I’m a Bernie volunteer. Here’s how Joe Biden can win Bernie voters.
I’m a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I’ve been observing conversations between Biden voters online and have not seen much gloating about his victory, which now looks inevitable. I have seen a lot of people who are concerned about having lost the youth vote by, in some cases, fifty points or more, and I have seen journalists and commentators ask what concessions will win back the Sanders wing of the party. It is this same dim sense of danger that makes birds fly to high ground before a tidal wave. The prevailing sentiment seems to be “I don’t like Bernie or his Bernie Bros, but that energy…”
I campaigned for Bernie in the 2016 primary and voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Actually, I have, as a form of harm mitigation, chosen a straight Democratic ticket in every election I have ever voted in. I will volunteer for Joe Biden if he’s the Democratic nominee. I think Joe Biden is a racist, but I think Donald Trump is a racist with fewer degrees of separation from professed white supremacists, which is a difference that matters to me.
Because I’ve texted literally tens of thousands of Bernie voters, I wanted to offer some suggestions about what the party (and you as individuals) can do to ensure that enough of them show up in November to beat Donald Trump.
I am also writing because, although I have disliked Joe Biden for years, I think most of you recognize his flaws. I think what you want is to bring decency, dignity, and integrity back to the White House.
Please do me a favor and read all of what follows even if there are parts that make you want to stop and draft a rebuttal. You can think I’m mistaken, but my object isn’t to convince you, just to give you an idea of how my friends on the campaign think. There are two instances of profanity which are unfortunately necessary for dramatic effect. To be honest, a lot of anger went into this post, but I hope it will provoke people into being more politically active. Another big factor was the desire to say I told you so if the worst comes to pass and Trump is reelected. All the same, if you don’t want to read every word I have to say, please stop here.
The answer is that you can do nothing. The opportunity to win back Bernie's voters came and went four years ago. Bernie could spend the rest of the year campaigning for Joe. Joe could promise to abolish private property by executive order on day one. It would not be enough.
Bernie was projected to win a decisive lead on Super Tuesday. Biden was, everyone thought, on his last legs and had not campaigned or established a ground presence in many states. Then, in the days immediately before Super Tuesday, several of his opponents dropped out. Their endorsements and a raft of others carried him to victory.
This was a message to Bernie voters: "Fuck off. We would rather drag Joe Biden over the finish line, knowing that he is no longer mentally competent, than cede anything to the candidate who is winning your votes by fifty points or more."
You may disagree with me about Joe Biden’s mental competence. That’s fine. I’ve seen it reported that party insiders believe what I believe about him. You could say listen to him talk, he is all about unity, he is not telling Bernie voters to go pound sand, but that is the message my friends heard.
Collectively we have spent much of the past four years arguing about whether Bernie Bros are alienating voters by being rude on Twitter. My personal feeling is that if people care enough about their candidates to get into fights about them on Twitter, the fighting is not what made up their minds. It doesn’t bother me if you are rude to the Bernie Bros. I know how intolerable we can be. We specialize in intolerability. You have to react in whatever way feels natural. The way the Biden campaign won made a greater and more unalterable impression on us than any sweet or stern words you have for us now. You have to think about politics in terms of the exercise of power, not in terms of the personalities involved.
Toward the end of a primary people in the liberal commentariat likes to say, as a means of reassuring people, that even if a candidate didn’t win, he changed the conversation and might be able to whisper ideas in the winner’s ear or even to hold him accountable. This was a fantasy when it came to Hillary Clinton. It is a joke when it comes to Joe Biden. If Biden were the kind of candidate who could be pushed left, no one in the Democratic leadership would have endorsed him. It doesn’t matter if he makes Free College for Some a plank of his platform, and it doesn’t help that he spent decades cultivating the image of a conservative’s kind of liberal.
I know by this point you have all kinds of desperate or righteously angry appeals in mind. "Think about Trump’s racism! Think about the kids in cages!" Sorry, that shit doesn’t work anymore. This primary came down to one candidate who gave Strom Thurmond’s eulogy and another who — I know you are tired of hearing this — marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. It came down to one candidate who wanted to break up ICE and another whose boss built the cages that Trump filled with children. We know how you chose.
