What Went Wrong for Bernie Sanders?
The next democratic socialist candidate will need to confront, overcome - and embrace - the power of cable television and prestige mass media.
Not long after Bernie Sanders ended his second and final bid for president, there were a variety of post-mortems on his campaign. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and mass marches against police brutality, these haven’t dominated any kind of news cycle, and rightfully so. We have much more to worry about. But as Joe Biden slouches toward the American presidency—at this rate, he is very likely to defeat Donald Trump with minimal effort—it’s worth considering why a democratic socialist who raised more money from small dollars than any candidate in history still couldn’t claim the Democratic nomination.
There are obvious reasons. Older votes largely preferred Biden and these are the people who show up to the polls in far larger numbers than millennials and generation Z. Older African-American voters in the South never warmed to Sanders; neither did whites over the age of 65. Together, this coalition was unbeatable, and Biden’s primary victory was much more commanding than Hillary Clinton’s four years ago. He had no trouble defeating Sanders in states like Michigan that had been 2016 bright spots. Biden easily won other states, like Massachusetts, where he hardly bothered to campaign at all. For many Democrats, the primary concern was defeating Trump, and the former vice president always had the inside track on the electability argument. Sanders failed to make a convincing electability case and could never bring himself to launch a sustained assault on Biden. Ultimately, it was Biden’s brand of safe, center-left liberalism that triumphed, though the platform itself was deceptively progressive.
First, let’s understand that Sanders will be remembered as the most influential losing presidential candidate in modern American history. His campaign platform, once radical, has reached the political mainstream, with victorious congressional campaigns championing Medicare for All and individual states taking up his battle cry to raise the minimum wage. The Democratic Socialists of America now boast more than 60,000 members, largely thanks to Sanders’ first campaign, and they have emerged as an electoral force in multiple states, including New York. If his dream of a multiracial coalition built around class concerns seems, suddenly, less in vogue in certain elite liberal circles, it’s inarguable that the Democratic Party today is more of an economically populist party than it’s been in decades. It should be noted that today’s moderate Democrats, though opposed to single-payer healthcare, now embrace a public option that was regarded as too extreme to be included in the Affordable Care Act a decade ago. Sanders has shifted the paradigm on healthcare entirely.
Sanders, though, didn’t win, and that was the 2020 goal—not to achieve a moral victory. What about the media? Many Sanders supporters have understandably pointed to the hostility of mainstream media, especially cable TV and the major newspapers, as a way to explain his defeat. The media alone cannot be blamed. Still, it’s reasonable to examine what kind of hurdles a democratic socialist had to overcome and why they proved quite durable. MSNBC has been a longstanding obstacle, relying on anti-Sanders talking heads and shutting out those who want to promote a democratic socialist platform. CNN isn’t much better. And the New York Times editorial board resented Sanders so much they couldn’t bring themselves to name him a top four candidate for their primary endorsement, despite his mass appeal among the sort of young people the Times will need to eventually keep their news-gathering operation afloat.
For leftists, it’s easy to dismiss the media as a corporate monolith that will always crush their hopes and dreams. It’s not in the class interest of media moguls to give democratic socialism a reasonable shake. Journalists, employed by these conglomerates, will never fairly report on Sanders or his successors, so why bother with them at all? Build alternative media. Go directly to the people through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Leftists, the thinking goes, will always be doomed if they attempt to engage, in any seriousness, with traditional media.
None of this is wrong, necessarily, but none of it accounts for the fact that future leftist presidential campaigns will need to reckon with a traditional media apparatus that isn’t going anywhere. Noam Chomsky is right—the dominant mass media organizations are profit-driven colossi that, too often, safeguard the interests of the rich and powerful. Capitalism is their article of faith. That doesn’t mean, however, the left can’t have a strategy for confronting this reality and mitigating hostile coverage.
As both a working journalist and someone who has run for office, I have seen how media coverage functions from each side. I’ve had campaign operatives try to spin me and tried to spin reporters myself. If the left is to win the future and back a candidate who seizes the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency, it will mean practicing an inside-outside strategy to traditional media with the same sort of vigor it already channels toward field organizing.
