The great Bernie bust
It is now all but certain that Joe Biden will be the Democratic candidate, writes Daniel Lazare.
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? The Bernie Sanders boom captivated the global left. Everywhere else, social democrats seemed to be on the rocks. Britain’s Labour Party was a shambles, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise was losing steam, while Syriza and Podemos were hardly more than memories of radical opportunities lost. Only in the United States did the story seem any different, thanks to Sanders’ long march through the Democratic Party.
But that was before the ‘Super Tuesday’ cataclysm on March 3 and then ‘mini-Tuesday’ a week later, when six states voted, including the all-important Michigan. After losing 10 of 14 states in the first, Sanders needed a sharp rebound in the second to remain viable. He did not get it. He came in 16 points behind Joe Biden in Michigan, 25 points behind in Missouri, six points behind in Idaho, and a whopping 66 behind in Mississippi. Only in North Dakota and Washington state did he eke out victories by 6.1 and 0.2 points respectively.
Sanders will still have a sizable bloc of delegates going into the Democratic national convention in July. But since he has promised to rally around whoever gets the nomination, he will have no choice but to pay homage to the odious Biden on bended knee.
This is certainly a dramatic turnabout. Hillary Clinton messed up so badly in 2016 that even the most sceptical Marxists assumed that the nomination was Sanders’ for the asking. But they proved to be wrong. What happened?
One possibility is that American exceptionalism turns out yet again to be nothing more than a myth and that any notion of the US left bucking international trends is a pipedream. Comparisons with Britain are striking. Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide leadership victory in September 2015 presaged Sanders’ dramatic breakthrough in the 2016 Michigan primary, while Corbyn’s disastrous performance last December paved the way for the latest debacle.
But in another sense the Bernie bust shows that the US is exceptional after all - in a purely negative sense, that is. Not only is the American two-party system exceptionally old and suffocating, but it is exceptionally entrenched. In 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republican Party to run as a Progressive, he was able to gain ballot access in all of the then 48 states. Today, the same feat would be impossible, thanks to sky-high registration requirements, designed to cripple upstart parties before they can even get off the ground.
Indeed, 1912 would be the last time that one of the two top vote-getters would be anyone other than a Republican or Democrat. (Roosevelt came in second behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson, while Republican William Howard Taft was third.) Since then, Americans have voted ‘Repocratic’ with depressing regularity. Since polls show overwhelming support for a third-party alternative, it is not because they want to, but because they effectively have no choice.
But the US system is not only restrictive, but exceptionally regulated. “Normally, democracies regard political parties as voluntary associations entitled to the usual rights of freedom of association,” the social democratic website, Jacobin.com, observed in 2016. “But US state laws dictate not only a ballot-qualified party’s nominating process, but also its leadership structure, leadership selection process and many of its internal rules ...”1 Rather than parties, as the rest of the world understands the term, the result is more akin to a couple of state-sponsored churches with intricate government-imposed rules concerning the selection of bishops and parish priests, weekly services, and so on.
It is a travesty of democracy every step of the way. Nonetheless, Sanders hoped to use a free and unbiased primary system to somehow leapfrog to a higher stage of development. He was wrong, not only because the party establishment turned against him at a crucial moment, but because primaries turn out to be shaped by moral assumptions that powerfully affect what voters say and do.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist blessed with occasional moments of insight into America’s unique political system, summed up the problem neatly in the wake of Super Tuesday. The primaries, he wrote, showed that:
Democrats are not just a party; they’re a community. In my years of covering politics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what happened in the 48 hours after South Carolina - millions of Democrats from all around the country, from many different demographics, turning as one and arriving at a common decision. It was like watching a flock of geese or a school of fish, seemingly leaderless, sensing some shift in conditions, sensing each other’s intuitions, and smoothly shifting direction en masse. A community is more than the sum of its parts. It is a shared sensibility and a pattern of response.2
All those geese and fish call to mind Edmund Burke’s famous description of the people as “thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak”, as they silently chew their cud. But Brooks is right: rather than rational and deliberative, political parties in America are indeed leaderless mobs, held together not by a common programme and ideology, but by a shared sensibility. In the case of the Democrats, that means devotion to the tradition of Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Luther King junior, even though they stood for very different things. But anyone who dares point out that FDR refused to support an anti-lynching bill or that King opposed LBJ’s war in Vietnam will be accused of failing to participate in the higher consciousness that the Democratic Party demands.
