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Bernie Sanders Dropped Out Because His Campaign Believed Its Own BS

The Sanders campaign stayed in its bubble and held on to its theory of the race even when all of the real-world evidence was against it.
April 8, 2020
Bernie Sanders Dropped Out Because His Campaign Believed Its Own BS
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photo: GettyImages)

Bernie Sanders is finally ending his presidential campaign today.

This is not surprising. For political strategists-cum-pundits (like myself) who were disastrously incorrect in our 2016 general election projections, there were a lot of lessons to be learned about how we could be so certain and yet so wrong. I will write you a dissertation on it someday.

But one of the main takeaways was: Don’t believe your own bullshit.

Bernie Sanders believed his own bullshit. And today a campaign that he and his supporters were so certain was going to end in the White House and upend the political power structures has ended in a defeat much more thorough and resounding than the one that was delivered to his movement by Hillary Clinton the last time around.

Here’s how it happened.

In 2016 those of us in the “establishment” convinced ourselves that Donald Trump couldn’t win because: (1) Demographics were destiny after all (this was BS); (2) The Republicans had already reached a high-water mark with white voters (also BS); (3) General election polls are stable and reliable (true only for the national ones); and (4) Seriously—a mook like that guy can’t possibly get elected president in a country like ours. Etc., etc., etc.

We had convinced ourselves that a BS narrative was unimpeachable, received wisdom from on high. Most of the anti-Trump folks on the right and left (and frankly many of the pro-Trump folks) I spoke to concurred. So we spent our days on Twitter and cable and podcasts sniffing our own farts and didn’t spend nearly enough time wargaming the counterfactual: What if we are wrong? And if we are wrong, what strategies could we employ to guard against a losing result?

And now we have President Donald Trump.

Four years later, Bernie Sanders and his top supporters suffered from the same blindness. They had a BS narrative of their own: (1) There will be a massive turnout surge from disaffected Sanders voters (BS); (2) The Democratic party’s progressive Twitter wing had upended the establishment over the past four years (BS . . . and kinda crazy BS, at that); (3) Look at the crowd sizes! (4) Younger latino and black voters will go big for Bernie and either offset or convince their parents (lol); and (5) Biden is sundowning and doesn’t have any support (this BS was built on other BS—meaning Twitter and crowd size).

It was this narrative that drove many of the decisions the Sanders campaign made. And it blinded them to the possibility of other outcomes.

After Sanders won big in Nevada he had a golden opportunity to show he could unite the party and take on Trump. But he didn’t budge an inch from his insurgent, doctrinaire democratic socialist stance. When asked about his past comments praising communist dictators, he couldn’t even bring himself to denounce them without caveat and, in the process, demonstrated that he cared less about winning than in freebasing 100 percent pure, uncut Bern.

And if his win in Nevada didn’t convince him to reach out across the party, then neither did his trouncing in South Carolina. On the night that his campaign received one of the biggest rebukes a Democratic frontrunner had been given in a long time, Sanders had the opportunity to speak to the party and the country.

What did he do with that time? He spent umpteen minutes giving pretty much the same stemwinder as always—with a special focus on how he would increase voter turnout in the general election.

There were two problems with this. The first is that it wasn’t what he needed to do in order to broaden his coalition. The second is that it wasn’t true. He hadn’t triggered massive turnout expansions in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. In the face of actual election results that disproved their own BS, Bernie and team still believed it. And so the only electability argument he had to make rang hollow to the high information Democratic primary voters who were hopping from candidate to candidate looking for someone who could beat the despised Donald Trump.

This blinkered view of the race was on full display later that same night when Glenn Greenwald, one of Bernie’s top cheerleaders tweeted:

In the face of a blowout defeat delivered by a combination of African-Americans and suburban moderates, Bernie’s biggest supporters still thought their hand was so strong that they could spend the evening rubbing their opponents’ faces in the mud.

The power of that self-delusion is enough to cloud alternative outcomes. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way, but given Bernie’s nature, it may have been inevitable. His hard-headed commitment to the cause he believes in—to righting injustices and leveling the economic playing field—was what drew so many young voters to a socialist throwback in the first place.

He never considered any olive branches to the mainstream left. He didn’t shed his independent label in the Senate in favor of a big, blue D. He wouldn’t move off of the “socialist” brand. He couldn’t even just say that Fidel Castro was a bad guy, full-stop, without twisting himself around to try to praise him a little bit.

This sort of approach isn’t entirely a bad thing. Never Trump Republicans like me should actually have some respect for a guy who sticks to his guns, even when it would be expedient to pivot. You don’t have to like Bernie’s proposals to admire his steadfastness. That’s a kind of character.

But unflinching steadfastness at the expense of even modest concessions isn’t the path to the presidency.

For Bernie, the movement—and especially the “narrative” of the movement—was more important than the victory. And that’s his choice. For all we know, 20 years from now the Democratic party will be remade in his image and he’ll be as beloved as Barry Goldwater once was to Republicans.

But come August he’ll once again be in the stands—or on Zoom—as Joe Biden accepts the Democratic nomination.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.