Imagine a time and place where, to everyone’s astonishment, a “socialist revival” sprouts up, seemingly out of nowhere. At first, it’s not much more than a literary trend, involving writers and intellectuals reading and talking in big cities. But soon, the idea penetrates the official world of politics, where a lone independent socialist — a gruffly earnest politician-activist of working-class stock, who keeps a defiant distance from both major parties — launches an improbable campaign to push socialism into mainstream political life.
This was Britain in the early 1890s. And the gruff politician was Keir Hardie, the secular saint of British socialism and the central figure in the founding of the Labour Party.
In 1892, Hardie left his life as a union agitator in the Scottish coalfields to run for parliament as an independent. In the ebullient atmosphere that surrounded his victory, a meeting of socialist activists convened in Bradford to create an organizational vehicle for their political hopes, which they christened the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Hardie was appointed its chairman, and immediately he and his comrades looked with bullish optimism to the next general election: the first great electoral test of the “socialist revival,” then a decade old. (That phrase, already in use at the time, evoked the near disappearance of English socialism after its tumultuous climax in the 1840s.)
After two years of feverish activity, and with voting just a few months away, a confident Hardie published an essay in a high-toned London monthly to explain the party’s aims and prospects. “Owing to the rapid development of the Independent Labour Party during the past few months, it is no exaggeration to say that it now controls at least 25 per cent of the total voting power in the centres of industry,” he assured his readers. Twenty-eight parliamentary candidates were being run in districts across Britain, and while it was impossible to say in advance just how many would win their races, “at any rate, there will be a sufficient number in the next House of Commons to define the attitude of the Independent Labour Party towards both parties.”
In fact, the 1895 election was a disaster for the ILP. Every one of its twenty-eight candidates went down to defeat — including Hardie — with several splitting the Liberal vote and throwing their races to Conservatives. A Westminster journalist who had covered the party’s campaign compared its pre-election hubris, and subsequent calamity, to the frog in the Aesopian fable who kept puffing himself up until he burst. “The general opinion,” he reported in the Fortnightly Review, was that the ILP was now “extinct and will never be revived.” Beatrice Webb, the Fabian socialist leader, called the election “the most expensive funeral since Napoleon’s.”
As ILP militants plunged into despair and mutual recrimination, a gleeful bourgeois press leapt at the chance to declare the fledgling movement defunct. A crowing editorial in the Economist — headlined “The Rebuff to Socialism” — judged the ILP’s result “a most astonishingly complete answer to the claim of the Socialists to speak for the working man and to represent the people.” In line after line, the editorialists unspooled their contempt: “The voters will not have Socialism at any price.” “The mass of the electorate are Anti-Socialist through and through.” “Thousands of votes are in reality turned purely by the dread of Socialism.”
The contempt was bipartisan. “There can be no doubt,” jeered the Tory Spectator as it zeroed in on Hardie’s demoralizing defeat in his very left-wing London district, “that Mr. Keir Hardie, and the views and methods of which he is one of the most prominent exponents, have lost hold on popular support where there has been the fullest opportunity of observing them.”
And yet, the 1895 election did not mark the end of British socialism. Within five years, the ILP had joined with the trade unions to launch the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), an ad hoc vehicle that ran union-sponsored candidates in selected races. When the LRC captured twenty-nine parliamentary seats in 1906, it restyled itself the Labour Party and appointed Keir Hardie its first parliamentary leader. In its new constitution of 1918, the party formally embraced socialism, pledging itself to the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” And in 1922, it finally surpassed the Liberals to become the largest parliamentary opposition to the Tories.
Almost fifty years to the day after the Economist’s gloating eulogy for British socialism, its editors grimly relayed the news that Labour, campaigning as “a Socialist Party, and proud of it,” had won a crushing victory over Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in the 1945 general election — ushering in a government that would, in short order, nationalize one-fifth of the UK economy, create the National Health Service (NHS), and lay the foundations of the postwar welfare state.
There was just “one superlatively good thing about the result of the General Election,” the stunned editorialists wrote:
It leaves no room for doubt about the will of the people. The Labour landslide is complete and surpasses the wildest dreams of [party headquarters] . . . Beyond any possibility of mistake, the country wants a Labour Government and a Socialist programme.
“Labour Landslide” was the headline they chose for this two-page swallowing of fifty-year-old crow. But “Political Revolution” would have been just as fitting.
This story, and countless others like it that litter the early history of socialism, holds a lesson for those who despaired — and those who exulted — at the failure of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. It reminds us that political revolutions are won or lost over generations, not individual campaigns; that their progress can be gauged only loosely by any given vote; that they succeed through defeat as much as through victory. Unlike the general run of ambitious office seekers whose political horizons extend no further than the next election cycle, Sanders pursued a project that would have remained unfinished even had he spent eight years in the White House. His aim, like Hardie’s, was a permanent realignment of politics around the axis of working-class power.
In the consensus view of commentators, Sanders’s defeat proved the futility of class politics. It was “a hammer blow to the left’s class-based theory of winning political power,” as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp put it. The Sanders camp, entranced by the senator’s “Marxist political strategy,” had wagered that “an unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates.” When months of campaigning failed to unite the working class, and youth turnout failed to set new records, Sanders’s strategy, in Beauchamp’s account, stood discredited.
This notion — that the “theory” of an insurgent campaign is disproved if the candidate loses — is the primordial delusion of political punditry, an eternally recurring canard that appears at regular intervals only to be exploded by the evidence of history. When Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in a historic landslide, it did not disprove his “theory” that an unapologetically conservative GOP could win majorities by courting Southern whites. When William Jennings Bryan attempted to remake the Democratic Party into a liberal reform coalition by uniting rural populists and Northern workers, even his two consecutive election debacles, in 1896 and 1900, could not, in the long run, deal the concept a “hammer blow.”
