By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at DownWithTyranny!
How will these people respond if they think Sanders was cheated again?
Like many I watched the 2016 Democratic primary carefully, and like many I was appalled by what looked like rampant cheating of varying types and degrees by national party leaders, state officials and local functionaries. So I’m going to publish an occasional series on what went down in 2016 as a sort of inoculation against the same occurring again.
I have another goal as well. Last time the Sanders campaign was surprised by its popularity, and I suspect it took some time for its leaders to adapt to what it was starting to accomplish. I also suspect that the cheating, the tilting of the playing field, the attacks from the wings by actors not even in the play also surprised the campaign, and it found itself scrambling to respond, or scrambling to decide even to respond at all.
After all, if you’re polling at 5% against a shoo-in opponent, you’re seen as a gnat, barely worth swatting at, and the occasional “slings and arrows” are not meant to wound or kill, just keep you at bay. Not so when, to everyone’s surprise, the gnat grows large, grows a following, and starts filling football stadiums when the shoo-in candidate still can’t fill a gymnasium.
Then the “slings and arrows” become bazookas and howitzers, and no one in the suddenly large upstart campaign has a plan for that.
This Time People Can Prepare
Not so this time around. The events of 2016 offer plenty of fair warning. To that end I’d like to document just what some of those bazookas and howitzers were, so not only the campaign — but you and I, the voters — can be prepared, can know what we’re looking at.
Who anticipated, for example, that California Democratic Party officials at the precinct level would misinstruct election workers, or hand out provisional ballots instead of ballots appropriate for “no party preference” voters (independents) so that much of the (pro-Sanders) independent vote would be disenfranchised? Who anticipated that voters in select precincts in New York, and many other states, would discover on election day that their party registrations had been changed without their knowledge?
This time around we can anticipate all of that, and call it out in real time if it occurs.
The Heavy Thumb of the Anti-Sanders Press
But let’s start with a national problem in the 2016 election — the role of the press in trying to make sure, to the extent it could, that Bernie Sanders would lose to Hillary Clinton. One of the best sources of information for this is Thomas Frank’s long-form examination “Swat Team: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders, and real reform,” written for the November 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. (Unless you’re a Harper’s subscriber, the article is paywalled. An archived version can be found here.)
Frank states his goal: “My project in the pages that follow is to review the media’s attitude toward yet a third politician, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year. By examining this recent history, much of it already forgotten, I hope to rescue a number of worthwhile facts about the press’s attitude toward Sanders. Just as crucially, however, I intend to raise some larger questions about the politics of the media in this time of difficulty and transition (or, depending on your panic threshold, industry-wide apocalypse) for newspapers.”
His examination of the “press’s attitude toward Sanders” produces a striking discovery:
I have never before seen the press take sides like they did this year, openly and even gleefully bad-mouthing candidates who did not meet with their approval.
This shocked me when I first noticed it. It felt like the news stories went out of their way to mock Sanders or to twist his words, while the op-ed pages, which of course don’t pretend to be balanced, seemed to be of one voice in denouncing my candidate. A New York Times article greeted the Sanders campaign in December by announcing that the public had moved away from his signature issue of the crumbling middle class. “Americans are more anxious about terrorism than income inequality,” the paper declared—nice try, liberal, and thanks for playing. In March, the Times was caught making a number of post-publication tweaks to a news story about the senator, changing what had been a sunny tale of his legislative victories into a darker account of his outrageous proposals. When Sanders was finally defeated in June, the same paper waved him goodbye with a bedtime-for-Grandpa headline, HILLARY CLINTON MADE HISTORY, BUT BERNIE SANDERS STUBBORNLY IGNORED IT.
Frank marshalls much data to support his claims. I’ll leave you to examine those details for yourself.
“Defining Sanders Out”
Frank then turns to the question of why this occurred (emphasis mine below):
I think that what befell the Vermont senator at the hands of the Post should be of interest to all of us. For starters, what I describe here represents a challenge to the standard theory of liberal bias. Sanders was, obviously, well to the left of Hillary Clinton, and yet that did not protect him from the scorn of the Post—a paper that media-hating conservatives regard as a sort of liberal death squad. Nor was Sanders undone by some seedy journalistic obsession with scandal or pseudoscandal. On the contrary, his record seemed remarkably free of public falsehoods, security-compromising email screwups, suspiciously large paychecks for pedestrian speeches, escapades with a comely staffer, or any of that stuff.
An alternative hypothesis is required for what happened to Sanders, and I want to propose one that takes into account who the media are in these rapidly changing times. As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views. He seems to have represented something horrifying, something that could not be spoken of directly but that clearly needed to be suppressed.
That threat was to their own status as insider Ivy League–educated friends-of-people-with-power, especially Democratic Party power, which had aligned itself with the upper 10%, the professional class, against the lower 90%, the great unwashed.
In Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution” … I believe these same people saw something kind of horrifying: a throwback to the low-rent Democratic politics of many decades ago. Sanders may refer to himself as a progressive, but to the affluent white-collar class, what he represented was atavism, a regression to a time when demagogues in rumpled jackets pandered to vulgar public prejudices against banks and capitalists and foreign factory owners. Ugh.
Choosing Clinton over Sanders was, I think, a no-brainer for this group. They understand modern economics, they know not to fear Wall Street or free trade. And they addressed themselves to the Sanders campaign by doing what professionals always do: defining the boundaries of legitimacy, by which I mean, defining Sanders out.
And it wasn’t just bias in the way the news was written; the editorials and op-eds were also brutal. As Frank points out, “the Post’s pundit platoon just seemed to despise Bernie Sanders.”
Four Year Later
It’s been four years since 2015, when the upstart first reared his head and showed himself a viable threat. The forces arrayed against him have had time to reflect, as have the forces on his side.
Will the the leaders of the present Party do all they can to extinguish the threat of Sanders’ “political revolution”? It’s clear they’ve already started. Will the press do their part to stem the tide? The jury’s out so far. Some coverage has been remarkably bad (also here), while other coverage is surprisingly fair. We’ll see.
In those four years the voters have also had time to reflect. Many took note of the 2016 sabotage, as they would call it, and many are ready, their remembered anger just waiting to be rekindled. Party leaders are aware of this. As a former vice-chair of the DNC said recently, “if we even have anybody raising an eyebrow of ‘I’m not happy about this,’ we’re going to lose [the general election] and they’ll have this loss on their hands,” meaning the DNC.
It won’t take much to make a martyr of Sanders in the eyes of his supporters, especially after 2016. The only questions are:
• Is the fear of Sanders and his political revolution, which would send many of them scrambling for other work and start to cut Party ties to the donor class, enough to make their opposition turn to obviously illegal means?
• If Sanders is indeed made “a martyr,” as the party official quoted above fears, what will be the response of the independent voters who swell those stadium appearances?
The stakes were high in 2016. Given our greater nearness to looming catastrophes, climate being just one of them, the stakes are exponentially higher today. We do indeed live in interesting times.