Bern It All Down

Bernie Sanders leaves Iowa with the best of all worlds: As both victor and victim.
February 6, 2020
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What could possibly go wrong.

After a stunning display of technological ineptitude which replaced anticipation with bewilderment and fatigue, the Iowa caucuses have finally fumbled at leisure their storied—if dubious—role as America’s presidential gatekeeper. Thirty-six hours after the caucuses finished, a third of the vote was still floating in the ozone. On Thursday morning, the vote still wasn’t fully tabulated.

Worse, Iowa left the campaigns quarreling over not one result, but three: a first count of caucusgoers’ preferences; a second tally taken after eliminating candidates beneath the 15 percent threshold; and the actual allocation of delegates to the convention based on the party’s arcane formula—which, worse still—need not reflect the greatest plurality of voter preferences.

Confused? Then you begin to appreciate Iowa’s new role: the potential first-in-the-nation petri dish of 2020 election conspiracy theories.

Based upon the data released so far, Bernie Sanders narrowly won both the first count and is currently leading in the second count—even though the final outcome is still very much in doubt—whereupon the allocation formula gave Buttigieg slightly more state delegate equivalents. This left Buttigieg to own whatever devalued bragging rights he could extract and Sanders to harness the power of his adherents’ combustible sense of grievance and disempowerment.

But however smudged, the fun house mirror of Iowa contained a few spots of clarity. Sanders elbowed Elizabeth Warren aside among progressives, but without yet killing her off. As for the moderates, Mayor Pete trounced Joe Biden, leaving him gravely wounded, and consigned Amy Klobuchar to fifth place and a ticket to oblivion.

In the confusion, all five sped off to New Hampshire, the better to bleed each other further. Especially the moderates.

Funnily enough, this all leaves Sanders in the catbird’s seat. The ultimate meaning of Iowa may be that, for many, it invests him with the aura of both victor and victim. The most consequential prospect of all is that, frozen by fear, Democrats will not expose the flawed candidate beneath until it’s too late.

All while the specter of Michael Bloomberg looms larger.


The Sanders premise is that in the general election he will turn out voters who have never participated before, swelling the electorate in an unprecedented way which sweeps the incumbent president aside. Yet the turnout in Iowa this year barely matched the turnout of 2016 —and was dramatically down from the Obama-Clinton caucus turnout of 2008. The reality of Iowa 2020 suggests exactly the opposite of Sanders’ thesis: that Sanders turns out a committed but finite cadre of loyalists who define both his floor and his ceiling. Bernie Sanders is no Barack Obama.

Nonetheless, Sanders leads most polls in New Hampshire, where he is practically a native son and won handily in 2016. The moderates remain split, and the chaos of Iowa made him the clear frontrunner. Balkanization benefits Bernie.

His marginalization of Warren in Iowa also points to a more cosmic phenomenon with malign implications for the party at large: the vituperative attacks on Warren by Bernie’s rabid online army of political arsonists augurs ills to come. Among its highlights were snake emojis aimed at Warren; an image depicting her as a mask for Hillary Clinton; another showing her in a dark wig bearing the caption, “with Booker gone, I’m the only black candidate;” still another depicting Warren stabbing Sanders in the back. And, of course, various embellishments on Trump’s Pocahontas theme. Why traffic in ideas when metastasizing slime slakes ones shriveled, starving soul?

No reason—especially when commingled with the fascist thrill of intimidating opponents. The Boston Globe reports: “Some Warren backers have suggested that liberal groups are afraid of raising the ire of Sanders’ fiercest online defenders by endorsing Warren, making Sanders a safer choice.” The Globe quotes the head of a prominent progressive group: “It takes extra boldness to endorse Warren because of the vitriol from Bernie Twitter…”

These are not the plaints of a few oversensitive souls. At their frequent worst, the Sanders brigade hatemongers on a level replicated only by Trump’s most fervid followers—ominous indicia of an intolerance and absolutism which will further fracture the party and sicken our politics at large. The New York Times details how this works:

Yet as Mr. Sanders moves to position himself as a standard-bearer for a party he has criticized from the left for decades, the power of his internet army has also alarmed Democrats who are familiar with its underside, experienced in ways large and small.

Some progressive activists who declined to back Mr. Sanders began traveling with private security after incurring online harassment. Several well-known feminist writers said they had received death threats. A state party chairwoman changed her phone number. A Portland lawyer saw her business rating tumble on an online review site after tussling with Sanders supporters on Twitter.

