The Speech ‘About Democratic Socialism’ That Wasn’t About It at All

June 12, 2019

Recent Polls Reveal Why There Is Panic Coming Out of Sanders HQ

By Al Giordano

If Senator Bernie Sanders, in giving a Washington DC speech today purportedly about ‘democratic socialism,’ was hoping for a similar moment to that of 2008 candidate Barack Obama’s landmark speech about race in Philadelphia, he’s not going to enjoy the results very much.

As the NY Times noticed, “His address appeared similar to one he delivered in November 2015 at Georgetown University during his first presidential bid.” It – surprise, surprise – was the same stump speech he’s been giving in four years as a presidential candidate, with a new section annexed onto it in which he quoted bad American rightwing hot-takes that had called social programs and Democrats of the past century ‘socialists’ and then proclaiming that he is for all those things that aren’t really democratic socialism, are favored pretty much by every other Democratic presidential candidate, “and that’s my version of democratic socialism.”

Sanders rattled off a list of historic Democrats and their policies: Franklin Roosevelt was called socialist, Harry Truman, too, as was Social Security, Ronald Reagan once wrote a letter to Richard Nixon saying that under John F. Kennedy’s good looks lurked Karl Marx, even Bill Clinton, Sanders noted, was called ‘socialist’ for his health care proposal (technically Hillary Clinton’s authorship, but Sanders apparently didn’t want to go there). And because all these people and policies were called socialist, Sanders said, that’s what democratic socialism is.

Except that it’s not.

It’s folly to define something by what its enemies call it.

Democratic Socialists of America – an organization that is so enthused about Sanders’ 2020 campaign that it wouldn’t allow it’s members to vote for any candidate but him in choosing which to endorse (perhaps a bit confused these days on the “democratic” part?) defines it this way:

We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.

“Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives.”

And yet for the past four years – really, the past four decades – Sanders rarely talks about worker ownership of the means of production in his variations on the same stump speech.

All Sanders accomplished today was firming up the support from those like DSA members who already on board with his campaign and who love the old time religion of his 20th century language.

The real reason for the speech is that Sanders is hemorrhaging support, mainly to another progressive, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Somehow I doubt that bunkering down into an even more ideological-sounding posture is going to get the desired result of slowing the bleeding. Warren’s growing strength is linked to her voicing similar positions in less dogmatic, more refreshing, 21st Century language, her gift for storytelling and the power of sharing her personal experiences growing up in Oklahoma. That in contrast with Sanders, Warren comes across as, gasp, liking and respecting people as people rather than trying to squeeze everybody into a box labeled “The People” plays a role, too.

A new poll out of Nevada – which will be the third state to vote next year in the Democratic nomination calendar, and the first with a significant nonwhite population to measure – shows Warren has now surpassed Sanders and is second only to Joe Biden there. It’s Biden 36 percent, Warren 19 percent, Sanders 13 percent, Pete Buttigieg 8 percent and Kamala Harris 7 percent.

In 2016, Sanders got 47 percent of the votes in the Nevada caucuses. That means that more than two-thirds of his 2016 voters are now looking elsewhere (polls from other early states Iowa and New Hampshire show the same ratio). The group Sanders has been able to hang onto is the roughly 30 percent of his 2016 voters who share his love for turgid ideological discourse: mostly white college grads who seem to think that by mimicking Hegelian dialectic it will somehow make them look less privileged and more “working class.” You know, because those coal miners in West Virginia just can’t get enough of that faux-academic pomposity.

Those numbers are similar to those of the latest national polls, too, where Warren has been showing Sanders-level strength and even surpassing him in some of the most recent surveys. The nationwide Economist/YouGov poll measure the current state of the contest at Biden 26 percent, Warren 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Buttigieg 8 percent and Harris 6 percent.

The current polling trends are apparently so worrisome to the Sanders campaign that one of its more controversial staffers, David Sirota, over on Twitter, cherry-picked data from the April, May and June Quinnipiac surveys to claim Sanders was building faster momentum than Warren: From 11 to 19 percent compared to from 12 to 15 percent. Sirota quickly got caught at his game by other pollsters and analysts who noted that back in March, in the same Quinnipiac monthly tracking poll, Sanders was at 19 percent and Warren was at four percent. So since March, the very poll cited by the Sanders aide, Sanders has grown by zero percent and Warren by 11 percent. Oops! (Nate Silver – who does understand polls better than most – commented that “Sirota’s characterization of the poll is so obviously wrong that it almost verges on gaslighting.”)

That’s right. Sanders HQ is in panic mode now over Warren’s rise and momentum and how it she is pulling many of his former supporters – as well as 2016 Clinton backers – over to her camp (in part because the latter see Warren as the Bernie Stomper). As Nate pointed out, any campaign staff that is arguing about polling numbers is usually losing. It was foolishly unprofessional of the Sanders staff to be doing so. But professional foolishness has been Sirota’s brand ever since he started dragging on Barack Obama in 2007 while promoting his previous great white hope, John Edwards.

This is not to say that the contest is over this early. It’s just clear that we might be seeing the beginning of the end for Sanders as a mainstream primary candidate. His retreat into bizarre definitions of democratic socialism that do not define it all – “I am democratic socialism” doesn’t sound democratic or socialist to anybody – seem more like the start of Sanders’ mole-like burrow down into a narrower lane: as that becomes more evident Warren will benefit more: one spirals up as the other spirals down.

It also shows how fluid this contest is and that Biden, much like Sanders, may find other candidates like Kamala Harris or Beto O’Rourke or someone else become a similar pied piper to lead his supporters elsewhere. The Warren-Sanders dynamic should be worrisome to Biden as well.

Sanders tried very hard to promote himself as the new Franklin Roosevelt today. He did so overtly and rather shamelessly. It came off as silly and egocentric. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren is through deeds not just words doing a much better channeling of Eleanor Roosevelt than Bernie is of Franklin. In politics, like life, what you do is more important than what you say.

(Comments on this and other Organize & Win content are in the backstage areas accessible by subscribers, who also vote in our straw polls and receive, via email, the Al Giordano’s América newsletter.)

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