A new Emerson poll has found that 51% of Bernie Sanders supporters are considering casting their vote for an independent or 3rd Party candidate in November. In my previous piece on the movement to #DemExit, I explored the reasons why so many were planning on leaving the party in response to the way both the 2016 and 2020 primaries were conducted. In this article I’ll explore how ill-equipped Democratic voters are to understand this phenomena, how they got that way, and why their fury at those voters couldn’t be more misdirected or counterproductive.
The core premise of democracy is that people will tend to vote in their own best interests, and that the candidates best aligned with those interests will rise to the top. This means that in order to secure people’s votes you need to persuade them that voting for you is in their best interests. Given that different factions in society have different interests, and sometimes are at outright cross purposes, in theory the candidate who represents the largest number of voters’ interests should win. Seen in this light, a country where 63% of people said they couldn’t afford a $1,000 emergency before it was hit by a global pandemic, should be fertile ground for populist candidates offering bold redistributive policies that will ease the economic burdens of the majority of voters. Candidates who defend the status quo and promise more of the same, shouldn’t even be able to make it out of the primaries. That is, unless all of the available options are being circumscribed by two political parties with a vested interest in the status quo. That being the case, elections will quickly degenerate into a competition between which candidates can best fake an alignment with the public good, and who can also best affect a cultural signaling that a majority of voters find appealing. But what happens when a large share of the electorate begins to see through the ruse? That, in a nutshell, is what has happened over the past four years and as a result, Joe Biden has an excellent chance of losing in 2020, in spite of the ever more obvious horrors of the Trump administration.
Nothing could emblemize how few fucks the power brokers in the Democratic Party have to give about actually persuading voters, than their alignment with a cognitively impaired candidate with the kind of record that’s bound to turn off huge swaths of their base. Trump won the Midwest largely by attacking NAFTA, and other trade deals that have proved to be a disaster for the working class. So why would you line up behind one of the people most associated with pushing those policies in Washington? When low black turn-out in 2016 was a decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, why pick someone who collaborated with segregationists on anti-crime legislation? When a lot of your base is deeply invested in the #MeToo movement, why promote a candidate who has a long history of creepy behavior towards women in public forums, even before you get to the allegations of sexual assault that have recently emerged? A party focused on winning elections and delivering for its voters wouldn’t come anywhere near a candidate like Biden. The fact that its leaders have done so is making it so painfully clear that their voters are a mere afterthought in their selection process, that its taking a herculean effort of willful blindness for even the most VBNW Democrats to miss it. And if those folks can’t get excited about Biden, how are people who only joined the party to vote for Sanders going to feel? That’s how you get to a place where a large portion of your theoretical base is looking for a 3rd Party candidate to get behind, even in the face of Donald Trump. You get there by defying every common sense rule of democracy, in the belief that pointing out the truly loathsome nature of the other side will be enough to pull you through, lessons of 2016 be damned.
So how do you keep voters from kicking out the fence and stampeding away from the two parties, while at the same time ignoring their interests and policy preferences? You turn their focus away from policy and towards brand loyalty. You teach them to understand politics in terms of personalities, and opposing teams, rather than as a matter of civic engagement and personal responsibility. You flatter them according to what your party’s particular demographic niche is prone to be flattered by. For Republicans, that manifests as various iterations of the idea that their voters are “the real Americans.” For Democrats, it’s a matter of telling them that they’re the smartest and most enlightened members of society. This is a mental trap that’s surprisingly sticky. Once you’ve bought into it, it becomes part of your personal identity, and provides the enticing reward of endless ego stroking. Tuning in to your preferred propaganda outlet to hear about how all those other people who aren’t you, have committed yet another offense to the flag, or have once again shown their bottomless stupidity, is addictive. It gives the consumer the constant reassurance that they’re among the elect. And as the continued existence of organized religion in a largely secular world will tell you, that’s a powerful drug. Once you’ve gotten hooked on it, it isn’t easy to give up. Because giving it up means no longer being one of the chosen. Now you’re just a schmuck who’s been regurgitating propaganda fed to you by liars and con artists in order to keep themselves in power. That’s a hard journey, and most people who find themselves jonesing for a shot of slanted framing at least once a day will never make it. But the mostly younger voters who are taking a hard look at Howie Hawkins and Jesse Ventura, have rejected the whole premise, because they were never given any reason to accept it in the first place. War, surveillance, a gig economy, climate catastrophe, spiraling inequality, and now a global pandemic, is all they’ve ever known. They aren’t intrinsically better than previous generations, but they’ve had a very different experience than any that came before them. As a result, the gulf between the ESPN-style political discourse that their elders have been conditioned to and their lived reality is so great that a lot of them are ready to burn it all down in order to get to something better. If you got a ticket to the show back when there were still good seats to be had, that can be hard to wrap your head around. But for people who never even had the opportunity to get into the nose-bleed section, it makes perfect sense.
In the face of this reality, mainline Democrats react in the only way they know how - they attack, they malign, they shame, and they rage. They continue to use the term “Bernie Bros,” in spite of the fact that Sanders’ coalition was the most diverse of all 2020 candidates. They accuse Sanders’ supporters of being in a cult, even as those supporters once again reject his endorsement of the establishment favorite. They label them “far left,” even though their policy preferences are squarely in line with public opinion. Asking why so many would choose to reject their nominee, even if it means re-electing Donald Trump, is a question their own political assumptions render them incapable of asking. To even consider the idea, you have to put a little bit of daylight between yourself and the notion that the party represents virtue, decency, and all that is right in the world. You also have to overcome a decades long process of media conditioning that’s trained its consumers to think in terms of WWE-style absolutes. There are good wrestlers and there are bad wrestlers. There’s never been a “Master of Disastrous Moral Ambiguity,” in the ring. As Marshall McLuhan observed, “The medium is the message.” And the cable news medium of political coverage is built around conflict, because conflict gets eyeballs. We’re monkeys in the end, and monkeys have a vested survival interest in paying close attention to a fight. In the process we become invested a “side,” even when neither side really represents our interests.
It is for all these reasons that Democrats can only react to those who reject their party with furious condescension and never with careful consideration. The fury is a result of the simplistic understanding of politics that they’ve absorbed, and the condescension is part and parcel of the brand they’ve embraced. They will call for “unity” even as the party openly conspires against progressive candidates for office. They will continue to think of the left as “our voters” even as the party drifts ever further rightward. And they will completely misunderstand the decades-long drop in Democratic Party membership as the result of poor education, right-wing propaganda, voter suppression, and Russian conspiracy, never once considering the idea that the base for a Wall Street owned “left” party is extremely limited.
In spite of all this, it is possible that Joe Biden will win the election, purely on the “not Trump” vote. Trump’s handling of the pandemic is so life-threatening and so economy-destroying, that pure fear of what another four years of mismanaged oligarchy will mean, may drive enough people to vote for relatively well-managed oligarchy, to tip the scales. But with mass defections from the base, virtually guaranteed low voter turn-out among young and African-American voters, weak support from Latinos, and the tragicomic awfulness of the Democratic candidate, that outcome is far from assured. Whether Biden wins or loses, the party’s war against the left will continue unabated, with their own dwindling pool of voters who haven’t yet figured out that they’re being played, acting as their most loyal foot soldiers. The aristocrats are never the most credulous members of society. Seeing how the system works close up, they know how rotten it is at its core. It’s always the serfs who are the most emotionally invested in defending the prerogatives of their masters.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr