In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton, many people are wondering how it could have been avoided. A common explanation I’ve seen a lot on social media, is that if only the Democrats had chosen Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump certainly would have been defeated. Only Sanders had the principles and honesty to mobilise and enthuse people to counter Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric. Some even go further claiming that the DNC rigged or even stole the election from Sanders.
The argument goes like this. Clinton was an extremely unpopular candidate who many voters saw as untrustworthy and too close to the establishment. In contrast, Sanders had very high favourability ratings and was seen as very honest. The opinion polls consistently showed Sanders with a massive lead over Trump, often double the lead that Clinton had. Sanders would have been able to tap into the strong anti-establishment feeling that was so dominate in America this year. He would have boosted turnout and been a huge motivator to Democrats and independents. He would have won over the white working class, especially in the rust belt that swung the election to Trump.
Now let me be clear, I was a huge Sanders supporter, I supported him from the moment he declared he would run and I even donated to his campaign. I would have loved if he became President. But I feel that the internet can often be an echo chamber. Young people overwhelmingly supported Sanders and overwhelm most internet forums. Everyone I know supported Sanders, so it’s easy to feel that he would have certainly won. But my friends and the blogs I read are not representative of America. So while I would love if Sanders was the President, I don’t think it would have been as easy and as guaranteed as others are claiming.
First, let’s get one thing clear. The DNC did not rig or steal the primary. In fact, the DNC doesn’t have control over the primary, it’s in the hands of the state parties. Some have claimed that the Democratic establishment was biased or favourable to Clinton, but is it really shocking that politicians have political opinions? How could this be avoided other than by banning endorsements? Voters shouldn’t be seen as sheep, blindly following the establishments orders (surely the victory of Trump debunks that), millions of people voted for Clinton because they liked her better, not because they were ordered to. No one has been able to explain how one or two leaked questions (which were extremely predictable) convinced millions of people to change their vote to Clinton.
Nor can super-delegates be blamed, Clinton won a majority of pledged delegates. Nor was there a lack of media coverage, Sanders made headlines nearly every day during the race. Nor can the structure of the primary be blamed, granting only Democrats the privilege of choosing the Democratic party candidate is completely reasonable. Were the roles reversed, some would certainly claim that Clinton stole the election through undemocratic caucuses.
There is absolutely no evidence of fraud. Clinton received 3 million more votes, so if she stole the election, this would require an unprecedented fraud operation that would be enormous in size. She consistently led in all the opinion polls. However, this election has seen a huge growth in sensationalist, clickbait and fake news websites. I have seen numerous articles with dramatic headlines claiming evidence of fraud that are based on exaggerations or events that never happened. Sanders himself has completely rejected the notion that the primary was rigged. Clinton won because she received 16.9 million votes, while Sanders only received 13.2 million.
So while Sanders, certainly did have high favourability and polled very well against Trump, this is somewhat misleading because Sanders had never really been attacked by Republicans. Clinton had been demonised for twenty years, whereas most Republicans had never heard of Sanders. Do you really think the Republicans would have been soft or gentle to a non-Christian socialist? They would have thrown a mountain of dirt at him. Clinton was certainly unpopular but negative opinions of all politicians and all nominees have been rising for decades as the country becomes more polarised. Even minor issues like her emails were blown completely out of proportion, so it’s naïve to think that the same wouldn’t have been done to Sanders.
Sanders has some excellent policies to tackle inequality and introduce public healthcare, but these require taxes and to most Americans, taxes are a dirty word. To be in favour of taxes automatically loses you a lot of support and the Republicans would have constantly hammered him on this point. The only word worse than taxes is socialist, which many Americans associate with Stalin, starvation and the gulags. Trump dragged the discourse with Clinton through the mud and he would have done the same against Sanders. Sanders would have had to deal with wild accusations, bizarre claims and ridiculous conspiracy theories. If a moderate like Obama can be called a socialist, imagine the kind of Red Scare Sanders would have faced? For example, Sanders took his honeymoon in the Soviet Union which would probably be evidence for Breitbart that he is a Soviet spy. 2016 has shown that you can blatantly lie about your opponent and voters will believe you.
