Resisting Bernie’s Siren Song In The Age Of Trump

An interview with political scientist Marcus H. Johnson

Marcus H. Johnson (Original artwork by Brett Nettles)

In the lead-up to the 2016 Presidential election, mainstream liberals were hesitant to criticize Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Leaders of the Democratic Party publicly spoke of unity and feared losing Sanders voters in a highly consequential election.

As Democratic leaders called for unity, Sanders supporters incited violence at state conventions, shouted down speakers at the Democratic National Convention, and acted generally indifferent about Donald Trump becoming president.

Convincing every liberal to vote for Hillary Clinton was always a fool’s errand. Cynicism on the far-left tends to breed discontent for Democratic standard bearers such as Clinton and former President Barack Obama. Sanders himself called for a primary challenge against President Obama in 2012.

Voters who supported Ralph Nader in 2000 or wrote in Sanders in 2016 will always return to hold the Democratic Party hostage in important elections.

Marcus H. Johnson, a political scientist in Florida, has frequently spoken out against the growing influence of Sanders and far-left ideas in the Democratic Party.

Johnson regularly points out that Sanders is not a Democrat and his proposals lack or purposely ignore an understanding of the difference between political theater and realistic public policy.

More important to Johnson is the modern Democratic Party’s function as an advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised. To him, this role of the Democratic Party has been ignored by Sanders’ mostly white base who say corporate greed in the party makes Democrats no better than Republicans.

Read my Tuesday, March 21 interview with Johnson below. It is lightly edited for clarity.

MR: Since the election we have been seeing the hashtag #BernieWouldHaveWon. What do you think about that? Do you think Bernie would have won?

Johnson: (laughs) Naw, man. Personally, I think there were a bunch of different candidates and initiatives that Bernie championed, that he campaigned for, and he fund raised for that ran behind Clinton. You saw it in different states in the Midwest. Russ Feingold is kind of the standard of Berniecrats that ran behind Clinton, but you also have Proposition 61 [in California] and Amendment 69 [in Colorado]. You had some candidates that didn’t even make it out of their primaries. A good example is [Tim] Canova down here in Florida who ran against Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Bernie endorsed him and campaigned for him, and he didn’t even really come close. I don’t really see the “Bernie would have won” argument. I get the sentiment that they have. They have a candidate who they think didn’t get a chance to go against Trump, but I don’t think the real world results really show any evidence that Bernie would have won.

MR: A popular opinion among his supporters is that Sanders would have won the [Democratic] primary if Black and Latino voters were more informed about his stances. To me that sounds condescending. That’s a racist opinion, is it not?

Johnson: I think it is condescending. I think it’s borderline, you’re getting on the borderline of the racial stuff. The idea that Black and Latino voters don’t know their interests, or can’t understand a candidate, or don’t have the right information is kind of the same stuff you hear from conservatives. Conservatives say that a lot. They say that “Black and Latino voters, if they just knew what was good for them they’d be voting Republican” or “if they really knew the real information they wouldn’t be voting for Democrats.” You hear the kind of lingo like “Democratic plantation” or stuff like that. You started hearing that same kind of lingo coming from the far-left. Talking about “they’re just in love with the Clinton’s because they don’t know whats good for them,” and things of that nature. I think it was kind of racial and that’s a big problem with the far-left as far as not understanding Black and Latino voters. Not understanding their interests and really not wanting to put their interests on the platform. If the far-left really went into these Black and Latino communities and talked to some of these people they would understand that we do have different kinds of interests and this is why [Black and Latino communities] are voting for Clinton. Versus thinking they are all idiots, shills, or neo-liberals.

“I don’t think Bernie Sanders is an outright racist or anything like that, but I do think he is primarily focused on the white working class. He wants to recenter the white working class and I think his base understands that and is attracted to that.”

MR: During the primary Bernie repeatedly criticized the southern states, which is where most of the Black and Latino voters are in a Democratic primary. Do you think that was an intentional racial dog whistle or just a cringe-y thing to say?

Johnson: I think it was a cringe-y thing to say. I don’t think that Bernie Sanders is an outright racist or anything like that, but I do think he is focused primarily on the white working class. He wants to recenter the white working class and I think his base understands that and his base is attracted to that. I don’t think that people in West Virginia are socialists. I don’t think that people in Montana or some of these other Mountain West states that he won are socialists. I think they are attracted to the white working class first message. I think that came through when he said that southern voters distorted the race. I think he said something about how the south shouldn’t have had so many primaries early on, but you don’t see him talking about why is Iowa going first, or why is New Hampshire going second? I think that was a call out to the more diverse communities. It was kind of offensive to a lot of the Black voters, Black politicians, and the Latino population too in some of these states who are saying “Hey, we matter too. We are part of the Democratic Party, just because our state doesn’t go blue every time in the general election it doesn’t mean we are any less Democratic than people who live in California or New York.”

