A repressed conflict within the Sanders movement begins to surface. (Click here to see all of TLP’s #Election2016 posts.)
Hillary Clinton had a significant lead in the Democratic primary contest before March 15th, both in the popular vote and in pledged delegates, and she expanded that lead considerably on that Super Tuesday II. Clinton now leads Sanders by more than 2.5 million votes and just over 300 pledged delegates (click the links to see exact totals). That is a lot. To put that in terms that may seem cruel to the “Bernie is more electable than Hillary” crowd: Donald Trump has received about 1 million fewer votes than Clinton and about 1.5 million more votes than Sanders.
I call the folks who grapple with these facts and recognize what they mean for the Sanders campaign the reality-based Berners: they like Sanders’ authenticity, they like how he speaks plainly about corruption and oligarchy, and they support most or all of his policy proposals. As for how they feel about Clinton, well, some of them like her just fine, some of them dislike her a bit, and some of them see her as a symbol of corruption and/or a liar – and I think that is a topic for another post. In my experience, most of the reality-based Berners say they will vote for Hillary in November and they assume all other Berners will as well.
There is another type of Sanders supporter who has a bad, sometimes intellectually transmogrifying, reaction to the difficult facts and nearly impossible delegate math facing the Senator. I call them Unskewed Berners, which is a reference to the bizarre, counterfactual “Unskewed Polls” theory from 2012, lead by Dean Chambers. Chambers claimed that Romney/Ryan were headed for a big, surprise popular and electoral victory because he thought there were a bunch of white voters not being polled by anybody. We all know how that turned out – Obama/Biden won and it was actually a banner year for polling accuracy – and as a result “unskewed” has become an ironic term for someone who is obfuscating the truth while claiming to reveal it. Like their reality-based fellow Berners, the Unskewed Berners also like the Senator’s authenticity, honesty, and policy proposals. In my experience, they tend to either disdain or outright despise Hillary Clinton. They also thrive in a social media enabled paroxysm of righteous ignorance, at least sharing if not rambling on in the comments about every dank meme or anti-corporate, anti-establishment hit piece that satiates their confirmation bias and originates from one of the sources allowed by their severe epistemic closure.
I eagerly awaited both responses to the March 15h primary results. My own biases as a Clinton supporter who can also #feelthebern (believe it or not, there are many of us) caused me to read the reality-based Berners with sincere empathy and the Unskewed Berners with genuine schadenfreude. Since there are great examples of both now available, I thought it would be interesting – even important – to compare the two here. The reason it is important is that this new schism in the Sanders movement, like the Democratic primary battle itself, is a remarkably clear view into the greatest challenge facing American progressivism: can we remain knowledge-based and honest when the intellectual and moral rot of the reactionary right is so severe that we are tempted to relax our standards and stoop incredibly low, because we don’t have to give up the high ground to do it? In other words, how long can one group of humans play fair while another group is always cheating? But that is all abstract and general, so let’s get back to the concretes and specifics of how this tension is playing out among Berners.
As fodder for the analysis, I have selected Sean Illing’s March 17th post on Salon.com, “I’m with Hillary in November: Listen up, fellow Bernie supporters – you must get behind Clinton to stop Donald Trump” to represent the reality-based Berners and Tom Cahill’s March 16th post on U.S. Uncut, “Bernie Sanders Had a Phenomenal Night – Here’s Why” to represent the Unskewed Berners. Please take a few moments to read each piece. I’ll wait. (If you feel confused by Cahill’s piece, don’t try to reread it, that won’t help.)
Okay, so right at the beginning, the differences in the mindsets of the writers are dramatic and obvious. Here is Cahill (unskewed) recapping Tuesday’s results and the state of the primary contest:
Despite Bernie Sanders losing all five states in last night’s primary contests, he’s within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. And if Sanders wins the upcoming Western primaries, he could erase Clinton’s lead and become the new front-runner for the nomination.
