont, he wasn’t especially popular.
But over the course of the subsequent 12 months, something changed, and it wasn’t his personality or foreign policy chops. He talked about things other politicians seemed allergic to: how to achieve universal health care, climate change, college affordability, Wall Street corruption, and campaign finance. Ideas that are, at the very least, complementary to, and perhaps even necessary for, the liberal notion of Social Justice. And the more Bernie talked about these problems, the more people, especially young people, began to listen.
This was the center of gravity around which the Bernie cult formed. It didn’t start out about his identity — even if that is the inevitable outcome of such political movements in this country. It began with issues and with content. It’s easy to forget that in hindsight, his campaign was marred by fits and starts, and it often felt as though his gains were countered by marginal missteps that cost him crucial momentum. But none of his flaws as a person, as a candidate, or as a campaigner change the fundamental source of the left’s attraction to him: his engagement with these issues.
Halfway around the world, in a political climate not dissimilar from our own, Jeremy Corbyn has centered a campaign on many of the same issues and achieved even greater results. The crucial lessons here aren’t about who would have or wouldn’t have won if you alter a few basic hypotheticals. The lesson is that there’s an entire generation of Americans (and Brits) not only willing, but eager to be a part of the process, if you talk about the things they want to hear.
Symbolism is important. It allows us to share a dialog and subvert needless complexity. But symbols are representations, not intrinsic manifestations of their message. When Bernie achieved critical mass of cultural attention by talking about issues other leaders were ignoring, he became a symbol for that message. But he is not intrinsic to it. The baton is right there, waiting for anyone to pick it up and take it to the finish line. Maybe Bernie will take it all the way, maybe he won’t; I just hope someone does before it’s too late.
P.S. Bernie would have wiped the floor with Trump.