Assessing the Nagle/Tracey Argument – and Some Alternative Explanations
The 2020 Sanders presidential campaign underperformed compared to the 2016 campaign: fewer delegates, lower vote shares and often even lower numbers of raw votes. This is the issue that underlies the recent “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” article by Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey (hereafter N&T) in American Affairs magazine.
I realize that N&T don't really formulate their analysis in quite that way, and their tendentious approach to the Mueller investigation, Russia, DSA, etc. sometimes obscures this question. But that loss of voters, in both numbers and shares of total Democratic primary vote, is central to their argument. More importantly, it should also be the focus of any discussion among socialists in this country trying to assess what happened (or failed to happen) in the Sanders campaign. And, while Dustin Guastella's critique of N&T in Jacobin makes some interesting points, I think he doesn't engage the central question that underlies N&T article:
So, why did Sanders 2020 campaign underperform his 2016 campaign?
As N&T note, correctly, Sanders had many advantages coming into the 2020 campaign cycle that he did not possess in 2016: name recognition, no single dominant opponent, a large and committed base, etc. (I don’t think, contrary to N&T, that he had “unlimited amounts of money.” Only one Democratic presidential candidate had that.) But his underperformance is all the more striking given the 2018 surge of Democratic voters that took back the House by flipping more than 40 seats held by Republicans.
I’ll begin by looking at the two arguments that are the core of the N&T article. Their first argument is that the Sanders campaign had a theory of the electorate that didn't match well with reality. They note, correctly, that Sanders consistently stressed the need to expand the electorate, that his best chance of winning would be to bring new voters into the political arena. Of course, Sanders was not alone in this argument. Indivisibles, Stacy Abrams, DSA., etc. have all sought to expand the electorate, also believing that this would benefit progressives (if not necessarily Sanders).
After the Iowa debacle, turnout for Democratic primaries did increase overall and very significantly in some states, e.g., by 68% in Virginia, 45% in South Carolina, 32% in Michigan
But the increase did not favor Sanders. Why? N&T argue that the youth-focused voter mobilization of the Sanders campaign was unable to significantly increase this demographic. Instead the increased Democratic primary voter turnout favored Biden rather than Sanders.
So, who turned out? The increased Democratic primary turnout was driven primarily by college educated voters, especially those in the suburbs. In fact, the under-30 share of the Democratic primary vote declined in several states, especially on the important Super Tuesday states
In addition, although Sanders had led the effort to switch states from caucuses to primaries, he lost all states that switched. These losses underline the failure of increased turnout to power the political revolution thesis of the Sanders campaign. Thus, this first piece of the N&T argument, that the Sanders campaign had a poor understanding of the Democratic electorate, appears accurate.
The second argument advance by N&T, and one they try to tie to where the increased voter turnout went, is more controversial: that the Sanders of 2020 was not the Sanders of 2016. The cause, they believe, was the rise of woke culture on the left and the redefinition of Sanders and his campaign to identify with, or even try to personify, that culture and milieu. This, they believe, was a fatal weakness in the campaign. (It seems to me that, to some extent, the Guastella piece accepts that this was a weakness in the Sanders' campaign; this is implicit in the very title, “We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War,” even though he doesn’t agree with the weight given to it by N&T.)
At first glance this link between increased turnout and a rejection of woke culture may seem reasonable, but it sits uncomfortably with some of the rest of the article and the demography of the surge in Democratic primary turnout. N&T argue that working class and rural voters are not comfortable with political correctness, woke culture or whatever else you may call it. And, it was these voters who supported Sanders in 2016 but deserted him in 2020 as the campaign moved in that direction. But at other times, N&T suggest that these demographics pay little attention to events such as the Mueller investigation, impeachment, etc. If this is actually true (doubtful, I think), then these groups would also be less aware of the "wokeness" of the campaign. In this instance, I think N&T’s political agenda, an obvious dislike for “wokeness,” drives their analysis.
Further, as noted above, the primary driver of the increase in turnout for the Dem primaries was college educated, suburban voters. I think these demographics, while they may not fully partake of the woke culture, are less likely to be put off by it. So, while I certainly agree (with N&T and Guastella) that there are very dislikeable aspects of on-line and in print “wokeness,” I don’t think N&T have made their case.
A caveat: I’m not sure we can completely dismiss their argument. I don’t know the internal workings of the South Carolina Sanders operation, but if N&T are accurate, the PC culture that even Guastella agrees is widely disliked appears to have had a devastating impact at a crucial moment in the campaign.
So, half right to N&T.
But I think there are three explanations for Sanders 2020 shortfall that neither N&T nor Guastella come to grips with.
First, Sanders’ opponent – his only opponent – in 2016 was Hilary Clinton. While Clinton had a committed following, she was also the nationally known Democrat with the highest net negative ratings in the voting population at large. This rejection of Clinton was driven both by the perception of her as part of a Democratic Party elite that was out of touch with most people who called themselves Democrats, the fact that she was female, and the long-term right-wing efforts to undermine her credibility and trustworthiness. She came as close as she did to wining because Trump’s net negatives were as high or even higher. (See here for some data on the issue of anti-Clinton vote in the 2016 Dem primaries: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/opinion/sanders-trump-biden.html.)
Given a wider range of choices in 2020, those voters who did not accept Sanders’ analysis of what is wrong with the United States and how we need to address it, chose other candidates – because they had the option to do so.
A second factor is the continued inability of the Sanders campaign to attract significant support from African-Americans. There is some age gradation: better among the youth but not enough better to make substantial inroads in this heavily Democratic demographic. I saw this problem in 2016 when working for him in Chicago. Clinton won all the African-American wards and split the white wards more or less evenly with Sanders. Sanders won the Hispanic wards. I don’t have an explanation but is certainly the case that Sanders should have approached James Clyburn early on; his endorsement of Biden is widely credited with driving the big win for Biden in South Carolina. (I think he would have won anyway, just as Clinton did in 2016).
A final overlooked reason for the difference between 2016 and 2020 is the distance from the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/09. Although I have argued that we are still living in a world defined by the GFC, it probably didn’t seem that way to many voters, such as the ones I met who complained that Sanders was saying the same thing he did four years earlier, that he hadn’t evolved with the times. Of course, for many of his supporters this is a strength, but it was also, I think, a weakness in the eyes of many. Remember that in the primary season of 2016, unemployment levels were still higher than pre the GFC and had only slowly been coming down and foreclosures were still common. In contrast, in the truncated primary season of 2019/20 before Sanders dropped out, unemployment was at the lowest level in five decades.
Overall, I think these factors were more important in Sanders’ under-performance in 2020 than those cited by N&T. If I’m right, particularly about the anti-Clinton vote, it requires us to recognize that what we on the Left took as widespread support for at least a social democratic vision, based on 2016 votes for Sanders, was actually less widespread than we thought/hoped. There may also be the need to face the problems of woke culture more squarely and also think about how the Left can forge a kind of nationalism that does not compromise our politics but also recognizes the economic threat of an unrestrained flow of labor across national borders between countries with very different wage levels. But that’s an issue for another discussion.
A last thought: if the economy loomed less large in Democratic voters’ decisions in 2020, the impact of COVID-19 may change that. This is especially true if the recovery is more U or L shaped than V-shaped as Trump and his minions hope. (See here for a short article I wrote on possible recovery scenarios: https://www.cpegonline.org/post/the-post-covid-19-recovery-three-scenarios.)
The opinions expressed here are those of members and allies of DSA North Star Caucus meant to educate, inspire discussion and encourage comradely debate.