What Bernie’s Historic 2016 Teaches for 2020

Yves here. An interview with our colleague and sometimes guest blogger Tom Ferguson on his study of money in the 2016 election. While much of what Ferguson says in this Real News Network interview about the Sanders campaign may seem common-sensical to NC readers, it’s s message that mainstream Dems are doing their very best not to hear.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Donald Trump’s improbable victory in 2016 was not the only unusual thing about that race. There also was the fact that, during the primary, Bernie Sanders got close to winning the nomination of the Democratic party, despite having no support from corporate America. That, my next guest says, is unprecedented in US political history. That’s one of many details tracked in a new study, called Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election. I’m joined now by one of the study’s three co-authors, Thomas Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Professor Ferguson, so, in part one, we talked about the many factors that helped propel Donald Trump to victory and how unusual, perhaps, they are. Talk about Bernie Sanders. You say that his run too, his campaign was also unprecedented.

TOM FERGUSON: Look, if you look at most political science writing on the election, they say, “Hey, the 2016 vote looks like the 2012 vote,” and that’s true, until you start looking closely. And if you’re just looking at votes, you’ll never find very much there but if you start to look at the way money starts coming in for people, it’s like a different world.

Now, my two co-authors and I, that’s Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen, we looked in detail at Sanders’ campaign, and for that matter, everybody else. And the striking thing about the mobilization rates there, I’ve been studying political money for a long time, we’ll just leave it at that, and I have never seen a major campaign was successful, and I regard Sanders’ campaign didn’t win but it was hugely, it came out of nowhere, and made a very strong effort. That campaign had 59% of its money coming from donors contributing less than 200 dollars and basically, as our tables show that there wasn’t any big money in the Sanders campaign. He got some small money from people, three, 400 dollar contributions, 500, and the occasional thousand, from pretty obviously younger people from Silicon Valley, or something. But there is no major company putting lots of money into him and relatively few unions, too, a point that is quote worth a discussion some other time, maybe.

But I’ve never seen anything like that and if you’d asked me… before the thing, “Would this have been possible,” my answer would have been, “I don’t believe it! No!” But he did it. I think, in that respect, there’s a mammoth lesson here, which is that we know for sure now that you can launch major campaigns, at least inside the Democratic party, on the basis of small money. You don’t have to go to big donors. You don’t need them at all. Now, if you’re willing to do a campaign like that, that opens up, you can talk about issues that you simply cannot if you take big money. From single-parent health insurance to getting money out of politics, to not have a foreign policy determined by Henry Kissinger and friends.

That was another point that Sanders did. And you don’t have to have politicians who think it is their normal birthright to just take hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street. You don’t need that stuff and that’s a powerful lesson. I daresay, this is to go just beyond paper, which is a clinical sphere, would tell you what actually seems to be out there but that’s probably the big issue for the Democratic party in the 2018 elections. Are you going to stick with the big money approach that has been unanimously popular among all party leaders for decades or are you going to try to emulate the Sanders approach? And I daresay, as…I think Lee Fang at the Intercept showed the other day, Democratic congressional campaign committees literally expressing a preference for the big money approach. You know-

AARON MATÉ: That’s right, professor. In state after state, we interviewed Lee Fang and he pointed out that, if state after state when progressive candidates are organizing, they’re entering the ring, they’re getting some momentum going, that, repeatedly, he said the D-triple-C, the main Democratic leadership wing and affiliate groups are coming in to undermine them, and pick corporate candidates with the parties’ sole concern, the main concern being who can fundraise the most money. All this tracks with your famous term, the Golden Rule, the topic of your famous book, which says, essentially, that the Golden Rule of politics is that it’s investors and big money that shape not just the candidates but the agenda.

TOM FERGUSON: Yup. I’m not taking any of it back. I have not, listen, I have listened to political scientists, sociologists in the 1980s and ’90s talking to me about the independent state. I said, “You guys have to be crazy. This is the biggest wave of money politics you’ve ever seen.” That turned out to be 100% dead on.

AARON MATÉ: Okay, so, is it sustainable for the Golden Rule to be challenged in the Sanders mold? In the absence of, something we talked about in part one, which is a very weak labor movement right now in the US

TOM FERGUSON: Okay. It’s not just weak. My colleagues and I are looking more intensely at what labor’s done with its political money over the last decades, actually. And that’s a little early to make big sweeping pronouncements but if you just look at 2016, big chunks of organized labor sat out the Sanders campaign. They had decided in advance that Clinton was going to win the thing and they… I doubt she’d have won Iowa without the… and I’m not claiming that’s grounded in a deep study but I did look at that.

