In response, they’ve decided to lose their minds.
Nobody did it quite like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who compared Sanders’s Nevada win to the Nazis conquering France, a rather ill-considered analogy given that Sanders, who lost family in the Holocaust, could be the first Jewish president.
Former Bill Clinton spokesperson Joe Lockhart begged Mike Bloomberg to use his bottomless bank account to take out Sanders, “even if that might mean ruining his own chances at the nomination.”
Democratic members from swing districts are taking pains to distance themselves from Sanders. “In 30-plus years of politics, I’ve never seen this level of doom. I’ve never had a day with so many people texting, emailing, calling me with so much doom and gloom,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.
But do they really need to be so afraid?
I’m not here to advocate for Sanders’s candidacy. My feelings about him are complex, and there will be ample opportunity to explore them. But right now, lots of Democrats are absolutely stone-cold certain that nominating him will be disastrous, in a situation that is actually filled with uncertainty.
Of course, most everyone in politics thinks that the course they favor for substantive reasons and the one that offers them the most influence and prestige is also the one that’s most politically wise.
But the intensity of the reaction to Sanders suggests that it comes from a deeper place than just a prediction about what the November outcome will be.
We have to acknowledge one fundamental fact: No one knows how Sanders would perform as a nominee. You can say “America will never elect a socialist!” but as I keep emphasizing, we don’t elect types of candidates, we elect individuals. You could have argued that America would never elect an African American with the middle name “Hussein” or America would never elect a narcissistic reality-show buffoon.
We have to keep reminding ourselves that those of us who closely follow politics tend to dramatically overstate the degree to which the average American has coherent and well-considered ideological views. Which is why an aversion to “socialism” in the abstract is likely to have little impact on how voters view Sanders as an individual.
Yes, he is an ideological outlier. But if the analogies you’re using to understand this election are decades old, they’re probably not very helpful in describing today’s politics. There are lots of Democrats right now saying “This’ll be like George McGovern, or Barry Goldwater!” But the elections that happened 48 and 56 years ago took place in a profoundly different political environment.
And if Americans will inevitably turn against Sanders in favor of Trump, it hasn’t happened yet; nearly every poll that matches the two against one another shows Sanders winning, though the same is true of all the contending Democrats.
Does that mean Sanders isn’t vulnerable to attacks on his policy proposals or his more unusual statements on things like the virtues of the Soviet system? Absolutely not. But we don’t yet know whether those attacks will only resonate with Republicans who were never going to vote for him anyway.
Sanders has a theory about how to win, which is that his economic populism will appeal to many voters who are not necessarily friendly to other Democrats, while he’ll change the makeup of the electorate by bringing in large numbers of people who haven’t been regular voters in the past. Can he do that? The only real answer is: We don’t know. It certainly won’t be easy, but it’s possible.
And given that high turnout among Republican voters is all but baked in, you certainly want a Democratic nominee who can drive a similarly high turnout among Democrats. Is that Sanders, more than other candidates? Again, we can’t yet say for sure.
When Sanders tells voters to consider that things the establishment of both parties tells them are impossible — such as giving everyone health coverage, something every other industrialized democracy has somehow managed — are actually quite possible if we just decide to do them, will they flock to a candidacy that requires imagination, or reject it? How does that number compare to the number who would stay home if the Democratic nominee is an uninspiring candidate like Joe Biden or Bloomberg? We don’t know.
In other words, we’re walking through a fog of uncertainty. We have to be self-aware enough to acknowledge that every time we make a prediction about the general election, we’re guessing.
Let me suggest something else, particularly to the Democrats now losing their minds. For the past year, you were the ones saying most emphatically that voters should stop thinking about which candidate they like and instead decide their vote by imagining which candidate other people might like. It’s absolutely terrible advice, and it’s precisely what gave Democrats a string of general election losses.
This time around, it sent the Democratic electorate into a whirl of confusion, as one candidate after another looked “electable” for a while and then stopped looking electable. Biden is the electable one! No wait, now it’s Elizabeth Warren! Hold on, Pete Buttigieg looks electable! Now it’s Biden again! Now it’s Bloomberg!
The whole time, Sanders was steadily winning support from people who actually like him and are fed up with being told not to support the candidate they like. Maybe that has something to do with why he’s in the position he is right now.