When the boss came into the state, it was always a big deal. National press came with him. Our whole staff was taken off normal duties to attend to his events. Banners needed to be set up. Introducing speakers needed to be found and vetted. When Bernie came to New Hampshire, we had to pull out all the stops.
Shortly after I started working for him in New Hampshire, Bernie was scheduled to do a swing thru Concord, Manchester and Portsmouth. Our staff helped find volunteers for the events, including local volunteers to serve as introductory speakers. When the boss comes to town, his traveling staff comes with him. After a long day of successful stops, including large rallies and smaller town hall events, I joined up with some of the Bernie advance team and other national staff for dinner in Portsmouth.
Along with around twelve or so other staffers, we sat around a large table discussing politics, New Hampshire, Iowa, Bernie and food. I’m not one for gossip or political chatter after work, so there was only one thing I wanted to know from national Bernie staff: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
See, I have a definite opinion on this. The answer is of course no. A hot dog is not a sandwich. As Judge John Hodgman can attest, one would not cut a hot dog into two pieces and serve separately. A sandwich can be cut into two and served as a half sandwich. It would be preposterous to do such a thing with a hot dog.
I tried to convince my other Bernie staffers of this obvious answer, but only a few of them seemed to be interested in finding the answer to this pickle of a question. (See what I did there? Puns are the worst. Sorry.) We did not come to a definitive answer to the hot dog question in Portsmouth that night, but I wish we had. There’s a part of me that thinks if we had delved deep enough into the hot dog question at that dinner, Bernie Sanders would be President right now.
Bernie For President, Again?
Fast forward thru the rest of that epic nightmare that was the general election of 2016 and into the epic nightmare that is the Trump administration, and you will find one of the most popular politicians in America: Bernie Sanders. According to a recent Fox News poll, Bernie has a net +29 favorable rating (61 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable). That beats Elizabeth Warren (+8), Mike Pence (+4), Chuck Schumer (-4), Trump (-9), Paul Ryan (-10) and Nancy Pelosi (-17). And it’s not even close. Say what you will about polling inaccuracies from this past election (so many polling firms were so wrong that it hurts sometimes to think they are still making a ton of money off being wrong), but this gap is significant.
In that same poll, Sanders is the most popular among Democrats (+77). The congressional leaders of the Democratic Party, Pelosi (+36) and Schumer (+23), remain far behind the Independent Senator from Vermont among Democrats. This is particularly interesting to me because all I heard around this time last year was that Bernie wasn’t a “Democrat.”
If Bernie is so popular, who’s to blame for his loss?
Bernie lost in the Democratic primary. We lost. It was our fault – not Hillary’s campaign, not the DNC, not Wikileaks, not Russian hackers, not super delegates, not Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Donna Brazile or Bill Clinton or whoever else. I put that one on us. We didn’t do what we needed to to win. And while I certainly didn’t run the campaign nor do I hold any delusions of grandeur about my status and clout within the campaign, I continue to feel like I let down the campaign, that I could have done a better job. I ran GOTV operations for us in my home state of Ohio. That could have gone better. That’s on me. I don’t blame voters or anyone else.
However, what I heard from voters in Ohio, in New Hampshire, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Nevada, South Carolina, and other states was that Bernie wasn’t really a Democrat. He was an Independent. Hillary was a known commodity – and known for being a Democrat. Bernie hadn’t spent decades in the national spotlight attaching himself to the Democratic Party brand. He just wanted to work with Democrats in congress to pass legislation that liberals and progressives across the country would love: a single payer healthcare system, regulating Wall Street and providing for free college education.
