Editor’s note: This essay below about the 2020 Democratic primary just came out in the new print edition of Jacobin magazine, where I am an editor at large. The piece draws on my work Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter. In solidarity with the ongoing work of this newsletter, Jacobin is providing this special coupon exclusively for TMI subscribers to get a discount on an online and/or print subscription to the magazine. Click here to get the discount. I’m a huge fan of the magazine and hope you’ll consider subscribing. - Sirota
At this point, the autopsy process has almost run its course — most of the postmortems about the 2020 Democratic primary have been written, and the sniping, mocking, and football-spiking is dying down on social media. If there is any lasting political lesson from the yearlong race, it is probably a simple and boring one: former vice presidents are tough candidates to defeat in nominating contests.
Still, the primary does leave open a question — one that has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with honesty.
Can elections be won by telling Americans the truth about what we must do to survive the crises threatening our survival?
The contrast between Senator Bernie Sanders, for whom I was a senior adviser and speechwriter, and former vice president Joe Biden was muted by the two candidates’ personal affinity for each other. While their disputes on specific issues occasionally took center stage, they were most often in the background (and they were further muddled by Biden lying about the basic facts of his own conservative record).
And yet there was a huge difference in visions that did define the race.
Sanders told America that if he won the White House, it would not be the end of the battle — it would be the beginning of a protracted war to defeat the elite and transform US society. He leveled with the country by acknowledging that taxes would have to go up and systems would have to be rebuilt or built from scratch. But he went further than merely challenging our conception of policy — he asked America to think beyond its psychological affinity for the path of least resistance. He told us that there is no easy path to attaining the kinds of policies that are necessary to save millions of lives as well as our democracy.
“This struggle is not just about defeating Donald Trump — this struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country,” he said in the speech launching his campaign. “I’m talking about Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, and a corrupt campaign finance system that enables billionaires to buy elections. Brothers and sisters: we have an enormous amount of work in front of us.”
Biden told America the opposite story. Evoking Warren G. Harding’s famed “return to normalcy” theme, he insisted that there is an easy path. The former vice president essentially argued that Donald Trump is the singular problem in the United States, and that once Trump is defeated, the battle is over — we can restore stability and go back to the kind of incrementalism that has defined Democratic presidencies for more than forty years.
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said at the beginning of his primary campaign, and a year later, he capped off that primary run by telling NBC News that “Americans aren’t looking for revolution.”
In the interim, Biden’s campaign spent months telling voters that we can solve climate change with a “middle ground” policy, we can solve the health care crisis with an incremental public option and we can solve economic inequality even if we make sure that “nothing would fundamentally change” for billionaires.
If the Sanders-Biden battle was perceived as a choice between Sanders’s daunting promise of an exhausting revolutionary struggle and Biden’s promise of a glide path back to normal, then it’s no mystery why Biden ultimately prevailed. Easy street was an understandably alluring vision for an electorate already tired out by Trump’s never-ending conflicts and controversies.
In reality, though, this was not a choice between two possibilities — it was a choice between honesty and fantasy, and Democratic voters picked the latter.
That’s a problem, because Sanders was giving voice to truths that we cannot keep avoiding, omitting, or rejecting at the ballot box if we hope to survive the disasters engulfing our society.
The fossil fuel industry isn’t going to voluntarily stop exacerbating the climate crisis. The health care industry isn’t going to voluntarily stop profiting off sickness. The private prison industry and the police are not going to voluntarily stop fortifying an inhumane and racist criminal justice system. Billionaires and corporations are not going to voluntarily stop using an army of lobbyists to rig the tax system for the wealthy, and they are not going to voluntarily stop exploiting a system of legalized bribery to buy our elections.
Fixing our country and our world will require transformational policies — or, as Sanders calls it, a “political revolution.” And yes — enacting those policies will require exactly the kind of struggle that Sanders envisioned and earnestly acknowledged during the Democratic primary. Those crises will not just go away or get better by replacing Trump with a Democratic president who prioritizes comity, decorum, and incrementalism over struggle, conflict, and radical change.
But can candidates win office while admitting that?
In every contested primary, progressives will inevitably face Joe Bidens — corporate-backed moderates who reassure us that there is no need for a slog, who tell us a fantastical and inspiring tale about how we can fix the country through half measures, bipartisanship, and polite requests for national unity.
In the face of that appealing sales pitch, can progressive candidates up and down the ballot win power while leveling with voters about how hard it will be to actually save our country and the planet?
On that score, the results of the 2020 Democratic primary were not a hopeful sign. However, reality may finally be overwhelming the power of fantasy.
Since Biden became the presumptive nominee, more than 167,000 Americans have died in a lethal pandemic, and millions have lost their existing health care coverage — all as the economy has continued to enrich billionaires. At the same time, an explosion of police violence and mass protest has spotlighted the bigotry and inequality tearing apart the social fabric of communities across the country. Meanwhile, the climate crisis helped create a 100 degree day in the Arctic Circle.
In light of these emergencies, politicians face an altered political topography. They risk looking tone-deaf if they try to pretend that the panacea is some easy half measure or singular electoral victory. The converse is also true — candidates may end up seeming more authentic and electable by fessing up to impending cataclysms and echoing the call for the kind of struggle that will be necessary to rescue ourselves.
In short, events occurring outside of the political arena in the terrestrial world — in the streets, hospitals, schools, and communities we live in — are intervening to change elections in a way that could make honesty a winning strategy.
If that shift continues, it will be unfolding at too late a moment to put Sanders in the White House — but if we are lucky, it will happen in time to save the world.
This newsletter relies on readers pitching in to support it. If you like what you just read and want to help expand this kind of journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber by clicking this link.