The Rift on the Left: The Bernie Sanders Effect

Bernie Sanders, the rift on the left, Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party, DNC, Millennials, Baby Boomers, 2016 Presidential Election
Sen. Bernie Sanders is a source of hope and disdain, depending on whom you ask (on the left). Why is that so? There are a least a few obvious reasons.

How did Bernie Sanders become a factor in the 2016 election and what were the long-term effects of his candidacy?

To be quite honest, I never really heard of Bernie Sanders until a few years ago. That should tell you how little I paid attention to politics.

Yet from 2010-2012, I could only find one person who consistently praised Sanders. I thought, “What makes this Senator so special?” without bothering to do much research on him. At the time I was preoccupied with life in general and trying to finish up school.

By the time 2016 rolled around, I began to know more about this independent Senator from Vermont. And it became clear why he had a growing following. But he was running as a Democrat and going up against the eventual Democratic nominee. The odds were stacked against him and I never really expected him to win.


As the primary went on, Sanders was closing the initial gap between him and Clinton. At the same time, the race on the Democratic side was getting more contentious. Naturally, there was bickering as the Clinton and Sanders factions were getting louder.

The acrimony between the factions increased as Sanders supporters accused the DNC of collusion and vote-rigging and they were being chided for various reasons. I will get into these accusations in subsequent posts, but I address part of the anger here.

Where Did I Stand on Sanders’ Candidacy?

Well, I wasn’t feeling Sanders’ nomination in the beginning, to be certain.

For one thing, I was Sanders worried about Sanders’ age (74 at the time), especially since the presidency ages people. Age was a concern with John McCain in 2008, and he was 71 at that time.

Secondly, I did not know if the Congress would cooperate with Sanders, whether or not we had Democratic majorities. If he became exasperated with the obstruction and did not deliver on his promises, he would likely be a one-term president.

Third, I was not sure if Sanders could have helped the down-ticket races (if he had won the Democratic nomination). All seats in Congress were in play in 2016 and it was certainly possible for the Democrats to take at least one house that year. But would he work with enough Democratic candidates and would he be able to help them?

Fourth, I, too, believed Sanders was weak on foreign policy. However, he didn’t seem so eager to go to war and he was willing to challenge Israel on its hardline stance against the Palestinians. 1

Additionally, after looking at Sanders’ platform, I saw that there was little talk of gun policy. Clinton at least mentioned it in her platform.

Despite those concerns, I thought Sanders had a right to run. On the whole, I liked Sanders’ domestic policies, so I was more aligned with him on the issues than I was with Clinton — yet I was more aligned with her than I was with any Republican. Also, these two had the best tax plans, although Sanders’ plan would be more punitive on the wealthy and would include broader tax increases.

Did Bernie Sanders Have Any Positive Effect on This Past Election?

Yes, I believe he did.

For starters, while Hillary Clinton was the clear front runner, Sanders represented a worthy opponent. Clinton had the name recognition, the knowledge, the backing of the super delegates, and the experience, but he had a level of knowledgeability and experience, too. And he raised the level of each debate he participated in because he did not cower to Clinton and challenged her on a variety of issues.

I liked the first debate and I felt that Clinton won that round. I felt Sanders was a bit repetitive and Clinton came off as natural as I have seen her be in years. Regardless, that one debate was far superior to any the Republicans had because those events devolved into ad hominem attacks, if the participants weren’t outright kissing the rings of their financiers.

Also, I did not believe any candidate outside an incumbent president should run unopposed. Even if Clinton won the nomination, she needed a healthy level of competition (to at least make her case to her opponent’s followers and perhaps adopt some of his proposals).

Sanders’ participation in the election brought more issues to the fore, like single payer and economic equality. He even included Native American issues into his platform. He brought the Democratic platform more to the left after he conceded the nomination.

Additionally, Sanders’ presence and campaign brought in more independent voters. He especially galvanized the younger set, including first-time voters who might have otherwise been unengaged and convinced them to register as Democrats. That was a double-edged sword, however.

Finally, with Sanders in the race, more voters learned more about the electoral process, especially in terms of how the Democratic nominating process worked. This was also a double-edged sword.

Why Did Bernie Sanders Appeal to Younger Voters?

The one Bernie fan I mentioned is definitely a Millennial, so that should offer a clue.

Here’s another:

As I found out, Sanders had consistently said many of the same things and held many of the same positions for the past 30+ years. In the 1960-1970’s he was further left than he is now, but as he was running for president, he likened himself to a democratic socialist in the style of Scandinavia.2

Also, Sanders basically spoke to young people’s issues.3 As I have said before, the most pressing issues to young people were the following:

  • The environment. We need to preserve this planet for our future and future generations.
  • Many students graduate college and they are fewer job openings than graduates.
  • Finances. Many of these graduates have to pay off excessively high student loans.
  • Health care. If one does not make enough, he is denied essential services. The ACA is a start, but we need to get coverage for more Americans while getting the costs down.
  • Debt-Free Post-Secondary Education:

It’s no wonder young people preferred Sanders to Clinton nearly 3-1. He reignited a conversation that was started by the Occupy Wall Street movement. OWS suffered due to a lack of central leadership and organization.

