Bernie Can't Win: The Myth

Photo: Benjamin Kerensa
Sanders addressing rally.
Photo: Benjamin Kerensa

 As I follow the 2016 presidential election one phrase I’ve been seeing crop up recently is “Bernie can’t win.” To be honest, I’m finding it a little irritating. A candidate wins when they get enough votes. The whole point of an election is to count the votes and determine a winner. People who present themselves as hard-headed political realists with their “Bernie can’t win” prognostication don’t realize that there are problems inherent to making predictions that make theirs unreliable.

Additionally, to say “Bernie can’t win” is to participate in the propagation of a myth. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Failing to understand the unreliability of prediction makes it easy to slip into behavior that turns fiction into a reality.

The problem with predictions

Speculation is fueled by the latest polling results. One problem with polls, though, is that they only give you a snapshot of voter inclination as it exists at the moment. They don’t take into account all the politically significant events that may occur between now and the primaries. I’m thinking of those events that are impossible to predict, and yet likely to occur.

You can identify those Black Swan events in retrospect, of course, but we lack the ability to predict them.

There are already forces shaping the election that would have been impossible to predict. The Pope has strongly admonished his followers — and the US Congress — on income inequality and climate change, two of Sanders’ core issues. Donald Trump continues to be a human wrecking ball in the Republican party. The Benghazi “hearings” intended to pull down Hillary’s popularity have backfired. Record-breaking storms have inundated the red states of South Carolina and Texas, perhaps persuading some voters of the urgency of addressing climate change. ISIS has staged a bloody attack in Paris.

And who predicted that a 74 year-old Jewish, democratic socialist would be drawing record crowds in conservative strongholds like Arizona and Texas?

The point is that the trajectory of the election and its outcome are going to be affected by events we can’t predict. Therefore, the best strategy is to be prepared for the unexpected, whether it be a celebrity endorsement, a market crash, a catastrophic climate event, or a terrorist attack.

This bears repeating: we don’t know who will win the election. Resist the temptation to fill in the not-knowing with a narrative of winning or losing, of hope or of despair. Certainly, don’t accept anyone else’s narrative. Hold the not-knowing lightly, as an empty space of possibility that your actions can and will influence. And take your friends’ predictions with a grain of salt. We can’t help filling in the blank, it’s how our brains are wired! Your friends don’t know what will happen, and neither do the “experts” on TV and in the blogosphere.

Speaking of the “experts,” not-knowing doesn’t stop them from treating the election like a horse race! But in a horse race there’s nothing you can do to make the horse run faster. In a political race there’s a lot you can do to affect the outcome. You can contribute money, you can work for the candidate, you can promote them on social media sites and you can persuade your friends and family to join your cause. That is an important distinction that many pundits don’t seem to appreciate.

It has been said that no one was ever fired for recommending Microsoft. Hillary is this election’s Microsoft, and no pundit will be criticized or ridiculed for predicting that she will win — even if she loses. Why not? First, because within the groupthink of the punditry class, there is agreement, and to criticize one is to implicate all. She’s a safe bet. Second, for her to be defeated something novel must happen, something outside their predictive model, something they couldn’t possibly anticipate and for which, therefore, they don’t feel accountable.

When you don’t know something it’s good to know that you don’t know it. People who confidently claim that “Bernie can’t win” presume to know something that is not knowable. They are in the realm of speculation but they don’t realize it.

The challenge for Sanders supporters (or anyone, really) is to act, and continue taking action, while embracing the not-knowing; to remain open to the possibility of defeat, or perhaps more daunting, victory. The best way to predict the future — or at least influence it — is to go out and create it.

Predictions as propaganda

The other thing about predictions is that they are self-fulfilling. If you expect a certain outcome you will tend to act accordingly. To wit, if you expect Bernie not to win you are less likely to engage in the behaviors that increase his chances of winning. It’s human nature.

Predicting that “Bernie can’t win” is not a politically neutral or objective action. It is essentially an endorsement of Hillary. If someone likes Hillary, the straightforward choice is to say so, and then vote for her. But to cite “Bernie can’t win” as a reason to dismiss him is disingenuous.

We hear a lot of “Bernie can’t win” predictions in the mainstream media. The effect is to depict Hillary as the inevitable candidate. It’s well documented that Hillary is supported by corporate interests, including large media companies like Time Warner, owner of CNN, so you can’t discount the theory that it’s deliberate propaganda. But even if it’s not an actual conspiracy, the effect is still to skew the election in their candidate’s favor. It’s hardly a surprise that they would put their mouth where their money is, but I hope everyone recognizes that they are neither objective nor credible.

Hillary’s inevitability isn’t reality, it’s a story some people wish were reality. It’s a myth.

The “Rational” Arguments

As I said above, I think any conversation that revolves around a prediction, e.g. “Bernie can’t win,” is misleading and should be avoided. The most accurate rejoinder is to point out that when you don’t know something, you simply don’t know it. An election is decided by votes, not polls. However, despite the fact that it’s the rational approach, it is not the most productive approach to the conversation. The fallacy of believing in one’s predictions is deeply entrenched. Most people would rather believe in something, anything, than be with the discomfort of not knowing.