Speaking of dirty words, Atheist would have probably been thrown around a lot too. Sanders has kept his religion to himself, which some would interpret as meaning he has something to hide. Even being Jewish is not much of an improvement on being an Atheist in the eyes of some people. The silly displays of religion would have gotten even worse as Republicans tripped over themselves to highlight how Christian they were. To many Americans, Atheism is the definition of immorality and sin, something completely disqualifying for a President. Trump will believe literally any conspiracy theory, so he probably would have spread bizarre nonsense about religion being under attack and other lies.
In the race between Clinton and Trump, there was a strange false dichotomy that one side was as bad as the other, that Clinton was somehow just as bad and as untrustworthy as Trump. This is absolute rubbish, but that didn’t stop the media. Had Sanders been nominated, the narrative would probably have been that both sides were just as extreme as the other. Sanders would have been portrayed as the Trump of the Democratic party, a wild and unconventional candidate. Sanders would have had difficulty uniting the party behind him, a fact that would have been gleefully picked up on by his opponents to claim the party was divided and split.
There may have even been a major 3rd party candidate aiming to capture the centre vote between the two extremes. Michael Bloomberg seriously considered running this year and could have presented himself as the sane and reasonable alternative. I’ll admit that 3rd parties are something of a wild card and it’s hard to know how they could have affected the election, but it’s possible that they could split the moderate vote or at least prevent it from going to Sanders and given the election to Trump.
Could Sanders have beaten Trump among the white working class? It’s certainly possible, his policies would have a lot of appeal for them. However, class is not a major issue in America and people don’t really vote among class lines. How else can you explain how working class people voted for a billionaire? While economics was a factor in the Trump victory, it shouldn’t be overstated. Trump didn’t support unions and wanted massive tax cuts for the rich, so all he offered the working class was vague promises of turning back the clock to when there were still major factories in America. Even in his speeches, Trump never mentioned inequality, instead “political correctness” was the villain destroying America. Race was just as important as economics, if not more so. Trump’s campaign was largely based on identity politics, specifically white male identity.
While some believe Sanders could have had the best of both worlds, it’s possible that he could have had the worst. Sanders would have challenged Trump for the white vote, but there’s no guarantee he would have won it. After all, Clinton beat Sanders among the rust belt states (like Ohio and Pennslyvania) in the primaries and most swing states too (Florida, North Carolina, Virginia). Even if he did, Sanders performed poorly among non-white voters, especially black people. Perhaps his gains among whites would have been offset by losses among blacks and Hispanics.
Perhaps examining the British example is informative. After years of leadership under centrist leaders similar to Clinton, in 2015 the British Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn, a radical leftist similar to Sanders, as its leader. However, since the he has faced major difficulties. The party is divided, with most of the establishment considering him too radical and unelectable. Labour was unable to exploit the Brexit fiasco because the party choose that moment to implode into squabbling. The media has been relentlessly hammering Corbyn with scandals real and imagined, and there has been some success in painting him as an out of touch extremist. We’ll have to wait until the next election to see the full effect, but it should serve as a warning to those who think that Sanders could have strolled to victory.
Or maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe Trump’s victory has made me too negative and despairing. Perhaps Sanders would have won. Perhaps he would have been able to mobilise the Democratic base and ride a wave of enthusiasm to the White House. He could have challenged Trump for the white male vote while holding the ethnic minority vote. His honesty and principles could have highlighted the dishonesty and opportunism of Trump. There would be threat of investigations or email nonsense to distract us from Trump’s very many and very real scandals. The rise of Trump has debunked a lot of the political conventional wisdom like the importance of moderation and political endorsements. Perhaps he could have beaten Trump, won back Congress and implemented the progressive policies that America so desperately needs.
I wish this did happen and maybe it would have, but we can’t pretend it would have been a guaranteed easy victory.