The Myth of a Bernie Coalition

An idea has taken hold among Democrats since our loss last week, and it feels very true for many. Bernie would have won. No, it’s not certain, and we’ll never really know, but the way you can squint and blur things to better understand how Trump beats Clinton — those same intuitions seem to imply that Bernie could have done it. And that he probably would have.

But people are taking that idea and running with it in all sorts of wrongheaded ways. For one thing, Bernie lost the primary fair and square. If you disagree, this piece isn’t for you. The same way I’d ridicule any centrist Republican who was whining all summer that Kasich or Bush would be crushing Hillary, we have to acknowledge that Bernie not winning is itself a flaw. In his campaign, in the Democratic electorate itself, somewhere the pieces needed to make him our nominee weren’t there. Clinton had a huge machine behind her, but there is a pretty well known precedent for a fiery upstart taking that machine down. And he’s been a really decent president.

Ignoring Bernie’s primary loss though, there is a deeper problem with this idea as it becomes more and more a part of the Democrat’s comeback strategy: it makes light of a fracture in the Democratic coalition that Donald Trump was not the first to exploit. White economic-populism voters are not interested in the same things recent college grads are. They share some DNA, but there are many strategies and messages that attract one group while repelling the other. Bernie did not find some perfect Democratic policy platform that merged these worlds, he found a message that worked and cultivated a persona that people believed. Bernie the candidate quickly became known as a straight-shooter. A genuine guy. An outsider. Those bona fides were sealed in and were the most important parts of his campaign. Not economic populism.

I say this because the conversations I see happening between liberals now are continuing into aloof spaces that ignore the real problems with our message. The Bernie coalition of our imaginations is filled with inconvenient contradictions that I don’t see enough liberals grappling with. On the one hand, I see many people my age reacting with extremity: we need to lean in to our social justice work, speak out more about racism and sexism, make protecting those people our central goal and message. But also, Democrats have lost touch with rural working class voters, and we need to reach out to those people better. We need to speak to their economic grievances, and not get so wrapped up in “identity politics.” We want to aggressively fight climate change, but we’d never say we were “putting coal workers out of business,” like Hillary so arrogantly did.

Practically, these are difficult needles to thread. Rhetorically, it’s easy to talk about all the wonderful things you are going to do for all the people you want to win over. Donald Trump did just that. And he’s about to find out that keeping those promises is impossible once you’re in office.

Hillary had an economic message, and a social justice message. Her policy platform was progressive and detailed. None of that mattered. It never will. The things that make a good candidate are too far removed from what makes a good politician.

Obama knew how to walk the Bernie line. Here’s a stump speech from when he was running in 2008:

What I’ve learned, when I decided to run, what I was betting on, was that change in America does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up.
For the first time in anybody’s memory we had folks 30 and younger voting at the same rate as folks 60 and over. It has not happened in a generation, but it has happened in this election.
If you are ready for change, we can go and tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I’m president of the United States of America.

When Obama got into office though, he was confronted with the realities of a centuries-old bureaucracy and an opposition party that refused to let him govern. Over time, his race-light message that minimized his voice as a black man specifically began to grate on the Black activists who helped elect him. And his decision to bail out the auto-companies in an attempt to save some rust belt jobs was met with anger and vitriol from the Bernies of the world. What reason did anyone have to believe that Bernie could have succeeded here where Obama failed?

It’s not about practical success when you’re running a campaign. It’s about the show. Even the most well-read political watchers are still just watching the show. Obama knew how to put on a good show for the people he needed to convince. Bernie probably did too. Hillary never could. But there isn’t some magic economic populist policy platform that will make this happen, and focusing on social justice will continue to alienate white working class voters, whether we like it or not. This running for office thing requires a lot of smoke and mirrors. Which is sad, because that’s the part we all pretend to hate the most.