The only one of those statements that is reality-based is the first clause of the first sentence, stating that Sanders lost all five states to Clinton on March 15th. Sanders is not within striking distance of Clinton seeing as how all of the “upcoming Western primaries” (Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Washington) combined have 267 delegates to award, which is 39 fewer delegates than Clinton’s current lead over Sanders (not counting supers, because it is asinine to count them at this point in the primary). Even if you add in Hawaii and Alaska (they vote on the same day as Washington state, March 26th) the total is only 15 more delegates than Clinton’s current lead. Since there is absolutely no way that Sanders could win 100% of the delegates in all those states, there is also no chance that he could “erase Clinton’s lead and become the new front-runner for the nomination.” In other words, Cahill’s lede is complete bullshit.
Meanwhile, Sean Illing spends four paragraphs burnishing his Berner credentials before he finally gives us the reality-based Berner lede:
But here’s the truth: Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee. Primary voters should still express their will and vote for Bernie so long as they can, but this race is effectively over. Progressives don’t want to hear that, and I get it – I really do. But it’s true nevertheless. To win, Sanders would need to secure roughly 72 percent of the remaining delegates, with paltry support among crucial demographics. It’s not going to happen. And even when Sanders has won primaries or caucuses, he hasn’t won by large enough margins to alter the delegate math.
That leaves us with a regrettable – but near-certain – choice in November: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Of course the idea that no progressives want to hear this is a bit off – many, many progressives (like myself) are Clinton supporters and we do want to hear that the race is effectively over so we can start focusing on the general election. The idea that only Sanders supporters are “genuine” progressives is offensively false and probably one of the core reasons why the Sanders movement never became the popular revolution it imagined itself to be, in the same way so-called “movement conservatives” assert that they’re the only “real” Americans and yet never win national primaries or elections. But I digress. Minus misperception of what it means to be progressive, every other clause in Illing’s lede paragraph is accurate.
He goes on to make a number of other accurate and, from what I have seen of Berners on social media and sites like Salon, heretical statements that are refreshingly sober for someone grappling with their preferred candidate’s impending defeat. First, he makes the important point that progressivism doesn’t exist in an abstract pure vs. impure conflict, but in a concrete progressivism vs. regressivism conflict:
If that’s how it unfolds, I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, and you should too. This really isn’t a choice at all. Trump is a leering huckster, a first-rate con artist peddling hate to dunces. A Trump presidency would be a victory for every noxious and regressive force in our body politic. We also have no idea who he is or what he would do in office – that’s positively terrifying.
Then he acknowledges some of President Obama’s progressive accomplishments:
Despite the hand-wringing among progressives, President Obama moved the country forward. His triumphs were slow-going and piecemeal, but that’s his way – and it worked. The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent; 13.7 million new jobs have been added over the last 69 months; more Americans have health insurance coverage than ever; same-sex marriage has been legalized; the American auto industry was rescued from oblivion; two liberal seats on the Supreme Court were protected; U.S.-Cuba relations have opened up; we have a peaceful nuclear deal with Iran; we’re gradually shifting away from our reliance on fossil fuels; and the country has enjoyed eight years of a dignified, scandal-free administration.
Again I take issue with the noxious assertion that all progressives are unhappy with President Obama, and I would say it is a big omission to leave out the Obama administration playing a decisive role in the first ever worldwide climate change treaty, but otherwise this is a list of progressive achievements from a progressive President of the United States that does not often get mentioned by Berners.
Illing goes on to point out that a President Clinton will at least maintain those achievements (although he apparently hasn’t read her banking or student loan reform proposals since he seems to think no additional progress will be made) and that the alternative is a completely unknown, wildly unpredictable whacko who would do a lot of damage to the country and the world. Perhaps most impressively, Illing finishes with a reminder to Berners – many of whom are too young to remember – that we have actually been down this road before:
And if none of that persaudes you, recall what happened in 2000. Make no mistake: Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidency that year. Al Gore was a deeply flawed candidate, but imagine how different the world might look had he won that year.
