Bernie Sanders is doomed

It’s a tough circle to square and Bernie Sanders may be showing that it cannot be done. My thinking about his candidacy has been that in order to be viable, he would need to attract support from authoritarian populists who have suffered job losses from so-called “free trade,”[1] felt swindled by the bank bailout in 2008,[2] and also seem to share a suspicion of big money in politics. I was pleased that Andrew Prokop at Vox seems to share this thinking and moreover that this seems to be Sanders’ strategy.[3] Unfortunately, Sanders missed on two counts yesterday (September 14) in addressing a convocation at Liberty University, a social conservative institution founded by Jerry Falwell.

The problem there is that Sanders was addressing social conservatives rather than authoritarian populists. With their hysteria on everything even remotely sexual, social conservatives consistently seem to want to exploit women’s bodies for baby-making, and historically this seems to be about keeping middle- and upper-class white birth counts high, to preserve white hegemony.[4] They just don’t care all that much about economics, which is the ground that Sanders was trying to meet them on. And it seems not to have turned out so well as the students and moderator kept returning to the subject of abortion.[5]

Another problem is that Donald Trump is still in the race. Currently, he is capturing the disenfranchised anti-elitist mood on the right that includes both social conservatives and authoritarian populists as well as paleoconservatives.[6] Those voters won’t be receptive to Sanders’ message until—assuming it even happens—Trump exits the race.

It might not work even then as it appears another Republican outsider, Ben Carson, is poised to gain the most from any Trump departure.[7] While the forthcoming Republican debate might yet shake up the race, it appears increasingly that we are down to a contest between Trump and Carson.[8]

But there’s yet another problem: The Wall Street Journal is trumpeting an alleged $18 trillion cost (over ten years) of Sanders’ proposals and pointing out that he plans tax increases to pay for them.[9] Authoritarian populist distrust of government, exacerbated by handling of the 2007 financial crisis,[10] will make this a very, very hard pill to swallow.

I don’t dispute that the spending Sanders proposes is needed. But a caricature of Sanders as yet another tax-and-spend liberal will eliminate any support he hoped to gain on the right, pretty much across the spectrum. It will also make him toxic to Democrats who have been pushing their party to the right since the 1970s[11] and who remain that party’s mainstream voice.

Sanders is doomed. And right now, that makes it likely that either Trump or Carson will be the next U.S. president.

  1. [1]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  2. [2]Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  3. [3]Andrew Prokop, “Bernie Sanders’s speech at Liberty University wasn’t a stunt. It’s core to his campaign,” Vox, September 14, 2015,
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Dissertation Proposal: Conservative Views on Undocumented Migrants,” November 10, 2014,
  5. [5]Daniel Strauss, “Sanders makes populist plea to Liberty University students,” Politico, September 14, 2015,
  6. [6]Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” New York Times, August 22, 2015,; Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump, Traitor to His Class,” New York Times, August 29, 2015,; Jeet Heer, “Donald Trump Is Not a Populist. He’s the Voice of Aggrieved Privilege,” New Republic, August 24, 2015,; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015,; Mark Hensch, “Trump: I’m winning because Americans are ‘tired of being the patsies’,” Hill, August 29, 2015,; Ray Nothstine, “Who Are the Evangelicals Supporting Donald Trump?” Christian Post, August 30, 2015,; Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” New Yorker, August 31, 2015,; Alex Pappas, “‘Nothing Disqualifies Trump’ — What A Focus Group Tells Us About His Supporters,” Daily Caller, August 24, 2015,; Joan Walsh, “Donald Trump’s Southern strategy: What his Alabama pep rally revealed about the right’s new racial politics,” Salon, August 24, 2015,
  7. [7]Lynn Vavreck, “The Republican Candidates Donald Trump Has Hurt the Most,” New York Times, September 14, 2015,
  8. [8]Dan Balz and Scott Clement, “Poll: Trump, Carson top GOP race; Clinton leads Dems but support drops,” Washington Post, September 13, 2015,
  9. [9]Laura Meckler, “Price Tag of Bernie Sanders’s Proposals: $18 Trillion,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2015,
  10. [10]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  11. [11]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).