Let’s just come right down to the heart of it. As we also say in the paper, why was there this vast popular mobilization on both the Republican and Democratic party sides? And our answer is that the spread of the low-wage economy, just decade after decade, has now reached a point where it is massively threatening the large numbers of people, and, as you can see, there’s a discussion on, for instance …the mortality rates among poorer whites, in particular, have attracted a lot of attention,because they’re going up and up, which most of the rest of the world has shown should be going down and down.

AARON MATÉ: Coinciding with the opioid crisis.

TOM FERGUSON: Yeah, it is definitely, absolutely tied in, in all probability. Shannon Monnat, somebody I know, and a researcher working on that, and the… case of… work on that is also fairly well-known. Yeah, I don’t disagree with that at all but here’s the point. It’s unbearable for most people. Enormous numbers of them, now, are really being squeezed and nobody in either party, except Sanders, was talking about this stuff, as far as Trump. Now, you notice what Trump did. He would not go in and give you a 40-point plan, the sort of Hillary Clinton-type stuff that was useful, helpful but peripheral in the end, never naming the problem. Trump would just go in there and he said, “I’m going to make America great again! Imports have wrecked your jobs,” et cetera. Sanders was making a very strong economic pitch right at the heart of it and people responded. You get the people that appeal like that and Sanders proved he can do it without, you don’t need to run against immigrants on the basis of race or any of that junk. You can do it and he did.

Now, the problem in analyzing current politics is the national Democratic offices run on big money. I mean, that’s just basically, they all expect to live sort of like, I’m tempted to say second rate CEOs because of first-rate ones… on the ball, if they felt like it and sometimes do. And so, the national Democratic organizations aren’t going to do much but around election time, when you get actual candidates running out there, you can get something to happen. And if you can get the appeal, there’s some big race in Pennsylvania right now, and, what’s it, the 18th district? The one not too far from Pittsburgh? And there are others around the country but you have to float actual candidates with a message. What’s missing from the Democratic party right now is a message!

Last night, they gave the State of the Union response to Joe Kennedy. Well, Joe Kennedy’s one of the few House Democrats that hasn’t signed on to single-payer. So, hey, what’s up here? This is basically straightforward but I’d say this: anybody who tells you that the primary issue in America over the next three years is anything but, “How do you get the population as a whole out of living in the low-wage economy?” is just talking nonsense. They are basically, trying to just smoke you.

AARON MATÉ: We’re going to leave it there. The study is called Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election. Our guest has been one of the three co-authors, Thomas Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Professor, thank you.


AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. divadab

    Good point re: Joe Kennedy – why would the national Democrat party put forth as their champion someone with superficial appeal (Kennedy, attractive, young) but whose policy positions are antedeluvian (against single-payer healthcare; rabidly prohibitionist on cannabis)?

    Because they represent someone’s interests not yours?

    The corruption runs deep, O my brothers and sisters. Young Joe’s grandfather must be spinning in his grave. The third generation sells out.

    1. Tyronius

      Bernie gave a short, sweet and very solid response to the SOTU and it’s easy to find on YouTube. He forcefully spoke to the issues neither the Chump nor Joe Kennedy would address and as such strongly differentiated himself from the business as usual politics of both establishment parties.

      To all those who think that Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a flash in the pan, I have this to say; ‘it’s all about the issues, comma, stupid’.

  2. joecostello

    Its not new. Obama would never have beat Hillary without small money from Net, Dean made a run at in 04 with small money and even in 92 Jerry Brown was in the race for a couple weeks with small money an 800 number and no contribution over $100.

    Certainly its valid point without the money Barnie would never have been close, but the real point is he lost to an extremely unpopular Democratic nominee, and that was the main thrust of Sander’s strength. People do themselves a great disservice when they extrapolate whatever specific positions Sander’s had and say his “success” shows them to be popular. There was a general large dissatisfaction with the status quo, represented exquisitely by Mrs. Bill, so acute was this dissatisfaction it was eventually taken advantage of by a numbnut like Trump, and the establishment was gravely offended by what a good number of the American people think of them.