This time, the younger set was more organized and they were able to convey their anger and frustration with the process. It eventually developed into several rallying cries, including “Dump Dems Day” and the “Bernie or Bust” movement.

How Did I Feel About the Bernie Or Bust Movement?

I never agreed with it.

Even if people didn’t like Clinton, they needed to weigh in on other things besides the presidency. If they felt the Democrats as a whole were nominally better than the Republicans, they should have at least looked at the down-ticket races and voted for those candidates. There were non-partisan local races and state measures they needed to weigh in on, as well.

Besides, I was opposed to the notion that some people would vote for Trump in protest. Not only was I vehemently opposed to him, but a vote for him would have been a betrayal. However, some of those people who opposed Clinton may have primarily preferred Sanders because he was not Clinton and may not have liked Trump, either.

In the case of those who believed in Sanders’ message, there was simply no excuse. Sanders and Trump could not be more different and it was clear to me that the latter did not really care about the American people. It’s true, though.

Now, I did not have a problem with people voting for a third-party candidate, with a few caveats. For instance, if people were in deep-red states, those states were never going to go for Clinton anyway. So why not vote for a third-party candidate and try to get them to 5% for the next presidential election? We need more options.

What Else Annoyed Me About Sanders’ Most Ardent Supporters?

Oftentimes, Bernie Sanders supporters were compared to Trump supporters and other people on the right, but such a comparison tended to be lazy. However, there were two things these groups had in common: anger over wealth inequality and a deep mistrust of identity politics.

While I will concede that much of identity politics is bad, I agree with people like Roland Martin who say that writing all of it off is an exercise in ignorance. At best, identity politics can be used to identify the problems in certain communities and demographics. That information can then be used to formulate solutions for those communities.

When people preach about how we need to get away from identity politics, they fail to distinguish between the good and bad kind. Or they categorize all identity politics as divisive.

When people do the latter, we tread into the area of racism and discrimination and we are in the same spot as we are when we try to talk about those things. As I said before, it’s so hard to talk about racism. What makes it harder is the refusal of some people to have an open and honest conversation about it. Too many people try to obfuscate the issue and put in their own BS without listening to people and working with them to find an equitable solution.

Likewise, I think a number of Sanders supporters were telling people of color to put their issues on the backburner. This presented a false choice while ignoring the extra anger POC were dealing with on top of economic issues. It also contributed to a level of mistrust black voters had toward Sanders.

Why Didn’t More Progressives Get Aboard the Hillary Train?

When Sanders conceded, not everyone who preferred him (immediately) followed. They were still smarting from the acrimony of the primaries and, truthfully speaking, not all his supporters felt an unconditional allegiance to him. Most followed him because of the issues, much like they opposed Clinton based on the issues.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party wanted Clinton to directly reach out to them by adopting the most popular items of the progressive platform. They also wanted the DNC to acknowledge the shifting demographics within the party without disdain. The inclusion of Tim Kaine on the ticket and the goings on during the Democratic National Convention were each a slap in the face.

That said, most Bernie voters were willing to tough it out with the Dems. From the exit polling available, there may have been far more young voters who chose Clinton, almost 80% of Sanders’ supporters who voted did so for her in the general, and we know close to 3 million more Americans voted for her than they did for Trump. But the Democratic Party and Clinton’s camp did not make it easy for these voters.

Why Were Sanders’ Supporters So Angry?

Sanders supporters were primarily angry because of economic conditions and the effects of multiples wars. And the negative coverage Sanders and Clinton received differed. That only added insult to injury.

While a Vox study showed that Clinton had received more negative coverage and less positive coverage than all primary contenders, it did not distinguish the kind of stories being covered.

Clinton had to deal with email server stories, the leaks, and questions about the Clinton Foundation. Those weren’t necessarily denigrating her.

Sanders, however, had limited coverage overall and many of the stories about him were hit pieces, especially from mainstream media outlets. For example: In the span of a day, The Washington Post ran 16 hit pieces on Sanders.

For context, the way Sanders was being treated had striking similarities to the treatment the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn has received in the United Kingdom.