Yet that was not the impression you would get from reading the tide of triumphant commentary that followed both men’s respective defeats. “Bryan and Bryanism have passed into history,” declared a jubilant New York Times in November 1900, rejoicing that all the issues Bryan had raised in his two campaigns “have been settled forever.”
“The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction,” the New Yorker’s Richard Rovere assured his readers early in 1965 — though if they “keep at it,” he joked, “Goldwaterism may triumph in 1996 or thereabouts.”
Today, Bryan is remembered by historians as, in his biographer Michael Kazin’s words, “the key figure in transforming his party from a bulwark of conservative thinking and policy into the standard-bearer of modern liberalism.” The Goldwater campaign is recalled by Sean Wilentz as an effort that, “despite [its] enormous defeat … marked a breakthrough for the conservative movement that never entirely abated.” (The Roveres of the world are immortalized for their purblindness: their bad takes literally enter the history books.)
Why We Lost
As for Sanders, any serious account of his defeat must start with the underemphasized fact that the contest he lost was a primary, not a general election. Party primaries are a distinct kind of election: not only are voters deprived of the partisan cues that normally guide their voting decisions (since, in primaries, all candidates run under the same party label), but as everybody knows, strategic voting is the rule. As political scientist Elizabeth Simas has put it:
Primary elections are unique in that electability — defined as a candidate’s prospects for winning the general election — is also included in the decision calculus. The addition of the electability factor creates the potential for voters to be faced with a tradeoff between a sincerely preferred candidate and a candidate who is less favorable but more likely to win. In such scenarios, it becomes important to understand just how much weight voters place on a candidate’s electability.
The evidence is overwhelming that electability was the paramount issue in the minds of most Democratic primary voters. In November, Gallup found that 60 percent of Democrats preferred to see a nominee who had the “best chance of beating Donald Trump,” even if he or she didn’t agree with them on all the issues they cared about; only 36 percent preferred the opposite. YouGov found electability looming even larger in this election than in past years. And in the typical state exit poll, electability voters ultimately outnumbered issue voters by a 25 to 35 percentage-point margin.
That’s why, despite entering the field with a larger pool of committed supporters than any other candidate, Sanders knew he would lose if he didn’t swiftly establish an image as a vote-getter — which meant winning early primaries. His initial success on that front brought instant results: after Sanders’s New Hampshire victory, the share of Democrats who named him as the candidate most likely to beat Trump jumped from 23 percent to 29 percent, and then jumped again, after his massive victory in Nevada, to 34 percent — twice the level for Joe Biden, according to the Morning Consult poll.
By the end of February, Sanders wasn’t just leading in horse-race polls; he was beating Biden in head-to-head matchups, in which voters were asked whom they would choose if the field were narrowed down to those two. In a March 2 Reuters/Ipsos matchup poll, Sanders led Biden 54 percent to 46 percent — which means that, contrary to a number of analyses, his polling lead had never been that of a mere “factional candidate” benefiting artificially from a split in the moderate vote.
It was Sanders’s defeat in South Carolina, and the coordinated wave of Biden endorsements by prominent Democrats, that threw the trend into reverse. Within days, the share of voters who viewed Biden as the most electable candidate doubled from 17 percent to 33 percent, then surged to 51 percent after Super Tuesday. Suddenly, 54 percent of Democrats planned to vote for Biden. Sanders never recovered his momentum.
In short, Sanders was defeated because a sizable segment of rank-and-file Democrats, anxious to defeat Trump, opted for the candidate who party leaders had assured them would stand the best chance in November. It’s a simple, obvious explanation, and if any more evidence is needed, consider this fact: Sanders, who lost sixteen of the twenty-one primaries for which there were exit polls, would have won seventeen of those contests had self-declared “electability” voters stayed home and left the field to the “issue” voters.
Sanders’ “Marxist” electoral strategy had nothing to do with this sequence of events. The Democratic establishment marshaled its advantages against Sanders — rank-and-file Democrats’ hunger to defeat Trump, the existence of a bloc of party loyalists ready to be swayed by endorsements, the self-propelling dynamics of “momentum” in primaries — but it could have done that against any other candidate, with any other “theory.”
A Possible Future
That’s not to say that the manner of Sanders’s defeat holds no lessons for socialist electoral politics. Among other things, it raises the intriguing question of whether he would have been less vulnerable to the party’s machinations had 2020 — like 2008 and 2016 — been an “open” race with no Republican incumbent running; such contests seem to mellow the primary electorate’s obsession with electability.
But what is most striking about the Sanders campaign in retrospect is how consistently it drew the support of the expanding, as opposed to the declining, elements of American society. At a time when the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the “nones” (the religiously unaffiliated), Sanders was by far the leading candidate within that group, and he received the least support from white evangelicals, the religious segment now experiencing the fastest decline.
At a time when Latinos are projected to reach nearly 20 percent of the electorate in less than two decades, Sanders attracted a tidal wave of Latino support: no less than 42 percent in national polls post-New Hampshire, and a staggering 50 percent of the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus, according to entrance polls.
Finally, there is the generational phenomenon. Within almost every conceivable demographic — from blacks, to rural whites, to second-generation immigrants — Sanders led the field among the young, winning majorities and often supermajorities. Even his dismal showing with older voters points to the same conclusion: that the force of generational replacement is working silently in the background, shifting the electoral rolls in Sanders’s direction.
If a Martian were to land on Earth and watch the 2020 primaries unfold, I suspect they’d be puzzled by the bluster of Sanders’s critics, who seem convinced that they dodged a bullet. They haven’t — the bullet is still on its way.