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It’s Still Their Party (and Always Will Be)

Super Tuesday showed that while Bernie Sanders is still a strong candidate for the nomination, the Democratic Party still belongs to the establishment — and that establishment pulled off a comeback for Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders’ attempts to reform the party from the inside are miscalculated and will end with them cheating him out of the nomination.

Sybil Davis

March 4, 2020
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Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s dominance in South Carolina carried him to a very impressive result from Super Tuesday, winning 9 of the 14 states including every Southern state, most notably the much-sought after Texas. For many, this was shocking because Biden’s overall awfulness as a candidate had seemed to catch up with him. Between his dreadful debate performances, constant gaffes, and terrible (and racist) record, it seemed like his quest to be President was finally at its end. However, South Carolina breathed new life into him, and he overperformed on Tuesday. This can be credited to a few factors: the drop-outs and endorsements of Klobuchar and Buttigieg, the collapse of Mike Bloomberg, and the Obama factor. All of these collaborated to give him hegemony over the right-wing of the Democratic Party and the Party establishment in general. In other words, post-South Carolina, the division within the establishment was resolved to a consensus around Joe Biden. This flipped the script so that the progressive wing was now the more divided wing, with Elizabeth Warren splitting the vote enough to hurt Sanders in enough states to give Biden some unexpected victories — such as Massachusetts where, until a few days ago, Sanders was leading in the polls. 

The somewhat surprising exits of Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg helped Biden immensely. They added to this initial aid by all flying to Texas to, along with Beto O’Rourke, endorse Biden the night before Super Tuesday. The fact that these dominos all fell within a few days is not accidental. Indeed, new reports show that Barack Obama spoke with Buttigieg shortly after he dropped out, apparently strongly implying that he should get behind Biden. Biden also got endorsements in the two days leading up to Super Tuesday from many Democratic Party insiders such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, as well as current and former Senators Barbara Boxer, Tammy Duckworth, and Mark Udall. The establishment has decided that enough is enough and has organized to defeat Sanders — and on Super Tuesday, that establishment delivered. 

This organization around Biden is particularly egregious given that he is such a poor candidate against Trump. Biden has a problematic record (to say the least) and is often unable to make a coherent speech (including the night of Super Tuesday, when he confused his wife and his sister, seemed to forget the names of states, and promised to cure cancer). He also represents the same wing and the same basic strategy as Hillary Clinton in 2016, a strategy that notably failed to stop Trump gaining office. In addition, as if all of this wasn’t enough, he is also currently embroiled in a corruption scandal surrounding how his son behaved while he was Vice President — a scandal that Trump will surely exploit throughout the general election. What this means is that the Democratic Party establishment would rather fall in line behind an inferior candidate — from an electability standpoint — than allow Sanders to clinch the nomination. They are asserting, almost explicitly, that it is still their party, and they would rather risk losing to Trump with Biden than have a President who promises healthcare for all. 

The Obama factor cannot be underestimated when it comes to analyzing Biden’s resurgence. Biden is, and has been for the entirety of the campaign, coasting on the Democratic party’s goodwill for Obama and generalized nostalgia for the Obama years. Elect me, Biden is saying, and I will make it feel like Obama is back. This is a convincing argument to many Democratic voters and can help explain Biden’s stronger than expected performance. In addition, the Obama factor gives Biden the illusion of electability — an illusion that isn’t backed up by any actual polling data — and creates the idea that Biden is the only candidate who can defeat Trump. For many voters, they say that beating Trump is one of their biggest considerations when it comes time to decide who to vote for in the primary. Even though Biden does not fare particularly well in match-ups with Trump compared to Sanders in similar match-ups, the memory of the Obama/Biden 2008 campaign is strong enough to invert this. 

