The calculating “Bernie can’t win” arguments

Published online 25 August 2015.

Of course, there are plenty of people arguing here at DailyKos.com that “Bernie can’t win.”  The problem with some of their arguments is that they aren’t based on a whole lot, and so, after some discussion, you discover that they’re for some other candidate!  For the most part, as you may have guessed, they’re for Clinton; some are no doubt for O’Malley; others are waiting for a possible Biden candidacy that has so far received the President’s blessing.

Now, at the beginning of this month I posted a diary on the “left-identifying critics of Sanders’ candidacy.”  Their main point appeared to be that Sanders was basically someone to cheer up the party liberals and keep them in the Democratic Party fold before his campaign failed and the Democratic Party would ask everyone to vote for Clinton.  The authors I showcased presented arguments of a wholly different caliber than that of “I’m just arguing that Bernie can’t win because I support someone else.”

I also identified two main problems with this argument: 1) is there really an alternative to the “Democratic Party fold” out there, that would motivate anyone to leave it?  and 2) Sanders’ own argument, as he himself argues:

Our job is to make a political revolution.  Our job is to educate and organize so that working people fight for their rights and for their dignity – and are actively participating in the political process.

Sanders actually makes a stronger statement to the effect that the status quo will not elect him President.  Here it is, in the Christian Science Monitor online:

I do not believe that any president who’s standing up for the working class of this country can be successful without a mobilized, activist, grass-roots movement behind him or her.

A “grass-roots movement” is what Sanders’ candidacy is predicated upon.  Is Sanders’ “movement” merely out there for the sake of “sheepdogging” its participants?  As I suggested in my diary, the historical record does not look good, but, even so, it’s still too early to tell.That diary focused on “left” reasons to dismiss the Sanders candidacy; this diary will focus upon authors who attempt to calculate the chances of a Sanders candidacy succeeding in attaining the Democratic Party Presidential nomination.  These arguments do not start from partisan, or for that matter from anti-partisan, perspectives.  They do, however, attempt to “calculate” the future; in this regard one recalls the imaginary science of “psychohistory” in Isaac Asimov’s (1951) (1952) (1953) “Foundation trilogy.”

Amusingly enough, there’s now a piece up at FiveThirtyEight, a website dedicated to “odds” and the calculation of chances, titled “This Is How Bernie Sanders Could Win.”  Now, at the end of a piece subtitled “we try to say something nice about #feelthebern’s quest for the Democratic nomination,” the authors voice their opinion that Sanders’ chances are pretty poor.  But their conclusion is no surprise, since the staff at FiveThirtyEight has already voiced this opinion previously.  What’s interesting, then, is the process by which they arrive at their conclusions.  Nate Silver:

I still think it needs to involve some “shock” (as an economist would define that term) to the Clinton campaign. Meaning, some substantially worse turn in the email scandal than what’s been reported so far. Hackers publish a bunch of top-secret documents culled from Clinton’s emails, for instance. Or a new scandal. Or a health problem.

Harry Enten: First Sanders needs to win one of the early states, Iowa or New Hampshire, and:

Then — and this is the big thing — he needs to find a way to cut into Clinton’s support among African-Americans. Sanders is pulling in less than 10 percent of the black vote.

Enten sees a further problem, as well:

I’d also point out that black Democrats are far more likely to identify as moderate or conservative (67 percent) than white Democrats (50 percent), according to the General Social Survey. That’s a mountain that Sanders needs to climb.

This seems to be the general theme of this FiveThirtyEight piece — Enten and Sliver don’t see why Sanders is going to be able to rally support for “minorities” when previous white “liberal” candidates (“Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas or Bill Bradley”) failed to do so.


Where FiveThirtyEight is specific, Arun Gupta is scattershot.  His piece in Counterpunch, “Can Bernie Sanders Win The Nomination?” appeared yesterday.  Gupta might also be viewed as a left-identifying critic of the Sanders campaign, given his appearance in Counterpunch and his work with Occupy and for Salon.com, but this particular piece doesn’t seem to have much of an alternative agenda behind it.

So, in review: First Gupta draws our attention to the potential attack from the so-called Right in America:

If Sanders miraculously wins the nomination, he will be buried in the general election by an avalanche of corporate money and a right wing that will make him out to be the second coming of Stalin…

I would argue that this attack is likely to show its face before the general election, and that it’s not likely to look credible against a meaningful Sanders response.  Of course, then for Gupta there is the power of the Establishment:

There is a “deep state” in the primary process that prevents insurgents from winning. To get the nomination, Sanders campaign has to win or neutralize the following: the money primary, the party machine, corporate America, the mainstream media, organized labor, and the liberal apparatus that includes major feminist, African-American, and Latino organizations.

This is a credible argument, and Gupta buttresses it well.  But, in the end, Gupta has no faith in Sanders’ powers to invoke “revolution”:

Now, it is invigorating, in the age of austerity, to hear Sanders defend modest social welfare and income transfer policies. But if ideas alone could propel a political revolution to victory, we would have entered the promised land a long time ago. And no amount of starry-eyed enthusiasm will prevent Bernie Sanders’ campaign from winding up in the dustbin of history.


Calculations about the future can only extrapolate from the past.  They depend upon the likelihood that if X has happened before, then X is likely to happen again.  New things, however, are consistently happening, and despite George Santayana, history doesn’t really repeat itself.  The real question is one of how fast the world is changing.  Bernie needs a bit of world-changing, to be sure, to make it work.

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