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Would Bernie Sanders have done better against Donald Trump?

The limitations of the Third Way have been further exposed. The strengths of the alternative are less clear. 

For some time – not just in the United Kingdom and the United States, but in Europe too – advocates of what you might call the Third Way, or Blairism, or redistributive neoliberalism or centrism have argued that, while they have an activist problem, they do not have an electorate problem. Hillary Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama, but she would have beaten John McCain just as he did, possibly by a bigger margin. David Miliband was unable to make his way through Labour’s electoral college, but he would have prevailed over David Cameron where his brother failed. Manuel Valls, France’s interior minister, might be dead on arrival with activists in the French Socialist Party, but if he could only make it to the contest proper, he would surely defeat Marine Le Pen, Alain Juppe, and the rest.

And so on. Then Hillary Clinton did make it past the activists – and it turned out that the Third Way did have an electorate problem after all. Now some supporters of the candidate she defeated to get there, Bernie Sanders, are arguing that while he may have an activist problem, he would not have an electorate problem and would have beaten Donald Trump. Are they right?

Well, one of Clinton’s problems was that African-American turnout fell, though it is hard to disentangle the extent of that from voter suppression efforts and the unpicking of the Voting Rights Act after 2013. It’s worth noting, too, that Clinton’s dire approval ratings didn’t extend to African-Americans.

Sanders’ big problem in securing the nomination was that he struggled among African-American voters, particularly those over 30. (He did better among younger African-Americans.)  It seems…bold…to put it mildly to suggest he would have been able to do a better job of turning them out than the woman who defeated him among them. A lot of the commentary around this, I think, comes because most white liberal commentators know people who struggled to vote for Clinton and instead went for a leftwing third-party or wrote in Sanders – but don’t have older black relatives who would have struggled to vote for a candidate who had called on Obama to face a primary challenge in 2012.  

Just as Clinton struggled with the young in the primaries and to turn them out in the general, it seems highly unlikely that Sanders would not have struggle with minority turnout. Not least as part of Clinton’s problem was that turnout among those groups was not high enough to compensate for the fact that, thanks to the Trump message, white voters are beginning to vote on “ethno-political” lines, favouring the Republicans, switching a problem with the young for a problem with African-Americans would have ended up with the Democrats in the same place, by a different margin.

Before the result, I worried that Clinton – who due in part to her lack of popularity and the demands of winning the Democratic nomination had cause to tie herself to Barack Obama – was talking too explicitly about race to secure the necessary votes of white Americans. I dismissed that as nerves but as it is now clear that one of the significant shifts in this election was that the white vote behaved in a more ethno-political manner, my instinct is that this probably didn’t help.

And Sanders’ difficulty is that to win, he would have had to find some way to win over more African-American voters in the primaries. He lost African-Americans by 50+ points in most contests, and if he’d halved that gap, he would have become the nominee. But in doing so, he’d have had to talk even more explicitly and frequently about racial justice, which would, I think, have helped Trump in the general election.  

(It’s also worth remembering that Clinton still has votes to come in – so the “six million lost votes from Obama” narrative is somewhat overplayed.)

Don’t forget, either, that Colorado – which the Democrats won narrowly in the Senate and Clinton won in the Electoral College – a referendum on single-payer, one of Sanders’ key issues, was defeated in a landslide. In Wisconsin, where Clinton lost narrowly, Russ Feingold, an ally of Sanders, who Sanders fundraised for, was defeated by a larger margin than Clinton was.

Sanders would also have faced a well-funded, well-organised and favourably-covered third-party candidacy in the shape of Michael Bloomberg, further denting his chances. He would have exchanged the loss of voters to Jill Stein – though she would likely have still stood anyhow – for a loss of voters to his right flank, and Bloomberg would have received a lot more airtime than Stein or Gary Johnson, who finished third, did.

(This speaks to a particular worry for the left: that the political argument for the Third Way, that capital must be appeased or it will destroy the left, still applies, even though the political appeal of the Third Way has dissipated.) 

I am also highly sceptical of the idea that a campaign that nodded to almost every anti-black trope there was wouldn’t have relished going up against a Jewish candidate. (My suspicion is that is at least part of the explanation for the Clinton-Feingold gap)

To look over to Europe, the politics closest to Sanders – mainstream moderate social democracy – are doing an even worse job of holding the tide against the nativist right than Clinton, who at least won the popular vote, did.

There is a case that a significantly more leftwing policy platform – ala Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza – than Sanders might hold back the tide, or that, in the manner of the SNP, social democrats can win if they have a strong patriotic identity. Don’t forget that Scottish voters evince the same anti-immigrant sentiments as English voters, but they have not found a political expression at the ballot box in the same way. Spanish football crowds still make monkey noises at black footballers, but that, again, has not found expression at the voting booth. And in Greece, despite national humiliation and near-economic ruin, Golden Dawn is running at around seven per cent of the vote in the polls – a remarkable feat given the circumstances.

There is a good counter-argument that some will make that Sanders is actually closer to Corbyn because of how right-wing the States are, and he should be considered relative to his peers, not his policy platform. Because I'm boringly wonkish, I don’t buy it. It just feels like putting too much importance on rhetoric and relative placement and not enough on policy solutions.

It feels to me like saying the hunger that Corbyn is speaking to could be filled if Yvette Cooper had used the word “radical” a few more times. There’s a two-word rebuttal to that one: Owen Smith. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.