The Democratic Party changes
Bernie hadn’t really changed his policies much since the time he was a young mayor of Burlington, Vermont. It was the Democratic Party that changed. As Thomas Frank writes in Listen, Liberal, much of the Democratic Party was taken over by the professional class from the 1980s thru the Clinton Administration. This shift brought in the DLC, huge amounts of corporate cash into Democratic coffers, and a shift in trade policy (hi NAFTA), social justice policy (how’s that War on Crime going?) and economic policy (deregulation including President Clinton’s destruction of Glass-Steagal). Interestingly though, when a political party as a whole shifts its priorities on issues, partisan attitudes in the voting public towards those issues change as well. In other words, when faced with a choice between changing political party affiliation or finessing our specific issue-based opinions, voters prefer to keep their party affiliation and justify the party’s new position on an issue.
Who are Democrats?
Partisan identity is a strong emotion that will color one’s perspective on how they see the world. The Bernie campaign could not persuade enough Democratic Primary voters to set aside their party identity for an issue-based identity. Bernie did extraordinarily well among primary voters who hadn’t always participated in Democratic Party primaries (young voters of all racial backgrounds, Independents, conservatives even). These voters didn’t hold partisan identity as a major factor in how they see the world. They hadn’t participated in the Democratic Party enough for it to hold sway.
However, the voters who always vote in Democratic Primaries, who identify themselves unabashedly as proud Democrats, who revere Bill Clinton and James Carville, who think of Jimmy Carter as that ‘nice Democrat from Georgia’, who buy Obama and Clinton biographies by the truckload, these voters understandably could not get past voting for a guy who hadn’t called himself a Democrat. He wasn’t one of them. They asked themselves: Is Bernie a Democrat? Many of these voters defined Bernie out of this category.
So who gets to define a category? How did Democratic voters decide that Bernie wasn’t a ‘real Democrat’ in 2016? Considering that now, he is the most popular politician by far among self-identified Democrats, maybe these categories are fluid. Maybe we could have worked harder to make this change earlier during the primary season. Hindsight is always clearer than looking thru the fog of a crystal ball.
No True Scotsman
Categorizing people is what we do as a society. It’s how we quickly can judge without spending precious mental capacity on getting every little detail about someone before deciding whether or not to say hello. Sometimes, this categorizing becomes prejudicial – racism or sexism comes to mind. Sometimes, it’s just helpful – if a guy chooses to wear a short sleeve button up shirt covered in red flames with dyed-blonde hair, I don’t need to know what shoes he’s wearing – I don’t want to talk to that guy ever. But categorizes can get messy. We don’t easily fit or stay in one category.
If you find yourself saying “yeah, but he’s not a real Democrat” or “that congressman is a RINO (Republican in Name Only)”, you may be committing what psychologists often call the No True Scotsman Fallacy. This is when someone continues to define out a category only to his or her liking. For instance, is bowling a sport? Well, probably according to those book nerds at Merriam Webster. What if I define a sport differently to say that it can only be a sport if the activity requires peak physical movements in an athletic competition. I then decide that bowling does not require peak physical movement (whatever that is) and therefore bowling is not a sport.
You can see if you keep going down this path of defining, categorizing and redefining, re-categorizing every single word or phrase, that nothing will have meaning. So, we must look to the book nerds like Merriam Webster or urban dictionary, if you will, to help us come to a general conclusion on categorizes and definitions.
So, Is a hot dog a sandwich?
In early 2016, it was up to the Democratic Party voters to decide on a definition of Democrat – and if that definition included Bernie Sanders. Enough of them said that it did not. Now, nearly a year later, it looks like almost all of them want Bernie in the Democratic Party.
I still don’t think a hot dog is a sandwich, but not too long ago, Merriam Webster declared that indeed it is. Definitions can be fluid – if the argument for changing it is convincing enough. If only we had come up with a thoroughly convincing argument that a hot dog was a sandwich that night in Portsmouth, maybe we could have come up with a way to convince Democratic voters that Bernie is a Democrat they will love. Then maybe Trump is on Fox News instead of in the White House and Bernie is pushing Congress for a Medicare-for-all healthcare system from the White House instead of from the Senate. We can dream, right?