Looking for 2020 in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Campaign

Re-working a critique of Sanders “Scorched-Earth Politics”

Almost a year after a Hillary Clinton became the first woman to earn the nomination for president from a major political party, Clemson graduate student Blair Durkee published a scathing critique of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

Between Clinton’s nomination and the article’s publication, Donald Trump was sworn into the highest office in the nation amid a backdrop of protest marches that remain a constant early in his third year in office. As Durkee was finishing the final edits to her essay, John McCain cast the key vote to defeat the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, Anthony Scaramucci was removed as White House Communications Director after less than 2 weeks on the job, and Trump declared a ban to prevent transgender people from serving in the military. Sanders also said he might run again.

Perhaps especially that week, while reflecting on what might have been, Durkee presumably had reason to be angry at the politics of the day, and she had a target on her mind. She wrote about him.

Eighteen months later, as Sanders was preparing to formally announce another run for president in 2020, Durkee’s essay again made the rounds. Time didn’t soften her distrust of Sanders, but the new context enveloping the essay and the ongoing polarization of political discourse led her to reject overtures to rejoin that war of factions:

What I want is reconciliation through the common pursuit of honesty and understanding. […] If we rally together around the truth, our remaining differences can be worked out to the greater benefit of all.

Rallying around truth presumes that we all know it when we see it, and that we are capable of seeing all our truths. If it had ever been before, it is no longer easy to do.

There are intentional attempts—both public and clandestine—to subvert truth through fake news. From his large pulpit that carries the weight of over two centuries of world leadership, Trump accuses authentic stories of being fake news by virtue of their opposition to him. Most of us are equally complicit, however. Helped both by political design and technical algorithms, we self-select the news that best supports our beliefs and, like Trump, discount the rest. When we tell our truths, it is often the simplest narrative that we adopt in order to set aside the messy bits.

Truth has become a fuzzy thing in our world. When the truth is packaged in strong bias, it becomes difficult and unappealing to unwrap.

This is the underlying limitation of Durkee’s original essay. It is filled with links to supporting content that backs up her truth, but they are seeped in hyperbolic descriptions that make consumption unappetizing to those in the essay’s gaze.

For me, the piece was cathartic. The statements felt true, and the bitter snark in how they were framed reflected my underlying emotions. However, because my circles held the targets of these ideas and feelings, I had no outlet to express my discontent. It is much easier to reach across an ideological aisle and hope for some connection than to turn to your neighbor and acknowledge disagreement. Doing so risks the loss of something you hold dear.

I don’t believe we can get far in a relationship without addressing our respective anger. Durkee expressed mine, and I shared her essay with a statement that this is where I begin with Bernie Sanders in 2019. Guided by the resulting conversations with people I trust and love, I invested a lot of time re-examining the essay to understand where my truth resonated most.

The following edit of Durkee’s article is my attempt to do so. I am not intending to correct the original article, which retains its merit for the context in which it was written, but rather to make the key bits more palatable for the people who felt attacked. Although I augmented the supporting evidence to match my edits, most of the research and links are still Durkee’s work. This exercise is my reinterpretation of her message, with the goal of acknowledging the lingering narratives relevant to the coming election.

Rejecting Scorched-Earth Politics:

What Bernie Sanders Must Address to Get Past Trump

On April 30, 2015, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave his inaugural speech as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Around a makeshift stage set up on a shaded stone plaza outside Capitol Hill, campaign signage was nowhere to be seen. The press conference, hastily announced by email, drew a gaggle of reporters who waited as Sanders approached the podium and proceeded to list his progressive causes.

Even as news outlets described him as an unconventional, long-shot candidate, Sanders warned that people should not underestimate him. Over the next fifteen or so months, just about everyone did, including Sanders himself.

As 2020 approaches, a new Sanders campaign asks for and requires more people to vote for him. For those who reached the 2016 Democratic National Convention from his camp, re-enlistment may be easy. Others who experienced negativity and aggression radiating from his last campaign, however, now revisit their skepticism and distrust.

Bernie Sanders is many things. Progressive. Inspirational. Intelligent. Passionate. Idealistic. The positives, though, mix with troubling qualities evident by his own actions and those he stoked in some of his supporters.

Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. For Sanders to succeed, he and his ground support must be willing to acknowledge and reconcile the negative narratives he fostered, before his detractors can be moved. In the remainder of this article, I look at some of these negative narratives and comment on how much they impact my own vote in 2020.

Bernie as Demagogue

In announcing his desire to become president, Bernie Sanders walked straight into a political moment. Like clockwork, these moments occur every few election cycles in American politics, when the minds and hearts of overlooked and previously unengaged voters are captured by a rebellious, radical candidate preaching ideological purity.

