You Still Can’t Beat City Hall

Sanders speaking in his live-streamed dropout announcement
Sanders announcing his campaign’s suspension.
Screenshot via berniesanders.com

Bernie Sanders acknowledged reality on Wednesday and announced that he will no longer be actively campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. While many Sanders supporters were taken aback by the news, the writing has been on the wall for their candidate since Joe Biden’s sudden establishment-aided surge coincided with a pandemic that precluded the possibility of fairly contesting the rest of the primaries on the schedule or even of holding televised debates between candidates standing in the same room.

From the perspective of the Democratic left, there are many things about this event to rue. The website on which Sanders streamed his announcement happened to highlight one that should make other voters engage in self-examination as well—namely, the tagline highlighted above: “Paid for by Bernie 2020 (not the billionaires).”

The magnitude of Sanders’ accomplishment as a politician over the last five years—he went from being a fringe radical who polled in the single digits to the second most powerful person in the Democratic Party—is incredible; that he did it without engaging at all with the corporate/high-earner fundraising apparatus that 99.99 percent of all other candidates of both parties make peace with is, literally, a singular achievement in history. (Even Elizabeth Warren got help from a rich supporter’s super PAC.) Sanders’ campaign was, truly, funded by regular people: As one oft-cited analysis found, the professions found most disproportionately often among his donors included “bartender,” “vet assistant,” “butcher,” and “fast food worker.” (One of Pete Buttigieg’s was “funeral director.”) One of the groups whose members contributed the most to him in total was the U.S. Postal Service. Even as Biden passed him in 2020, he continued to be the preferred candidate of lower-income voters.

But it wasn’t enough, and it’s not a coincidence that the candidate who defeated him told donors at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel last June that “nothing would fundamentally change” about their positions in society if he were elected, or that the winner held his first campaign fundraiser with a Comcast executive whose job duties include lobbying against laws that would make it easier for Comcast employees to organize into a union. Over and over, voters heard from business leaders—even the ones who typically support Democrats—that Sanders’ plans would, e.g., “bankrupt the health-care system” and “be a disaster for our country” and that they would rather vote for Trump than the senator from Vermont. The message was underlined by similar and in some cases even more alarmist financial-community response to the candidacy of Sanders’ significantly less socialist rival Elizabeth Warren.

For a while—as the traditional donor class wavered among its doubts about Biden’s age and energy, its tentative interest in Pete Buttigieg’s Potemkin youth movement, and its fantasies that Michael Bloomberg might prevail through sheer technocratic will and spending power—Sanders even seized control of something like the traditional front-runner’s role: grabbing key victories in the early states, building a delegate lead, accumulating what the campaign press had to regard as momentum and credibility. But he was only winning with a plurality, and as the other options fell away, majorities began forming around Biden.

The result was Sanders losing repeatedly in primaries in which a crucial subset of voters who liked his proposals chose Biden because of his presumably superior electability. Now, if Biden goes on to beat Trump, the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party—and its views on taxation, social welfare spending, antitrust law, lobbying restrictions, securities regulation, and the like—will be well represented in the governing administration. In four or more years, Sanders’ successors—the AOCs and Marie Newmans and, depending on how things go, perhaps the Elizabeth Warrens again—might ride the significant momentum he has created to do things differently. But for now, money still talks.