Other notable targets included Ady Barkan, a prominent liberal activist with A.L.S.—whom some Sanders-cheering accounts accused of lacking decision-making faculties due to his illness as he prepared to endorse Senator Elizabeth Warren—and Fred Guttenberg, the father of a shooting victim from the 2018 Parkland massacre, who had criticized Mr. Sanders’s statements about gun violence.…

When Mr. Sanders’s supporters swarm someone online, they often find multiple access points to that person’s life, compiling what can amount to investigative dossiers. They will attack all public social media accounts, posting personal insults that might flow in by the hundreds. Some of the missives are direct threats of violence…

One target, columnist Kurt Bardella, notes the gap between the progressive pretense of these online assassins and the totalitarian sensibility they embrace:

Disturbingly, there are times where you really can’t distinguish between the tone and tactics of Trump’s # MAGA nation and Sanders’ “Bros”…

Bernie Twitter operates under the self-righteous guise of being the true progressives of the internet. This smugness distinguishes their tweets. But there’s nothing progressive about attacking members of your own party who may have reservations about the presidential candidate you support. There’s nothing progressive in having so little tolerance for different opinions that even the hint of opposition is enough to incite a virtual mob, as I and even John Legend have discovered firsthand.

For vengeful Sanders supporters, summoning mass venom is easy. The Washington Post reports that since the beginning of 2019, nearly 3,000 active Facebook pages supporting Sanders have generated more than 290 million interactions. This breeds a unique capacity to spread hatred and disinformation. “No other Democrat’s supporters,” reports the Post, “are engaged in behavior on a similar scale, which is more characteristic of the online movement galvanized by Trump.”

Further: “The hectic pace of memes spreading among Sanders supporters made some researchers suspect widespread use of automation tools and, possibly, a foreign-influence operation. Conspiratorial themes pushed in 2016 by Russian operatives, including claims about corruption in the Democratic party, have reemerged with a fury.”

Among Sanders’ competitors, Warren may have become the first target, but by no means will she be the last. As the Post notes, many pro-Sanders sites “are strikingly negative about rival Democrats, depicting former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a wine-swilling CIA plant with Republican leanings and Biden as a feckless politician who preys on women.”

That’s pretty mellow, by Bernie Bro standards, but one senses that the primary season will render them more excitable. Whoever stands in Sanders’ way may well be dog-paddling in liquid offal soon enough.


Here, a few stipulations: Sanders trolls did not invent internet sewage. They are a clear minority of his supporters. Nor, unlike Trump, does Sanders overtly incite their corrosive incivility. As politicians go, on the stump Sanders is notably averse to personal attacks.

Further, it is important to distinguish between mindless bullying and ardent support. Sanders’ adherents have some reason to dislike the status quo—for instance, the rich bundlers they understandably despise, who often expect to purchase obeisance from their candidate. And the outpouring of small online donations to Sanders is healthy for democracy.

Specifically, one should empathize with—indeed, share—the outrage of young people confronted with growing income and wealth disparities; prohibitive educational costs; an exploitive gig economy; the stranglehold of money on our politics; and, foremost, the apocalyptic climate change which will endure after after the Boomer generation is gone.

Still, the imperative to create change can engender a distrust of “moderation” and a passion for uncompromising prescriptions. And as a party, Democrats must address these problems in a meaningful way—no matter who the candidate—or it will fail our collective future. And there is no doubt that the material differences of approach within the party mandate an intense and probing discussion.

But even with all of those qualifications, it is clear that the Sanders fever swamp is real and that it is too destructive to dismiss—or for its beneficiary to tolerate.


One price of such inbred hysteria is that it foments an unreasoning hatred of compromise within the party, and of any candidate—meaning every other candidate—who deviates from Sanders’ doctrinaire “democratic socialism.” This all-or-nothing sensibility ignores that, as a practical matter, the differences among Democrats are smaller than they appear; that a President Sanders would have little hope of passing most of his agenda; or that in advancing his own agenda a President Biden or a President Buttigieg would have to please a party whose center of gravity is moving left.

But these realities elude those who see Sanders as a totemic figure: in their hothouse of the mind, anyone opposing Bernie becomes the class enemy.

Quite reasonably, sentient Democrats worry that, should Sanders lose the nomination, a significant segment of his followers will refrain from voting in November—or actively boost the next Jill Stein. A tea leaf: a recent poll of New Hampshire primary voters suggested that nearly 25 percent of Bernie’s supporters would not commit to supporting another nominee.

And why should they? Only an establishment plot can deny him now—one like the DNC conspiracy of 2016, spawned by that omnipotent Machiavelli Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which ultimately caused 3.7 million more Democratic primary voters to favor Hillary Clinton over Sanders.

Once it curdles into paranoia, this adamant sense of righteousness and victimhood poses a terrible dilemma. The Democratic party is a coalition of moderates and progressives: its racial, ideological, economic, and generational fissures mean that alienating one camp or the other will enhance Trump’s prospects in November.