If the “Bernie or bust” crowd has its way in November, what might we say about Clinton 10 years from now? And how much damage – real and symbolic – will Donald Trump or Ted Cruz have done? Think about that before you surrender to your purism.
Now that is a reality check! The last time a significant number of leftist voters decided they were too good to vote for a compromise candidate we ended up with a bellicose buffoon who failed to stop the worst attack on American soil in history and responded to it by normalizing torture, endless warfare without boundaries or oversight, and mass surveillance both at home and abroad. He also broke the bank and let his pals collapse the economy. The opposite of a radical progressive is not a moderate progressive, the opposite of a radical progressive is a radical reactionary. Kudos to Illing for speaking truth to passion, which is often much more difficult than speaking truth to power.
Of course, like speaking truth to power, speaking truth to passion doesn’t work if nobody is listening. Many Berners – hopefully most of them – are going to vote for Hillary in the general election, but it is hard to know since they are currently engrossed in the project of “unskewing” the past and future primary results. Let’s check back in with Cahill, who gives us a guided tour of the talking points that are involved in this effort (you have probably seen them all on Facebook, too). First, the current favorite:
A candidate needs 2,383 delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination, and as of March 16,Clinton only has 1,139 delegates to Sanders’ 825. Less than half of the pledged delegates have been selected thus far.
Reality check: There are 4,051 pledged delegates of which 49% have voted. By next Wednesday, 52% of pledged delegates will have voted. (When Sanders loses a primary by 1ish percent it is called a “virtual tie,” but apparently 49% of pledged delegates is decidedly not a “virtual half.” Got it!)
Then Cahill makes this remarkable claim:
All of the states most favorable to Clinton have already voted, including the entire deep south, and the states most favorable to Sanders are still on the calendar.
Reality check: New York, Clinton’s home state, doesn’t vote until April 19th. Sanders’ home state of Vermont voted on March 1st. So Sanders’ most favorable state is behind, and Clinton’s is ahead. In more general terms, Clinton has won plenty of states (Iowa, Nevada, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio) that cannot be considered part of the old or deep South. To be fair, Sanders does do best in overwhelmingly white states (especially if they use a caucus instead of a primary to select delegates) and there are a number of very white states (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah) that are yet to vote. Nonetheless, very favorable states for Clinton are upcoming and Sanders’ most favorable states are behind him.
Damn the factual torpedoes, Cahill goes full steam ahead:
Furthermore, it’s most important to note that going into these favorable states, Bernie Sanders only needs 58% of the remaining pledged delegates. And considering he picked up 67.7% of the vote in Kansas, 64.3% in Maine, and a thundering 86.1% in his home state of Vermont — shutting out Clinton entirely from the 15% delegate threshold — this is not as impossible as the doomsayers predict.
Reality check: Bernie’s wins mentioned here (Kansas, Maine, and Vermont) netted him 38 delegates, which is less than the 44 delegates Clinton netted just from winning 71.3% of the vote in Georgia. It is also about 1/3rd of the net gain Clinton is on track to win in the upcoming New York primary. Mr. Cahill should really re-read the doomsayers he linked to at Vox, because they explained all of this.
They also explained that the 58% figure applies to remaining delegates everywhere, not previously won delegates in certain states, but that kind of establishment reading comprehension is not progressive enough for Cahill:
He also squeaked above the 58% figure with 59% of the vote in Colorado and 61.6% in Minnesota, and he scored a respectable 57.1% in Nebraska. He received 60% back in New Hampshire and has come in virtual ties in many other states outside of the South thus far, meaning he’s beaten the target a total of six times.
Reality check: These sentences have literally nothing to do with the point Cahill is trying to make.
