David Sirota: The Democratic Party’s Tyranny of Decorum Helped Sink Bernie

Sanders could have gone harder against Biden, but ultimately it was the establishment that stood in his way.

David Sirota April 16, 2020

Sanders could have gone harder against Biden, but there were obstacles. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Note: I’ve known Bernie Sanders for 21 years. He’s been a hero for me. I deeply respect his life’s work and he remains an inspi­ra­tion to me — and no amount of post-elec­tion gos­sip, pun­dit­ry or back­bit­ing will change that. Work­ing on his cam­paign was a great hon­or, and I’ve thanked him and so many oth­ers for that expe­ri­ence. What fol­lows are some frank take­aways from the cam­paign. We did not run a per­fect race — and hav­ing worked on both win­ning and los­ing cam­paigns, I accept my share of respon­si­bil­i­ty for that. Lord knows I was hard­ly per­fect — and from the very begin­ning until the very end, I’ve tak­en my share of crit­i­cism. But I believe that we have an oblig­a­tion to look back on the painful past because we must always try to learn lessons for the future. — D

The establishment may be weaker than ever—but it is still enormously powerful, especially because so much of the media often echoes its objectives.

If you’ve read the autop­sies of the Bernie 2020 cam­paign in the New York Times, the Huff­in­g­ton Post, the Wall Street Jour­nal, Politi­co, Buz­zfeed or CNN, you’ve prob­a­bly read a ver­sion of a sto­ry that goes some­thing like this: poll­ster Ben Tulchin, co-chair Nina Turn­er and I were fire-breath­ing mon­sters aggres­sive­ly push­ing Bernie to attack” Joe Biden, Bernie refused to do it, and that’s why Bernie lost. 

There are some nuggets of truth in here, but there’s also some fic­tion — and so it is worth sep­a­rat­ing the facts from the fan­ta­sy, in order to under­stand a huge-but-lit­tle-dis­cussed prob­lem plagu­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that I call the tyran­ny of decorum. 

A Thing That Is True: We Pushed, With Some But Not Enough Success

Yes, it is true — a small group of us with many years of cam­paign expe­ri­ence pushed Bernie to sharply con­trast his own pro­gres­sive record with Biden’s record of work­ing with Repub­li­cans against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic agen­da. I’ve been on sev­en under­dog chal­lenger cam­paigns in my life, and won a few of them — this is cam­paign­ing 101: you con­trast, or you lose. And with Biden, the con­trast was par­tic­u­lar­ly stark.

While Bernie was fight­ing to stop the Iraq War, Biden helped the GOP pass the Iraq War res­o­lu­tion and vote down Demo­c­ra­t­ic amend­ments to that res­o­lu­tion. While Bernie was fight­ing to stop the bank­rupt­cy bill, Biden helped the GOP pass the leg­is­la­tion that could now crush hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans dur­ing the coro­n­avirus reces­sion. While Bernie and Paul Well­stone were push­ing a bill to low­er the price of pre­scrip­tion drugs and pre­vent prof­i­teer­ing off vac­cines devel­oped at tax­pay­er expense, Biden was help­ing Repub­li­cans kill the ini­tia­tive. And as I told MSNBC, while Bernie was fight­ing to pro­tect and expand Social Secu­ri­ty, Biden was help­ing echo the Repub­li­can argu­ment for cut­ting Social Security. 

Even though Biden at times patho­log­i­cal­ly lied about some of these facts (at one point he actu­al­ly insist­ed he didn’t help write his own bank­rupt­cy bill!), this record is ver­i­fi­able, it is not in dis­pute. A group of us believed it was impor­tant for this record to be spot­light­ed — because it was good strat­e­gy and good for democracy.

We did­n’t push Bernie to attack” Biden in some sort of vicious way. We pushed him to instead sim­ply and very explic­it­ly cast the pri­ma­ry as a choice between a vision of pro­gres­sive change, and Biden’s promise to his donors that noth­ing will fun­da­men­tal­ly change.”

To his cred­it, Bernie at times worked with us and embraced the strat­e­gy — and when he did, it was suc­cess­ful (see his Social Secu­ri­ty con­trast with Biden in Iowa, and see his con­trast with Wine Cave Pete in New Hampshire). 