The original Moment Candidate, at the other end of the political spectrum, was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Sparked by his fiery manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, thousands of students flocked to his rallies — even those too young to vote — and many became first-time volunteers for his campaign.

Assessing the civic landscape for the first time, these young people reveled in Goldwater’s unapologetic disdain for the Establishment, a term coined by British journalist Henry Fairlie to refer to the entrenched network of aristocrats who control the levers of power. To Goldwater, Democrats and Republicans were co-conspirators, part of the same “Eastern establishment” of liberal elites who represented a pressing threat to personal liberty and conservative values. The Establishment was his enemy, and Goldwater was the enemy of the Establishment.

Goldwater leveraged this desire for political upheaval to power his campaign. Though his challenge to incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson ended in resounding defeat, Goldwater’s legacy persisted. From Eugene McCarthy to Ralph Nader to Ron Paul, circumstances and ideologies varied, but the storyline was essentially the same.

Bernie Sanders is the latest in this line of Moment Candidates, and he made anti-establishment rhetoric a more central theme of his campaign than those who preceded him.

Despite serving in Congress for 26 years and enjoying the privileges this country offers a white, cisgendered, straight man, Sanders deftly positioned himself as an outsider and a victim of conspiracy. When preaching about the corrupt system, he implicated both major parties and cast the Democrats as his foe while simultaneously running with their assistance.

With Sanders, there was little separation of party or government from campaign funding laws or ballot access. Everything wrong was the fault of the Establishment, which always excludes him. Like the Moment Candidates before him, his rhetoric was an intentional tactic that oversimplified solutions and encouraged factions.

2020 Verdict: I understand the appeal of this strategy, and I have supported such candidates in the past merely because their presence challenged the status quo. Anti-establishment rhetoric is a hook that will get my attention, but it can’t be the only note sung once I’m listening. Sanders managed to drown out his own progressive policies with a relentless alarm signaling his own suffering. Since this has been his dominant narrative for decades, I expect it will again detract from his policy messages.

Sanders campaigns for congress as an independent in 1988 | Credit: AP Photo

Bernie as Hypocrite

One cannot simply wake up one morning and decide to run for president. It typically takes years of preparation—laying groundwork, building infrastructure, forming alliances, and establishing a record. This is precisely why political parties exist: to maintain that groundwork so that it need not be rebuilt from scratch every election cycle. The beneficiary of that extensive work is typically someone who spent significant time and effort investing in it.

This was not the case for Bernie Sanders. In 2016, he used the vast resources of party infrastructure with relatively little prior investment.

The party complied. When rumors of his interest began to spread in early 2015, some discussion took place over whether Bernie Sanders could run as a Democrat. No rules required a candidate be registered with the party, and in fact, there was no way he could register as a Democrat in Vermont. Provided he summoned enough grass-roots support, a pledge to align himself with the eventual nominee was sufficient to leverage the Democratic machine.

Allegiance was expected, but there was no guarantee it would come easily. For decades, Sanders directed his vitriol toward the Establishment party he now needed to run a credible campaign. He ran against Democrats in his home state of Vermont, openly calling the party “ideologically bankrupt.” He often affirmed his belief that “you don’t change the system from within the Democratic Party” and, in 1990, even declared that it would be “hypocritical” for him to run as a Democrat. Yet, he did.

In practice, Sanders championed the Democratic Party when it benefited him and villainized it to boost his anti-establishment credibility. His campaign cultivated a persecution narrative that painted the Democratic Party as out to get him and, by extension, his supporters. When Clinton narrowly won the Iowa caucus, for example, Sanders accused the Iowa Democratic party of losing votes. Each time he did so, that tactic precipitated a fundraising windfall.

At the Democratic National Convention, Sanders would offer Hillary Clinton a belated and begrudging endorsement. His pledge to campaign for her in the general election became only a handful of rallies in the fall. Meanwhile, his wife Jane implied that their support for Clinton was not genuine.

2020 Verdict: It is difficult to fault Bernie Sanders for choosing to run as a Democrat when our system—through ballot access rules, a winner-take-all electoral college, and single-choice ballots—biases against alternatives to bi-partisan control. There was also bias in favor of Clinton at the onset of the primary race, so not all resources were available to Sanders by the time he started running. What is easier to criticize is the lack of attention he gave to other candidates fighting down-ballot campaigns in 2016. Perhaps 2020 will be different, given his support of 2018 candidates when he was not running for office. What I am looking for is someone who is able to be part of a greater community, even while criticizing its flaws.

