No, Bernie Shouldn't Run Again
I have an essay out for Persuasion on how a lack of rigor prevents students from accessing one of the most important elements of education, learning what they’re not good at. Also, Sam Kriss has recently started a Substack. He’s one of the most talented essayists out there and I hope you’ll join me in reading.
Given my respect and admiration for the man, I take little pleasure in arguing that Bernie Sanders should not run for president in 2024. I will therefore do so without ceremony. In short, he’s too old, he’s lost twice already, and the left needs to move on.
In October of 2024, the height of election season, Bernie Sanders will turn 83 years old. I think it’s irresponsible to elect someone so old to the most powerful office on Planet Earth. We’re already breaking new ground with the age of Joe Biden, and yet in fall of 2020 he was still a half-decade younger than Bernie Sanders will be at a similar part of the election process. I simply don’t think it’s fair to ask Sanders to take on that burden at his age, nor do I think that age is conducive to the brutal grind of presidential elections, nor do I think it makes sense to nominate someone for the office who stands such an elevated chance of dying during their term. (The median male life expectancy of a man in the United States is, depending on what data you look at, something like 75 years old.) Sanders already suffered a heart attack on the campaign trail in 2019. Even though he shows no signs of the cognitive decline that afflicted Ronald Reagan and perhaps afflicts Biden, it’s asking too much of a person that age to carry the weight of the presidency. The more cynical side of me fears that electing Sanders means more or less electing his running mate, who would almost certainly have to be more of a corporate centrist to balance the ticket.
We live, unfortunately, under a gerontocracy, with politicians like Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein refusing to leave the stage despite their obvious infirmities. I can understand feeling that it’s unfair to hold age against Bernie given that they still are in office. (For the record, I’m not pushing for Sanders to retire from the Senate before he’s ready.) But at some point we have to start to say that enough is enough, and to clear the way for people from outside of the Silent Generation to lead. And I don’t want Sanders to be elected only for health issues and concerns about his cognitive competence to dominate his term, especially given how little he could expect to get through Congress. Already with the younger Biden, concerns about cognitive decline are relentless.
But first you’d have to actually elect him, which brings him to my second and more contentious point. I again find myself in the position of having to remind people that Bernie lost, twice. Twice, Bernie Sanders put his hat in the ring as a nominee for the presidency under the Democratic ticket. Twice his races inspired and helped to expand our sense of the possible in the electoral space. Twice he lost decisively to more centrist candidates supported by the party establishment. A large amount of leftist mythology has emerged from the 2016 and 2020 primary campaigns, mythology that says essentially that Bernie didn’t lose, that he was cheated. There are some kernels of truth to this idea – the Democratic establishment was clearly aligned against him, and the superdelegate system was indeed an anti-democratic crock. But the various machinations by party officials don’t undermine the fact that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden earned significantly more votes and won more states than Sanders did in their respective primaries. You can complain bitterly about the (in)famous influence Barack Obama asserted to get other candidates to drop out in support of Biden, but ultimately Democratic voters had their say. Bernie was particularly hurt by his difficulties getting Black moderates to support him, given their great influence on Democratic party politics, especially in the Midwest and South. The simple reality is that Sanders earned 3 million fewer votes in the 2016 primary than Hillary Clinton and fully 10 million fewer in 2020 than Joe Biden. He and his movement inspired, but they lost.
To reiterate, Bernie performed worse in 2020 than in 2016 by most metrics. So even the trend looks bad. There’s no reason to believe he’d win a 2024 primary, certainly not against Biden as an incumbent (which he probably would not attempt) but also probably not against a Gavin Newsome or even Pete Buttigieg, both of whom would not suffer as much pushback from the party.
We shouldn’t be too shocked by this result. The simple reality is that the Democrats are a centrist party. This isn’t mere rhetoric employed by party hacks to justify the status quo. Among registered Republicans, 75% self-identify as conservatives; among Democrats, only 50% identify as liberal. While I believe there has been some meaningful leftward drift in the past decade, the Democrats are a centrist party and the Republicans a far-right party. There’s no shame in Bernie failing to capture a presidential nomination in that context. We have little choice but to continue to use the Democratic party as a vehicle for change, but it seems very unlikely to me that the third time will prove to be the charm in 2024. Arguably the institutional forces within the party would push even harder against him now. Yes, I believe Bernie would have won in 2016. But winning a primary is a not-insignificant first step, and I don’t think the powers that be will allow it.
Finally, I find it depressing that we even have to have this conversation, as the left should have a newer, younger champion by now. This has been the most discouraging aspect of the Bernie Sanders experience, for me, not even Bernie’s losses themselves but rather the failure of the Sanders machine to groom heirs. One of the most ballyhooed elements of the Bernie campaigns, in both election years, was his extensive online infrastructure and ground game. Few left-leaning people could have avoided all of his pleas for donations in 2016 and 2020. This infrastructure was not supposed to die with the campaigns; it was frequently said that they would eventually be brought to bear in support of other leftist candidates, so that the Bernie Sanders movement became about more than the man himself. But this is a dog that hasn’t barked. I’m unaware of any major candidates who have grown in prominence due to the use of Bernie’s machine, and right now there are few to take his place on the national scene. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enjoys left-wing celebrity, and I’ve been mildly pleased by her performance since her 2018 election, but she does not enjoy anything like Sanders’s national prominence. (In the most important election of her life, the one that essentially sealed her position as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, she received less than 16,000 votes in her primary against Joe Crowley.) “The Squad,” in general, is a positive force in the world, support for constant escalation in Ukraine notwithstanding, but none of them are likely to enjoy the cross-cultural appeal of Sanders, in part because they labor under the burdens of racism and sexism. Perhaps John Fetterman could one day take over as the leftist standard-bearer for the Democrats, but he first has to actually win office in divided Pennsylvania and faces serious health challenges himself. The cupboard looks bare, and it’s a deep indictment of the left.
It shouldn’t be so hard to find a new champion. That online machine built by Sanders’s team should have been employed in cultivating a specific leftist champion that we could rally behind. We’ve had about seven years since Sanders first started campaigning, after all. The fact that there aren’t any obvious replacements for Bernie speaks to the failures of the broader American socialist project. We have generated a lot of noise but little change, and a truly leftist president seems no closer to me now than it did in 2016. And I think all of us should be self-critical about how little we have built outside of the cult of personality around Sanders, these past six years.
The caveat to all of this is that, if I’m forced to pull a lever for either Bernie or Buttigieg or Newsome or Kamala Harris in the spring of 2024, I’ll pull it for Bernie. He best represents my values. But I think it’s a sad state of affairs that I would be forced to do so, I question whether he would be physically capable of running or serving, and I don’t think he would win. I love Bernie. But it’s time to move on.