Politics Gone Viral

Jacob Hamburger
2 April 2020

Like I assume many are feeling these days, I’ve been somewhat at a loss to write about the Covid-19 crisis and what it might mean for contemporary democratic societies. This is partially because of how uncertain everything remains in terms of how the disease works and how to fight it, and in terms of the political implications. Last week, though, a French journalist reached out to me for a few informal thoughts on the fate of the Bernie Sanders campaign after its disappointing results in March, and how the virus might affect the upcoming presidential election. I’ve expanded on my response to him for the purposes of this post.

 

It’s hard to formulate a clear answer to your questions with everything that’s going on. Before it dawned on us what this crisis really meant, my answer would have been that there was a moment in which a Sanders victory was a real possibility that could have changed US politics profoundly, but that possibility failed to materialize. Polls have consistently shown that Democratic primary voters like Sanders’s ideas—and Covid-19 has only increased support for Medicare for All, for reasons that should be obvious—but it turns out that this does not guarantee the nomination. Throughout this campaign, media outlets have informed voters that Sanders is too radical, or too outside of the political mainstream to beat Trump. For Sanders to win, then, voters who were not part of his dedicated base (though this is clearly the largest such base of any Democratic candidate) needed a signal that he not only had good ideas, but was “electable.” Sanders’s wins in the first three contests, and particularly in Nevada, looked like they could provide precisely that signal. But Biden’s win in South Carolina, followed by the consolidation of virtually all the other candidates around him before his solid wins throughout the month of March, made it clear that Democratic primary voters as a whole had not gotten the message that it was OK to vote for Bernie.

 

I’m not sure what Sanders could have done differently. The campaign has been incredibly effective in organizing grassroots support, and has won clear majorities in key constituencies, namely among young people and immigrant communities (Latino, Arab-American, Asian-American, etc.). (Note that these are two groups that are arguably the least susceptible to conventional narratives about what is possible, or who is “electable,” in US politics). Biden, on the other hand, won most of his primaries without having much of a campaign at all, including in states where he never set foot. The only way Sanders could have ensured a victory would have been to have his campaign infrastructure up and running long before the primaries started: organizing immigrant workplaces (like the campaign in Iowa actually did) and college campuses years and months, not weeks and days, before people voted. But campaigns aren’t really set up to do that, not even Bernie’s. You need a real independent social movement that doesn’t quite exist yet. But at the end of the day, it appears that the majority of Democratic voters, though mostly open to his ideas and not directly hostile, are not Sanders’s ideal voters either. As Eric Levitz put it, “Sanders’s base is strongly ideological and weakly Democratic. But the bulk of blue America’s primary electorate is the opposite: weakly ideological but strongly partisan.”

 

In short, Sanders’s defeat was not a guarantee. It is possible that he could have rode his momentum from the early votes to emerge from the March primaries as the presumptive nominee. But given the state of the Democratic electorate in 2020, a Sanders victory would have been an accident of fate. Had Sanders won, his victory would have owed much to a weak field of primary opponents. In this sense, we could imagine a somewhat improbable comparison to Emmanuel Macron, a candidate who certainly did not represent even a plurality of French voters in 2017, but who nonetheless took advantage of scandal-ridden and uninspiring competition to win a victory that will have lasting consequences for French party politics.

 

All that being said, the Covid-19 crisis has changed everything. Though Joe Biden is clearly the presumptive nominee, he has revealed himself to be wholly unprepared to rise to the occasion—he’s barely been able to organize a few short video addresses, and seems incapable of articulating exactly why Donald Trump’s approach to the pandemic is wrong or how he might act differently. Rumors have already begun to emerge that a dark horse figure like Andrew Cuomo might swoop in to relieve Biden of the nomination (Cuomo has vigorously denied any intention of doing this). Sanders has remained in the race, and has been primarily using his platform to host virtual roundtables with Congressional allies, union leaders and activists to articulate a more expansive plan for economic and health relief, while also highlighting the situation of frontline workers. He has also shown some leadership in the Senate, helping to ensure that the new CARES Act includes an expansion of unemployment insurance. I think it’s fair to say that Sanders’s response to the virus is far more politically sophisticated and competent than Biden’s. Whether this will be enough to give him the massive boost he needs in the upcoming primaries (assuming these can be held adequately via mail later this summer) to remain a serious political competitor to Biden is another question.

 

At this point, however, there is far too much uncertainty to attempt any sort of prediction. We don’t know if the three septugenarians currently running for president will remain in good health through November. We don’t know if mass death and suffering, combined with the coming economic depression, will guarantee Trump’s defeat in November (fear of such an outcome seems to be what keeps bringing Trump back from the brink of enacting the most reckless policies to “restart the economy”), or if he will get the credit for the positive effects of the CARES Act cruise to victory as a wartime president. We don’t even know if the remaining primaries, or even the general election in November will take place as scheduled. I doubt the general election will be canceled, but I have serious doubts that sufficient vote-by-mail or even basic safety precautions for in-person voting will be implemented in time (remember Iowa?).

 

What is clear is that somehow or other, Covid-19 will dramatically change American (and world) politics, though what this change will look like remains as uncertain as anything else. In recent weeks—as Nancy Pelosi insisted on “means-testing” coronavirus relief, while some Republicans embraced somewhat more ambitious plans like Universal Basic Income—some people began to speculate that the Democrats would allow Republicans to “outflank” them by providing more ambitious social protections, but that does not seem to have happened. However conservative some Democratic leaders have remained, the critical mass of the American right is just as committed to its version of the status quo. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that certain settled ideas in American life, like tying healthcare to employment status, will be able to survive the public health and economic crises. Even if the political class continues to drag its feet, we are already seeing a rapidly growing wave of labor militancy—brought about by the desperate conditions workers face in many of the essential sectors such as the grocery industry, delivery, transit, and sanitation—that may eventually force their hands.
Photo credit: Screenshot from Bernie Sanders’s livestream, “AOC, OMAR, TLAIB AND BERNIE ON CORONAVIRUS: LIVE ROUNDTABLE,” via Youtube (intended for fair use).
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