As the dust settles after one of the most extraordinary elections in American history, the hot takes as to why things happened as they did have only just begun. Many will try and reduce the result to ‘economic anxiety’ motivating white working-class voters. Others will blame right-wing media outlets for consistently fanning the flames of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Yet more will claim that it is the result of a politically disenfranchised electorate voting against ‘the establishment’. While there may be truth to all these claims, the actual causes of election results are always murky and multi-facted, and take years of work to truly understand. However, there is one claim being thrown around that I want to rebut as soon as possible: the claim that Bernie Sanders would have won had he been the candidate.
After every election defeat, the most tempting course of action is to blame the choice of candidate and wax lyrical about who they defeated; Labour would have won in 2015 if David Miliband had beaten his brother, Angela Eagle would have beaten Jeremy Corbyn, etc. These claims overlook the blemishes in the defeated candidate, oversimplify and are rarely, if ever, true. Hillary Clinton was by no means a perfect candidate, but let’s look at the reasons why Bernie Sanders would have been no better.
The ‘S’ word
One of the most cited reasons for Sanders’ supposed superior candidature was polling during the primary elections showing him leading Trump by 10 points, while Clinton held a lead of only 3.2. While at face value this makes the idea of Sanders being a better candidate a no-brainer, it is misleading. The fact is most Americans did not know who Sanders was before, and even during, the race. Sanders was an Independent Senator from Vermont who had no real impact on American political life until this election. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is one of the best-known, longest-serving American politicians and intimately tied to the life and deeds of a former President. When presented with an option they don’t much like (i.e. Trump v Hillary), people tend to go for any alternative, even if they don’t know much about what it entails. Indeed, their lack of knowledge is often a plus, as it allows them to project what they want onto a blank canvas.
While this lack of knowledge about Sanders may have made him more attractive during the primaries, this advantage would have evaporated if he’d become the candidate. Sanders is the only American politician who happily self-identifies as a socialist. While that may win him plaudits among young college graduates in the US and the British left, to the majority of the American public socialism means punitive taxes, repression and ‘the Reds’. The US is a country just 30 years on from Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ and 40 years from the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ironically, the favoured candidate of Russia is now the Republican President-elect, but this would not have stopped Trump portraying Sanders as an unpatriotic, subversive member of the ‘globalist elite’. Bernie Sanders is by all accounts a decent, honest and principled man who works tirelessly for his state and country, but no serious person can contend that a Jewish socialist who wants to abolish University fees and greatly increase the intake of refugees would have beaten a white nationalist insurgency.
While some have tried to claim that Clinton represented some kind of white establishment elite that deterred people of colour, this is simply not borne out in fact. Exit polls show Hillary winning 88% of black voters – only 5% less than Obama in 2012. Similarly, Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination thanks to African-Americans, who broke for her by as much as 92% in some states. To the irritation of many (mainly white) people on the left, black voters liked Clinton an awful lot more than Sanders. As New Statesman special correspondent Stephen Bush frequently noted, there was a certain patronising assumption among such people that Clinton’s African-American base were ‘less well-informed or fixed in their views’ than Sanders supporters, while in fact they had many good reasons for their preference.
This is not to say that a Clinton presidency would have been better for black Americans than a Sanders one; indeed, there are very valid arguments to be made that it wouldn’t have. However, we cannot simply ignore the fact that Clinton was very popular among black voters. While African-Americans would still have opted for Bernie over Trump, one cannot judge the effects his candidacy would have had on turnout, and in marginal states where turnout among African-Americans is so important, the Democrats could not afford to lose a single voter.
A third candidate?
As the primary season drew on and it became increasingly possible that Trump and Sanders could be 2016’s presidential candidates, the American political establishment went into meltdown. The idea of the fate of the US being in the hands of either a self-described socialist or an unhinged white nationalist on an ego trip was too much for the much-feted ‘elite’, and there was much talk of a centrist independent candidate, with Michael Bloomberg openly floating the idea of his running. It is very possible that this scenario would have arisen if Sanders had won, splitting the anti-Trump vote down the middle. Even if this eventuality did not come to pass, Sanders simply would not have won the same endorsements from economists, media outlets and former Presidents that Clinton did. While it can be argued that all these endorsements did was add to the perception that Hillary was the ‘establishment’ candidate, it would have been incredibly difficult to sell a socialist vision that arouses suspicion among many without the backing of at least some of the established order, as Ed Miliband found in 2015.
While one cannot be certain that Bernie wouldn’t have won, I have tried to outline the reasons why I think it unlikely. It is easy to apportion blame on the most visible things after any failure, and everyone, from public servants to celebrities, from ministers to football managers, sees themselves get made a scapegoat for failure. In all situations, we should be wary of such easy explanations.