Why is Bernie Sanders Still in the Nomination Race?


Bernie Sanders against a weird, digital-blue backdrop, looking like a meme, did not concede last night as expected, and so we endure another round of spittle from the pundit class, who have nothing to do until the party conventions. This morning’s familiar line of argument, which says that Bernie is losing leverage, is both vicious and circular — which is to say that it’s viciously circular. Before you adopt the incredulity of those who would demand his exit, you should ask yourself why you’re in a rush to see American politics become a dogfight between two different styles of public relations, a pseudo-representational partisan shitshow where “American citizens” become a data set, a list of campaign contributors.

For over 20 minutes last night, Sanders at least reminded us that we elect a president in order to fulfill policy aspirations, and he continued to honor those supporters who want to see substantial change in the Democratic platform. I, for one, think that his supporters should now turn to new forms of organizing, but it’s clear to me why he’s choosing to stay, even as our characteristically terrible political writers point to the clock and scream “zero hour.” What’s the hurry? It’s still going to be the zero hour in November.

Sanders finds himself where he started: facing arguments from nonsense-buffs who would underestimate his position. The only difference now is that he has millions of supporters across the country, potential voters who understand they will lose representational power (if they have it) if Sanders fails to derange the Democratic platform and party establishment. If Sanders’ speech last night, which pitched his acceptability-socialism against the persistence of Trump, was a form of concession, it was only to these supporters. But journalists like Michael Tomasky, the kind of writer who wants to convince you that Sanders is pouring water on himself, doesn’t see these supporters in the form of people with dignity who happen to be struggling. He rather sees politics as a function of preformatted individual consumers, as when, considering Sanders’ speech, he writes about how “people saw it” — that “Bernie is now old news”:

So that’s how his people saw it. How actual Democrats saw it—and I don’t mean the banking lobbyist, I mean the state committeewoman from Illinois who is a public-interest lawyer in Evanston—I’m not sure. Less favorably, I’m sure. She no doubt hung on the key two sentences: “The major political task that we face in the next five months is to make certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly. And I personally intend to begin my role in that process in a very short period of time.” Those sentences, along with the election reform matter he left out, signaled a de facto endorsement of Clinton, whether his people want to admit that or not.

What bothers me here is not so much Tomasky’s tea-leafing about Sanders’ exit, which will obviously happen, or his bizarre idea that Trump or future Trumps are somehow “stopped” by a Sanders concession to a Clinton candidacy and not the megalist of policies Sanders offered in the speech. My issue is that he swipes left on the the sort of people who support Sanders, and he instead strangely ventriloquizes a “public-interest lawyer in Evanston.” This election is not about such a lawyer, and if you think it is, you’re sorely confused about why Sanders is still in the race.

Elsewhere, at Politico, Gabriel Debenedetti writes that “Sanders loses convention leverage” by way of his speech, and that such leverage is “the one thing he’s been bleeding every day ever since he dropped California’s primary.” What does this mean? Sanders didn’t layoff a considerable number of his campaign staff because he’s courting superdelegates; the purpose of his campaign is to continue a generational march leftward toward socialism, a project that requires, he believes, changing the Democratic platform. But much of the remainder of Debenedetti’s piece suggests that Sanders’ lingering campaign is accomplishing this now. Of Clinton’s recent moves, he writes:

She has, nonetheless, started to show a willingness to tack left toward Sanders, scheduling an economic policy speech set for Ohio next week that could include nods to his agenda. On Thursday, the Clinton campaign also installed a new chief of staff at the DNC who comes from the Service Employees International Union — a labor pick that could be welcome to Sanders’ rank-and-file supporters.

So Clinton, too, is making concessions, and this flies in the face of the idea that “she has little reason to fear that tepid support from Sanders backers could doom her” in swing states. She certainly fears a lack of support from Sanders’ voters — and she should: they could cost her this election or the next. Their power, should they continue to wield it, could be felt powerfully at the convention and beyond. Sanders knows this — because he knows who he represents. It’s why he stays.