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Are Left-Populists Wrong About Political Campaigns?

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Over the next few days, I’m going to be writing about a number of interesting Democratic primary post-mortems. Not Freddie DeBoer’s. Not enough mangoes in the world for that, although I see Scott made a gigantic mango smoothy earlier with it. I started this yesterday. Today, I want to highlight Joshua Holland’s Rolling Stone piece, where he asks if the fundamental beliefs of left-populists like Thomas Frank that running a truly left candidate would overthrow the Democratic machine in a primary election are wrong:

The answer seemed simple: Give low- and middle-income folks — i.e., the majority of the country — an opportunity to vote in a way that would better serve their economic interests. This would bring “Reagan Democrats” and socially conservative blue-collar types back into the fold, giving them reason to stop bitterly clinging to their God and their guns.

This was also seen as an answer to the midterm drop-off effect — the tendency of key Democratic constituencies to only vote in presidential years — that’s long bedeviled the party and, in recent years, delivered unified Republican control of 30 statehouses and both chambers of Congress. After the 2014 midterms that Barack Obama called a “shellacking” for the left, Frank told Salon we were seeing Democrats demonstrate “a logic that’s very familiar here in Washington, D.C. You move to the center, you always move to the center. But it’s a logic that’s just going to lead to more and more disasters down the road.” He warned that “if they do enough of this triangulation, they’ll become a party that has become so similar to Republicans, then why bother with them?”

I’m a big fan of Frank, and I’ve always believed this story. People don’t give up their deeply held beliefs easily. In fact, they tend to construct elaborate defenses when those beliefs are threatened. But we just had a natural experiment with this theory in America: Bernie Sanders ran the campaign left-leaning Democrats have been dreaming of for years. He wasn’t a one-trick pony, as some characterized him; he talked about climate change and criminal justice reform. But he focused relentlessly — and accurately — on how the 1 percent had made out like bandits and left the rest of us sucking their exhaust fumes.

Sanders did better than anyone expected. He’s poised to end his campaign with the highest favorability ratings of any candidate this cycle. According to a recent survey, he’s the most popular senator on Capitol Hill. His policy provisions poll well. But Sanders lost. He ran the campaign we dreamed about but couldn’t make it through the Democratic primaries. He lost to a candidate whose own supporters acknowledge she has deep flaws. And it was closer to a curb-stomping than a squeaker — with only D.C.’s contest left to go, Clinton has won 57 percent of the popular vote, and races in 16 of the 20 most populous states. She never led by fewer than 7.5 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of national polls.

So what are the lessons of a credible leftist campaign failing to win the primary? I don’t think the lesson is that the populist left is completely wrong. I think there’s a lot of bitterness out there right now because Sanders supporters believed he legitimately could have won, but since I mostly did not see that as likely or even possible, I think that the campaign did much better than expected. That said, there are some lessons that could be learned for a future campaign, which I sure hope will happen, especially on the local and state level. Here’s a quick list:

1) No left-populist candidate can win the Democratic primary without African-American and Latino support. This is the biggest lesson and one that I found a lot of Bernie fans really defensive about. But it’s just the reality. No support in the black community, especially in the early states, no victory. It’s that simple. Any future candidate has to be prepared to deal with that.

2) Campaigns can’t start in 2015. Hillary Clinton has basically been campaigning since 2005 and has fully been laying groundwork for this run since 2013. Whatever the next leftist primary candidate looks like, that person has to start a long time before the year before the election be make the inroads necessary to beat an entrenched candidate. It’s not impossible under certain circumstances, such as Barack Obama, but then that takes us back to point 1, not to mention Obama’s generational political skills.

3) People have to understand that just because all their friends support Bernie that doesn’t mean that really everyone supports Bernie except for sellouts and fools. We all talk to like-minded friends and family. It’s very easy to get in a bubble. The Democratic Party is a complex beast of a lot of different constituencies. The winner has to win most of those, not just me and my friends.

4) A better candidate. Let’s face it–Bernie Sanders wasn’t a great candidate in a lot of ways. He struggled on a lot of issues, has no foreign policy interest, couldn’t talk outside of his talking points, was not good at intersectionality, got too obsessed with his own personal vendettas, etc. He was very good at many other things, don’t get me wrong. But he’s not in the upper echelon of excellent politicians of all time. Combining his strengths of straight talk and passion with someone more savvy could really pay off in the future.

5) Focus on the local and state level first. The worst part of the 2016 Democratic Primary was the intensive focus on personalities, how two politicians who have very similar positions on many issues are fundamentally different. Sanders’ “political revolution” was also pretty annoying because it assumed that the president could just change things and showed very little structural analysis. That’s a big problem. If the Thomas Frank model of running populist campaigns is going to work, it needs to start on the local and state level and take govenrment from the bottom up. Even in the comments here, with a bunch of really attentive and political people, commenters have admitted they’ve paid almost no attention to state or even Senate races so far. That’s a big problem and we really need to learn from this about the relative importance of various offices in change creation.

So it’s more complicated than Frank or others believe. But there’s one lesson the left should not learn: that elections aren’t worth it or that, God forbid, “let’s vote Jill Stein so we can throw the election to Donald Trump and SHOW THAT VILE DEBBIE WASSERMAN-SCHULTZ!!!! The real disaster would be to say “screw it, nothing can change.” That’s so obviously untrue as to be laughable, but too many believe it. As Scott has pointed out many times recently, the major difference between Hillary Clinton in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 is the times are drastically different. She and Bill were responding to growing conservatism in the 90s. They are responding to a progressive tide in 2016. For some, that’s a sign that they aren’t “authentic.” I don’t actually care what Hillary Clinton believes in her heart. I care what she will do in power. There is some crossover there, but it’s not the same thing. If she keeps getting major pressure from the left, she will move to the left. She already is. The answer to what the left needs to do is, mostly, more of the same, but maybe a little smarter and craftier in the electoral realm. As for the Fight for $15, people protesting debt, demanding free college education, higher wages, better health care, jobs, etc., outside of running candidates, the left is doing an awesome job. More is always better, but things are moving in the right direction. Keeping it up and putting even more pressure on politicians is how things get better.

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