When in Doubt, Blame Bernie

If Bernie Sanders as one person can bring down an entire party’s electoral chances while no longer running for the presidency, that says more about the party’s weaknesses than anything. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

As Democratic Party operatives would have you believe, if Joe Biden fails to win the 2020 presidential election, it won’t be because he’s a weak candidate who doesn’t generate enthusiasm. It won’t be that he squandered a double-digit polling lead running against a buffoonish, cartoonishly stupid incumbent in Donald Trump whose administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic leaves something to be desired—and that’s putting it charitably. It won’t be that he, the nominee with the backing of an entire party, failed to make his case to Americans of voting age.

Nope, if Biden loses in November, it will be because Bernie Sanders didn’t do enough to rally his base and donors. Oh, and something about Russia and China, too. Those countries are always lurking, waiting to mess with our steez.

While not to completely dismiss legitimate foreign attempts to hack or influence our elections, that Democratic loyalists are already concocting excuses for Biden should give us pause. For progressives in particular, it should be as galling as it appears.

What is Bernie doing or not doing to raise the concerns of Biden’s backers? Because everything ultimately comes down to money for the Democratic Party establishment, he’s not raising funds for the former vice president and is daring—gasp!—to focus on races other than the presidential race.

A June 21 report appearing in The Hill by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Easley found that some Democrats unaffiliated with the Biden campaign are “worried that their party unity is fraying five months out from the presidential election as several contested primaries pitting progressives against mainstream Democrats go down to the wire.” In particular, they are afraid that Bernie has been “consumed with down-ballot elections at the expense of promoting Biden’s bid for the White House” and that he “needs to do more to make sure progressives fall in line behind Joe Biden in November.”

The very language of these reservations fails to appreciate key elements of the progressive mindset. For one, Democrats—progressives included—arguably haven’t focused on down-ballot politics enough, the potential existential threat that President Trump represents notwithstanding. Establishment Dems tend to regard primary challenges from the left as threats to the order of things, believing the debates raised within this context to be divisive exercises that only serve to weaken the winner’s chances in the general election. Progressives, meanwhile, see these intraparty battles as needed efforts to push the party left if not remove do-nothing incumbents from their ranks. Progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is so popular precisely because she symbolizes real, representative change for her district and for the Democratic Party as a whole.

In addition, the idea that progressives should be expected to “fall in line” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how many leftists approach politics. For progressives, especially younger voters, a candidate’s policies and their commitment to humanitarian values are what are most likely to drive turnout. It is not as if Bernie or any other progressive politician should be expected to be able to crack the proverbial whip and bring their followers to heel. These supporters are free thinkers who must be talked to and wooed, not talked at and coerced into making a deeply inauthentic choice. In this sense, the voters have the ultimate power, not the political figures and party leaders seeking to dictate their agenda.

With these things in mind, that even someone as revered on the left as Bernie couldn’t be expected to compel some progressives to vote—let alone spend their hard-earned money during a period of pandemic-fueled economic downturn to bolster a candidate they have to accept begrudgingly—should be well understood to someone like Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton adviser cited in the piece.

Instead, Reines et al. either don’t understand this much—or they do and just willfully disregard it. From the article:

Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Clinton, said that the biggest area of need from Sanders is on the fundraising front. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised $6 million at a virtual fundraiser for Biden. Another event co-hosted by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) raised $3.5 million.

Sanders, who crushed his competitors in fundraising during the primary “could in one hour raise Biden north of $10 million, and the symbolism would be worth twice that,” Reines said.

“The opportunity cost of him not doing significant events of any type isn’t simply leaving money on the table. It can be construed that he’s not fully on board,” Reines added.

It can be construed that way, Mr. Reines, yes—if you’re a f**king idiot. Bernie dropped out in April, before many of his supporters and likely some objective observers were probably anticipating he would, his mounting primary losses aside. Even while campaigning, he repeatedly referred to Biden as his “friend,” seeming to pull punches when he perhaps should’ve gone for the jugular. As the Parnes and Easley piece also notes, he has appeared in a virtual event with Biden and has told his supporters to tone down their attacks on Biden, saying publicly it would be “irresponsible” not to vote for his one-time rival for the Democratic Party nomination.

