Neoliberal pundits want to write-off Bernie Sanders, again. That's no surprise
Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is collapsing. Or at least that’s what a passing glimpse at the country’s leading national news outlets would have you believe.
A recent CNN National poll found he dropped to just 14%, slipping behind Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and still farther away from frontrunner Joe Biden. Quinnipiac too! Accordingly, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin ominously forecasts that “Sanders likely can’t turn it around”, while Harry Enten at CNN warns “Bernie Sanders 2020 is in big trouble”.But an ABC News and Washington Post poll has him just behind Biden, at 23% – more than double Harris and Warren, who are tied at 11%. And he’s packing rooms in Iowa, where his supporters will haggle over caucus participants next winter.
What should we make of these conflicting messages? Mainly, that lots of pundits are not especially good at what is nominally their job: interpreting American politics.
There are plenty of people in the political establishment who have it out for Sanders. But it’s bigger than the tantalizingly simple explanation of a mainstream media plotting with Democratic party elites against socialism; that would give both of them too much credit.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s worth being honest about bad poll numbers, and Sanders – amid a crowded field of candidates running on ideas he helped push into the mainstream – isn’t picking up the kind of runaway momentum that he did in 2016. For his supporters, that’s worth reckoning with – and crying conspiracy won’t cut it. But it’s also worth reckoning with the fact that the mainstream media isn’t some neutral body interpreting the world.
Smoke filled rooms may well exist. But the success of the neoliberal revolution is that there are plenty of people – including in the media – who don’t need anyone to give them orders that Sanders and his ideas should be taken down. That’s just how ideology works. “By ideology,” the theorist Stuart Hall wrote, “I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.”
It’s not that pundits or even their network bosses are all scheming against Sanders. Neoliberalism, the ideology that Sanders challenges, is just the water they’re swimming in. Its influence is reinforced by the fact that six corporations own about 90% of US media. Commentators, in other words, are working with a set of ideological tools and frameworks that are far from neutral.
That wasn’t hard to spot from the debates. Amid staggering wealth inequality, stagnant wages and a climate crisis threatening to impale human civilization, night one host and NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie, asking Elizabeth Warren about her free college plan in the first question of the night, raised a pressing concern – at least for the political establishment: “What do you say to those who worry this kind of significant change could be risky to the economy?”
Risk to whom, exactly? Debt forgiveness and free college probably aren’t so risky to the millions of people shouldering the burdens of America’s $1.6tn in student loan debt. But it certainly is to the companies like Navient getting rich off them.
Still, a major goal of any debate is to prick candidates on their policy platforms, and Guthrie went on to prod Beto O’Rourke on whether he’d support a 70% marginal tax rate. Pundits, meanwhile, have taken candidates’ redistributive platforms as a personal affront. Bret Stephens moaned that Kamala Harris challenging Biden made “white Americans feel racially on trial”. Complaining about Democratic candidates’ embrace of universal healthcare and more humane immigration policies, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough – another luminary attuned to the concerns of Real America – counseled “woke Democrats” to “refrain from blowing themselves up politically and re-electing Trump”.
The danger here isn’t just that certain status quo-friendly viewpoints are disproportionately represented in the country’s biggest outlets. It’s that their own ideological blinders mean they getalotofthingswrong, and are still paid handsomely to tell Americans how to think and vote. The people counting out Sanders’s campaign also took it as a given that Hillary Clinton would best Donald Trump by a landslide in 2016. Four years later we seem to be waking up on Groundhog’s Day, where those same voices are positing their own reading of the country’s electoral tea leaves as definitive proof of what’s going to happen five months down the line.
As New York’s Rebecca Traister aptly pointed out in a recent essay, the pundits aren’t keeping up with the politicians: “In all of their hand-wringing,” she writes, “they seem not to have noticed that … assumptions about a safe center are crumbling in the hands of a new generation of political leaders willing to make a stirring case for radical ideas,” like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Is Bernie Sanders down for the count? Probably not. But you definitely shouldn’t take the mainstream media’s word for it.