Bloomberg’s Collapse

Despite his money and his obvious attempts to buy the election, Michael Bloomberg was dead on arrival for Super Tuesday. His collapse took the form of only winning American Samoa and failing to even be viable in many states — including states where he had spent huge amounts of money. This is a major blow to his campaign, and according to internal sources, he will reconsider the race in the days following Super Tuesday. What Bloomberg had been relying on was supplanting Joe Biden as the mainstream, establishment, “electable” alternative to Bernie Sanders. Following Biden’s win in South Carolina, Biden was able to bounce back and effectively eliminate Bloomberg from relevance. Bloomberg’s impact in splitting the establishment vote was a factor in a few states but he, by and large, came away having imploded after spending around $500 million to get only 44 delegates — $11 million per delegate. 

This happened for a variety of reasons, but one that can’t be underestimated is what Bloomberg’s first debate made clear: he isn’t part of the Democratic Party establishment — at least not yet. While he shares policies with the Joe Biden/Hillary Clinton wing of the party, his Republican history means that he’s not part of the club, and they have not accepted him yet. Indeed, Joe Biden’s stronger performances in those debates usually came at the expense of Bloomberg, as Biden joined all of the other candidates in attacking him.  Even Sanders pointed out that Bloomberg had “put money into Republican candidates for the United States Senate when some of us — Joe [Biden] and I and others — were fighting for Democrats to control the United States Senate,” essentially pointing out that he, the self proclaimed anti-establishment candidate, was more immersed in the Democratic Party than Bloomberg.  

Sanders’ Challenges

Prior to Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders had pulled off what at one point seemed almost impossible: he was the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He had won the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire and pulled off an incredibly impressive result in Nevada. He seemed poised to be the most left-wing candidate in Democratic Party history. The dedication of his supporters and the small donations that brought in millions from workers across the country seemed to be unstoppable, especially in the face of a divided establishment. He seemed unstoppable… until Super Tuesday, where he fell behind in the delegate count behind Biden and lost some key races, including Massachusetts, which he was slated to win, and Texas, with its huge delegate count. While he is still in the race, the road ahead is much more difficult.

A major problem for Sanders is that he continues to not be particularly effective at turning out new and younger voters. While he has been performing better than he did in 2016 overall — indicating that some portion of the Democratic base has moved to the left, which is also indicated by the exit polls showing support for Medicare for All — the lack of an influx of new voters is still a problem for him, not just because older voters tend to favor Biden, but also because a key section of his sales pitch to be the nominee is that he could bring more voters into the process. This is, by and large, not occuring. Despite the massive network that Sanders has built — including for all intents and purposes subsuming the DSA into his campaign — the 2020 primary turn-out is largely holding steady with the 2016 numbers. Indeed, the only state before Super Tuesday with a turnout significantly above 2016 was South Carolina, where Sanders lost to Biden by a huge margin. This pattern persisted in some states on Super Tuesday, such as Virginia (where the turnout was almost double that of 2016), where higher turnout than 2016  meant that Sanders lost. The Sanders coalition isn’t turning out in the numbers needed to fully take control of the race at the present moment.

This is a greater concern for Sanders than it would be for any other candidate because one thing seems clear: if Bernie Sanders has not hit the number of delegates needed to obtain the nomination before the convention, then he will not receive the nomination. In other words, it seems to be crystal clear that the Democratic Party establishment will do whatever they can to stand in the way of Sanders winning the nomination. This is why the “moderate-palooza,” as one NBC reporter called it, happened on the Monday before Super Tuesday: because the establishment of the Democratic Party has united against Sanders. 

The spectre of superdelegates are haunting Sanders’ chances because assuming the current rules hold true, they can come in and tip the scales after the first ballot. Given that the superdelegates are almost exclusively made up of establishment figures, it is almost inconceivable that they will vote for Sanders if/when they become involved, even if he is leading in the popular vote or the delegate count. This increases the stakes of the primaries for Sanders and decreases them for everyone else. Sanders must win, outright, while Biden (and Warren) need only stay alive. This is not to say, of course, that Biden doesn’t want to win outright — it certainly would be a cleaner win that would help him in the general election — but it isn’t the life or death struggle that it is for Sanders.