At oth­er times, though, the cam­paign backed off and did not seize oppor­tu­ni­ties to explic­it­ly and con­tin­u­al­ly spell out big dif­fer­ences between the candidates. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Biden was able to avoid hav­ing to con­stant­ly try to explain his offen­sive record. Instead, he was allowed to depict him­self as a safe, elec­table uni­ty” candidate. 

Was it fun to always be one of the peo­ple push­ing the cam­paign to be more aggres­sive, and also eat­ing shit on Twit­ter for sup­pos­ed­ly being tox­ic” for sim­ply tweet­ing a few videos of Biden push­ing some grotesque­ly ret­ro­grade pol­i­cy? No, it was not fun. I have more gray hair and less stom­ach lin­ing because I pushed. I’m no hero or a mar­tyr, but I can tell you it was awful, excru­ci­at­ing and heartbreaking.

But it was necessary.

A Thing That May Or May Not Be True: Winning

Would we have won had we con­sis­tent­ly con­trast­ed with Biden? If we’re gonna play shoul­da-coul­da-woul­da, I’d love to say yes. How­ev­er, I can’t say that with total con­fi­dence, because there are so many vari­ables and because Biden was an extreme­ly pow­er­ful pri­ma­ry can­di­date, even if he may not have seemed like it to the aver­age onlooker.

Let’s remem­ber: in the last 65+ years, no cur­rent or imme­di­ate past vice pres­i­dent has ever mount­ed a seri­ous run for pres­i­dent and not suc­cess­ful­ly secured his party’s nom­i­na­tion at least once. That obscure stat evinces a core truth: if giv­en the choice, vot­ers of both par­ties almost always opt to nom­i­nate peo­ple who were a heart­beat away from the pres­i­den­cy (and incred­i­bly, with all the talk about elec­tabil­i­ty,” they have done this even though vice pres­i­dents don’t have a great record in gen­er­al elections).

As a for­mer vice pres­i­dent who once bragged about being one of the most con­ser­v­a­tive law­mak­ers in the Sen­ate, Biden had the sup­port of much of the cor­po­rate-aligned par­ty estab­lish­ment, as well as the bil­lion­aire class that cor­rect­ly saw Bernie as an unprece­dent­ed exis­ten­tial threat to their eco­nom­ic interests. 

That estab­lish­ment may be weak­er than ever — but it is still enor­mous­ly pow­er­ful, espe­cial­ly because so much of the media often echoes its objec­tives. Some exam­ples: CNN likened Bernie to coro­n­avirus. MSNBC ran an all-out cam­paign against us. Self-described fact-check­ers” insid­i­ous­ly obscured the facts and deflect crit­i­cism of Biden’s very clear record. And as Politi­co report­ed, Biden enjoyed near­ly $72 mil­lion in almost com­plete­ly pos­i­tive earned media” in the piv­otal days lead­ing up to Super Tuesday.

Maybe a sharp­er con­trast coul­da over­come this, maybe not. I’m not sure. 

I am con­fi­dent, how­ev­er, that a stronger con­trast would have at least put us in a bet­ter posi­tion to sur­vive when Beto, Klobuchar, and Wine Cave Pete all fell in behind Biden to help him seal Super Tuesday. 

In absence of a tough cri­tique ear­ly on and with no day-to-day focus on his record, Biden was able to solid­i­fy an elec­tabil­i­ty” argu­ment he didn’t deserve or earn.

Accord­ing to exit polls, Biden was able to win the largest share of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers in 15 states who said health care was their top pri­or­i­ty, even though a major­i­ty of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers in those states said they sup­port replac­ing pri­vate insur­ance with a gov­ern­ment run plan — a posi­tion Biden oppos­es.

Biden won Mid­west states that have been rav­aged by the trade deals that he him­self sup­port­ed.

Biden even won the most Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers in 11 states who said cli­mate was their top issue, despite his far weak­er cli­mate plan.

By the time our cam­paign was final­ly com­fort­able con­sis­tent­ly mak­ing a strong case against him, it was after Super Tues­day and it was too late.