That is why the party leadership was able to turn the race around so neatly. The process began two days after Sanders’s impressive 47% win in the Nevada primary, when house majority whip Jim Clyburn intervened on Biden’s behalf. When CNN asked Clyburn what he was “hearing from the Democratic caucus in the house about having, potentially, Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, at the top of the ticket,” he replied:
I was in Texas about three weeks ago … I talked to the faith community down there, and they were very, very concerned about whether or not we’ll have somebody on the ticket that will cause down-ballot carnage. That’s our biggest problem among my members. We want to see somebody on the ticket that will allow us to expand our numbers, not having to run as some kind of a rearguard campaign, in order to keep from being tarnished with a label. So our candidates are really concerned about that.3
They were concerned, in other words, about seeing their careers go up in smoke, thanks to someone using an s-word that they regard as irrelevant, threatening and unnecessarily disruptive.
But it was Barack Obama’s phone call to Pete Buttigieg four days later that really did the trick. Despite Obama’s disastrous later years, Democrats remember his administration as a golden age, especially after Trump. Hence, his influence is overwhelming. After months of Yoda-like silence, therefore, all he had to do was make a single phone call to Buttigieg on March 1, telling him to withdraw in favour of Biden to trigger an avalanche. Suddenly, word was out that Sanders was getting ahead of himself and had to be reined in.
With that, David Brooks’ school of fish reversed course. As he says, the response was not deliberative or rational, but intuitive. Democrats felt that Sanders was heading in the wrong direction and that Biden would be the wiser course. So they acted on instinct - and radical-left hopes were dashed.
The debacle bears out American exceptionalism in another way as well: ie, by showing that the direction of American politics is now exceptionally disastrous. To be sure, the US is not facing national break-up the way the UK is. But it is hard to imagine a worse Democratic nominee to go up against Trump. The list of Biden’s Jerry Lewis-like pratfalls and missteps is too long to go into. Suffice it to say that he joined with the notorious southern racist, Jesse Helms, to oppose school bussing as a remedy for de facto segregation in the 1970s and then authored key legislation in the 1980s that ramped up the war on drugs and led to the mass incarceration of millions of poor people and members of racial minorities. He voted in favour of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, as vice-president, backed US intervention in Libya, Syria and Yemen - all of which have turned out to be catastrophic. Thanks to a motor mouth he can never quite control, he let the cat out of the bag in 2014 regarding US policy with regard to Syria and al Qa’eda: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria,” he told a Harvard audience:
The Turks … the Saudis, the emirates, etc - what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.4
The fact that Obama ordered Biden to apologise to the Saudis and others for his indiscretion confirms that the administration was not only unable to control their pro-al Qa’eda activities, but was determined to cover them up.5
All of which will provide Trump with more than enough ammunition in the fall. But Biden suffers from another problem as well: significant cognitive decline. The contrast with the smooth-talking politician of just a few years ago is startling. Words tumble out chaotically, non-sequiturs abound and ideas break off in mid-sentence. Here he is trying to explain how to make up for the effects of school segregation in a presidential debate in September:
…Make sure that we bring into the help the - the student, the, the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home. We need - we have one school psychologist for every 15 hundred kids in America today. It’s crazy … now, I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have to make sure that every single child does in fact have three, four and five-year-olds go to school - school, not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want - they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television, the - excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the-the-the-the phone, make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear four million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.6
There are dozens of examples of such garbled word salads. Trump will undoubtedly make full use of them, just as he will make full use of Biden’s disastrous misadventures in the Middle East and his role in the Burisma scandal in the Ukraine. This does not mean that he will win - after all, a lot can happen in the eight months prior to the November election. But, even if Biden prevails, he will be the American equivalent of a Konstantin Chernenko - the semi-comatose commissar who ran the Soviet Union for 13 months in the mid-1980s and helped drive it into the ground.
That will be the final expression of American exceptionalism - a brain-addled serial war criminal who is rushing the empire with exceptional speed to its demise.
. S Ackerman, ‘A blueprint for a new party’ Jacobin August 11 2016.↩︎
. D Brooks, ‘Biden’s rise gives the establishment one last chance’ The New York Times March 5 2020.↩︎
. The full exchange can be viewed at www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/02/28/rep-james-clyburn-democrats-concerned-down-ballot-carnage-sot-newday-vpx.cnn.↩︎
. The quote begins at 53:30 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM.↩︎
. M Landler, ‘Saudis are next on Biden’s Mideast apology list after Harvard remarks’ The New York Times October 6 2014.↩︎
. The full quote is available at www.youtube.com