    Money is certainly important and more than few have been talking about for decades, it however is only one aspect of politics that has hazardously degraded and if not taken in conjunction with the rest won’t go very far. Far too few talk about this.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Not true. Ferguson has done the work on Obama’s campaign and the idea that small donors were significant to his fundraising is a myth promoted by the Obama campaign. Dean and Brown didn’t get far, confirming Ferguson’s contention/

      And I also don’t buy your other contention re Sanders popularity. He is now far and away the most popular politician in America. He got over 1 million people to watch his webcast on single payer and over 2 million watched his rebuttal to the SOTU despite it being late at night and the site not being up on YouTube (I had trouble getting to it and gave up, and I don’t think the YouTube troubles were an accident). People want actual serious economic policies to deal with inequality and other pressing social issues and Sanders is just about the only person offering them.

      1. IsotopeC14

        Well said.

        Now the real question is Mark Blyth right? He states in his 2018 state of the union on YT that Hillary is running in 2020. If she does, Sanders will not be allowed to win (again). The consultants run the whole show, and must be sociopaths as evidenced by the extremely astute Nomiki Konst C-span viral video. The consultants couldn’t give a flying (family blog) about poor fellow Americans getting healthcare, let alone death from being deprived of it.

        Sometimes I’m depressed about being an Atheist. The concept of (family blog) where the consultant kleptocrats would burn for eternity is somehow deeply satisfying.

        1. perpetualWAR

          Even better: begin believing in karma and reincarnation. Imagine Wall-Streeters and vile DCers coming back as poor whites who die of despair with heroin.

          I like to imagine. :)

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          I have been pretty sure she THINKS she is running. But unlike in 2016, when she had the Mighty Wurlitzer of the press and the top 10% Dems behind her, there have been a ton of stores in venues that had been formerly behind her, including the NYTimes and NY Mag (and IIRC even Vanity Fair) about her merely trying to stay in the limelight and telling her “Enough is enough, please go away.”

      2. joecostello

        Right, Barry’s “community organizer” marketing was over sold, but 25% of his $160 million in the primary was under $200, that was decisive in beating Mrs. Bill, not to mention it helped get more big money – they like winners. Barnie’s small donors were about 44%. But again, the biggest play in both races was Mrs. Bill unpopularity.

        Dean was unknown and not politically talented. His whole push into the limelight was with fundraising, look at coverage in summer of 03, he was accepted by media guardians because of money – Trippi did a good job of this.

        In 1992, Brown, despite being former Governor of California, was dismissed by media guardians for the whole race, mostly because of his message of money, hacks, and culpable media destroying politics. But he was able to stay in as last man standing against a weak Mr. Bill and compete for several primaries because raised $10 million with matching funds, no contribution over $100, doesnt seem like much now, but sufficient then. Neither Brown or Dean lost due to lack of funds.

        I agree wholeheartedly Americans want change, they want to know what is happening with economy, and Sanders represents a symbolic difference, what I caution is thinking beyond generalities, that any specifics he was advocating necessarily have great legs, and that he is cause celbre of the dead left should be a big warning flag.

        Money is part of problem without a doubt, only part.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Oh, come on. If this was all about Clinton, Sanders would not still be the most popular politician in the US now. This is a desperate argument and I have no idea why you are so deeply invested in bashing Sanders.

          Ferguson, as I am sure you know, is THE expert on campaign finance and is the only person to have constructed massive databases of donations in every Presidential election since the 1980s. You are in no position to challenge his conclusions. He’s put together vastly better data than you have.

          1. integer

            Is Sanders really the most popular politician in the US though? Honest question. The one survey I’ve seen that reached this conclusion was based on politicians’ popularity in their home state rather than their popularity nationally. This survey was widely referenced by the media at the time without any context regarding the underlying methods. Maybe I’ve missed something.

            Regarding Sanders’ SOTU rebuttal, I accept that 2 million is a very high number of viewers considering the time slot and medium, however let’s not forget that Trump’s SOTU was watched by approximately 45 million people. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the 2 million who watched Sanders are almost certainly all in the Sanders camp, whereas the same cannot be assumed for Trump’s SOTU viewers.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              There are plenty of online poll trackers such as the one at HuffPost, they have all, without exception, shown Bernie Sanders ahead of all other national politicians in favourability ratings and in the gap between favourability/un-favourability ratings for the past 2 years at least.

              There is no reasonable doubt that he is the most popular politician in the US by whatever metric you chose.

