Bernie’s Loss Highlights the Progressive Movement’s Greatest Liability

By Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers
This is the third of five diaries looking at the 2016 election from the perspective of our new book Next Generation Netroots: Realignment and the Rise of the Internet Left.
See part one, The Unmistakable Lesson of the Sanders Campaign: The Left-Wing is Ascendent in the Democratic Party, and part two, The Biggest Difference Between Clinton and Sanders Wasn’t Policy. It Was Something More Important.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Bernie Sanders’ remarkably strong challenge to Hillary Clinton speaks to the strength of the progressive movement. The reason why he fell short speaks to the movement’s foremost weakness.

Notwithstanding primary postmortems about process issues such as debate schedules, caucus vs. primaries, open vs. closed primaries and the role of superdelegates, the demographic reason for Sanders’ loss is clear: he underperformed against Clinton with voters of color, stringing together lopsided wins in largely-white caucus states while performing poorly across the delegate-rich South where the Democratic electorate is heavily African American. While numerous explanations have been offered for this disparity, from a longstanding allegiance between the Clintons and African American voters to Sanders’ clumsy approach to matters of race, this is not the first time we have seen a progressive candidate stymied by the limits of the progressive coalition.

In our new book Next Generation Netroots, we note that the netroots, which supports a coalition that has ballooned in size to equal about 30 percent of the nationwide Democratic vote for Congress in midterm elections, is nonetheless unrepresentative of the Democratic Party base. Specifically:

Whereas the Democratic Party tends to be disproportionately female, non-white and working class compared with the country as a whole, the netroots are disproportionately male, white and well educated. As a result, the netroots do not yet have a wide enough reach to take over the reins of the party.

These disparities have been evident since Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and stem in no small part from the racial, economic and educational disparities which formed the digital divide in the early days of broadband, when then netroots emerged as a nascent movement. 

The result of these demographic disparities is an electoral cul-de-sac that progressives will need to exit in order to become the dominant force in the Democratic Party. In fact, this is probably the largest obstacle facing progressives in the electoral arena.

In Next Generation Netroots, we examine the relatively obscure case of Zephyr Teachout’s 2014 primary challenge to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, which despite its lopsided outcome bears eerie similarities to the Sanders-Clinton contest. Like Sanders, Teachout was an obscure figure challenging an overwhelmingly popular establishment-friendly incumbent from the left. She started off with few resources and little name recognition, and was therefore written off as a nuisance candidate by mainstream political observers. Her roots in the netroots derived from her work as Director of Internet Organizing for the Dean presidential campaign, and she was endorsed by netroots organizations like MoveOn and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Teachout won only 34% of the vote, but where she won is instructive. Teachout and Cuomo actually won the same number of counties, but her vote was concentrated in the Hudson Valley and capital regions of upstate New York while Cuomo prevailed in the urban centers of New York City and Buffalo. Teachout won sparsely populated Columbia County with better than three-quarters of the vote; Cuomo won The Bronx by similar margins. Teachout prevailed in portions of the state where the population was whiter, more rural and/or higher income but lost badly in populations of minority and/or working class voters.

The day after the election, Daily Kos’s own brooklynbadboy produced an excellent diary loaded with maps and data detailing the demographics of Teachout’s vote share in New York City.

The bottom line was that even though Teachout waged a populist, progressive campaign to Cuomo’s left, she failed to attract support in the very places where the netroots have long assumed a populist, progressive message would be most appealing.

Sound familiar?

The geography and demography of Teachout’s support closely tracks the geography and demography of Sanders’ support, while both closely track the demography and reach of the netroots. We examined the rate of New York state traffic to Daily Kos in the month leading up to the gubernatorial primary. Not surprisingly, most of it came from New York City. But the second greatest source of traffic came not from any of the mid-size cities of Upstate New York–Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany–but from the tiny university town of Ithaca, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College. With a population of 30,000 but over 18,500 unique visits to Daily Kos, its readership was seven times as dense as in the Cuomo strongholds of New York and Buffalo. And Teachout received 69% of the vote in Tompkins County, where Ithaca is located (Tompkins was also one of Sanders’ best counties in 2016, as he won 62.3% of the primary vote).

Like Teachout’s supporters, DK reader demographics skew heavily toward well educated white liberals when compared with Democratic voters as a whole, and across the state its readership density overlaps with areas where Teachout won her highest percentage of the vote. We see the same phenomenon elsewhere in the progressive ecosystem. Audiences for such progressive mainstays as Think Progress, Salon and Raw Story are disproportionately college educated. In fact, at the time when our book went to press, possession of a graduate degree is the most distinct characteristic of Think Progress and Salon readers. As of this writing, it is the second most distinct characteristic of Daily Kos readers.

In Next Generation Netroots, we conclude:

The netroots have organized a large constituency of Democrats around an independent media and activist nexus that is entirely free from the control of the existing Democratic Party machinery. Netroots-based campaigns that charge aggressively at the Democratic establishment can, with few resources and little institutional buy-in, do well enough to give their supporters the illusion that they are close to seizing control of the Democratic Party in a grand, populist digital epiphany. At the same time, the progressive movement faces a significant demographic challenge to future growth, as the remaining 20-25% of the Democratic base that these campaigns need in order to form a majority consistently proves to be beyond their grasp. The primary reason for this continued frustration is that the grassroots networks which form the backbone of netroots media and activist organizations are not connected on a day-to-day basis to working-class and minority communities that make up the rest of the party rank-and-file.

Although Sanders actually did perform quite well among younger voters and working class whites, demography is still why he and so many progressive movement candidates and organizations continue falling short. However, we have seen progressives build effective coalitions in government and among advocacy allies, and while it may be a greater challenge to build electoral coalitions, the success progressives have realized with their inside game can be a model for what they need to do if they are to assemble a winning coalition of voters. The roadmap is there for progressives to become the dominant political force in the Democratic Party, and there are abundant clues from the failure of Sanders’ efforts about what needs to be done to get there. As we will argue in our final two diaries, the political plates are shifting and the possibility of a progressive majority coalition is not out of the question.

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Purchase Chris Bowers and Matt Kerbel’s book Next Generation Netroots and take advantage of an exclusive 33% discount available only to readers of Daily Kos and Wolves and Sheep. Purchase directly from Routledge Publishers and type the promo code NGN16 at checkout.