One story run against Sanders claimed he was untested and the Republicans would dig up stuff on him if he became the Democratic nominee. However, this writer already did the work for them and there was little the Republicans could spin without being called out for their failings in the same areas …

In addition, there were numerous television personalities and comedians talking down Sanders supporters. These personalities included:

  • Samantha Bee
  • Whoopi Goldberg
  • Chris Hayes
  • Rachel Maddow
  • Bill Maher
  • Seth Meyers
  • Trevor Noah
  • Joy Reid
  • Sarah Silverman

All of them not only told voters that they must vote for Clinton, but they also openly mocked Sanders supporters like Susan Sarandon (and third party voters) without adequately addressing the issues.

Bee was by far the worst offender.

Sanders supporters were mocked at every turn. They were called disorganized and their preferred issues were denigrated, too. To top it off, they were being talked down to by well-off individuals.

What Did Sanders’ Candidacy Expose?

A while back, I created a survey (and in-depth questionnaire) to see where people stood on the 2016 presidential election, with their preferred candidates, and to gauge how American voters felt about various issues.

Why did I create that questionnaire?

From my discussions with friends, family, and people I’ve worked with, there was little acrimony. Most people I knew who were open about their views preferred Sanders during the primary, but voted for Clinton during the general election.

This primary preference surprised me because many were told Clinton was the practical choice. Regardless, there was little anger from my inner circle.

Yet, outside my inner circle, I saw more people fighting about the election. Clinton and Sanders people were at each other’s throats, even after the election was done. In particular, I saw more people on the pro-Clinton (or just anti-Trump) side chiding Sanders’ supporters than the other way around, although there were Bernie people flying off the handle whenever he was criticized.

I still needed more information.

With the survey, I wanted to see if different voters were able or unable to criticize certain people, especially the people they admired. In particular, I wanted to see how Clinton supporters saw her and still see her. I received a number of thoughtful responses and some Clinton voters were open and honest about what they perceived to be her strengths and weaknesses.

Now, from my direct discussions with numerous people and from research, I have come to see there are a few reasons why Sanders’ presence in the 2016 election may have served as a source of anger. I will list them below and assess them:

1. Sanders Ran As a Democrat Despite Not Being One.

In terms of the election, there is something to this. On one hand, Sanders may have never gained as much attention as he did if he had run as an independent. On the other hand, it speaks to the duopoly the two major parties have over the political process.


When you think about how Sanders relates to the Democrats beyond the election, his status as an independent isn’t a good line of attack. Sure, Sanders calls himself an independent and he was an independent before 2015, but he has consistently caucused with the Democrats and has functioned as a Democrat. He is still working with the party and considers it more functional (than the Republican Party.)

This year, he went on a “Unity” Tour with Tom Freakin’ Perez, for crying out loud. Bernie wants to reform the party and get more of its leaders to listen to the voters. He wants to help the party, to the chagrin of his most ardent supporters.

2. Sanders Criticized Clinton and the DNC (Too Harshly).

This is part of the truth, for a couple of reasons.

We Do Not Like to See Those We Admire Be Criticized.

I’ve been there. When someone I admire is being pelted with insults, I naturally react, although the insults are not being aimed directly at me. (I do have a reason to get mad if the person talking moves to insult the fans.)

Many people admire figures of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton. So no criticism of her will go unchallenged.

It’s hard to hear criticism, even if it’s justified. And it’s hard for us to criticize the people we like and vote for. So when Sanders criticized Clinton’s speeches, it was one pain point he hit on.

Many People Feel That Sanders’ Criticism of Clinton Hurt Her in the Long Run.

Did Sanders’ criticism ultimately hurt Clinton’s chances?

Many Hillary Clinton supporters will say Bernie Sanders hurt her and the Democratic Party. I don’t completely disagree with the sentiment, but he touched on a number of pain points during the election.

First and foremost, Sanders and Donald Trump tapped into a smoldering anger within the American populace. (However, Sanders was a real populist while Trump was a faux populist who appealed to the lowest common denominator.) That anger only grew as the primary went on and Sanders conceded the nomination to Clinton.

Secondly, Sanders’ candidacy shined a light on the rift that already existed within the Democratic Party. Not everyone within the Democratic Party agrees on all the issues (it’s impossible), but there was a measure of resentment between certain factions within the party and the 2016 election reopened old wounds. With Sanders in the race, at least one new faction was created, and it was squarely opposed to Clinton. Things were not going to end well.

Third, the 2016 election eventually turned more and more people against the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders’ camp made a series of allegations against the DNC and then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And at one point, Sanders expressly said DWS should resign because she could not be impartial. This naturally angered staunch supporters of Clinton and DWS and it was something they could not forgive.

In addition, the charges moved more voters and observers on the left to see the DNC as a corrupt entity. I’ll admit: Before 2016, I never saw the DNC as corrupt. I became disenchanted with the party years ago, but I had never viewed it as corrupt.4

3. Ultimately, Many Clinton Voters Saw Themselves in Her.

Now, we’re getting warmer.