For various reasons, you believe that Joe Biden’s faults have been exaggerated, that Bernie Sanders is the real racist, that Obama’s militarization of border enforcement was fundamentally different from Trump’s. Even to level these accusations at a Democrat strikes you as whataboutism or — worse — dezinformatsiya. You believe or say you believe that when we talk about the Democratic establishment coming together behind Joe Biden, we are talking about elderly Black voters in South Carolina rather than the party machinery. That’s fine, but your arguments, however eloquent, are good only for Facebook posts that begin “Oh yeah, well…" No one on my side cares. It’s Charlie Brown’s teacher going wah-wah-wah at this point. If you want, in 2020, to make the case that Joe Biden voted against school integration for liberal reasons or because he had a problem with the way it was being done, knock yourself out. Maybe Samantha Bee will have you on Full Frontal. But in the 1970s the battle lines were quite clear. Joe Biden chose the side that was bombing school bus depots. The battle lines are quite clear now, too, and have only gotten clearer since most of the candidates who were called progressives or competitors to Bernie instead endorsed Joe. As far as most of us are concerned, Bernie could not have asked for a more dramatic illustration of the corrupt political and economic system he is always yelling hoarsely about.
According to the New York Times, Bernie Sanders is the most donated-to candidate in almost every district of every state in the union. He has a volunteer corps of over a million people. His coalition is, by the numbers, the most racially diverse. (Even if you believe, as a lot of Democrats seem to, that Latinos and Arabs don’t count toward diversity and are just the Sam’s Club Cola version of black people, Bernie has still won a narrow majority of black voters under thirty.) He lit a fire under a bunch of us who spend most of our time joking around on Twitter. I have never seen more people give freely to something bigger than themselves. It was not enough to win, but it was something unique in recent history.
If Sanders drops out of the race and endorses Joe Biden, that network of volunteers and grassroots donors will vanish like frost. The problem is not that Sanders lost but that he was defeated by main force. You don't see it that way, but my friends do.
You are going to have to count on losing more Bernie Bros than Hillary lost. Maybe you don’t need them, but you do need to take stock of your own forces. Your army is consultants, suburban parents, journalists who are addicted to Twitter, and senior citizens who are addicted to MSNBC. Your campaign has no ground presence in most of the states it is winning.
I have been giving about twenty to thirty hours a week to the Sanders campaign, which amounts to a few more than six hundred assignments requested. The top texter has requested, last I checked, over eleven thousand assignments. The total number of volunteers on the text team is over thirty thousand. On a slow day, I sign up maybe a dozen people to join us as volunteers. Other texters have told me much the same. You can do the multiplication.
We lost anyway. We were not good enough. If you want to beat Trump, you will have to work harder than we did and rally more of your people to volunteer. Name recognition is enough to win a primary. It is not enough to win a general election. You need hundreds of thousands of people texting, making phone calls, knocking on doors. You cannot be satisfied with knocking on doors locally, either. We had people who spent every weekend busing into neighboring states. I know this would be harder for Biden voters, who are generally older than us and may, like Joe, have mixed feelings about busing. Have you ever met a Hmong or a Bhutanese person? We had organizers working with them. You have won the black vote, but you cannot take anyone else for granted.
I understand: You have a small business, you are on the board of a local charity, you have two kids or three grandkids to look after. You have to be so many different things to so many different people. Our advantage in that area is that we are only ever one thing, namely losers. We are losers when we wake up and losers when we lay down to sleep. We have dead-end loser jobs or no jobs at all. We date losers or do not date. We can argue about what Bernie did wrong, but the problem may simply be that he ran a campaign by, of, and for losers.
You have to be so many different things. I know how hard it is. Now there is one more thing you have to be: winners.
I said before that you are fighting for decency, dignity, and integrity. I believe that. Unfortunately, none of those things are real. They have no mass, volume, or color. You can't cut off a piece of decency to eat.