Anyone remotely familiar with the state of U.S. politics today gets it—winning elections costs money. At least as far as the current system is construed, even down-ballot races can cost millions and millions of dollars. By the same token, however, money isn’t everything. At this writing, Charles Booker is leading Amy McGrath in the Kentucky Democratic Party primary for the right to take on Mitch McConnell and oust the Senate Majority Leader despite being more than $40 million short in the fundraising department.

What’s more, the Biden campaign reportedly raised more money in May than the Trump campaign—even without Bernie’s help. Sure, there’s something to be said for not being complacent even with Biden’s advantage in the polls. Then again, if the aim is to change the hearts and minds of members of problem constituencies on an ideological front, throwing more money at them isn’t necessarily going to do the trick when money in politics is already seen as a big problem and when the core message hasn’t much changed. When Medicare for All is automatically off the table, for instance, how do you appeal to people who are struggling financially and might have lost their health insurance as a function of losing their jobs? Having “access to affordable health care” means less when you’re struggling to meet even your basic needs.

Instead, as noted earlier, the focus is on what Bernie is doing or not doing, as it was with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Not, you know, why Joe Biden isn’t more visible or whether he can get through a scripted event with a teleprompter, let alone lead the country. As usual, it’s progressives who have to answer for the theoretical failures of the centrist candidate—and more than five months from the general, this is all pure conjecture—because they didn’t win the election for them. Evidently, seeing Bernie lose in back-to-back primaries isn’t enough salt in the wound.


At this point, the Democratic Party’s inability to accept responsibility for its absence of a coherent winning electoral strategy or party platform borders on the pathological. Picking up with Hillary, she evidently hasn’t forgiven Bernie Sanders for—allow me to check my notes here—doing all that campaigning for her leading up to the election four years ago.

Rather than own up to her own shortcomings and acknowledge where her campaign went wrong, she’s opining from her Hulu documentary series (!) about how no one likes Bernie and how no one wants to work with him. After seeing her endorse Eliot Engel only to see him fall to earth against his progressive primary challenger Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th congressional district, Hillary’s negative appraisal might be more of a blessing than a curse. Besides, one shouldn’t go to Capitol Hill expecting to be well liked or to sit at the cool kids’ table. You’re there to represent and serve your constituents first and foremost.

Alas, this is the pattern with the Democrats. Al Gore didn’t lose to George W. Bush because he is a cyborg. No, it’s because of Ralph Nader and third-party voters. Forget all the Florida Democrats who voted for Bush instead of Gore. Forget that Gore couldn’t even carry his own home state. 20 years after the fact, Dems are more apt to forgive Bush himself, a bonehead who, with his administration’s help, manufactured an entire g-d war, than Nader, a lifelong consumer protection advocate and champion for environmentalism and governmental reform. This would all be laughably absurd if not for the fact that the Democrats outside of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been losing winnable elections for the better part of three decades. Some have been close calls and not without their share of shenanigans, but some might argue they shouldn’t have been that close to begin with.

Could Bernie do some fundraising for Joe Biden? Sure. Knowing Bernie’s draw, with the backing of the Democratic Party national infrastructure, he probably would do quite well. As critically important as this upcoming presidential election is, though (when isn’t the election an important one?), the movement progressives are building is also vital in breathing life into a party and a political system marked by rigid exclusion of people outside “elite” spheres of influence.

To have one of its standard-bearers shill for donations and risk alienating adherents, thereby blunting that momentum, would be counterproductive in its own right. Disappointed as I was by Bernie’s early departure from the presidential race and subsequent endorsement of Biden, I’ve never felt outright betrayed by him. To have him pump me for money or if—God forbid—Bernie ever gave away access to his campaign’s donor roll to the DNC, I know I’d feel different. People less forgiving than me might up and revolt against the Democratic Party altogether. You can only mess with people for so long.

The Democratic Party is a “big tent” party to be sure. Being petty and accusing certain members of not doing enough—members who are technically independents, a notion party leaders and supporters alike will invoke whenever they choose to denigrate progressives in the Sanders mold as not “true Democrats,” mind you—obscures the structural deficiencies the party faces.

“When in doubt, blame Bernie.” Fine, but if one man who’s no longer running can bring down an entire party infrastructure, quite frankly, that says more about the party than him.

New Jersey’s Got Some Impressive Progressives Running for Office

Arati Kreibich is one of a number of strong progressive candidates looking to make change in the political machine state of New Jersey. (Photo Courtesy of Arati for Congress)

Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.

When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.

There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.

In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.

As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.

Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.

In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.

As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.


Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”

One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.

AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.

While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.

Why not now?