MR: Do you think it’s possible for liberals to effectively oppose Trump when one wing of the party on the far-left thinks Hillary is the real enemy?

Johnson: I absolutely think we can oppose Trump. There are good parallels actually in the Republican opposition to Obama. If you look at Republican opposition to Obama and the Republican Party in general, it is still fractured into two major camps. You have the big business wing of the Republican Party and then you have the white nationalist base of the Republican Party that is pushing these nativist, super racist policies. The big business side opposed Obama because of tax cuts. They opposed Obama because they didn’t like him extending the federal government with Obamacare. Then you saw the white nationalist base opposing Obama because they thought he was giving more money to minorities and more federal help to minorities than to white people. You saw those two different bases within the Republican Party still oppose Obama basically on everything. Even though they were opposing him on different things. You even saw them work together as you saw the big business people funding the tea party and far-right movements in order to get them to the voting booth to get Democrats out of office in the mid-terms in 2014.

Both of these groups oppose Trump for different reasons on the left. The far-left opposes Trump because he’s not going to do universal healthcare and he’s not going to do free college. Then you have people of color in the Democratic Party, who I really consider the base, who oppose Trump because of the Muslim ban, deportation of Latinos, his vow to really extend police powers to crush Black protesters. I think you are going to see both of these groups strongly opposed to Trump. I think the opposition to Trump is only going to continue to grow especially as he goes through the different things he tries to do in his Presidency. You are going to see major Democratic wins in 2018, even if the two sides of the party aren’t necessarily unified. That is one thing I reject, that we need a unification moment or everyone to just come together. That didn’t really happen for the Republicans after 2008. They had a big beef between their big business side and the white nationalist base, but eventually they used Obama as a tool to say we are going to oppose everything he does. The left, the far-left and the center-left, is going to do the same thing with Trump. Using him as a tool to oppose everything he does and push Democrats into office. I think Trump is going to do more for the unification efforts than anything else.

MR: On what you called the mainstream or center left. The main way they are opposing Trump right now is by promoting the #TrumpRussia scandal. You wrote an article about this in January. That article puts you at odds with the Glenn Greenwald, Tim Canova, Michael Tracey camp. What’s up with the far left opposing the Russia story?

Johnson: For the far-left anything that takes away from the idea that Hillary was the worst candidate ever, that Hillary just didn’t know what she was doing, that Hillary rejected Bernie, and the D-N-C stole something from Bernie. Anything that takes away from that kind of narrative they really oppose that. Because they want to create an idea that Democratic elites and neo-liberals stole something from Bernie and they pushed this horrible candidate and that is the only reasons why Democrats lost. So any kind of narrative where an outside force had some kind of effect in the election takes away from that. They don’t want to have any kind of possibility where Russian influence in the election did kind of sway things. Even if it swayed the election a little bit, the election was only decided by 80,000 votes in three states. So if Hillary Clinton wasn’t the worst candidate ever and if Hillary Clinton did have some outside force that hurt her in the election that wasn’t her doing, it takes away from their narrative. They are invested in this narrative that the Democrats are evil and the Democratic neo-liberal elites are hurting people and they don’t even care that people get hurt because they just want to make more money. To me, they are pushing this narrative that no matter what Democrats are worse than Republicans. It’s all the Democrats’ fault. To them, they can’t foresee some other force other than Democrats being at fault.

“Ultimately, I think what the election showed was that there’s more appeal to racism and there is more appeal to white nationalism than people would like to think.”

MR: How do you see Hillary Clinton as a candidate? Do you buy into the narrative that she is crooked, corrupt, or sold out to Wall Street?

Johnson: (cutting in) Not at all, not at all. Hillary Clinton won by three million votes, which is a massive number in the popular vote. She won more votes than any white man ever, which is incredible when you think of the hundreds’ years history of this country. She won every ethnicity and every class within that ethnicity except white voters. That is also massive to be able to say “I won Black people of every income group, Latinos of every income group, Asian people of every income group, the only race I didn’t win was white people.” It’s not like Hillary Clinton is out of touch with the working class or Hillary Clinton is out of touch with poor people. She won the working class. She won every race. The only people she didn’t win was white voters. That shows a lot. People say that Bernie would have done better with young people. Hillary won young people by a huge margin. She won with people of color by a huge margin. I don’t buy that Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate. There were some things that damaged her, obviously the email stuff damaged her. You would wish the FBI would have came out and said earlier that there wasn’t really anything. They came out and said that after [FBI Director James] Comey comes out with the letter a week before the election. If they came out earlier and said “look we found nothing, there’s nothing here,” that would have had a different effect on the election. If the Russians didn’t drop the emails and weren’t coordinating with Julian Assange that would have had a different impact on the election.

