There is no more fundamental political question that parties ask themselves than "How can we win elections?" Bernie Sanders has an answer to that; in fact, his answer is so consistent that he's the political equivalent of Lee Greenwood. It isn't that lots of people don't like that one song of his, but when he shows up, there's no mystery about what he's going to sing.
In the wake of Wednesday's shooting at the Republican practice for the annual congressional baseball game, any mention of Bernie Sanders is likely to focus on the suspect, a Sanders supporter whose hatred of the GOP may have contributed to his decision to set out for Washington with a plan for mass murder. There will be plenty of commentary on that horrific event, but I would like to focus on something different: Within the Democratic Party, there's a critical debate that has Sanders at its center.
This week Sanders made an argument on The New York Times op-ed page in which he said that the Democratic Party is a failure, and to win elections it must remake itself in his image:
For the sake of our country and the world, the Democratic Party, in a very fundamental way, must change direction. It has got to open its doors wide to working people and young people. It must become less dependent on wealthy contributors, and it must make clear to the working families of this country that, in these difficult times, it is prepared to stand up and fight for their rights. Without hesitation, it must take on the powerful corporate interests that dominate the economic and political life of the country. [Bernie Sanders, via The New York Times]
He went on to argue that Democrats need to do more to mobilize young people, and that they must fight against tax cuts for the wealthy and advocate single-payer health care, efforts to combat climate change, and infrastructure spending. Most of which Democrats are already doing.
I agree with the bulk of Sanders' substantive agenda, even if I might quibble about the details. Where he's wrong, however, is in his firm belief that if Democrats embrace Sandersism, then their victory at the polls is assured.
First of all, there's this obvious point: If that program were the key to success, then Bernie Sanders would be president right now. But he isn't. He did very well in the 2016 Democratic primaries, but Hillary Clinton received 3.7 million more votes than he did. That wasn't because the system was rigged against him, it was because more Democrats wanted her to be their nominee.
And candidates whom Sanders has endorsed haven't shown particular power at the ballot box either, especially in places where the electorate contains ample numbers of Republicans. Sanders campaigned for Montana congressional candidate Rob Quist; he lost by 6 points. In Virginia, Sanders endorsed Tom Perriello's campaign for governor; Perriello got trounced in Tuesday's primary by Ralph Northam, an establishment politician who won precisely because of his deep roots in state politics. Perriello also suffered from his inability to win over enough black voters — the party's true base — which might sound familiar to Sanders. The Democrats' best chance to pick up a House seat this year comes in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff — a moderate candidate Sanders supported only with the greatest reluctance — is in a strong position to win in the upcoming runoff.
The point isn't that Sanders' approach is a loser, it's that it isn't guaranteed to be a winner. It depends on the situation and the electorate in question.
As for Sanders' insistence that mobilizing young people is critical, there isn't a Democrat anywhere who would disagree. But Sanders' youthful supporters don't prove that his campaign is a model to increase turnout among the young. Young people turn out to vote at much lower rates than their elders, but in recent history, there have been two presidential candidates who managed to bring them to the polls in large numbers: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom would be considered neoliberal sellouts by your average Bernie diehard. And I should note that youth turnout was high in 2004 as well, not because John Kerry was such a dynamo, but because young people had someone they very much wanted to vote against.
Now don't get me wrong: I think Sanders is (for the most part) a force for good in today's Democratic Party. His focus on fundamental policy change is having the salutary effect of pulling the party to the left and clarifying its message. His insistence that the system is distorted by the power of corporations and the wealthy is absolutely correct. If the young people he inspired stay involved and active, that would be good for everyone.
But that doesn't mean that he has a formula for electoral success. Like many revolutionaries, he seems to think that the answers are simple and Democrats could win anywhere and everywhere if they were more like him. If only it were that easy.