Mastering Chomsky, while important, will not win you an election in the 2020’s. Here’s the cold truth: most journalists and even their bosses aren’t mere automatons for oligarchs. They are largely culturally left people on the hunt for sexy angles to drive pageviews and ratings. They are human beings who react best when engaged with—courted, worked over, and even flattered.
The next leftist presidential contender—the one who can accumulate the profound leverage of a Bernie Sanders, with a fundraising juggernaut and a mass following—will need to play the access journalism game. Access journalism, despite its profound flaws, is how most political coverage in America effectively functions. Beat reporters for large news organizations, TV and print and digital alike, form relationships with campaigns to ferret out micro-scoops, promote a campaign’s policy, and launder gossip. It’s a dubious model that is decades-old but found new relevance with the rise of Politico. Not coincidentally, many of Politico’s original journalists now work at the New York Times, covering the 2020 campaign and the White House.
Cable TV chieftains, reviled on the left, are human beings with egos. They, too, crave access. By the time Sanders was running for president again, he was no longer a long-shot insurgent, no matter how much he identified with the role. He was someone with the clout to get on the phone with editors and cable TV news executives whenever he wanted to. He was someone who could repeatedly go out to lunch with MSNBC’s Phil Griffin or CNN’s Jeff Zucker. None of this fits into the left’s conception of how politics is done and it should not be anyone’s ideal, but it’s also how the world of corporate media effectively functions. Had Sanders, from the moment he lost the 2016 election, invested years in the backchanneling and relationship-building that is so instinctually anathema to him, he could have better positioned his campaign to weather negative coverage or an outright blackout when it inevitably came.
The same is true for his staff and those aforementioned beat reporters. The best political operatives understand relationship maintenance is central to their job function. They are in constant contact with national political reporters, pitching favorable stories and snuffing out bad ones and hustling opposition research and gossiping whenever possible. Many journalists are not immune to these charms. The Sanders campaign knew 2020 was coming and should have spent years quietly and aggressively cultivating ties with the national media. It was a terrible strategic error not to.
Lis Smith, Pete Buttgieg’s senior advisor, is another bête noire of the left. Buttigeg was smarmy centrism personified and morphed into a vociferous Medicare for All critic, which may well have been Smith’s doing. Before working for Buttigieg, she served as a campaign spokesperson for the sinister, triangulating governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, and also took big bucks to spin for a coalition of State Senate Democrats who helped keep Republicans in the majority.
Smith also does her job better than just about anyone in her field. Buttigieg was a political nobody in January 2019, the mayor of a college town few regular people had thought about in any serious way since Rudy dropped in 1993. He was one more interchangeable centrist in a sea of plodding Bennets and Bullocks. But Smith, largely through her deep relationships with just about every reporter on the national beat, including me—I’ve known her since 2013—helped elevate Buttigieg into a top presidential contender, positioning him to ride a wave of earned media to the front of the pack in Iowa.
Smith is many things, but she is a master of the dark arts of access journalism, and socialists very badly need to get their own version of Smith if they want to crush the establishment in the future and win. When Smith calls or texts, journalists listen and adjust accordingly. Journalists are generally less likely to write a story overly detrimental to a campaign if they’ve formed a deep relationship with that campaign and the people who work for it. For the sake of good journalism, access journalism should be abandoned. But it won’t be, and the left needs to know that now.
Approaching the media with a strategy won’t compromise the vision of democratic socialism. Bernie Sanders can hire a staff that actively courts the press while rallying around universal healthcare and dismantling the military-industrial complex. There is no contradiction here. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as an alternative model, an extremely charismatic and telegenic politician who has stayed true to her leftist core and won flattering coverage from traditional media. These days, your average MSNBC viewer has a more favorable opinion of Ocasio-Cortez than Sanders. Your average MSNBC viewer is also probably voting in a Democratic primary.
No amount of venal access-granting and charm offense will win sensible coverage all the time. Skewed or outright unfair coverage, though, can be mitigated. It can be overcome. If leftists resign themselves to a Chomskian critique of mass media, they will never beat mass media. And resignation is the last thing the left needs right now. The future, with or without Bernie Sanders, is there to be won.