An abridged email from the Sanders campaign seeking to raise funds off their own misconduct

Bernie as Cheater

VoteBuilder is the voter database that the national party maintains as a complimentary benefit to all Democratic candidates. It stores voter data that is used in critical campaign activities, such as fundraising, communication, and canvassing. There is a mechanism in place to prevent each candidate’s campaign from accessing the other’s data. If that mechanism fails, all involved campaigns are contractually obligated to do the honorable thing and not exploit the vulnerability.

In December 2015, a software provider for the Democratic National Committee—NGP VAN—released an update that created a lapse in VoteBuilder’s data security. The application temporarily allowed the campaigns access to each other’s proprietary data, although to do so required an intentional search for it. After closing the security hole, a review of system logs revealed that members of the Sanders campaign acquired large amounts of Clinton’s data. When the DNC learned that data had been removed from the system, Sanders’ access to the application was suspended until he complied with requests for assistance with the investigation, ultimately restoring access two days later.

The decision to steal data did not come from the very top, but the campaign’s National Data Director Josh Uretsky was among the four staffers on Sanders’ team implicated in the breach of contract and ethics. Yet when news of the theft broke, the Sanders campaign denied culpability—a demonstrable lie, based on existing evidence and later confirmed by independent audit—and depicted themselves as the victim. They then used that narrative to raise over a million dollars.

Team Sanders decried the DNC actions as a sinister effort to deliberately sabotage their campaign. Sanders decided to sue the DNC for authorizing the temporary suspension of access, asking for damages of at least $75,000. Months later, after it served its purpose, the lawsuit was withdrawn even as Sanders reiterated no wrongdoing.

2020 Verdict: While this particular incident is unlikely to recur, Sanders’ reaction to his campaign’s own misstep is a pattern that probably will repeat. I don’t find it plausible that he’ll go out of his way to cut corners (i.e., cheat), but he has shown a propensity to defensively attack opponents and the party leadership as a response to mistakes. Ideally, Sanders would favor accountability in the future and take actions that learn from mistakes and exhibit better behavior.

Credit: Seth Wenig / AP Photo

Bernie as Bully

Near the end of his first statement as a presidential candidate, Sanders foreshadowed one irony of his campaign:

“I’ve never run a negative ad in my life, and I’ve been in many campaigns. You ask the people of Vermont — they will tell you Bernie Sanders has never run a negative ad. I hate and detest these thirty-second ugly, negative ads. I believe that in a democracy what elections are about are serious debates about serious issues. Not political gossip, not making campaigns into soap operas. This is not the Red Sox versus the Yankees. This is a debate over major issues facing the American people.”

At first, Sanders did stick to the issues. By the end of his campaign against Hillary Clinton, however, he had mocked her sincerity, questioned her integrity, held her accountable for American deaths in Iraq, declared that she was “unqualified” to be president, accused her of being involved in a money laundering scheme, and tried to delegitimize her by angling for a one-on-one debate with the Republican nominee. Sanders also implied she was guilty of bribery and corruption in a thirty-second ad one might reasonably call negative and ugly.

Political campaigns—especially ones that are strongly contested—always risk getting negative and ugly. The Clinton campaign was also culpable for this escalation of negativity, though as a woman Clinton risked much more should she ever raise her voice or allow herself to become too animated. Once poll numbers for Sanders started to climb — he won the Quinnipiac Poll five months into his campaign — perhaps a desire to remain competitive simply shifted tactics for both candidates.

Sanders made a point of claiming higher ground, however. He also has long cultivated a reputation for being acerbic, often raising his voice and interrupting. During one of the more heated points of the presidential campaigns, former Congressman Barney Frank remarked that “Bernie alienates his natural allies” in a way that undercuts his effectiveness.

Clinton and her allies began to attack Sanders’ record by pointing out inconsistencies and flaws in policy areas such as immigration reform, gun control, marriage equality, taxes, women’s rights, foreign policy, and health care. When confronted with these critiques in a debate or interview, he would bristle and become visibly irritated, often reacting with exasperated incredulity. Sanders appears to respond to criticism as if it is petty or malicious, and that being forced to justify his record is insulting.

Prior to the election, Sanders and Clinton had been cordial friends for nearly 25 years, dating back to her time as First Lady of Arkansas. The relationship had been tenuous at times — Sanders grudgingly endorsed her husband’s 1992 campaign for president and remained one of his harshest critics. Nevertheless, despite their stylistic and ideological differences, the two were amicable. Even after they became presidential rivals, Sanders declared on national television, “Maybe I shouldn’t say this: I like Hillary Clinton.”

