Why did a Social Democrat make himself a target by calling himself a Democratic Socialist?

In 2016 Bernie Sanders declared himself a Democratic Socialist, and in doing so assured he’d never be president. The issue, then as now, was the “S-word.” Why would you label yourself a Socialist if you want to run for office in America?
Especially – and this part is key – if you aren’t one?
~Winter Smith

My suspicion is that Bernie Sanders never planned on winning. Either he didn’t think he could win or didn’t want to win. So, he purposely created a self-defeating campaign. Even when attacked, he would not attack back in kind or even strongly defend himself. He simply placed himself on the altar as sacrifice to the DNC gods.

Maybe he figured he never had a chance and that, no matter what he said, he was going to be attacked as a socialist. So, he decided to embrace it as rhetoric to push the Overton Window back to the left. To be fair, if not for his last campaign, there would be now far less political and public debate about many of the issues and policies he ran on.

If that was his only purpose, he succeeded on some basic level. But succeeded to what end? In a political situation where ideological rhetoric is already fairly meaningless, he further added to the confusion of labels. I’m not sure how that was clearly a net gain for society, particularly for the political left.

The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has pushed us far closer to healthcare reform than Sanders could ever hope to accomplish in all of his halfhearted campaign rhetoric. And calling it socialist healthcare reform probably wouldn’t be helpful. Most Americans already supported it. The problem was the political elite that Sanders is part of and the stranglehold of the two right wings of a one-party corporatocracy.

Sanders’ ultimate accomplishment, intentional or not, has been to act as a sheepdog to bring large segments of the political left back into the neocon fold. Did his doing so pull the Clinton Democrats from the precipice of the reactionary right-wing? Has the lesser evilism become less evil? Not that I can tell.

Now Sanders has thrown his weight behind Biden, a right-wing corporatist and deficit hawk, what could be called soft fascist, and certainly the complete opposite of socialist and (small ‘d’) democrat. You can dismiss the distinctions of social democracy and democratic socialism, as Biden is the enemy of both.

Anyway, what does this accomplish? Barring Trump dying from Covid-19 or the economy collapsing, Biden is almost guaranteed to lose bigly. For what gain did Sanders sell his soul? It might help Sanders’ career in getting favors from the DNC elite, but it won’t oust Trump from power, much less give a foothold to socialism or even moderate progressivism.

“What I really knew where Bernie, I think, has really overstepped his ground here is when his own staffers are not saying that they’re on board. Briahna Joy Gray openly tweeting, all respect in the world to Bernie Sanders, but I don’t endorse Joe. Same with David Sirota. And so my question is this. If Bernie Sanders can’t even get his own staff to vote for Joe Biden or endorse Joe Biden, what are they gonna do in the election? They don’t even have that personal loyalty and fealty to Bernie the way that his staffers do right.”
~Saagar Enjeti, co-host of The Hill’s Rising

* * *

Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, and Bernie’s Big Mistake
by Winter Smith

Who can say what he was thinking as he tattooed the S-word on his forehead? Maybe, as Merelli suggests, he wanted to shock us – and we’re certainly a nation that could do with a little shocking. And given the practical concerns of reforming the American system it mattered not whether he called himself a Social Democrat, a Democratic Socialist or an ambisexual Martian. But from the perspective of winning, though…

In c. 2016 it would have been challenging enough to win by drawing a line to your candidacy from the New Deal, but it would have been considerably easier than dealing with the line your opponents were going to draw from Stalin. This is ‘Merica and labels matter a lot more than realities, more than policies, more than voting records, and Sanders had to know this.

For the love of Roosevelt, man, just call yourself a Social Democrat!

I was baffled in 2016 and still am, and despite my support for his candidacies I have to admit to a healthy dose of frustration. Sanders is a smart guy, so why would he do something so patently self-defeating? Is he playing eight-dimensional chess and I just don’t get it? Did he want to reframe the agenda and saw a Quixotean run at the White House as the best way of doing it? To be sure, much, if not most of what defined this cycle’s Democratic campaign revolved around issues he put on the table.

But … did he ever really want to be president?

I don’t have answers, but I suspect he did more damage to his bids than his opponents did.

Et Tu, Bernie?
by Chris Hedges

Sanders, who calls himself an independent, caucuses as a Democrat. The Democratic Party determines his assignments in the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who oversees Wall Street campaign donations to Democratic candidates, offered to make Sanders the head of the Senate Budget Committee if the Democrats won control of the Senate, in exchange for the Vermont senator’s support of Clinton and the hawkish, corporate neoliberal Democratic candidates running for the House and Senate. Sanders, swallowing whatever pride he has left, is now a loyal party apparatchik, squandering his legacy and his integrity. He routinely sends out appeals to raise money for party-selected candidates, including the 2016 Democratic senatorial candidates Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Ted Strickland in Ohio and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. Sanders made a blanket endorsement of every Democrat running in the 2017 election, including the worst corporate Democrats.

There was about $6 million left from the Sanders campaign, and it was used to form an organization called Our Revolution in August 2016. The organization was set up ostensibly to fund and support progressive candidates. It was soon taken over by Weaver, who ensured that it was not registered as a political action committee (PAC), a group that can give money directly to campaigns. It was set up as a 501(c)(4), a group prohibited from having direct contact with candidates and giving donations directly to candidates. The 501(c)(4) status allowed it to take and mask donations from wealthy donors such as Tom Steyer. Sanders’ decision to quietly solicit contributions from the billionaire oligarchs who funded the Hillary Clinton campaign and control the Democratic Party betrayed the core promise of his campaign. Yet, even as he created a mechanism to take money from wealthy donors he continued to write at the bottom of his emails “Paid for by Bernie Sanders, not the billionaires.”