A Thing That Is Dan­ger­ous­ly Untrue: Con­trasts Are Bad

If you’ve read this far, I know what you are won­der­ing: what explains Bernie’s resis­tance to more sharply con­trast­ing with Biden? 

IMO, three things, with the third being the most prob­lem­at­ic for the future: 

1) Bernie is a deeply prin­ci­pled law­mak­er, but he is not a scorched earth politi­cian, and nev­er has been. Since he was first elect­ed to a pub­lic office, his approach is one that seems defined by a belief that to make real change from the out­side, you must push hard, but always main­tain one foot inside the pow­er struc­ture and not try to burn it all the way down. The cal­cu­la­tion is that if you are too adver­sar­i­al against the estab­lish­ment, you will be instant­ly mar­gin­al­ized, depict­ed as irrel­e­vant and dis­em­pow­ered (Side note: as the pri­ma­ry results show, the prob­lem with this the­o­ry is that even if you are nice and don’t go scorched earth, the pow­er struc­ture has oth­er ways to defeat progressives).

2) As he him­self said, Bernie likes and respects Biden. I per­son­al­ly don’t believe that affin­i­ty is jus­ti­fied, con­sid­er­ing Biden’s leg­isla­tive record, but I’m not going to lit­i­gate that point. It is what it is.

3) The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has man­u­fac­tured a cul­ture that cre­ates the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom and per­cep­tion that any efforts to con­trast oppo­nents’ records from the left in a pri­ma­ry is neg­a­tive,” and there­fore destructive. 

That cul­ture, of course, is the struc­tur­al fac­tor that lasts beyond the Bernie cam­paign, and it is a huge prob­lem. It is a new tyran­ny of deco­rum that aims to con­vince vot­ers to val­ue eti­quette, pleas­antries and par­ty uni­ty over every­thing else — even their own eco­nom­ic interests.

Let’s remem­ber: we have just expe­ri­enced mod­ern history’s first con­test­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry in which the can­di­dates declined to seri­ous­ly crit­i­cize each oth­er in any kind of sus­tained way.

There were cer­tain­ly momen­tary flash­point, but com­pared to past pri­maries, this was a mut­ed affair — and if you some­how think this pri­ma­ry was unique­ly neg­a­tive” because Bernie once in a while gen­tly men­tioned Joe Biden’s vote for the Iraq War, you are appar­ent­ly Rip Van Win­kle wak­ing up from a 50-year slum­ber. You some­how nev­er saw Demo­c­ra­t­ic ads against Howard Dean in 2004, you nev­er saw Hillary Clin­ton ads depict­ing Barack Oba­ma as cor­rupt, and you nev­er heard Obama’s ads and speech por­tray­ing Hillary Clin­ton as a pup­pet of cor­po­rate lobbyists.

The oppo­site dynam­ic defined the 2020 pri­ma­ry. As the health care indus­try ran ads vil­i­fy­ing Bernie’s sig­na­ture Medicare for All plan, and as a super PAC aired ads sug­gest­ing Bernie couldn’t win a gen­er­al elec­tion, the tyran­ny of deco­rum dom­i­nat­ed the can­di­date discourse.

Any­time Bernie so much as made a pass­ing men­tion of one of Biden’s bad votes, there were over­wrought accu­sa­tions that Bernie was going neg­a­tive,” hand-wring­ing warn­ings about the per­ils of going neg­a­tive,” with Team Biden shed­ding croc­o­dile tears about neg­a­tive attacks.” This trans­par­ent bull­shit soon became attacks on staffers who dared to point out flaws in Biden’s record — Turn­er and press sec­re­tary Bri­ah­na Gray were rou­tine­ly demo­nized on social media, and I myself was labeled a tox­ic attack dog” for the high crime of peri­od­i­cal­ly tweet­ing links to Biden speech­es in the Con­gres­sion­al Record.

This attempt to scan­dal­ize pol­i­cy crit­i­cism sup­pos­ed­ly reflect­ed height­ened con­cerns about elec­tabil­i­ty” — the idea pro­mot­ed by Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians and pun­dits being that sharp con­trasts might weak­en the even­tu­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee against the exis­ten­tial threat of Trump. 