That initial geniality they shared soured because, in part, no single person came to embody Sanders’ Establishment more than Hillary Clinton.

2020 Verdict: In my lifetime, negativity has always been a part of the political process. Vows to stay positive rarely last, especially with PACs doing the dirty work on a candidate’s behalf. Had Sanders not made his disdain for negative campaigning such a central part of his story, his choice to at times go low would have been expected, if still undesired. In his opening speech, Sanders expressed a wonderful ideal about how campaigns should be run. Even as he aspires to this goal, the candidate cannot claim purity. As the season progresses, I’ll be looking at how he delivers criticism and whether he remains oblivious to his own tactics.

The Congressional Black Caucus endorses Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders | Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Bernie as Liar

Endorsements by peers are a critical factor for candidate success in state primaries and caucuses. By virtue of both her early campaign launch and decades of investment in relationships with other Democratic leaders, Clinton had a big head start on the field. By the time Sanders launched his own campaign, 90 people had endorsed Clinton with 60 more coming before Sanders landed his first endorsement.

Similarly, endorsements by organizations and media outlets help influence large groups of people who are members or subscribers. While Clinton held the edge here, too, these endorsements were more competitive, so much so that Sanders claimed endorsements he didn’t receive:

From Sanders, a common response to not earning an endorsement from an organization was to demonize the rejection. After the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clinton, Sanders appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and dismissed high profile endorsements of Clinton—such as Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign—as establishment tactics.

Similarly, when Sanders belatedly accepted a meeting with a coalition of national HIV/AIDS advocates, he touted his support of their efforts. However, the spin prompted members of the group to clarify that he misrepresented their interaction. The Sanders campaign responded by calling the activists “shills for pharma.”

2020 Verdict: A review of their respective PolitiFact profiles during their 15 months of competition show similar patterns. Clinton had her own share of false or misleading accusations, centered primarily around her opponent’s past voting record. Sanders’ most offensive attacks on Hillary were about character. Both candidates ramped up the falsehoods about each other as the campaign season became more contentious: Clinton had a particular bad early April before the final debate, and Bernie struggled with facts in the aftermath of the VoteBuilder incident and throughout the debates. I expect my chosen candidate to be truthful as much as possible and able to own up to their mistakes.

Credit: Matt Wuerker / Politico

Bernie as Bystander

As a public figure with decades of statements and actions as fodder, Clinton undeniably made the biggest target in 2016. Her image among liberal voters was tarnished with significant help from both Russian hackers—who spread anti-Clinton media and sowed discord at the Democratic National Convention—and top Republicans, who were pleased Sanders was weakening Clinton for them and assisted him in doing so.

The significant presence of a foreign actor aside—in June 2017, Sanders admitted to having known the Russians were helping him—there is nothing unusual about an opposition party openly rooting for a challenge to the frontrunner. What chagrined many Clinton supporters was not how well it worked as much as how little Sanders applied his influence to stop the worst of it.

Sanders prompted and then allowed his supporters to hound Planned Parenthood, setting a tone that escalated aggressive behavior throughout the rest of the campaign. In the name of Sanders, some supporters frequently harassed female journalists and peddled conspiracy theories. Not all of the behavior manifested online; the Nevada Caucus was particularly volatile.

While the worst of the Bernie Bros behaviors was never actively endorsed by the his campaign, neither did Sanders take meaningful action to curtail it. In fact, some of Sanders’ personal choices exasperated the situation. Not all Sanders supporters were disrespectful, but one of the lasting narratives to survive 2016 is the boorish and aggressive behavior of the ones who were. That behavior identifies Sanders as much as his plans for free college tuition because his inaction, or his ineffective action, was a choice.

2020 Verdict: Of all the negative narratives about Bernie Sanders, this is the one that disturbs me most. It is at the heart of my negative feelings toward a man who champions progressive policies I support. Someone who claims to be leading a revolution surely has the influence to shift the worst behaviors of his supporters.

As we approach 2020, these narratives linger. Demagogue. Hypocrite. Cheater. Bully. Liar. Bystander. Some are minor and excusable. With some authentic expression of remorse mixed with actions that demonstrate self-awareness and the capacity to change, the rest of the offenses are forgivable.

I, too, believe that elections are about are serious debates about serious issues. I want to match the issues I value with the candidates making themselves available to lead. How that leadership is modeled and delivered, however, is important. For Bernie Sanders to earn my vote, I will need more than progressive economic policies.

Community experience designer / geek dad / recovering Informatics doctoral student / whiteboard artist / author / feminist

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