I should mention here that rational arguments are not the most persuasive ones if you happen to be arguing with a conservative. As George Lakoff says, “What counts as a ‘rational argument’ is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different. Cognitive linguists have learned a lot about how all this works, but few progressives have studied cognitive linguistics.” I’ll leave that discussion for another article.

These rational arguments are more intended for progressives who share a similar frame of understanding, in other words, they are more applicable to people likely to vote in the Democratic primary.

Anyway, just for fun, let’s engage in some counter-speculation — while not forgetting that we, too, are speculating. Here are some of the “rational” arguments I’ve heard for why “Bernie can’t win,” along with my counter-speculations.

Entrenched establishment politicians and their corporate masters won’t let Bernie win

This is essentially a cynical argument that endorses the status quo. It’s an argument for one’s own powerlessness that starts with defeat and then has nowhere to go. Of course they will do everything they can to prevent him from winning! Duh!

Sanders’ central theme is that we must get money out of politics. This is a savvy political move: 87% of Americans agree with the statement that “Campaign finance should be reformed so that a rich person does not have more influence than a person without money.” It’s an issue that cuts across traditional political divides.

In the past, having deep pockets has been an overwhelming advantage. Suppose we imagine that the situation has changed, and that enough people feel strongly enough about getting money out of politics that they vote accordingly. In that case, being funded by Super PACs becomes a disadvantage. People will closely consider who is bankrolling the candidate. Suddenly, all that Super PAC money becomes the indelible imprimatur of oligarchy.

I’m not saying that this will happen. I’m saying it could happen. It will be more likely to happen if conversations are framed as a question of democracy vs oligarchy. Follow the money: Sanders is funded by ordinary individuals, while all the other candidates are beholden to their Super PACs and the 1%.

America isn’t ready for a Socialist

After so many years of Republican name-calling, it is richly ironic to have an actual democratic socialist running. Is America ready? Well, many Americans are enthusiastic about the policies Sanders is campaigning on. His platform is only revolutionary in terms of current American political norms, not when compared to other modern countries or even to past Democratic positions.

In the mouths of Republicans, the word “socialist” has become a meaningless epithet. It has lost it’s descriptive value. This opens up an opportunity for Sanders to redefine it himself, as he did in his speech at Georgetown University. Since many Americans are enthusiastic about the policies Sanders is campaigning on, I expect this to work out in his favor.

And isn’t this the same kind of argument that was made about Obama: the US isn’t “ready” for a black president? Here’s a list someone made of pundits confidently predicting Why Obama will never, ever be elected president.

How could they have been so wrong? It’s the same error in thinking that may be making them wrong about Bernie now. It’s a fallacy to believe that because something has been true in the past it will continue to be true in the future.

He can’t win in the general election

Again, this is something we can’t really know. There are too many unknowns to predict with certainty. However, in a hypothetical match-up with Trump, the current Republican front-runner, polling indicates Sanders would win, and by a larger margin than Clinton. For Democrats emphasizing the importance of preventing a Republican victory, especially ones who reference possible appointments to the Supreme Court, Sanders is currently looking like the wiser choice.

Consider, too, the current chaos of the Republican party. The necessity for candidates to embrace the lunatic fringe in the primary ensures that the winner will be saddled with some very unpopular and hard to defend positions in the general election. Right wing Republicans are decidedly out of step with American opinions on gay marriage, climate change, the Iraq war. The breakdown has left some Republicans looking outside their party, and apparently some of them love Bernie!

People who say Bernie can’t win the general election, in addition to making the mistake of believing their own prediction, are going to have a hard time supporting that assertion. Especially in a Sanders-Trump scenario, I would predict a huge turnout and a Sanders landslide.

He does not have sufficient support from minorities, especially African-Americans

 While it’s true that Clinton has a huge advantage in African-American communities, that lead may be vulnerable. Why? Polling shows that 92% of African-Americans are “familiar” with Clinton, while only 23% are familiar with Sanders. As Sanders becomes more familiar to black voters, will they respond positively to his message? His position on economic and social justice should appeal, and he has also been emphasizing the importance of racial justice — at the urging of Black Lives Matter. But Sanders’ emphasis on the systemic nature of our problems may be most persuasive. Economic justice, social justice and racial justice are interconnected systemic problems that disproportionately impact minority communities.

Clinton has some negatives that could potentially hurt her with the demographic. For example, the support she has received from private prison lobbyists is probably not going to help. The Sanders campaign has months to reach out to minority voters before the first vote is cast, and four upcoming debates. There will be plenty of opportunity to move those numbers. Check out this ringing endorsement from rapper Killer Mike!