Ultimately, I think what the election showed was there’s more appeal to racism and there is more appeal to white nationalism than people would like to think. There was a lot of talk in 2008 about a post-racial America and I think it’s obvious that’s not the truth now. Really, a lot of the things that hurt Hillary came back to her embrace of this multicultural society. She said that Black Lives Matter, she came out and said that enthusiastically. She talked about white privilege and talked about how white people need to understand Black and Latino people who are in situations that white people may not face with police. I think that Hillary’s embrace of the multicultural diverse future of America hurt her. I don’t think it was that she didn’t reach out to the working class.

A meme featured on the Facebook group “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash.” The photo captioned “#BookerTheCrook” was shared more than 500 times.

MR: Do you worry about nihilistic, mostly-white liberals sabotaging a good 2020 candidate like a Cory Booker or a Julian Castro or someone like that?

Johnson: They are going to give it their best shot. Those people are still out there calling Democrats corrupt, calling Democrats worse than Republicans, saying Democrats need to stop taking money. I think what’s going to happen is the resistance movement is going to continue to grow. The resistance movement is very diverse. The resistance movement is very representative of the Democratic base. You’ll continue to see these people come out and oppose Trump on things like the Muslim Ban, deporting Latinos, and things like that. They are going to continue to march for women’s rights.

I think what you are going to see is that the influence and power of the Bernie wing is going to diminish a little bit and fall off a little bit. Obviously they are still going to be there, but I don’t think they’re going to have the power to primary Democrats who aren’t endorsed by Bernie. Or get rid of Democrats who don’t totally adhere to the Bernie message. The Democratic base is largely people of color and Bernie’s base is largely white people. How is he going to come into the Democratic primary in the south, which is very black, and get his campaign to win? You saw that with him trying to primary Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in south Florida in a really Jewish district that was backing Wasserman-Schultz. It was a district that heavily backed Clinton. Canova didn’t have a lot of success there, I think he lost by 30, 35 percent (Editors’ Note: Canova lost by 15 percent). I just don’t see areas in the south in particular where they can push their candidates and win. Maybe they can get some wins in places like Washington state. I don’t see them winning in the Rust Belt. That’s another part of this thing with the Bernie candidates. Where are they winning at? He has run candidates in 2016 and there has been far-left candidates before Bernie Sanders. They’re not winning white people overall, they’re not winning the white working class, they’re not getting people of color to turn out at higher rates than traditional Democrats. Personally, I don’t see the hype, I don’t see the evidence. I don’t see where these purist candidates are getting the support that people claim they would get. It’s kind of a movement where they just want to take over from Democrats and be given power, but they are not running candidates and winning. They are not showing they can do it. I don’t think those guys are going to change the game, but maybe they can prove me wrong in 2018. I don’t see it.

MR: If they are still around in 2018, the Bernie Left and the Justice Democrats, do they have a role to play in opposing Trump or has their brand become too corrosive to the party?

Johnson: My big thing is if you want to oppose Trump I am all for you. If you want to oppose Trump I totally back you 100 percent on whatever grounds you want to oppose him for. Because he’s going to hurt my constituency, as far as people of the color, the most. I think he’s going to hurt people of color, women, marginalized groups. I think he is going to hurt them the most. If you oppose him I am for you, but I think they have become corrosive because these far-left groups are opposing Democrats more than they oppose Republicans or oppose Trump. The Justice Democrats are saying that Democrats are essentially worse than Republicans, or Democrats are Republicans. I think this false equivalency, these bad comparisons, that try to claim Democrats are the real enemy or Democrats are the only people really standing in the way of free college and free healthcare are historically incorrect, unproductive, and just flat out wrong. If you look at the Democratic platform and what they support and what they push, they are better than Republicans on every single issue. [The far-left] is starting to say that Republicans aren’t the true enemy, Democrats are, and I think that’s totally bogus.

MR: Do you think Trump makes it a full four years or does he get impeached during his term?

Johnson: That’s a tough one man. He’s already done a bunch of impeachable offenses as far as foreign money and as far as the Russian involvement. I think Republicans aren’t going to impeach him unless he does something just totally unforgivable, which is a tall order considering the stuff he said that’s been caught on tape already. But I think the true test of impeachment comes after 2018. I think Democrats are going to win a majority of the House in 2018. They’re going to have the opportunity to at least draw Articles of Impeachment up against Trump. I think they are going to try to take their opportunity. How far that gets? I don’t know, but I think they are going to try and take that chance in 2018.

Interview // Bernie Sanders / Democratic Party / Democrats / Hillary Clinton / Politics