On the animated TV show Rick and Morty, mad scientist Rick Sanchez has a device that he hooks up to his family’s TV set to allow them to watch cable channels from alternate dimensions. If this sort of device really existed, it would be fascinating to see how news channels covered the election in timelines where Bernie Sanders was the Democratic nominee. I’d like to think that in most such timelines, Bernie would have won decisively on Tuesday night.
Instead of any of those, though, let’s imagine one where the election had been such a nail-biter that the networks hadn’t been able to call the presidential race for Bernie until Saturday — and that even during an economic recession and a brutally mismanaged recession on their watch, the Republicans had actually managed to pick up seats in Congress. How would centrists on that dimension’s cable news networks have talked about the result?
We don’t need to strain very hard to imagine how that would have sounded, because we’ve been hearing it anyway. The nominee wasn’t Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren but Joe Biden, a candidate so implacably opposed to the Sanders agenda that even during the initial panic of the coronavirus crisis, he infamously suggested to an interviewer that if he were elected president and Medicare for All somehow made it onto his desk, he would veto it. As late as September, he was crowing, “I beat the socialist.”
Even so, centrist Democrats and their Never Trump Republican allies are dead set on blaming the socialist left for Biden’s performance and the Democratic Party’s down-ballot failures. On a call last Thursday with a number of members of Congress, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) ranted, “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that.” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX) made similar points, while others decried “radical left” slogans like “defund the police.” Biden surrogate John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio and notorious union buster, has bluntly said that “the far left almost cost [Democrats] the election.”
It’s true that Republican attack ads sometimes tried to red-bait Democrats and fearmonger about police defunding. Then again, some of the same attack ads made a lot of hay about “the Russia hoax,” and Russiagate was typically a fixation of centrists rather than the Left. The real question is whether, when we drill down to the state level, it’s plausible that the Democrats would have had greater success if not for “Berniecrats” and the rising socialist left.
Other writers can comment on what happened in other states. But I’m absolutely certain that in my home state of Michigan, exactly the opposite is true. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the state by 10,704 votes. In 2020, Joe Biden won it by almost 150,000 votes. That didn’t happen because the trade policies Clinton and Biden both spent decades supporting suddenly became popular with laid-off factory workers in Detroit or because the way the Democrats touted former governor Rick Snyder’s endorsement of Joe Biden played well with the people whose water Snyder poisoned in Flint.
I don’t doubt that a number of factors played into Donald Trump’s loss here. Polling has consistently shown that a large majority of Michigan voters supported governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, so Trump probably lost some votes when right-wing protesters brought guns and Confederate flags to the State Capitol building to protest the lockdown and the president responded by tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” Trump’s conspicuous failure to meaningfully follow through on his 2016 promises to re-industrialize the Rust Belt was doubtless also a factor. Biden’s working-class patina, however ill-deserved, probably was, too. But demoralized Trump supporters staying home wouldn’t have saved Biden in the state if unenthusiastic Democrats had done the same.
After some initially worrying signs that Biden would repeat Hillary Clinton’s colossal mistake of failing to take the state seriously, Biden himself and former president Barack Obama eventually made appearances in the state. That alone probably made a difference. But it’s also true that the efforts of important Michigan “Berniecrats” like Abdul El-Sayed and Rashida Tlaib helped defeat Trump in the Wolverine State.
The picture painted by centrists and Never Trumpers portrays overly left-wing down-ballot candidates nearly dragging down Joe Biden. As far as I can tell, that’s exactly the opposite of what happened here.