If elected, Sanders wouldn’t be able to govern

This argument rests on the assumption that if Sanders were elected there would be overwhelming intransigence and push back from the existing power structure. No doubt that would be true! It says, essentially, “better a functional oligarchy than a dysfunctional democracy.” But the very fact of a Sanders presidency would have already changed the balance of power. It would mean that there was a significant number of Americans who wanted to change that power structure, that there was a movement. That in itself would lead to changes in the composition of Congress.

Sanders acknowledges the difficulty, and has repeatedly emphasized that he can’t implement the changes he is proposing alone. Could a president with a popular mandate mobilize the people who voted for him to make changes at the national, state and local levels? Again, we don’t know, but I’m going to imagine that, yes, it’s possible.

Clinton has an overwhelming advantage in “superdelegates”

It may come as a surprise to discover that the Democratic party is not democratic in how it selects its nominee, but that’s a fact. Superdelegates are formally unpledged delegates who are chosen by position, not by voters in primaries and caucuses. They are governors and congressmen and other party members, and can vote for whomever they want.

The Clinton campaign claims to have commitments from more than 440 of the 712 superdelegates. (There is a total of approximately 4,492 delegates, therefore a majority of 2,247 delegates needed to win the nomination.)

If Sanders does well enough in the popular vote, Hillary’s advantage in superdelegate commitments might not be enough to prevent him from winning. That’s assuming that her superdelegates don’t jump ship, which some probably would do if Sanders won the popular vote. Superdelegates are people too!

It would be interesting to see whether the superdelegates would go against the popular vote. That would delegitimize the Democratic party, and infuriate the millions of people who had voted for Sanders, perhaps leading to a revolt within the party. Would the Democratic party deny the nomination to the popular vote winner and run with the loser in the general election? I think that’s a hard sell, even to a publicly committed delegate.

Hypothetically, that scenario might lead Sanders to run as an independent. He has said he will not do that, but as far as I know that is not legally binding. If he were to prove his viability by winning the popular vote in the primary and the party were to give the nomination to Hillary despite that, it might be tempting.

Lots of speculation here. We don’t know what would happen, but you don’t get to find out unless you create the conditions that make the question relevant.

Sanders is a spoiler who will split the vote, causing a Republican victory

This argument reflects a misunderstanding of the electoral process, and perhaps an erroneous association with the Nader candidacy of 2000. I include it because apparently some people are misinformed.

Back to basics: Bernie Sanders is running in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. After that contest has been decided by mid-summer of 2016 there will be a general election on November 2 between one of them and whoever ends up being the Republican nominee. This is not a scenario in which a “spoiler effect” can occur.

Since polls predict either Sanders or Clinton winning against likely Republican nominees, not only is Sanders not a spoiler, voting for him is guilt free. If you like him, vote for him! If he wins, then great, you got what you wanted. If Clinton wins you are not any worse off than if you had voted for Clinton in the first place.

There isn’t a downside

Saying Bernie can’t win is what you say if you don’t want him to win. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy you make if you are cynical, resigned to the status quo, or if you simply want Hillary to win.

People who make that prediction are essentially saying, “assuming everything is the same as it has been in the past…” As in, assuming money remains the determining factor in winning elections, assuming that people remain ignorant about what Sanders’ platform really is, assuming that people can be convinced that the mainstream candidate has a better chance of beating the Republican, assuming minority voters do not respond to his message, basically, assuming everything in the future is as it has been in the past and nothing happens to change that. Also, assuming that the millions of passionate Sanders supporters are unable to affect the horse race. I wouldn’t bet on it!

In this election, there really isn’t a downside to voting for Bernie if you like what he stands for. If he loses in the primary, you are left with an unexciting second choice, but at least there is the consolation of having forced Hillary to the left. A Hillary victory is a disaster in many ways, but of course, less of a disaster than electing any Republican.

Change is exciting

Change is exciting, and this is an election that is offering the possibility of actual change. All presidential elections I can remember have been ones where the nominees were products of the status quo. They played by the rules and colored within the lines. In this election, however, establishment candidates are being challenged in both parties. Establishment Republicans have been struggling desperately as their anti-establishment candidates surge in the polls. On the Democratic side, Clinton is hands down the establishment candidate, while Sanders is the one leading the revolution.

“Don’t worry about what the world needs. ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is more people who are alive.” — Howard Thurman

Why the excitement around the Sanders candidacy? Because some people realize that he  can win. And the reason he can win is that people are excited. It’s a positive feedback loop. Excitement is infectious, and it feels good.

Look, Bernie is not perfect. There are several issues where I find myself in profound disagreement with him. But on most issues, especially on getting money out of politics, he offers a significant change, a revolutionary change.

I used the word “myth” above, but maybe a better word is “vision.” To say “Bernie can’t win” is to cling to a vision of political stasis and the deeper entrenchment of an oligarchy. People who are “feeling the Bern” are holding the vision of a genuine realignment of power in this country, the overthrow of oligarchy and the re-establishment of democracy.

The key to understanding this election is appreciating the shared excitement of that vision.