When I talk to or hear from Hillary Clinton supporters, I can get a few answers as to why they were drawn to her. Most cite her experience (and thus feel that she earned the opportunity), many think she is more pragmatic, and many others are even more empathetic toward her.

Within that third group you will find:

  • People who have met Clinton and came away with a positive opinion of her.
  • People who campaigned for Clinton.
  • People who fundraised for her.
  • Women who may have been slighted and discriminated against.
  • Many women (and men) who identify as feminists, especially women who are around the same age as Clinton and took part in the Women’s Liberation Movement. For example, Steinem once called Bernie Sanders an honorary woman once. But she could not pass up the chance to support the woman who had the greatest chance to win the presidency.

It’s that last subgroup that is the most crushed by Hillary Clinton’s losses in 2008 and 2016. Since this group may in fact share the most in common with Clinton, she essentially became their avatar. That means they feel what she feels and what they think she feels.

It’s fairly easy to do since Clinton often makes it obvious that she has a distaste for certain people. In 2008, Clinton developed a growing anger for Barack Obama after that rough primary. And in 2016, Clinton, her team, and a lot of party insiders developed a distaste for Bernie Sanders.

(This dynamic also works in reverse. As Clinton works with her erstwhile rivals, some of her supporters may adapt their views of those people. Barack Obama also serves as an example here, too.)

4. As It Pertains to Sanders’ Supporters, There Was Also an Emotional Component.

There was naturally going to be a level of disappointment if Sanders did not manage to win the nomination. However, the anger ran much deeper than just losing.

For Sanders supporters, he wasn’t so much of an avatar as he was a ray of hope. When you look around, you can see that Americans have become jaded with the electoral process and have tuned out politics in general. And far too many politicians are tuning out their constituents and ignoring their needs, thus forgoing solutions that would help the country overall.

When Sanders ran, he managed to bring in new people and others who were otherwise unaffected. If you look at the 2008 campaign, you can see a similar thing was happening, except Sanders had more concrete policies than Barack Obama had. Basically, voters wanted to have someone who would disrupt the system and change it for the better. To them, there was so much rot in the political process, which led to needless suffering and a lack of real progress.

5. Additionally, There Is a Generational Argument to Make.

This is oft repeated, but much of Bernie Sanders’ base was comprised of younger voters (although he had a following with adults of all ages). There was much of the under-30 crowd, including first-time voters.

Naturally, there were generational divides. With technological advances came different experiences, as well as different ways to find and receive information. Changes within the political parties, budgetary allocations, the job market, and parenting standards also led to kids with a different set of circumstances and a specific set of priorities.

As a result, these younger voters had a different set of criteria when it came to choosing candidates. Unfortunately, it often clashed with the priorities of older voters.

Add in the fact that there was a burgeoning mutual animosity between two generations: Millennials and Baby Boomers. There was some overlap with Generation X, which had long been in the place of Millennials as a target of scorn.

Hillary Clinton was a boomer; it is known that she has difficulties reaching out to younger voters. By contrast, Sanders was older than she yet he was from “The Silent Generation.” There isn’t much animosity between his generation and Millennials.

Susan Bardo is an example of this and issue No. 3. Bardo, a professor in gender and women’s studies, is also the author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She has written a couple of OP-eds (like this one for The Huffington Post) in which she lamented how Clinton never really resonated with younger feminists. Bardo’s also a boomer, further highlighting the generational factor.

Additionally, Clinton was telling these younger voters “no” to all of their top policy concerns. At the same time, Sanders was speaking to his base’s top concerns.

So when the Democratic primary was underway, this generational aspect was definitely a factor. It still is.

As a Lead-up to the Next Post in the Series

We’re getting to the heart of the anger, but there much more to consider.

One side (between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters) has more anger. I would argue it’s the latter, because of the grievances I will lay out in the next few posts.

In particular: Hillary Clinton was a source of anger for many voters based on her record and the way she campaigned. While those who admire Clinton view her record positively, the opposite is true for those opposed to her. We are still feeling the effects and I will explain how and why that is.


  1. Bernie Sanders was weak on foreign policy and still is, particularly where the Middle East is concerned. In the Second Democratic Debate, he didn’t seem to know much about the situation in Syria, let alone how he would deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has also cowered from criticizing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
  2. There are many young people who love the idea of socialism, but most people don’t understand what socialism, let alone what democratic socialism is. Regardless, socialism is often mocked in the United States because it is often conflated with communism. This was another knock on Sanders.
  3. Sanders and his supporters were largely aligned on domestic policy issues. Foreign policy is another story.
  4. My excitement for the Democratic Party waned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For one thing, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was lifeless in her response and she was like a number of Democrats in Congress. By that time, the Democrats tended to sit back and wait for Republicans to make mistakes instead of jumping in front of issues that mattered to the American public, which they still do now.

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