Laozi says (in Thomas Cleary’s translation) "When the Great Way is abandoned, there are benevolence and duty. When ingenuity emerges, there is much fabrication… Eliminate benevolence, abandon duty, and the people will return to filial piety and kindness." What this means is anyone’s guess. What I am going to say for the sake of argument that it means is that a compassionate world is one in which compassion is so completely identified with good governance that it does not need a name. Our leaders should not exhort us to practice compassion any more than to practice breathing. The alternative is to be like the Republicans and talk about family values while making it impossible for husbands and wives to live together without losing their benefits. By the time you begin to give names to your values, your thinking has already reached an advanced stage of degeneration. Values do not exist, either. Right now thousands of people who claim all kinds of different values are dying from the same germ.
We talk about values and about politics and government for ease of communication. The words don’t refer to a certain group of people, because we have seen, in every month of the Trump administration, how quickly those people can change. We talk about institutions and institutional norms. The simplest reason that Trump drives people crazy is that he demonstrates every day that those things do not matter. If enough people agree that you are the most powerful man in the world, you can do whatever you want. For everyone else, what matters is that when you are sick, your ability to get medicine depends on decisions made by people who do not know or care about you. That’s real.
That is why we are fighting for real things like healthcare and housing. It’s why we’re so fierce. We can easily remember and explain to other people what we are fighting for and no amount of arguing can make us feel foolish about it. (Of all the people who said, “Liz has a plan for that!” how many could explain in detail what Sen. Warren’s plans were and how they differed from Bernie’s?) Every day is full of little reminders. If you go to McDonald’s for lunch and see, at the deep fryer, a man who is way too old to be working for minimum wage, you know exactly what a Sanders presidency would do for him, likewise if your coworker is sick and still coming to work because she’s out of sick days, likewise if your friend lost his job and cannot make his student loan payments. We do not need compassion. Our compassion consists in fighting for the wellbeing of people we hate. That’s it.
I will help you out. I will vote for Joe Biden and even volunteer for him unless — I add this exception not as a means of escape but because we live in such strange times — the Democratic party collapses and there is a credible third-party campaign to replace it. Most of my friends will not vote and will not help. I don’t blame them. You’re thinking of privileged college-age hipsters who listen to socialist podcasts. I’m thinking of Latino guys with undocumented parents who have never believed in a politician before, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they are not going to get in line to crank the lever for Joe Biden.
You persist in believing that their disenchantment is a psychological or moral fault and could be pried out of them like a rotten tooth. You call it unexamined privilege or nihilism, which you think means bitterness. That means the act of voting is a heroic one on your part. You are members of the Rebel Alliance. Every argument you get into with a Bernie Bro on Facebook on Twitter is a battle for the American soul.
But you have to pick your battles. People’s reasons for not voting are, of course, solely their own, but in another sense they are as predictable as the movements of ants in an ant farm. This is what happens when a political party begins to fall apart. Maybe you don’t believe the Democratic party is falling apart. Have you sunken so deeply into solipsism that you think it matters what you don’t believe?
You could ask, “Why don’t you convince them to vote?” I don’t know. Why didn’t Gorbachev go door to door asking people to have faith in the USSR? It’s not just that the horses are out of the barn. The barn is on fire. Persuasion doesn’t enter into it.
You are not going to persuade anyone even by calling Biden the lesser evil: He was in power ten times longer than Donald Trump, and in that time his signal achievements in bipartisanship were a crime bill that imprisoned much of a generation of black men and a war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The argument that Trump is worse depends on what you predict Trump will do in a second term, and no one is listening to your predictions anymore.
Your pleas for party unity will likewise fall on deaf ears. Party unity is what killed Bernie’s forward momentum. “Just because the restaurant doesn’t have your favorite meal, you’d rather eat poop?” is another one everyone has heard. Don't waste your time anymore. Out-text us, out-phonebank us, out-canvas us. Campaign in every free hour you have.
You may object that none of this is so easy when you have a small business, you are on the board of a local charity, you have two kids or three grandkids to look after. You're probably right. On that point I have no advice to offer.