Eight of the 13 staffers of Our Revolution resigned in protest. The organization is now adding a PAC.

* * *

Here is another piece worth looking at. It’s by David Sirota, a speechwriter and senior adviser of the Sanders’ campaign. Even though Sanders took on the strong label of ‘socialist’, he did not fight strongly — not only having not fought hard for socialism but even for moderate progressivism; he simply did not fight. Sirota gives some reasons why. But more importantly he explains the negative consequences.

The Tyranny of Decorum
A look back on the 2020 primary
by David Sirota

Even though Biden at times pathologically lied about some of these facts (at one point he actually insisted he didn’t help write his own bankruptcy bill!), this record is verifiable, it is not in dispute. A group of us believed it was important for this record to be spotlighted — because it was good strategy and good for democracy.

We didn’t push Bernie to “attack” Biden in some sort of vicious way. We pushed him to instead simply and very explicitly cast the primary as a choice between a vision of progressive change, and Biden’s promise to his donors that “nothing will fundamentally change.”

To his credit, Bernie at times worked with us and embraced the strategy — and when he did, it was successful (see his Social Security contrast with Biden in Iowa, and see his contrast with Wine Cave Pete in New Hampshire).

At other times, though, the campaign backed off and did not seize opportunities to explicitly and continually spell out big differences between the candidates.

Ultimately, Biden was able to avoid having to constantly try to explain his offensive record. Instead, he was allowed to depict himself as a safe, electable “unity” candidate.

Was it fun to always be one of the people pushing the campaign to be more aggressive, and also eating shit on Twitter for supposedly being “toxic” for simply tweeting a few videos of Biden pushing some grotesquely retrograde policy? No, it was not fun. I have more gray hair and less stomach lining because I pushed. I’m no hero or a martyr, but I can tell you it was awful, excruciating and heartbreaking.

But it was necessary. […]

I am confident, however, that a stronger contrast would have at least put us in a better position to survive when Beto, Klobuchar, and Wine Cave Pete all fell in behind Biden to help him seal Super Tuesday.

In absence of a tough critique early on and with no day-to-day focus on his record, Biden was able to solidify an “electability” argument he didn’t deserve or earn.

According to exit polls, Biden was able to win the largest share of Democratic voters in 15 states who said health care was their top priority, even though a majority of Democratic voters in those states said they support replacing private insurance with a government run plan — a position Biden opposes.

Biden won Midwest states that have been ravaged by the trade deals that he himself supported.

Biden even won the most Democratic voters in 11 states who said climate was their top issue, despite his far weaker climate plan.

By the time our campaign was finally comfortable consistently making a strong case against him, it was after Super Tuesday and it was too late. […]

This attempt to scandalize policy criticism supposedly reflected heightened concerns about “electability” — the idea promoted by Democratic politicians and pundits being that sharp contrasts might weaken the eventual Democratic nominee against the existential threat of Trump.

And yet, history argues exactly the opposite — tough, brutal primaries often end up battle-testing nominees and making them stronger (see President Barack Obama). In the same way the minor leagues can prepare players for the major leagues, brutal intraparty contests subject the eventual standard-bearers to training, and they also suss out potential weaknesses at an early point when a party can still make a different nomination choice.

By contrast, primaries dominated by demands for “good decorum,” “unity” and “decency” create coronations — and coronations run the risk of creating nominees who are not adequately road-tested, and who are only publicly vetted in the high-stakes general election, well after the party could have made a different choice.

That is where we are now — a tyranny of decorum has given us a presumptive nominee whose record hasn’t been well scrutinized or challenged. […]

We’re in the midst of unpleasant, uncivil and impolite emergencies that threaten our country and our planet. A global pandemic won’t be stopped by niceties. The corporations profiting off the health care crisis won’t be thwarted with good manners. The fossil fuel giants intensifying the climate cataclysm won’t be deterred by gentility. And elections will not be won by prioritizing good decorum over everything else.

In short: preventing a real contrast and a real conflict over ideas only serves the establishment and its politicians who know that scrutiny will weaken their power to decide nomination contests and control the future.

But winning nomination contests without real vetting not only serves corporate power, it also jeopardizes that much-vaunted quality that parties claim to care so much about: general election “electability.”

jlalbrecht commented:

I enjoyed this long debrief, but you ignored the elephant in the room. Bernie constantly saying that any of his opponents – particularly Biden – could defeat Trump.

I don’t work in politics, but I’ve had my share of relationships in my not-so-short life, I’ve been running my own business and negotiating with clients for 25+ years, and I went through a 14-year VERY contentious child visitation/custody battle (that I won). No one in their right mind tells the girl they are trying to woo or the client they are trying to win that their competition can get the job done too. Bernie made a lot of tactical errors (IMHO) in his two presidential runs, but this was one of the biggest. In this primary, it would have been simple to point out that in 2016 everyone thought Clinton would win, and we saw how that turned out. Everyone except Bernie, and especially Joe Biden was running one version or another of Hillary 2.0.

I could list many other tactical errors, but will limit myself to one. Joe lying to Bernie’s face in the last debate, and Bernie not calling him out, made Bernie look weak af because it IS weak af. Saying people should look it up on YouTube and decide for themselves is not what people look for in a leader. Anyone who knew about their records had to think, “Is this how Bernie would handle Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi if he wins the WH?” Most of the viewers who didn’t know about their records would side with the guy who was lying confidently rather than the guy who was sheepishly deflecting to a third party (YouTube) and the viewer to decide for themselves if Biden was lying.