On the State of Sanders’ Campaign

I’m going to take a break from my usual media and entertainment commentary to talk about politics.

So as of yesterday, we’re looking at a very strange and unprecedented situation where Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee. This is out of a field that at one point had something like 17 candidates. Yet they were whittled down while Trump and finally Cruz and Kasich suspended their campaigns, leaving a lot of questions about how Trump will perform in November.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is staying in the race against Hillary Clinton, despite facing a pretty much insurmountable math problem in terms of delegates. In fact, to read the pro-Bernie section of my Facebook, the difference isn’t that great and Bernie can pull out a win. This is, to be frank, highly unlikely. However, it’s a testament to how strong his campaign has been that we’re looking at Clinton, inevitable nominee or no, still needing to take part in every contest through California.

This is a pretty shocking flip from how the narrative was expected, even expected a month or two ago. The factious infighting was going to follow the GOP all the way to their convention while Clinton would quietly become presumptive and turn her sights to the general.

I am rather curious about Sanders, because his entire campaign has turned out to be something of a war of contradictions. He’s done far better than anyone initially expected, but he’s still not anywhere close enough to really be considered in the fight. He’s campaigning on a platform largely to prop up the poor and downtrodden classes, but his voter base tends to be largely white and educated. (Young, yes, but not specifically poor.)

I like Bernie’s positions. I’m generally in favor of everything he espouses. But there does seem to be an odd disconnect between both his campaign and his supporters and the reality of the situation. He isn’t going to win. The question, really, is why? Why, if he’s got such an energized base, hasn’t he had a better showing? Why, if he’s fundraising so well, doesn’t he generate a stronger performance in open elections? Why has he completely failed to get media coverage?

Really, in a lot of ways you can chalk up Sanders’ failure to Trump. Not directly, because there’s been pretty much no meaningful interaction between them. But in a lot of ways, the ascendance of Trump has been to Sanders’ detriment. In another election year, without Trump, the revolution rhetoric that Sanders espouses might have taken hold. He might have gotten massively more airplay and been seen as an agent of change. Instead, he’s often been shutout of the airways as the media has given Trump basically open and unfettered play for free.

Still, even without that, Sanders’ overall position has been one as an outsider trying to change the face of politics. And that’s a weird position to be in for a liberal politician. Yes, it’s true that Sanders isn’t a longtime Democrat. He’s built a career on being an independent and a progressive, neither of which tends to play big on the national scene. But at the same time, he’s been a Senator since 2007 and has been in Congress overall since 1991. It’s difficult to make a claim to be an outsider when you’ve been in the works for over two decades.

But even beyond that, the entire “outsider” rhetoric has pretty much been wholly claimed by conservative circles at this point. Go back to Reagan and move forward and you just see numerous of them compound on that point: Gingrich, McCain, Palin, the entire Tea Party, and so forth. Conservatives have claimed again and again that they’re coming from outside the establishment and working to fix things. Even if it’s untrue because they’re established, that’s a brand that they own at this point.

At another time, especially if the GOP had coalesced around an establishment type like Jeb Bush, Bernie might have been able to get his message out there, even if it’s an odd one for the Democrats, who are largely okay with government structures and institutions in abstract, even if specific policies and programs are to be viewed askance.

For once, though, Trump actually can claim to be an outsider. He’s made some efforts to run for president before, but nothing really strong or meaningful like this year. (I’ll┬ábe honest and state that I don’t think Trump expected or perhaps even wanted his campaign to get this far. For his brand, trying to run for president and making noise seem to be better than actually needing to go the whole way. Especially since his fundraising is shit and he’s spending his own money to do it.)

And Trump’s message is really simple and catchy. It’s easy to understand: he’s not a politician, and he’s going to come in and break shit until it’s working again.

Sanders, OTOH, is arguing for a bit more nuance. He’s not quite establishment, his politics are different, but what we need is a revolution to change how the systems we already have can be made to work better. There are some big, exciting ideas, sure, but in contrast to “break things until stuff works” it’s not quite going to catch on.

Or if you take Trump’s recent argument that the system was rigged against him. A rather laughable take, if you look at how the GOP puts together its delegates and do some analysis. If anything, Trump has benefited massively from the unequal distribution of delegates. But that message did catch on and possibly propelled him to the late successes that secured him the nomination.

Contrast that with the argument Sanders and co. had early on in the campaign: that counting the Superdelegates for Clinton was patently unfair. Those votes weren’t democratically determined, and it should be up to the people to vote.

Well, here we are several months down the line, and Clinton holds a commanding lead in voted delegates. As has been the case in every contested primary since they were first created, superdelegates have not mattered. Railing against them hasn’t had any effect, either in switching those superdelegates around or in convincing people to vote for Sanders in greater numbers.

Would that be different without Trump in the game? I don’t know, but it’s possible.

Moving forward for Sanders, we probably will see him contest this all the way to California, inevitability or not. And from there the Democratic convention probably will see him come to an agreement with Clinton in order to establish some structural changes to how the primary season works and what the party platform should espouse.

That’s perhaps not as sexy and exciting as many supporters wanted, but it’s the sort of incremental work that’s pretty endemic to the system we have in place. For all the “come in and break shit” rhetoric that gets thrown round, actual revolutions are pretty rare in American politics. Liberals may have been disappointed that Obama wasn’t the far left revolutionary they believed he was in 2008, but his pragmatic approach to actually get shit done despite monumental opposition has severed him well for 8 years. Similarly, the Tea Party wave basically showed itself to be incapable of doing anything except grinding things to a halt. No real change, just obstinance. And now many of those who got in on that wave are calling it quits.

Sanders, though, is well ingrained in the machinery of government. He knows how it works, and getting some degree of change, even if it’s not everything he wanted, is still a positive step.