Why Bernie Lost -- And What to Do About It

The first part is simple. Hillary Clinton got more votes.

3 million more popular votes, to be precise. This margin will not significantly change between now and the end of the primary season. Nor will her margin in pledged delegates, close to 300, awarded proportionally state-by-state. By the normal metrics of any primary contest, Bernie Sanders has lost.

Why? This, too, is not hard to answer. The more vexing and important question we will save for last: what should Sanders and his dedicated followers do in November and beyond.

But first, let's take stock of what Bernie Sanders has accomplished.

For openers, he transformed the political dialogue within the Democratic Party, pushing his agenda to the forefront of our larger discussion. The impetus was his unrelenting focus on two broad areas of national dysfunction -- the corrosive corruption of our campaign finance system, and the degree to which our politics abets, rather than ameliorates, the economic inequity and dislocation which is killing off our collective sense of opportunity and hope.

Others have decried the barely veiled bribery which buys not just access, but outcomes. But only Sanders has done this with the clarity and ferocity that the issue deserves. The damage is not simply that money buys power, but that hanging out with wealthy donors distorts an officeholder's sense of the world.

This, no doubt, accounts for the power of Sanders' denunciation of Hillary Clinton's speaking fees. But that is simply emblematic of his larger and inarguable point: that our political process is slanted toward plutocracy.

Sanders' attack on income inequality has been equally telling. One can debate his prescriptions: reviving Glass-Steagall; opposing the TPP; an agenda which requires a dramatic raise in taxation and in the size of government. But he has relocated the discussion within the Democratic Party on his own turf, becoming the engine of a shift which has the potential to last beyond his candidacy. It is far more likely, now, that the plight of those left behind will be at the forefront of the Democrats' agenda.

His impact goes further still. By casting himself as a "democratic socialist," he has spurred Americans to consider anew how they view the role of government. He has made voters more class conscious, dispelling the myth of equal opportunity in an inequitable age. He has challenged the party to return to its roots as an advocate for the middle class, labor and the poor.

He has separated the fear of globalization from xenophobia, denouncing trade deals while embracing immigration. He has rallied young people who want to rewrite the terms of the deal prior generations have handed them. He has won more states than most observers ever imagined he would, and he is going to the Democratic platform strongly positioned to call for change. And, remarkably, he has fought big money to a standstill by building a massive war chest from the modest donations of ordinary people inspired by his message.

But the very consistency of that message poses a conundrum -- while arousing deep passion and loyalty, he did not broaden his appeal to key constituencies within the Democratic Party.

In the end, he came up against a truism of electoral politics -- a following primarily composed of young people and white progressives, while substantial, does not in itself carry the party or the country. The difference between the Sanders and Obama challenges to Hillary Clinton is that Obama was able to take this base and add minorities which, demographically, have become even more critical to Democrats in the last eight years.

Passion is an important ingredient in political success. But a passionate voter still votes only once. Many Democratic voters decided that Clinton embodies the knowledge, experience and practical approach to making progress that they desire in a president. They may not turn out at rallies, but they get one vote too. It does not serve to condescend to them as docile, uninformed or lacking vision or convictions.


Passion is an important ingredient in political success. But a passionate voter still votes only once.

The danger here is that real differences between the candidates mutate, among disappointed voters, into bitterness which wrongly challenges the validity of the elections themselves. For the argument that the popular margin won by Clinton is owed to a rigged system does not withstand a considered analysis.

To start, the issues contested in these primaries were thoroughly aired. Granted, Debbie Wasserman Schultz put her thumb on the scales more than once, particularly with respect to debates. But, in the end, no observant voter could be left in doubt about what the candidates had to say.

Nor is it sufficient to complain that too many Southern primaries came too soon. The calendar preexisted Bernie Sanders -- far from a contrivance designed to derail his candidacy, the schedule has been like this for years. Granted that many of the Super Tuesday states are GOP bastions -- though it is well to remember that Florida and North Carolina are purple, and that Georgia may go there soon enough. But the same day Clinton won those states she also won Massachusetts, home of Elizabeth Warren.

Before one wishes for a different schedule, consider that the first two states helped jumpstart the Sanders campaign. Compared to the country as a whole, Iowa and New Hampshire have a disproportionately white populace, more fertile ground for Sanders. And the prevalence of caucuses early on, often a boon to Sanders, rewarded intensity over breadth of support, while making participation difficult for overworked and financially struggling people -- frequently minorities -who cannot afford the time.

