“Bernie or Bust” Voters Have a Point

Bernie Sanders onstage speaking to supporters carrying signs with his name on them.
Bernie’s people. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Bernie or Bust”—the stance that the senator’s supporters will vote for Sanders or no one at all—has been widely regarded as aggressive, counterproductive, and tonally at odds with the senator’s actual message. It’s hard to know exactly how big the movement is; the contingent is certainly loud and obnoxious online, but it’s hard to gauge the extent to which that strategy has penetrated. A January Emerson poll showed that Sanders supporters are among the most likely to defect: Whereas no Buttigieg or Warren supporters said they wouldn’t vote for the Democratic nominee if their candidate didn’t win, 16 percent of Sanders supporters said they wouldn’t vote for anyone but Sanders and 31 percent said it would depend on the nominee (those numbers were 10 and 14 percent for Buttigieg and Warren). Of course, polls are imperfect instruments (cf. Joe Biden’s collapse after months leading in the polls). Speaking to New Hampshire Bernie supporters, my colleague Ruth Graham found that most were more than willing to line up behind whichever candidate, though one said he was sufficiently concerned about Iowa that he might not.

Still, the Bernie-or-Busters, small as they may be, have spun their position into an argument for why others should vote for Bernie Sanders too, regardless of the platform they prefer. As efforts in political persuasion go, this contingent puts forward an openly hostile argument. Sanders is the only electable candidate, they suggest, not just because of his policies, but because of the single-mindedness of his followers. The reason you should vote for Sanders is that we won’t vote for anyone else. You don’t want Trump to win again, do you?

Yes, it sounds like ugly hostage taking—not a brilliant persuasive strategy but a crude ego-boosting exercise for a group of leftists who can’t resist the impulse to lord some power over an electorate that doesn’t normally consider them relevant. But that’s exactly what makes it so normal, even understandable, in a depressing “we’re all human” sort of way. Because the truth is this: Every threat these Sanders stans are explicitly making is one the venerated Centrist Swing Voter makes implicitly—and isn’t judged for. The centrist never even has to articulate his threat. The media narrates it for him. “What does the swing voter want?” is the kind of question that rescues this brand of voter from owning or even admitting any moral consequences at all. The question is framed as sensible, and so is its subject. The swing voter—which, let’s be clear, is diminishing in this political landscape—is typically treated as the antithesis of a Bernie stan: as a rational and passionless subject (as if contemplating just not voting in an election were a morally neutral choice). That the swing voter is arguably worse than the Bernie or Bust crew—in that in lieu of just staying home and not voting at all, he might actually vote for the other guy—doesn’t even register. That’s how accustomed we all are to being held hostage to the centrist concerns. As for leftists, who are undeniably real? Well, the Democratic machine has never wondered what they thought; it’s simply taken them for granted. After all, who else are they going to vote for?

One of many disorienting factors in this election cycle is the fact that the left is more popular and more viable than it has been in a long, long time. They have not one but two exciting candidates, and both are offering policies closer to what leftists actually want than most presidential contenders in U.S. history have. This means, amusingly enough, that the centrist swing voter has been decentered in political conversation. Those who remain—and there are still quite a few—aren’t used to that. Neither are the political narratives media organizations are used to telling, which largely depend on lovingly parsing the swing voters’ desires without in any way blaming them for the compromises pleasing them means for the rest of the electorate. The very early strength of Buttigieg, and now Klobuchar as well, suggests that these are voters in search of a candidate, and media coverage can’t help but reflexively fixate on their importance. It’s simply the case that a demographic accustomed to being minutely tended to and having its feelings scrupulously monitored isn’t getting quite as aggressively courted this time, even if cable news networks can’t adjust. Whether 2020 heralds a political revolution or not, this at least is a genuine upset.

There’s another consideration here too: Because folks at the center tend to be wooed by multiple candidates, they’re used to having options, and they’re used to the experience of their vote determining who ends up with the nomination. This means that they usually like the candidate they vote for, in the primary and in the general. Not so for leftists, who get to merely tolerate the candidates they end up having to vote for in order to mitigate the damage from a worse result. Now, with Sanders’ New Hampshire victory confirming that he’s the one with the best shot at winning this thing, the reverse might obtain. For the first time, it might be voters in the middle, not leftists, who have to hold their noses and vote for candidates they don’t like who barely acknowledge them.

I suppose there’s a model of human nature somewhere that says a person who finally gets a taste of consideration from a society that’s shown him contempt will always behave decently and proportionally, remembering what it was like to be at the bottom. In practice, we know better: A little bit of power in the hands of people who have never had any is going to tempt at least some of them to use it badly, often in precisely the way it was used against them. Plenty of Bernie stans are failing that test right now.

But it’s clear, too, why some Sanders supporters still feel hard done by, even if their candidate is winning, and are exerting what leverage they have in angry response. Many of their concerns are legitimate! The more information we get about Iowa, the easier it is for suspicious supporters to raise their eyes at the data-handling disaster that deprived Sanders of anything like a clear victory narrative. Much of the media’s subsequent coverage of Sanders—particularly his victory in New Hampshire—has been no less baffling. Sanders is now undeniably the front-runner. That should have been “the story.” Instead, his win has repeatedly been narrated as a failure or setback or defeat. No wonder Sanders’ supporters find it suspect. It is.

Sanders stans aren’t the only ones losing all sense of proportion. If last week is anything to go by, TV anchors seem to be melting down over Sanders’ surge, what with Chris Mathews implicitly comparing the senator to Fidel Castro and saying a victory for the “reds” might have meant his own execution, and Chuck Todd approvingly sharing a quote from a conservative site calling a Jewish candidate’s supporters “digital brownshirts.” This last was so far beyond the pale that one fails to understand how Chuck Todd remains on the air without at the very least offering an apology.

Sanders’ most aggressive supporters have felt like they had to speak up against anti-Bernie because no one else would. Yes, that has made them strident, unpleasant, and off-putting. It may be a comfort to them that they aren’t the only ones noticing how Sanders is being narrated anymore. Even Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post is writing about the anti-Bernie phenomenon. And voters are noticing too. Yesterday, MSNBC aired footage of an interview with a very polite undecided voter who’d decided to vote for Sanders. When pressed as to why, she finally told them: She was sick and tired of how negatively MSNBC had been covering him.