Bernie Sanders recently charged that there is a conspiracy to undermine his campaign coming from “the establishment” and inside the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, his “toxic” “Bernie Bro” supporters are getting a bad rap for polarizing the democratic party. Why shouldn’t they? Bernie himself, who ran his campaign against what he called “a polarizing president”, is in fact, divisive himself. This is one reason that Bernie didn’t do well on Super Tuesday, in Michigan, and even in his home state of Vermont. Meanwhile, the other major Democratic candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have all endorsed Joe Biden. Even many of his longtime supporters are getting fed up.
A Polarizing Label
What are the factors fueling Sanders’ reputation as a polarizing figure? For one, his ideology is simply too extreme. When Bernie Sanders openly labels himself a socialist, it may resonate with some subgroups but about half the country has a visceral reaction. Why? Those of us of a certain age grew up with a pervading bias toward socialism and communism that has negative connotations, for very good reason. And most of the country hasn’t caught up with his Utopian enthusiasm of socialism.
Granted, our great country wouldn’t be as great without public services such as police, fire protection, social security, Medicare, and public works, which some would argue are good examples of “socialist”-type benefits we cannot live without. But many Americans don’t know what socialism means. Like climate change, socialism is a concept that has different meanings for different people. And for many, the concept of socialism conjures up images of higher income taxes, a weaker economy and a lower standard of living, that don’t equate with the American dream of prosperity. The socialist label may feel like a banner of pride to Bernie and his group of core supporters, but the rest of America isn’t so sure about it. Labels can be polarizing even though the principles behind them may not be. Bernie’s insistence on owning the label instead of just owning a commitment to his principles has given his opponents a bigger target to hit.
Paying For Socialism
One thing is for certain, boomers who are potential Bernie voters who have worked 35 or 40 years and contributed taxes, social security, and Medicare deductions aren’t that excited at the prospect of raising their taxes to fund something new. Bernie still doesn’t have a solid plan with numbers that show we can pay for college tuition, Medicare for all, and other social programs. This is problematic especially when billions of our tax dollars go to fund corporate welfare, fossil fuel companies, and the extremely wealthy pay little or nothing. But this sounds like Bernie’s platform, you say? Yes, it is, but the shrinking middle class isn’t sold on the idea that they should be the ones to carry a heavier burden when the super-rich are the ones that have been exploiting the rest of us. And this brings us to Bernie’s third problem.
Delivering Political Comity and Diplomatic Leadership
Those of us who have been around for a few decades know that idealism is easy compared to realistic political change that is slow and arduous. Even the best ideas sometimes take decades or more to get off the ground. And Bernie’s agenda would require revolutionary change, which is all the more unlikely in a term or two. Bernie Sanders does not have a strong track record of successful legislation in the U.S. House and Senate. Like him or not, according to Democratic colleagues, Bernie is well known for having big ideas but being weak on diplomatic execution on Capitol Hill.
And good ideas won’t get enacted any quicker with the dysfunctional stalemate in the U.S. Senate. His revolutionary views and style don’t help his cause but there are still other problems.
Campaign Organization Ripples
The way Bernie’s campaigns have been run makes him vulnerable, especially since his platform is based on equality and justice for the working class. His campaign organization has suffered some serious grievances from the way employees have been allegedly treated and paid. And this has led to concerns about dissent and ripples within his organization. As the nomination nears the strength and resilience of his organization will only become more critical.
Self-Awareness and Judgement
Bernie’s own good intentions, combative rhetoric, and fervor promoting his revolutionary views can evoke hopeful emotions in his supporters. But those emotions can distract them from the realities of beating an incumbent on the other end of the ideological spectrum. The adulation might feel good on stage with his core fans cheering him on but it doesn’t translate into uniting a majority of Americans around smart change and prosperity. Regardless of what the polling says about Bernie’s chances of beating the incumbent, months from the election, a lot of people don’t think a polarizing self-described socialist is a strong candidate against an alternate reality of the incumbent president taking credit for a strong economy (the coronavirus notwithstanding).
A candidate with a principle-fueled more moderate liberal agenda might be successful if s/he were to become a president in an era with a liberal congress and liberal supreme court. But that is not the case in 2020. What we need right now is a conciliator and a diplomat with a track record of progress. A centrist who can unite Americans and politicians. Sanders does not look and sound like that guy.