This situation is, of course, not only undemocratic but anti-democratic. It is absurd that there are 771 delegates who are accountable to no voter and can artificially hand the election to a candidate. This is on top of an already undemocratic primary system that, from the spread out schedule alone, has already had a significant impact on the outcome of the election. One of the main narratives being discussed on mainstream news outlets during their Tuesday night coverage was Biden’s new “momentum” out of South Carolina. But this momentum was artificially constructed, if all the states had voted on the same day, then the “momentum” factor wouldn’t exist. By allowing candidates to pick up “momentum,” the Democratic Party has created a false consensus around an artificially constructed narrative; so, Biden looks better because he has “momentum,” and then does better than expected in Super Tuesday states as a result. All of this is undemocratic because it is not an accurate reflection of the actual balance of forces. The drawn-out nature of the campaign allowed the establishment to shore up their base and coalesce around one candidate. Additionally, the delegate allotment process is also deeply peculiar and, like the electoral college, allows for situations where candidates can win the popular vote but walk away with fewer delegates than their opponents. The system, for lack of a better word, is rigged. And in this election, it is rigged against Bernie Sanders.

The U.S. political system is designed so that the working class and the oppressed can only choose between two bourgeois options. Running independent candidates at the local and state level is very difficult and at the national level almost impossible. Political campaigns require huge amounts of money, which is why corporations and billionaires can buy candidates and elections.

Sanders is in the difficult position of being both the victim of the undemocratic nature of the primary process and also deeply complicit in allowing it to happen. That the Democratic Party is corrupt is no surprise, that the primary process is biased is no surprise, and that they would rig the election against Bernie Sanders specifically is no surprise. This is the same song the Democrats have been singing for years, only a different verse. Why, then, has Sanders spent so much time building up the Democratic Party? Why did he go on a Unity Tour with DNC chair Tom Perez in 2017? Why did he brag about working with “Joe” to get Democrats elected on the debate stage? Why has he said, over and over and over again, that he’ll support whoever the nominee is? Why, above all else, does he continue to support the Democratic Party?

Here we have to examine Sanders’ strategy — both in this election and in 2016 — and how it is doomed to fail by its very nature. His strategy is, in a nutshell, to reform the Democratic Party and push it to the left. This is a losing strategy that is being implemented by someone who is not the socialist reformer that he claims to be. Sanders is not the first candidate to try this strategy; Jesse Jackson and George McGovern are both candidates who tried to use the demand for reforms to push the Democratic party to the left and failed. This is because, inherently, the Democratic Party is a bourgeois institution, and as such, it is set up to protect capital and capitalists. It cannot be reformed because what it exists to do — not the form in which it does it — is the problem. It is not a party that has adopted this or that bad policy position; the very program of the party — what they are fighting for — is the problem, because they are fighting for the continuation and defense of capitalism. In this, Republicans and Democrats are united. 

While Sanders does call for some progressive reforms, he doesn’t pose an existential threat to capitalism. This is why, if he loses the nomination, he will without a doubt campaign for whoever beats him: because he doesn’t actually oppose capitalism. If he did — indeed, if he actually wanted to achieve the reforms that he’s proposing — then he wouldn’t be actively propping up a capitalist party; he would be calling for mass mobilization and working to build a class-independent party of the working class and the most oppressed. However, this is not Sanders’ politics. Furthermore, the Democratic Party continues to show that they won’t even take up the most moderate reforms until they are forced to by mobilizations. From the New Deal to Civil Rights to the Vietnam War, history shows this to be true. Capitalists will only give you what you want when they are scared of class struggle, not because the right politician gets elected. The Sanders strategy of internal reform is doomed to fail because it ignores the fundamental nature of the party — and also the State — and what it is designed to do. 

The anti-Sanders campaign from the Democratic Party establishment shows their fear of the social base behind Sanders. A multi-racial coalition of young people and workers who are fed up with living in poverty, in debt, without public health care, and with the millionaires in the United States owning everything, including elections. A section of Sanders’ supporters are also sick of capitalism, because of the impending environmental destruction and because the system has nothing to offer them. It is necessary to build a political force in the U.S. that is independent of the capitalist parties, truly socialist, and made up of workers, youth and oppressed. The Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders will never be that, so we need to fight to build our own party.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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