Cahill then pivots to the exit poll data and what he thinks it tells him about the general election:
Sanders also continued to bolster his argument for electability in the general in tonight’s contests. Among groups that hold special significance in general elections, like young voters and independents, Sanders performed particularly well. For example, 70 percent of independents in Illinois voted for Sanders over Clinton. And despite Clinton pulling out a narrow win in Illinois, Sanders still won the under-45 bloc by a vast margin:
Reality check: Young voters hold special significance in that they are famous for not actually showing up to vote in November. There is also no reason to believe that exit polls from Illinois’ Democratic primary are indicative of nationwide voting patterns in a general election and Cahill makes zero effort to prove that they are.
The rest of the piece continues the same way, as if Cahill just grabbed any statistic or graphic that made him feel good, then used a political science glossary to glue them all together into an admittedly awestriking collage of confirmation bias and magical thinking. I can’t resist pulling out just a few more derptastic highlights:
If Sanders and Clinton are neck-and-neck in national polls, Sanders can still win the nomination if he wins the upcoming Western contests by comfortable margins.
Reality check: If Sanders wins those states 100%-0% against Clinton, he will still trail her by over 100 pledged delegates. (Seriously! Do the math yourself.)
While Western states are traditionally polling deserts at this stage, donations from certain geographical regions help shine a light on how favorable the West is for Sanders. It should be noted that six of the top 10 cities that donate the most money per capita to the Sanders campaign are in Western states that have yet to vote:
Reality check: Where do I even start?!?!
- Cahill tabulates the amount of money donated, rather than the number of donors
- Donors only get to vote once in a primary, regardless of the size of their donations
- If this argument had any relevance it would only be in comparison to Clinton’s donor numbers from the same cities, which is not provided
- Holy shit we have reached the point where a Bernie “Get Money Out of Politics!” Sanders booster is arguing that money = votes
Cahill then quotes some amazingly stupid words from Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, which are just another version of the points I demolished earlier, before his derpy denouement:
Almost 700 pledged delegates are chosen on June 7 alone.
Reality check: Hey, that’s true!
It seems unlikely that either candidate will accumulate a margin of 700 pledged delegates before then. So this one may come down to the wire.
Impressive how Cahill goes from his most accurate sentence straight into his most absurd sentence. Reality check: For one thing, it is possible Clinton will be nearing a pledged delegate margin of 700 by the time we get to June 7th. For another thing, neither Clinton nor Sanders are going to walk away with 700ish delegates on June 7th – the Democratic primary doesn’t have a special “winner take all” day. And even if Sanders wins 60% of the pledged delegates on June 7th, it will not even erase half the pledged delegate lead that Hillary Clinton has today.
Cahill concludes his orgy of confirmation bias, magical thinking, and epistemic closure by saying “fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a wild ride.” This is the one and only prediction Cahill makes that I can agree with, but not in the way he means it. The wild ride won’t be watching Sanders negate all math and political reality to achieve victory in the Democratic primary. Rather it will be watching the reality-based Berners like Illing gradually come to grips with the fact that for months now they have been partying with the Unskewed Berners like Cahill, who in their reasoning, posturing, and rhetoric very closely resemble the purist reactionaries that support Ted Cruz. I’ve found myself on the same side as a lot of the wrong people before (I used to be a Libertarian 😳) and I can’t imagine what it will be like for the good Berners to realize how much they colluded with folks who are basically a leftist Tea Party, especially since all the while they have been proclaiming themselves to be the only real progressives. That is one burn I am glad I won’t have to feel.
Why does this all matter? To me the scariest part of this election has not been the implosion of the GOP or the media obsession with Trump that makes him seem like a much bigger force in American politics than he actually is. To me the scariest part of this election has been watching as some of the best and brightest progressives have jumped on a bandwagon with leftist reactionaries in support of a quixotic movement espousing (mostly) progressive policy proposals and making (mostly) regressive demands for ideological purity. I have wondered when this conflict would rise to the surface and how it would then resolve. Based on the Cahill and Illing articles, along with the increasing intra-Berner debates on the topic I have seen on social media this week, I think we are about to find out.
Sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree and want a chance to rebut one or more of my arguments? That’s awesome! TLP wants to hear from you. Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.
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Click here to see all of TLP’s #Election2016 posts.