Increasingly, moderates worry that Sanders’ hard-left agenda would prove a net Electoral College loser by alienating the constituencies Democrats need to carry battleground states: blue-collar workers who favored Trump in 2016; swing voters; alienated Republicans, educated suburbanites—and center-left Democrats like them. In their view, Sanders’ theory of the case involves magical thinking: that he can rally a previously disengaged group of young or low-information voters to the ideological banner of democratic socialism—a feat unprecedented in American politics—without repelling more voters than he attracts.

With some justice, they see the way that Democrats flipped the House the 2018—principally by running moderates in swing districts—as a prototype for an Electoral College win in 2020. Sanders, they believe, could fatally reverse this process, empowering Trump to sweep the dispositive swing states while shattering their party in the bargain. Put starkly, a critical mass of party officials, strategists, and leaders are petrified by the prospect of Sanders as nominee—and far too frightened of his followers to say so.


Sanders’ showing in Iowa conceals a telling indicia—a virtual absence of support among elected officials closest to the ground and the overall electorate. A week or so before the caucuses the Washington Post reported that, among 66 Democratic state legislators, 17 had endorsed Amy Klobuchar, while Warren had 11; Biden 9; and Buttigieg 5—a total of 42. Only one had endorsed Sanders.

Another Post report noted unease among Democratic candidates in congressional swing districts. Said a Democratic candidate in Iowa: “If Bernie is on the ticket as the nominee, I have no chance whatsoever.” Requesting anonymity, the candidate added: “And if you wrote that, it would blow me up in the primary. Bernie has a real following. But it’s a minority, and he turns off a whole lot of people.”

Part of the party’s unspoken dilemma is that Sanders has never been truly tested as a presidential candidate, a point that his opponents in 2020—like Hillary Clinton in 2016—refrain from raising for fear of infuriating his followers. Asks Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan: “How do you warn your party that its potential nominee is vulnerable in a general election without sinking your own campaign?”

To a remarkable degree, Sanders has avoided tough questions from his rivals about the details and costs of his “political revolution “—an intimidation factor, driven by his militant base, which pertains to Sanders alone. Writes Nyhan:

Democrats face a classic collective-action problem. The party has a strong interest in publicly vetting Sanders before he becomes its nominee, but no candidate wants to be the one to go negative on him. Instead, as with Donald Trump’s Republican opponents in 2016, other Democratic candidates are seemingly hoping to pick off Sanders voters during the primary season, or at least attract their support in November, without doing the dirty work of criticizing his record. Attacks that appear to echo potential Republican talking points are especially likely to go unsaid. As a result, large numbers of voters may not learn about Sanders’s vulnerabilities and how they might be exploited in a general election until much later in the race.

Obviously, in a general election Trump and his media and digital juggernaut will not be so decorous—not only about Sanders’ policies, but about his past. Asks Nyhan:

How many Americans know that Sanders is not just an avowed democratic socialist but a former supporter of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, which wanted to abolish the federal defense budget and supported “solidarity” with revolutionary regimes like Iran’s and Cuba’s? Do people know that he spoke positively about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution (“a very profound and very deep revolution”) and even praised the Soviet Union and criticized the United States during a honeymoon trip to the USSR? Could Sanders successfully distance himself from these statements, or would the public perceive them as disqualifying? No one knows, but the downside risk for Democrats has no precedent among front-runners in contemporary American political history.


As the primary calendar moves on, Sanders’ artificial advantages persist: An agenda his rivals fear to criticize in depth. A history they fear to probe. A party paralyzed by the conviction that he will lose key demographics it needs to win in November but that saying so would cost them a critical swath of his supporters. A rising rival, Buttigieg, who is too weak among minorities to prevail in a long fight. A fractured field of moderates which, through creating winners by plurality, creates the premature appearance of a Sanders groundswell more widespread than it actually is.

New Hampshire is poised to reinvigorate Bernie’s illusory momentum: while recent polls showed Biden within shouting distance of Sanders, Iowa tarnished his paramount claim—electability—and Buttigieg and Klobuchar are likely to further snuff Joe’s upside while fragmenting the center-left field. Should Sanders win the Granite State, the media will hyperventilate and the Sanders campaign will become an imaginary colossus fueled by people power.

No matter that, combined, Iowa and New Hampshire account for only a handful of delegates and represent so few voters you would be amazed. The margin between Sanders and Biden—between a famous victory and a flame-out—is, as of this writing, barely 19,000 votes. For comparison’s sake, the average attendance at a regular season Cubs game is 38,000 souls.

This is the scale of the universe which has been given the power to decide the future of the Democratic party.

A pittance of America’s populace will have left Democrats to cope with a newly-empowered Bernie—and a swelling sense of entitlement among those for whom no one else will do.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.