              1. integer

                Fair enough. I am happy to concede that in polls that allow the options of favorable, unfavorable, and undecided (which I expect very few people make use of, even if they have little knowledge of the topic they are being polled on), that Sanders polls the best out of all US politicians. That said, I’m not sure this translates into popularity per se, but YMMV.

      3. John Rose

        But Bernie is not ORGANIZING. He galvanizes us with his positions but does not direct us to the organizational vehicles that can create some ongoing heft!

    2. paintedjaguar

      Whatever you think about them individually, it’s worth noting that Sanders, Dean, and Brown all ran on a somewhat anti-establishment message. Know what else they had in common? All three prominently featured one specific issue in their campaigns: single payer health care. Think that had anything to do with their popularity and ability to raise small donations?

    3. technodelic

      A right-wing Trump supporter acquaintance of mine kept referring to Bernie as “Barnie” just like you’ve done in your comments here. From what I could tease out of him, it was an attempt to carve off a memetic space where they could talk about Sanders with boosting his ratings. Is that what you’re trying to do here, joecostello?

  3. johnnygl

    I’ll grant that a portion of the sanders’ vote was specifically a ‘not hillary’ vote. However, those voters were likely vastly outnumbered by the voters who liked bernie but felt they needed to be ‘practical’ and vote for the ‘electable’ candidate. That narrative of ‘electability’ was demolished by trump.

    Also, when biden dropped for good, his voters went to hrc at about a 2-1 clip. If ‘not hillary’ was the decisive voting block, that should have panned out differently.

  4. sharonsj

    I can only describe my own experience. I have never contributed to a political candidate, but I gave money to Bernie Sanders. He was the only one who actually knew what was going on with average Americans and who actually cared about making real changes. Of course the establishment screwed him.

    Since then I have given contributions to specific Democratic candidates whom I feel deserve what little money I have. On the other hand, I will never give a penny to the DNC.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      If I get a postage paid mailer from the DNC I do contribute two nasty pennies taped tails-up to the DNC.

      If Bernie runs as a Democrat in 2020 and gets screwed by the party — again — I hope the Bernie campaign will ignore his direction to support the party’s candidate and sponsor a single “write-in name” we can all write-in if we can on our local ballots.

    2. Meowski.us

      What happened to all the campaign contributions given to Bernie in 2016? Did all of it get turned over to the DNC after he agreed to back HRC?

  5. meowski.us

    Does anyone here have a clear understanding of Bernie’s foreign/military policy? He didn’t talk about it in 2016. Why?
    How can he promise a revived ‘new deal’ without reigning in military spending? This inconsistency should be addressed in broken-record fashion until he answers it.

    1. John k

      Disappointing. But…
      Bernie is practical. He is already against big banks and for 15/hr min which means against big Corp, uni health which means against ins and Pharma…

      To be against wars means also fighting Mic and deep, notice trump, who stupidly ran against them prior to election, has given up. Plus it’s dangerous, whether they took out Kennedy or not. Get elected first, get your people in place, slowly move the neocons out, etc. trump was too stupid, showed his hand way too early.

      Even russiagate… is it prudent to be out front fighting this? He’s trying to work within the party, already making big waves.

    2. nonsense factory

      He had his hands full with domestic issues but that was an issue he could have made some progress on; but the scale of the American war economy is just so huge, it’s hard to see how to tackle that with domestic politics – hence the ‘collapse of the Soviet Union’ scenarios.

      Bernie did work hard to bring the F-35 manufacturing plant to Vermont; that’s MIC and Congress and nobody turns down the jobs offers, it’s just not a issue they ever touch or discuss.

      For the record I’ve always been a huge Bernie fan and his policies are the best of any on offer; but this is a war economy at many levels; so how to get over that one? A 50% reduction in the MIC budget at this point would kick the legs out from under the US economy, it’s a bad situation.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    If anyone else is interested — the working paper “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games” is available at: [https://www.ineteconomics.org/uploads/papers/Ferg-Jorg-Chen-INET-Working-Paper-Industrial-Structure-and-Party-Competition-in-an-Age-of-Hunger-Games-8-Jan-2018.pdf]. [It’s long so it may be a few days before I might get through it.]

  7. KYrocky

    Ferguson: “What’s missing from the Democratic party right now is a message!”

    What Ferguson did not do in this interview is explain why. So I will. For the same reason that Hillary did not have a message: national Democrats, including candidates and the DCCC and its Senate companion, are intractably bound to big money politics.

