Despite a successful insurgent campaign in 2016 and a series of decisive victories in the early 2020 Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders has once again lost the race for president. Even I, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, can admit that mistakes were made: Bernie didn’t criticize his opponents enough; he failed to rack up endorsements and build momentum after his spectacular Nevada victory; and, most importantly, Bernie never really made a coherent argument as to why he is the best candidate to beat Trump.
But ultimately, did any of that matter? Because at the end of the day, what made Bernie lose was his fatally low level of support among the elderly. Despite the fact that Sanders is popular, trusted on the issues, and has a vision most Americans agree with, most voters broke for Biden. I would argue that this is because many elderly folks, and Gen X voters, did not truly see a president in Bernie.
Throughout the election, Bernie was often perceived as “not serious,” a “curmudgeon,” a “crazy socialist,” or a “lovable, goofy grandpa,” and therein lies the problem: the number one concern of Democrats this election was beating Trump. Can you imagine, for a moment, your old, dilapidated grandpa, who’s got some out-of-the-times views, who yells at the TV from time to time, beating Trump? I sure can’t. Now, I’m not saying I see Bernie in such a caricaturish fashion, and in his defense, most of these descriptions of him are coming from wealthy, out-of-touch media personalities who have a vested financial interest in seeing Bernie losing, but I think that many a Democratic primary voter do see Bernie that way.
Democratic primary voters, and many Americans at large, don’t want to see, and can’t imagine, someone who looks like Bernie becoming president. They want to see a big boss-man who oozes confidence. They want to see a stiff upper lip and a stern smolder looking off into the sunset. They want a respectable, poised, and elegant, yet tough, leader to bring respect to The White House and present America as the Shining City on a Hill. They want someone who looks better than them to be their leader.
Bernie was not that, and I would argue more than anything that the real reason he lost was because he looked like he would lose. So what could Bernie have done to emulate the image that many Americans want to see in a president?
Well, first, he should have fixed his style. His frazzled, messy look symbolized his rage against the machine, but made him look like he didn’t take care of himself. This choice may have wooed younger voters, but cost him with pretty much everyone else. Bernie needs to up his fashion game. Comb your hair. Grow a beard. Get a pocket square. Ditch the goofy glasses and get something more modern. Put on one of those little American flag pins. And most importantly, never go to a rally looking like this:
Jesus Christ. Look at him. He looks miserable. He looks like he woke up 5 minutes before the rally and threw on a coat that was handed down to him from a family member. If I removed all the people in the background and the Bernie signs, would you imagine this looked like a presidential campaign rally, or your high school principal announcing his retirement?
Second, Bernie needs to fix his posture. Let me sum up, in just two pictures, why Biden won and Bernie lost.
…and here’s Biden.
The difference is night and day. While Bernie is slumped forward to the point where his chin is at the level of his shoulders, Biden is standing tall and erect, with his shoulders rolled back and neck straight. He looks calm, composed, and in control. By contrast, Bernie looks like he wants to hide. He does not look confident. Which one of these two men do you want standing up to the Republicans? Which one of these two men do you want confronting Putin or Kim Jong-Un?
And thirdly, and most importantly, Bernie should never have branded himself a democratic socialist. Bernie shot himself in the foot with this label. Politically speaking, there was absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by adopting such a label. The only people such a label woos are the democratic socialists, bonafide socialists, and communists in America. Guess what? There are very few democratic socialists, bonafide socialists, and communists in America, and they are already voting for you, Bernie, no matter what label you adopt!
At the same time, calling yourself a democratic socialist alienated millions of Americans who had a knee-jerk reaction to the word “socialism,” especially Cold War-era Baby Boomers. People jump straight to the “socialist” part of the label, and there is not enough time to explain the nuance of it all. If Bernie had adopted the title of “progressive” or “populist” or even “moderate” (because really, his ideas are quite moderate), Bernie could have engaged millions of more voters, who instead shut down and refused to listen to him because in their minds, he was an unelectable socialist.
Any Bernie fans reading may be wondering why I have chosen to focus so much in this piece on seemingly irrelevant factors, like clothing and hairstyle, as opposed to important factors such as policy. The truth is, this stuff does matter. Bernie supporters focus almost exclusively on policy, but this is the exception, not the rule. No, not everyone cares about the Saudi intervention in Yemen. No, not everyone thinks about those who go bankrupt every year due to lack of health insurance. And yes, many people vote purely on how they feel about a candidate and how a candidate looks. It sucks, but whether you like it or not, appearance is a factor in the way you are perceived in the world, and Bernie would certainly gain from looking more “acceptable.”
Progressives must learn to dress up their revolutionary zeal in a suit and tie. They must learn to coax scared older and moderate Democrats into voting for them. Progressives need to stop using unpopular language that turns these voters away, like “abolish,” “destroy,” or “revolution.” You don’t need to abandon progressive ideas–just cloak them in more agreeable terminology.
Progressives may respond that it is more important to be right and to stick to principles; to flaunt the system, no matter what other people think, to which I simply reply: you can be right til the cows come home, but you will control nothing. Progressives have no power in the courts, in the Senate, in the House, or in the presidency. The only power they have is some local level officials, grassroots activism, and the power to complain about how bad things are on YouTube and Twitter all day.
Moderate and low-information voters are a big segment of the country, and it is high time we expand our coalition to include more of those voters by radically transforming the appearance of the national progressive movement. We need to game the system, not hold our heads high and mighty and refuse to participate in it. You may disagree, but if the choice is between being right and being in power, I would pick the latter any day of the week.