And yet, his­to­ry argues exact­ly the oppo­site — tough, bru­tal pri­maries often end up bat­tle-test­ing nom­i­nees and mak­ing them stronger (see Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma). In the same way the minor leagues can pre­pare play­ers for the major leagues, bru­tal intra­party con­tests sub­ject the even­tu­al stan­dard-bear­ers to train­ing, and they also suss out poten­tial weak­ness­es at an ear­ly point when a par­ty can still make a dif­fer­ent nom­i­na­tion choice. 

By con­trast, pri­maries dom­i­nat­ed by demands for good deco­rum,” uni­ty” and decen­cy” cre­ate coro­na­tions – and coro­na­tions run the risk of cre­at­ing nom­i­nees who are not ade­quate­ly road-test­ed, and who are only pub­licly vet­ted in the high-stakes gen­er­al elec­tion, well after the par­ty could have made a dif­fer­ent choice. 

That is where we are now — a tyran­ny of deco­rum has giv­en us a pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee whose record hasn’t been well scru­ti­nized or challenged. 

One Last Thing That’s True: Con­test­ed Pri­maries Are Good

Now it’s true: Democ­rats’ cries of you’re being too neg­a­tive!” — and all the over­dra­mat­ic faint­ing spells about tweets to C‑Span videos — did work in the pri­ma­ry. The tac­tics suc­cess­ful­ly scan­dal­ized any legit­i­mate scruti­ny of Biden’s record to the point where mild crit­i­cism of spe­cif­ic votes was instant­ly depict­ed as a sub­stance-free con­tro­ver­sy” about tone. 

But those same cheap tac­tics — the scream­ing about neg­a­tiv­i­ty, the whin­ing, the faint­ing spells — are not going to work when Don­ald Trump spends a bil­lion dol­lars on neg­a­tive ads ham­mer­ing Biden’s votes for NAF­TA and the bank­rupt­cy bill, votes that Biden could have been bet­ter pre­pared to deal with had they been lit­i­gat­ed in the pri­ma­ry. He may still be able to defeat Trump (and I’ve said I hope he does), but the com­par­a­tive­ly soft pri­ma­ry did not strength­en him for the gen­er­al election.

Look­ing ahead beyond 2020, we can’t allow this sti­fling wor­ship of deco­rum to define Democ­rats’ polit­i­cal cul­ture. We must remem­ber that intra­party con­trast is good in primaries. 

Hillary bash­ing Oba­ma was good.

Oba­ma bash­ing Hillary was good. 

The same goes for down bal­lot races: Ned Lam­ont run­ning a tough pri­ma­ry against Joe Lieber­man was good. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez end­ing Joe Crowley’s polit­i­cal career was good. 

The 2020 pri­ma­ry was pleas­ant, civ­il and polite — and that’s bad.

We’re in the midst of unpleas­ant, unciv­il and impo­lite emer­gen­cies that threat­en our coun­try and our plan­et. A glob­al pan­dem­ic won’t be stopped by niceties. The cor­po­ra­tions prof­it­ing off the health care cri­sis won’t be thwart­ed with good man­ners. The fos­sil fuel giants inten­si­fy­ing the cli­mate cat­a­clysm won’t be deterred by gen­til­i­ty. And elec­tions will not be won by pri­or­i­tiz­ing good deco­rum over every­thing else.

In short: pre­vent­ing a real con­trast and a real con­flict over ideas only serves the estab­lish­ment and its politi­cians who know that scruti­ny will weak­en their pow­er to decide nom­i­na­tion con­tests and con­trol the future. 

But win­ning nom­i­na­tion con­tests with­out real vet­ting not only serves cor­po­rate pow­er, it also jeop­ar­dizes that much-vaunt­ed qual­i­ty that par­ties claim to care so much about: gen­er­al elec­tion elec­tabil­i­ty.”


P.S. If you are inter­est­ed in more insights about the cam­paign, click here to watch this inter­view I did this week with Cenk Uygur of the The Young Turks.

This piece was first pub­lished at Too Much Infor­ma­tion.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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