    There are positive measures that our government could do to ameliorate some of the pains of the low wage economy. Many of these were tried before, were highly successful, but can no longer be considered because return to progressive taxation scales that allowed our country to become great is no longer an option. Because big money will not allow it. And so, populists, liberals, and true progressives remain marginalized by national Democratic Party efforts; the Party expects to take our votes for granted, but ignore and suggestions or goals we have.

    The campaign for 2018 should have started on November 9, 2016. It is now February of 2018, with the worst Republican President ever and the worst Republican Congress ever, and the leadership of the national Democratic Party is sticking with “A Better Deal” for God’s sake.

    We need better Democratic leaders. Our national Party leaders disagree; like Wasserman Schultz, and paid speeches Hillary, they are serving their true constituency just fine.

    The blue wave we see this fall should have been a tsunami, and may yet turn into a ripple if our national Party sticks with their worn, tattered script.

    1. perpetualWAR

      The Democrats are not “missing a message.”
      Their message was heard loud and clear when they cleared out the “deadbeat” homeowners and championed Jamie Dimon’s lying Congressional performance.

      I am DONE voting. Forever.

      1. phil

        Please, vote! Don’t give up that right, even if the outcomes are not completely transparent. Not voting is giving in to fate, instead of trying to do *something* to control outcomes.

  8. Bill

    I had enough direct experience of Bernie from having him as my Senator to be thrilled he was running and gave him my full support. It made me a little sick, however, while working with his campaign, on Slack and with Google interactive docs, to see the utter confusion and what even then seemed like purposeful sabotage when it came to getting volunteers the right information on where to go, who to call, arranging carpooling, etc, and had a lot of good people spinning their wheels and talking about their frustration. And then when it was obvious there were serious shenanigans in the primaries, the fight against it was shut down. I confess I still can’t see Bernie supporting his supporters. Not as supporters, but as his team. Perhaps not putting this as well as I could, but when push comes to shove, Bernie has not been there for his delegates and grassroots supporters in the campaign.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      I has the impression early on that Sanders was running a quixotic protest campaign only, and was as shocked as anyone else when he came to have a shot at the nomination. He had not intended/expected to get to the point where he required a working ground game. So, he was forever without one. Also, when he finally did pivot to real campaigning, he seemed to rely on the same pool of semi-pro staffers as the other viable candidates. They were often a detriment to his campaign effort (i.e. contempt for his supporters poured out of their slick, hectoring emails, IMO).

      1. Bill

        Sanders seemed to have this horror of being perceived as a leader–he often said it was not about him, it was the people’s campaign to bring to fruition. However, most people expected him to at least represent them in the halls of power and have their back, and realize that what was done to his campaign was being done to them also.

        1. Mac na Michomhairle

          Have to say I disagree.

          He did not say he was uncomfortable being a leader. He said often that a campaign that would succeed in changing the balance of power in American government in favor of ordinary people, that that campaign could not be just another campaign led by a candidate/leader as focal point; that it would have to be a mass movement engaging in long-term intelligent organizing, not just voting. He said that this was not about him; it was about people organizing.

          I have watched him from the days when his county campaigns in Vermont were ten people in somebody’s living room, to 2016 when he surprised the world by mounting a campaign that cut through the ocean of fetid hot air that is American politics, to clearly speak simple good sense. No, he probably wasn’t prepared to succeed electorally as well as he did, and, no, the campaign was not perfect or even great. But the fact that he, an admitted socialist proposing very very different ways of doing government, has survived in public life this long, and also made it possible in Vermont and nationally to talk publicly and seriously about these alternative approaches; that he outmaneuvered Clinton and Co. and the DNC to maintain focus on these ideas through the election–that shows that he is a leader. Yes, he capitulated to business as usual, and I was utterly disgusted at the time. Though they are temporarily photogenic, however, martyrs never really accomplish much. Yeah, the Democrats probably don’t care about winning, as long as the money flows, but the left doesn’t care about winning, as long as they can complain.

          1. Bill

            the left doesn’t care about winning, as long as they can complain.

            too bad I had to read your whole comment to find out what you are all about. next time just edit down to the essentials and save us all some reading time.

    2. Arizona Slim

      Bill, I experienced the same lack of organization in Tucson. Also heard the same story from Sanders volunteers in other states.

  9. Brandon

    OMG that article was so hard to read. therealnews.com is in serious need of a proofreader. With so many missing words, how does something like this pass muster?

Comments are closed.