The More Bernie Sanders Wins, the More Establishment Liberals Will Tell You He Can’t Win

Some thoughts on Sanders’ New Hampshire primary victory last night.

Corey Robin

(Spencer Platt / Getty)

This post first appeared at Jacobin.

Always in a tone of cool neutrality, a “just the facts, ma’am” report from reality. Which seems to mask a deeper attachment to the reality it purports to describe.

Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire Democratic primary last night.

Edith Wharton described it best:

The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow-fields and ice-hung forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge against the same bitter black-and-white landscape.

Some fascinating tidbits about the Democratic primary voters from the New York Times exit poll:

  • 72 percent of the voters said that the candidates’ issues were more important to them than the candidates’ leadership or personal qualities; only 25 percent of the voters said that the latter was more important to them. This confirms what Jedediah Purdy argued in an excellent piece contrasting Sanders’s candidacy with Obama’s candidacy. Obama’s campaign was about him; Sanders’s campaign is about the issues.
  • 68 percent of the voters described their philosophy as either very liberal” or somewhat liberal.” 31 percent said it was moderate” or conservative.” What’s interesting about this data — beyond the leftward shift it marks — is that independents are allowed to vote in Democratic primaries in New Hampshire. In this primary, 41 percent of the voters were either independents or undeclared. That we get that kind of ideological skew in a primary that includes independents, who are often reputed to be moderates, is telling.
  • 63 percent of the voters want to replace the current health care system with a single-payer plan.
  • Only 16 percent of the voters said they were getting ahead financially (as opposed to keeping steady or falling behind); Clinton did her best among those voters.
  • 80 percent of the voters said they were very or somewhat worried about the economy; Sanders won nearly two-thirds of those voters. 20 percent of the voters said they were not too worried or not worried at all about it. Clinton won 57 percent of those voters.
  • Only 10 percent of the voters said terrorism was the most important issue for them.
  • 48 percent of the voters decided upon their candidate in the last month. That suggests the race is still very fluid and that it is not until the campaigns come to the different states that voters really settle upon their choices.

The best comment of the evening, though, goes to my CUNY colleague David Jones, who is providing commentary to the New York Times:

Even so, there were a few silver linings for Mrs. Clinton.… And, though Mrs. Clinton lost nearly every income group, she did carry voters in families earning over $200,000 per year.

Remember, back in 1992, Bill Clinton placed second in the New Hampshire primary, and he declared, New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid.” Twenty-four years later, Hillary Clinton places second in the New Hampshire, and her campaign declares, New Hampshire doesn’t matter.

Or maybe it does. Politico reports that after her stunning loss, Clinton’s campaign is getting a facelift:

Now, after a drubbing so serious as to call into question every aspect of her campaign from her data operation to her message, the wounded front-runner and her allies are actively preparing to retool their campaign, according to Clinton allies.

Staffing and strategy will be reassessed. The message, which so spectacularly failed in New Hampshire where she was trailing by 21 points when she appeared before her supporters to concede to Sanders, is also going to be reworked — with race at the center of it.

Clinton is set to campaign with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, unarmed African-Americans who died in incidents involving law enforcement officers and a neighborhood watch representative, respectively. And the campaign, sources said, is expected to push a new focus on systematic racism, criminal justice reform, voting rights and gun violence that will mitigate concerns about her lack of an inspirational message.

In 1992, the Clintons also ran a campaign with race at the center of it. Only then, the point was to get as far away from African-American voters as possible. They did it by talking tough on crime — and then acting tough on crime. And, yes, Hillary Clinton was at the center of it all. As Donna Murch writes in an epic piece in the New Republic:

Hillary strongly supported this legislation [Clinton’s crime bill] and stood resolutely behind her husband’s punishment campaign. We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders,” Hillary declared in 1994. The three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets,” she added. Elsewhere, she remarked, We will finally be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders: three strikes and you’re out.”

It’s one thing to walk back your policies on race and crime because the electoral winds are blowing in the other direction. But to pivot so shamelessly from one campaign in which you made war on black America your signature issue to another in which you make fighting racism your campaign brand — simply because you’re losing in the primaries (anyone who thinks Clinton would be retooling her campaign like this needs to read the piece I linked to above) — is, well, a little breathtaking.

The more Sanders wins, the more the liberals will tell you he can’t win. Always in a tone of cool neutrality, a just the facts, ma’am” report from reality. Which seems to mask a deeper attachment to the reality it purports to describe. It reminds me of how Lincoln characterized Stephen Douglas’s embrace of popular sovereignty: This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.”

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Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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