Bernie Sanders Is Working To Build A New Winning Coalition

Bernie Sanders Workers

Chris Cillizza believes that Bernie Sanders’ one-dimensional campaign is hurting him badly.

Sanders is — sorry Sanders people! — surprisingly one-dimensional as a candidate. When he is talking about the differences between the haves and the have nots, about the need for more economic fairness, why we need to reform the campaign finance system or work to address global warming, he is terrific. When he is talking about anything else, he is, um, not.

Sanders built a movement in the early days of the race on the passion he exudes from every pore when talking about economic inequality. The contrast between Sanders’s “people powered” campaign and the top heavy, corporate feel of Hillary Clinton’s effort was striking.  And, Sanders is, without question, closer to the true heart of the Democratic party than Clinton on the vast majority of domestic issues.

The problem for Sanders is that external events changed the conversation in the race and he has been unwilling or unable to change with it. Talking about economic inequality in the midst of a national debate about gun control and national security won’t lose Sanders the ardent supporters he already has. But, it will badly hamstring his ability to grow beyond the supporters he already has in what is, essentially, a one-on-one race with Clinton at the moment. (Sorry Martin O’Malley!)

I can see where Cillizza could see the campaign as being too one-dimensional. At times I do wish that Sanders would devote more time other issues I’m more concerned about, but Cillizza also misses the point of Sanders’ strategy, along with exaggerating the degree to which the campaign is one-dimensional. While it is true that Sanders concentrates on economic fairness, he has spoken on other major issues during the campaign, even if not as often.

Bernie Sanders is running on his own version of “it’s the economy stupid.” Whether this is a brilliant strategy which will get him nominated and elected president, or whether it is hurting his campaign, won’t be apparent until we see how the voting goes. There is evidence suggesting that just maybe the strategy will work.

David Weigel showed where it might work in areas where the Obama coalition was weak, such as in West Virginia:

Sanders, who has won elections only in a white, rural state, thinks his brand of bold democratic socialism can sell. He has never campaigned here, yet at Friday’s rally in Morgantown, miner after miner said they basically agreed with the former mayor of Burlington more than they agreed with Clinton. Several were aware that Sanders had walked picket lines, something that resonated as they packed a hotel ballroom to demand that Washington fully fund UMWA pensions.

After looking at criticisms of this approach, Weigel continued:

But Sanders believes that such naysayers are missing the weight of his cardinal argument — for greater economic fairness — and voters’ willingness to look past the other issues where they disagree.

He has won elections in Vermont, a white, rural, gun-owning state, as a socialist. The social-issue “distractions” bemoaned by red-state Democrats have seemed to bounce right off his armor. (He has taken mixed positions on gun control, supporting a ban on assault rifles, for instance, but opposing the Brady Bill.) In the end, is the white guy who voted for him in Vermont any different than the white guy in West Virginia or Kentucky or Ohio who was told to blame liberals for his problems?

“What I’ve found in Vermont and around the country is that we go to people and say, ‘Look, we do have differences,’ ” Sanders said. “ ‘I believe in gay marriage. I’m not going to change your view if you don’t. I believe climate change is absolutely real, and some of you do not. But how many of you think we should give hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the richest 1 percent?’ ”

Booman sees a plausible way that Sanders could capitalize on the rage which Donald Trump is using to propel his campaign, which he compared to the George Wallace campaign of 1972.  He sees Sanders expanding the Democratic coalition in 2016 like George McGovern did when he brought together the hard hats, the “peace freaks,” urban blacks, and others to win the Democratic nomination. Plus he points out how demographics have changed since 1972 to allow such a coalition to also win the general election:

…it’s a socialist running for the nomination of the other party who is working on the theory that a lot of Wallace rage is soft and not particularly partisan or ideological. It is only loosely attached to Trump who is, anyway, basically a clown act [with this written before the latest outrageous statement from Trump].

The problem for McGovern was that the coalition of freaks and hardhats was big enough to win him the nomination but too small and fragile to even compete in the general. Sanders’ theory of the case is that the overmatched McGovern coalition is really about the same thing (sans most of the hardhats) as the twice victorious Obama coalition. Demographic changes have flipped the odds. If Sanders can bring back in some of the disaffected hardhats, he could create a progressive revolution in this country based less on identity politics than on class consciousness.

Sanders is concentrating on building a coalition around economic issues because he believes that this is what has a chance of both beating Hillary Clinton and winning a general election. While I might like to hear more from Sanders on foreign policy, civil liberties, and social issues, these might be a distraction to this goal. Besides the other choices with a reasonable chance to win are DLC Democrat (i.e. Republican-lite) candidate Hillary Clinton, and the even more conservative Republican candidates. This leaves Sanders as the only real option for those who oppose neoconservative militarism, the surveillance state, the drug war, government corruption, and conservative outlooks on civil liberties and social issues.

We know Sanders is on our side from his past record regardless of how much he concentrates on these issues during the campaign. Unlike Clinton, we know that the positions he has held throughout his career mean something. Sanders is already doing well with many of the well-educated, affluent Democrats who voted for Obama and are outside the obvious target audience for his economic pitch. Now the question is whether he can expand the Obama coalition based upon economic issues and win.