Beyond this, the core of Clinton supporters in the South -- African Americans -- are part of a nationwide Democratic constituency critical to victory in November. So, too, are Latinos -- another group generally supportive of Hillary Clinton. No progressive, I am sure -- least of all Bernie Sanders -- would denigrate their role within the party.

Nor, whatever the peculiarity of voting in places like New York, can it be fairly said that Clinton's victories emanated from a voting process which, though conducted state-by-state, was pervasively flawed -- let alone rigged across the country by malign forces in every state. There is no persuasive evidence that her 3 million vote margin in the popular vote does not, overall, reflect the preferences of voters. This preference, not arcane rules, accounts for her decisive edge in pledged delegates who, after all, are awarded proportionally -- if anything, this formula limited the impact of Clinton's success in garnering votes.

In explaining his shortfall, Sanders states that poor people vote in lesser numbers. But that fact, to the extent it is one, cannot be blamed on Hillary Clinton. And for whatever reason Clinton fared well in states with the largest income inequality.

Yet another problem for Sanders among Democrats was his relationship to the party -- specifically, that he has never been a member.

Certainly, that should not -- and did not -- preclude him from seeking the party's nomination. But political parties do not exist simply to conduct plebiscites. Their underlying purpose is to promote a sustained approach to governance which requires a cadre of people to keep the party machinery running. Most often, these are not cynical self-promoters, but committed folks who believe that their party 's general philosophy is best for society. Superdelegates are people, too.

Little wonder, then, that as a lifetime Democrat Clinton draws more support from loyal Democrats than Sanders. But the most committed Democrats care about winning -- had Sanders won more votes than Clinton, he would have garnered more superdelegates. And if the party simply eliminated all superdelegates, as many Sanders supporters would prefer, Clinton would have the clear majority of popular votes and pledged delegates.

Ironically, Sanders' recent assertion that Clinton will not garner the majority of all delegates before the convention rests on the existence of superdelegates, whose numbers raise the mathematic ceiling for clinching the nomination. This is where his logic turns on itself -- one cannot complain about the existence of superdelegates, and then use their existence to claim that the convention will be contested. Indeed, if the party awarded superdelegates proportionally according to the state-by-state results, which Sanders seems to advocate, Clinton would maintain a comfortable majority of delegates.

Thus under any formulation, Clinton will have the clear majority of electoral votes and pledged delegates -- not to mention superdelegates. The only conceivable way she could lose is for superdelegates to ignore the electoral results, and move en masse to Bernie Sanders. It would hard to characterize that as either logical, or consistent with any version of democracy one can conjure. And it directly contradicts Sanders' call for allocating superdelegates according to the popular vote in each state.

Finally, some complain that all Democratic primaries should be open to all voters or, at least, to unaffiliated voters not connected to the party. Some primaries are. But the fact that all are not has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders, and everything to do with maintaining a philosophically coherent party -- including one that is not hijacked by candidates and voters who care nothing for its precepts.

Again, there is history here. A good way to render this more comprehensible is to invoke the name George Wallace, who sought the Democratic nomination in three different years -- 1964, 1972, and 1976 -- by attracting votes from racists of every political stripe, many of whom had no connection to the party. Wallace exemplifies why these rules exist in some Democratic primaries. Whether one agrees with them or not, they have a valid historic purpose, one which preceded this year's contest by decades.

But Sanders' defeat derives from more than demographics or electoral mechanics. Here, another paradox: the same proposals which created such excitement among some voters gave rise, among others, to doubts about their practicability or wisdom.

First, practicability. With unavoidable candor, Sanders acknowledges that his agenda cannot be enacted as matters stand. The only hope, therefore, is a "political revolution" which utterly transforms our body politic.

One need not be a cowardly centrist to believe this a daunting longshot. For deplore it as we may, by its very structure under the Constitution -- embedded in the separation of powers -- our governmental institutions resist tectonic change. From FDR to LBJ to Barack Obama, change has come incrementally, not from transformational rhetoric alone, but from pragmatism and patience. And in recent times our political process has become far more vicious and resistant - not only polarized, but Darwinian.

