Is the media about to have a conniption fit over Bernie Sanders?

It's already happening

Bernie Sanders.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo/Matt Rourke, iStock)

Bernie Sanders might actually win this thing. A recent poll has him in first place in Iowa, and he is basically tied with Joe Biden in New Hampshire. Sanders is running second in Nevada and South Carolina, where he has vastly improved his margins among southern black voters (which doomed his candidacy in 2016), and outright ahead in California. The Democratic Party might be about to nominate the first self-identified socialist for president in American history.

This is already sparking panic and anger among the Democratic Party establishment and their co-ideologues in the mainstream press. If Sanders' polls continue to rise — and especially if he starts to win — we're about to see an epic conniption fit. In fact, it's already started.

On the party side, the case against Sanders is supposedly about electability. Sanders would lose to Trump, complain the party hacks, which simply can't be risked. "You need a candidate with a message that can help us win swing voters in battleground states," former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the Associated Press. "The degree of difficulty dramatically increases under a Bernie Sanders candidacy. It just gets a lot harder." An anonymous Democratic "strategist" complained to The Hill that Sanders' attacks on Biden were unfair and helping Trump. And this isn't new — for months party grandees and big donors have been fretting that with Biden running such a feckless campaign, there isn't a strong not-Sanders campaign to unify around.

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Now, Donald Trump is an incumbent president and the economy is strong, and therefore Sanders definitely could lose. But that is also true of any other candidate — there are simply no guarantees here. Electability is a vague and nearly unknowable concept, and trusting that centrists are a safer bet has repeatedly blown up in the party's face. As Ryan Grim writes in his book We've Got People, the party elite pulled this same trick in 1988 against Jesse Jackson when he ran a Sanders-style campaign attempting to assemble a "Rainbow Coalition" of working-class people of all races. When Jackson pulled out a surprise victory in the Michigan primary, elites scrambled to boost up Michael Dukakis, arguing that he was the best chance to best then-Vice President George Bush. Dukakis, of course, went on to lose badly.

Similar arguments were deployed on behalf of John Kerry against Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential primary. Better to have a war hero to run in a time of war, the argument went. Instead, Kerry got badly tangled up with his votes to invade Iraq but against additional spending to fund it, and he lost to George W. Bush. And as Grim notes, when Rahm Emanuel ran the Democratic campaign for the House in 2006, he recruited and campaigned for conservative candidates — and cut money off from progressives who won primaries, deeming their seats "unwinnable." But some of those he refused to fund still went on to win in the general, while others lost by only a tiny margin. Party hacks like Emanuel make centrist "electability" a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, Hillary Clinton supporters used this argument against Sanders himself in 2016, despite her favorability numbers being deeply underwater by late 2015. She would end up the second-most unpopular nominee in the history of polling (behind Trump) and also lost.

Now, Jackson, Dean, or Sanders still might have lost had they been nominated. But it's not hard to see why electability arguments always go only one way — against the left. The engine of the centrist Democratic establishment is a cozy tacit arrangement between politicians, big donors, big corporations, lobbyists, and consulting firms. Right-leaning Blue Dogs or New Democrats vote against higher taxes or more regulations on corporations, and in return they collect big campaign donations from interested parties and cushy, lucrative post-career jobs. Party-connected consulting firms in turn obtain lucrative contracts for helping centrist campaigns, but are then heavily discouraged from assisting progressive challengers — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has threatened to blacklist any firm that works with such a campaign.

Sure enough, Rahm Emanuel himself now works for the investment bank Centerview Partners. Pretending corporate-friendly centrist politics are the only ones that "work" (while mobilizing furiously behind the scenes to foreclose any alternatives) keeps the gravy train flowing.

On the media side, the mainstream press's dislike of Sanders has been obvious for years. For most of last year, this came in the form of quietly ignoring his campaign (or a "Bernie blackout," as his supporters dubbed it.) Big outlets would run old polls showing Sanders in worse position when he did well in newer ones, or would avoid mentioning him in coverage at all.

But with Sanders within striking distance of victory, that is becoming untenable — and so the gloves are off. As Jeet Heer writes at The Nation, in the debate Tuesday night, CNN's moderators did not even attempt to feign neutrality.

For instance, on Monday anonymous "sources" told CNN itself that Sanders said "he did not believe a woman could win" in a meeting between he and Warren more than a year ago. Sanders categorically denied this, but Warren released a statement confirming the accusation. This meeting took place in December 2018, only the two candidates were present, and there was no recording — meaning it is literally a "he said, she said" story that cannot be verified either way. Yet CNN moderator Abby Phillip took Warren's side, first asking Sanders why he said it, and when he denied it again (noting that he had encouraged Warren to run in 2015, that he has been saying publicly for over 30 years that a woman can and should be president, and that Hillary Clinton got more votes than Trump) Phillip implied he is a liar. Turning to Warren, she asked, "Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?"

As Ryan Grim, Aída Chávez, and Akela Lacy write at The Intercept, other questions had equally slanted presuppositions. Wolf Blitzer started a question about Sanders' plan to halt America's endless wars by implying he is in league with the Iranian head of state: "Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei has again called for all U.S. troops to be pulled out of the Middle East, something you've called for as well."

Or referring to the fact that Sanders' agenda would require lots of tax money, Phillip asked "How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?" She was surely referencing a CNN article that quoted neoliberal economist Larry Summers, and austerian propagandists Maya MacGuineas and Jim Kessler, from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and Third Way respectively, making this case. Aside from the biased sources, the article failed to note that even the direst centrist predictions about Sanders' plans would only require raising the U.S. tax level roughly to that of France — a steep increase to be sure, but hardly some kind of utopian insanity. And as economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman write at The Guardian, any sensible Medicare-for-all program (by far the largest item in the Sanders platform) would result in increased take-home income for most people, because it would remove the stupendous expense of health care premiums and cost-sharing, and because it would save tons of money on leaner administration and lower prices to drug companies and providers. Indeed, it is medical cost bloat under the status quo system that is slowly devouring the American economy. It would be far more unaffordable to not pass Medicare-for-all, or something like it.

But perhaps most ludicrous of all is this supposed threat of "bankruptcy." In reality, it is physically impossible for a sovereign country that borrows in a currency it can print at will to go bankrupt. America might suffer inflation if it spends too much, but it can never run out of dollars. Next they'll be asking Sanders if God can make a rock so heavy that He Himself cannot lift it.

At any rate, this is surely only the start of an all-out assault on the Sanders campaign and the ideas he represents from centrist Democrats and their allies in the mainstream press. He threatens to gum up the revolving door that keeps Rahm Emanuel in expensive suits, and to render irrelevant deficit scaremongering shops like Third Way. Mainstream reporters pretend to have no ideological perspective, but as Noam Chomsky wrote long ago (and we see today), they actually respond with scandalized outrage to any leftist who proposes to overhaul the status quo. Sanders' proposed tax hikes also threaten wealthy media executives like CNN's Jeff Zucker, who have done very well from Trump' tax cuts for the rich — a fact that doesn't require a direct conspiracy to strongly influence coverage.

It will be an uphill battle from the Sanders campaign, but not one without benefits. The campaign recorded its best fundraising hour during any debate on Tuesday, with 15,000 donations — likely due to outrage at CNN's awful questions. And political reporters have not exactly covered themselves in glory of late. It may be that this kind of overt dogpile will only redound to Sanders' benefit. We'll find out soon enough.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.