Bernie Sanders, the Media and 2020
Assuming Bernie Sanders decides to announce another presidential run, he’ll be helped by the fact that he’ll now be the front-runner in the Democratic primaries: Joe Biden is the only potential foe with similar name recognition. No other Democrat has the grassroots activist base that Bernie does through his organization, Our Revolution, plus numerous Bernie-related organizations like Organizing for Bernie, which has already started campaign organizing. Nonetheless, he will need to make some campaign adjustments this time around. Vermont’s prodigal son lost the Democratic nomination to a historically weak candidate (who subsequently was defeated by a game-show host).
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party ruthlessly undermined Sanders’ chances, going so far as to consider smearing the Jewish Sanders as an atheist in religious states’ primaries, receiving leaked debate questions ahead of time, and smearing his supporters as sexist “Bernie Bros” (which Hillary recycled from her 2008 campaign against Obama and his “Obama Boys”). There’s no evidence that the Democratic Party will be any more welcoming of Sanders this time around, what with the myopic centrism that party stalwarts Pelosi and Schumer continue to trot out in the face of an undeniable progressive swing within the party.
Bernie Sanders likewise faces a strong obstacle in the mainstream media (MSM). At first, they largely ignored his 2016 campaign. When he was propelled to the public consciousness thanks to online media and word-of-mouth, the MSM switched gears to smearing Bernie non-stop. This was most infamously evidenced on March 6-7, when the Washington Post ran 16 consecutive hit pieces against Bernie in 16 hours. Reasonable policy proposals like universal healthcare -which is a reality in every other industrialized nation- were dismissed as being “unrealistic.” Pundits inevitably conflated Bernie’s policy platform with Venezuela and failed Communist (i.e. not democratic-socialist) regimes. Bernie will doubtlessly face similar dishonest framing in the 2020 Democratic primaries. The talking heads will proclaim that only a “realistic” candidate like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris can appeal to centrists and independents. If Bernie wins the Democratic nomination, then the MSM will ratchet up the Nordic socialism=gulags framing, arguing that Trump, for all his flaws, helped to “revitalize the economy” via stock market growth and lowered unemployment.
Thus, Bernie Sanders needs to be much more aggressive in 2020. Hillary had many glaring vulnerabilities that he courteously chose to ignore, like her “damn emails.” Civility didn’t win him the nomination and, as Hillary learned in November 2016, it won’t win you an election against Trump. Republicans won the White House by embracing a schoolyard bully mentality. Reagan beat Carter and Mondale by framing them as liberal pansies; George H.W. Bush had the dog-whistle Willie Horton ad; his son used a similarly racist claim to defeat John McCain in the 2000 primaries, then twisted John Kerry’s decorated war service into a story of treason in 2004; Trump was the meanest meanie of them all.
Bernie doesn’t need to be a bully so much as a street fighter. He will have to run an endless gauntlet: mischaracterization by the MSM, attacks from more centrist candidates, libelous attack ads from billionaires terrified of his reformist vision, and then the final boss, Trump. The key will be to hit back every time- but through constructive criticism. Any time someone tries to use Venezuela as a scarecrow against his platform, he needs to point out facts, like how every other industrialized country has universal healthcare. If a candidate bankrolled by abusive-towards-employees companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon tries to label a $15 minimum wage as economic suicide, the Bernie campaign needs to point out that the minimum wage is $13.61 in Luxembourg and $18.93 in Australia. If a columnist writes that Bernie “has a problem” with people of color, Bernie needs to point out that he has the highest approval rating among people of color…a margin that’s at least double that of any candidate besides Biden.
Luckily, Bernie has a circle of highly media-savvy friends who can help represent him on TV, social media and through op-eds, such as Nina Turner and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Vermonter has had three years to analyze the arguments and smears used against each of his policy proposals and perceived electoral weaknesses. The aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez has shown what kinds of arguments to expect against marginal tax rates, which are a necessity for any of Bernie’s major proposals. In this particular case, you just have to do the hard work of explaining how marginal taxation works; since most Americans don’t understand such vagaries, they are susceptible to the pundits on Fox who imply that a billionaire’s entire income is taxed at the top marginal rate.
Such blatant dishonesty demonstrates the need to hit back at the media, in particular. Trump beat the MSM smear machine through radical lies. Sanders can do likewise but through radical honesty. The Sanders team not only needs to correct the record whenever someone in the media lies about or mischaracterizes one of Bernie’s positions but explicitly point out the bad intentions of the pundit. Trust in the US media has been declining for decades and spikes especially hard during election years. In 2016, a record low 1 in 3 Americans expressed trust in the media. Trump understood this reality and used it to frame himself as a hero fighting the corruption of the corporate media.
Bernie has the credibility, through his remarkable ideological consistency and refusal to accept corporate donations, to point out that six corporations control 90% of the US media and that they are incentivized to attack his reforms. These six companies depend on ad money from Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, the oil companies, and the health insurance companies to survive, and must, therefore, attack anyone who threatens these financial interests. Bernie can point out that these six new corporations uncritically published the bogus intel that got us into the Iraq War, called torture “enhanced interrogation,” proclaimed that the economy was doing fine right before the recession hit, dropped the ball on covering the Standing Rock protests, etc. Americans want to vote for someone who embodies the word “leader”: someone willing to stand up to the corrupt establishment that wrecked the economy and created endless wars in the Middle East, and someone willing to speak hard truths. Trump did the former and convincingly pretended to do the latter and thus won the necessary credibility among voters.
The Bernie campaign must be similarly strict in regards to rival candidates. As the frontrunner, everyone will be aiming at the target on his back. Letting a dozen-plus make uncontested shots against you can easily lead to death-by-a-thousand-cuts. In the pole position, one shouldn’t strike preemptively. When attacked, however, a counter-punch must be considered on the bases of the strength of the attacker and the attack. For example, if Kamala Harris starts intimating that Bernie is disconnected from voters of color, he would be justified in responding, based on the potential harm of the smear and the prominence of the opponent. Bernie could respond by pointing out that Harris (while CA Attorney General) fought against repealing the death penalty, marijuana legalization, police brutality accountability and overturning the convictions of 600 wrongfully accused. If Biden tries to lecture Bernie about “electability,” he can respond by pointing out the former VP’s tone-deaf defense of oligarchs, school segregation and bashing of young people. By establishing a good clap-back game early on, Bernie can scare candidates (especially weaker ones) into avoiding him. Trump was able to develop this helpful aura during the GOP primaries; his rivals tended to focus either on attacking weaker candidates or toadying up to Trump in an attempt to win over his supporters.
Fortune favors the bold. You don’t win the US Presidency by letting your opponents drag your name through the dirt. Bernie is exceptional at explaining- and selling- his policy goals to sold-out arenas. He’s still vulnerable with centrists and the politically disengaged. Thus, he must be willing to not only articulate but defend his vision. Bernie and his base have been smeared as racist, sexist, out of touch, delusional, weak on foreign policy, Communist and a thousand other things. The anti-Bernie hit pieces are already appearing on TV and in the newspapers and he hasn’t even declared his campaign yet. Bernie must respond to criticism with constructive counter-criticism by pointing out the hypocrisy and laissez-faire fallacious arguments of his opponents. Americans want to vote for a fighter…someone who will fight for them.