The basic facts are captured by Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic. Even should the Democrats recapture a Senate majority in 2016, they won't elect enough senators to break a Republican filibuster. And there is simply no chance of flipping a sufficient number of the one-sided and gerrymandered districts to retake the House. In short, a President Sanders would face the same miserable situation -- a government hopelessly paralyzed by hostile parties -- that Obama faced after the 2010 elections.

And, as with Obama, the Republicans would obstruct him without cease. Ornstein describes the grim terrain:

Going over the heads of Congress has long been a staple of frustrated presidents, and it has almost never worked... And these days, with most congressional districts resembling homogenous echo chambers - national public opinion has limited bearing on congressional leaders. Talk radio, cable news, social media and blogs mean more. And none of these outlets would be swayed or intimidated to create some huge populist uprising that would force Congress to bring up, much less pass, a sweeping populist agenda.The more Sanders pushed, the more there would be a sharp and vicious counter-reaction which would further tribalize the country.

Here, again, Obama holds a lesson. The fight for the Affordable Care Act nearly hollowed out his presidency. Imagine, then, Sanders vainly trying to pass single-payer healthcare -- a proven non-starter in a polarized and divided government -- exhausting his political capital while destroying his effectiveness as president.

Prominent progressives have expressed these very concerns. Tom Hayden, a committed democratic activist since the 1960s, described in The Nation the agonizing reappraisal which caused him to switch from Sanders to Clinton. To Ornstein's list he adds this -- that the Republican attack machine, which left Sanders alone as long as he was damaging Clinton, was simply waiting to launch the same merciless assault that Clinton has endured for years, redefining him in highly negative terms for general election voters. This, I know for a fact, is true.

Sam Brown, an esteemed activist since the era of civil rights and Vietnam, underscores all this with a hardheaded look at the electoral math. The reality is this: the turnout for Sanders, well below that for Clinton, does not presage the political tidal wave required to swamp reality as we know it.

Countering these forces to enact the Sanders agenda would seem to require not only entirely different conditions, but a different system -- not to mention sheer political genius on a level unprecedented in any American president. Here, again, Sanders did not persuade enough voters that he could summon such a miracle.

To say that Sanders is a voice in the wilderness is not quite right -- he was an effective and innovative mayor of Burlington, and he has used the amendment process in Congress to some effect. But his reputation as a loner and political purist, reflected in his limited legislative achievements, ran counter to the hope that he could be a uniquely transformational president in such fractious times.

After a quarter century of rising nastiness and paralysis, these concerns were not lost on Democratic voters. Whether one agrees or disagrees, they can hardly be blamed for not believing that the revolution Bernie Sanders says is necessary could, in fact, happen. Nor can they be faulted for believing that Hillary Clinton can more likely stave off the disaster of a President Trump, and then move the country as far toward progressivism as anyone can -- and away from the nativism, negativism and nihilism of the GOP.

As to substance, there was genuine doubt about the economic suppositions on which the Sanders agenda rests. That these fears were widely shared among the Democratic electorate is another reason Sanders fell short.

For many, the agenda itself is a stirring departure from the past. Breaking up the big banks. Free College. Health care for everyone, including undocumented immigrants. Mandating employers to provide new parents with three months family leave. These proposals, and others, address a deep and unmet longing for a fair and inclusive society.

But, for others of good faith, the prospective cost is sobering. The price tag on health care alone -- $1.4 trillion, more than the 1 trillion we pay out in Social Security checks every year -- left many wondering about both theory and practice. The argument that the plan can offset this with 1 trillion dollars in savings is, according to several experts, questionable without shortcutting medical procedures and services, as well as expenditures on new technology. God may not be in the details, but better health care is.

Overall, a number of analysts -- including left-of-center economists not affiliated with Clinton -- believed that the Sanders agenda, if ever enacted, would raise the size of the federal government and its spending by 40 percent. Aside from uncertainty about the economic impact of such a massive shift it is, politically, impossible.

Nor are its underlying premises free from doubt. Among the bases for the Sanders agenda is economic growth of 5.3 percent. When Jeb Bush offered a plan assuming 4 percent growth, he was widely ridiculed on the left. While gentler about Sanders, progressive economists are no less dubious.

Asked about the Sanders projections, Dean Baker, who writes frequently for HuffPost, opined that getting much over 2 percent is hard to imagine. Similarly another regular, Jared Bernstein, described the assumptions behind the 5.3 percent figure as "wishful thinking." To a considerable extent, this same unease permeated the primary electorate.


Faced with Donald Trump there is little reason for lasting antagonism between people of goodwill who, in general, share much more philosophically than not.

Other proposals added to this disquiet. Take free college. Among Democrats, there is wide agreement that college should be free -- or, at least, very low in cost -- for those who lack the resources to pay their own way. This would have the salutary effect of creating opportunity for those who need it, while enriching our society with their talents.

But, many asked, why spend our tax dollars on kids whose family can afford their education? Why not spend the money on infrastructure, job retraining, relocation of displaced workers, or our fraying social safety net? These are valid questions. Many concluded that we need to attack specific problems with maximum resources, helping the people who need our help, rather than transforming higher education for those who don't.

My point is this. Those who supported Clinton, and those who voted for Sanders, had valid reasons for doing so. Someone had to lose. But faced with Donald Trump there is little reason for lasting antagonism between people of goodwill who, in general, share much more philosophically than not.

So the question now is what Sanders and his most fervent supporters will do. And, as of now, there is reason to believe that many will refuse to support Clinton over Trump.

The evidence in cyberspace abounds, including on this website. I'm not impervious to reader comments, and I'm grateful for any statement of appreciation or goodwill. But I have noted that in the rare instances I've expressed some skepticism about any aspect of the Sanders campaign, angry readers surface to accuse me of being a shill for Hillary or, horror of horrors, a Republican.

No complaints -- and a modest price to pay for the privilege of writing for others. But this very passion reverberates in article after article, comment after comment, by those who say that they will never vote for Hillary Clinton -- a sentiment reflected in an estimate that 25 percent of Sanders voters are disinclined to support Clinton in November.

For some, it is Iraq; for others, speaking fees; for still others, the varied explanations for the email controversy. Many question Clinton's true feelings about free trade agreements. For a segment of Sanders supporters, it is all the above. A subsection goes even further -- that given Clinton's perceived closeness to Wall Street, there is no difference between her and the Republicans.

I get this as a metaphor for the larger point that both parties are too enmeshed with the financial sector. It is particularly prevalent among those, including younger voters, who have no affiliation with the Democratic Party. But as a statement of fact it contravenes reality. The differences are too numerous, and far too critical, to ignore.

Here are a few. The Court. The environment. Reasonable regulation of Wall Street. Economic justice. Reproductive rights. Equal rights for minorities, women and gays. A sane and effective program to counter terrorism, including nuclear terrorism. Job retraining. Affordable college. Improving Obamacare. Preserving Medicare and Social Security. Combating the fallout of globalization. And on and on.

And yet one hears repeatedly the Susan Sarandon school of political analysis -- if Sanders voters abandon Clinton, and Trump wins, the revolution will come that much quicker.

How? She doesn't know. In what form? She doesn't say. At what cost? She has no idea.

The notion that Donald Trump would provoke just the kind of revolution Susan Sarandon wants is, in candor, hallucinatory. Far more likely Trump would drive us deeper into division, distrust and despair, a downward spiral from which there will be no common idea of how to escape. I'm reminded of one of the more chilling chapters from the Vietnam War -- when an American officer, having ordered his troops to decimate a hamlet and everyone in it, explained that "sometimes you have to destroy a village in order to save it."

No thanks. We should save the village by making it better for all who live there.

Here, a word about third parties as a medium of self-expression. Certainly, one can vote any way one likes. But all that voting for Ralph Nader helped buy us was eight years of Republican rule. Can anyone look back at those years and say that President Gore would have made no difference? Only Ralph Nader, which captures the problem nicely. This is not the year for progressives to walk away -- any more than 1968, when the disenchanted followers of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy helped elect their polar opposite, Richard Nixon.

Instead, the only realistic way for Bernie's legions to save the village is by continuing what they started. Keeping engaged with the Democratic Party -- which, however imperfect, is the only realistic vehicle for positive change. Fighting for a platform which embraces progressive goals. Supporting candidates who reflect their values. Pressing for changes in the nomination process. Making themselves ever more important within, and to, the party. Holding it to its promises. Combating Super PACs and strengthening the role of small donors. Accepting that, in politics, one never gets everything one wants. And never forfeiting their purchase on power in exchange for impotent anger.

As for Bernie Sanders himself, I believe that he will act on the truth he stated so clearly -- that Hillary Clinton is infinitely preferable to Donald Trump. And so should those who look to him for leadership. Not simply because it's true, but because it matters to the future of our village.