Sanders Won the War of Ideas

As Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama endorse Joe Biden, the final deathblow to the Bernie campaign is dealt. Beyond the sickening numbness I feel in my gut, there’s a terribly familiar cynicism setting in, the kind of deep-rooted anger that at present, has no place to go. Once again, I feel almost naïve for thinking we could defy the corporate stranglehold on our national politics that has become so painfully predictable for at least a couple of decades. And when it comes to Bernie Sanders, the Democratic establishment already revealed its hand so clearly in 2016. The DNC and the Democratic Party will not allow Sanders to lead the Democratic ticket, no matter how wildly popular he is.

In the weeks following Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton four years ago, I wrote this CounterPunch article as an attempt to document some of the mechanisms of the corporate stranglehold—the DNC manipulations, corporate media collusion, and the electoral irregularities—in the hopes that as progressives, we could learn how to overcome these obstacles the next time around. Reading it now, I find it almost unfathomable that Bernie’s campaign has twice been defeated by the same set of corrupt political forces, and we haven’t yet figured out how to surmount them.

At this moment, progressives, socialists and revolutionaries, are again injured, grieving, and trying to find our bearings, as we watch our movement’s leader so easily surrender his last remnants of political leverage in what was an incredibly historic and transformational campaign. Many of us believed he would fight harder and longer this time, somehow carrying us over the finish line. Instead, Sanders suspended his campaign when there were still 25 primary elections left to go. And as predictably as a circus act, the VBNMW trolls and the corporate Democrats have come swooping in like a team of vultures, ready to devour us with guilt, shame and coercion, already blaming us for Trump’s victory, if we don’t promise to vote for the weakest and perhaps most tainted corporate Democratic candidate in US history. We have a right to furious.

Just like in the presidential primaries of 2016, we now find ourselves with our backs up against an electoral wall and faced with a terrible choice. How did we get into this horrible position? It actually is worth studying, because at first glance, it seems pretty unbelievable.

A quick glance at the Bernie movement shows that we had the popular ideas all along. We had the masses of people at our rallies. We had the energy, the enthusiasm, the youth, the broad-based racial and religious coalitions, the working-class movements, the labor unions, the nurse’s unions, the teacher’s unions, and the massive volunteer base. The Sanders’ campaign created the space for a historic campaign– a diverse and inclusive people-powered movement to grow and thrive under one electoral umbrella.

And unlike any other candidate, we’ve always had the winds of change at our backs. Reality endorsed Bernie Sanders. The campaign understood from the beginning the dire urgency of universal healthcare long before there was a global pandemic! It understood the dire emergency of restructuring the US economy in order to guarantee everyone a living wage, housing, education, and healthcare long before the economy crashed and left millions of Americans without jobs or a means to survive! This campaign understood that it was imperative to take bold and aggressive action on climate change, or forever be assigned to the dustbins of history as accomplices in our own extinction and total climate destruction.

When reality has so clearly endorsed a presidential platform, how is it possible that it all came to a screeching halt so early on, when in any functioning democracy, Sanders’ popularity and his votes would be soaring at this point. After all, he was leading in all the upcoming states’ polls just a week before Super Tuesday. And Joe Biden was consistently trailing in third, fourth and fifth place. So what on earth happened?

The hard truth is that we don’t have a functioning democracy. And it’s not just a little bit broken. It’s a lot broken. Obviously, there are many forces that led to the demise of the Sanders’ campaign from the corporate media’s collusion with ruling-class interests, to the corrupt DNC, to our broken electoral system. But I want to focus on the latter right now, because our elections are one of the few levers where cities, states and counties have any control going forward.

Our elections have been broken for a long time. Voting rights activists have been trying to tell us for decades. After the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013, 14 states put new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 presidential election, eliminating 868 polling places around the country. Seventeen states saw voter suppression cases targeting Black and Native American voters. Early voting days and hours were greatly reduced. Black and Latinx-sounding names were purged from voter rolls by the thousands, and states have enacted restrictive voter ID laws. The Poor People’s Campaign, led by Dr. William Barber, has noted, “Since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting statutes that make it harder to register.”

All of this has happened right underneath our noses. The corporate media has barely touched the topic since 2013 because, somehow, the idea that Russia was interfering in our elections has been seen as far more of outrage and scandal than the fact that black and brown voters have been disenfranchised by the millions.

And globally, the US is seen as total hypocrite and laughing stock when it constantly threatens to overthrow other democratically-elected governments on the basis of “electoral irregularities,” when our own elections are a complete disaster. If any country truly warrants international observers to come in and safeguard the integrity of our elections, it is our country.

So here were are in 2020, the second time Bernie Sanders has run a vigorous, people-funded, movement-driven campaign. And once again, a series of bizarre and systematic voting irregularities have taken place. For some reason, whenever Sanders has been a candidate in the Democratic Primaries, not only is there massive voter suppression in high-delegate and key-battleground states, but there seems to be an invisible hand behind the curtain that brings about confusing and mysterious results that don’t follow the polling at all. While we can’t prove that there was intentional suppression, fraud and meddling, the fingerprints do tell a story.

Let’s revisit Iowa. I know it feels like ancient history now, so let’s re-cap the strange series of events:

* For several days leading up to the Iowa caucus, several major polls had Buttigieg in third place.

* In an unprecedented move, on the eve of the Iowa caucus, the Des Moines register halted the release of its 76-year-old “gold-standard” poll, which has correctly predicted the winner of the Democratic caucuses since 1988, due to a complaint by the Buttigieg campaign. Meanwhile, poll results are leaked to the media showing Sanders in the lead (20%), then Elizabeth Warren (17%), then Buttigieg (16%), and last Biden (15%).

* Tuesday’s Primary Election Day in Iowa- Instead of employing the tried-and-true vote-counting system Iowa has always used, precinct captains received last-minute notifications that they would be using this “Shadow” app for counting and reporting. Developed by former 2016 Hillary Clinton staffers, the app was launched under a larger umbrella company, ACRONYM, who was retained for “digital services” by the Buttigieg campaign, which paid Shadow $42,500.” It also just happens that ACRONYMN founder, Tara McGowen, is married to Michael Halle, a senior strategist for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. And a person with inside knowledge of ACRONYM’s culture reported that “top officials at the company regularly expressed hostility to Bernie Sanders and his supporters.”

* The Shadow app, never before tested on a large scale before the Iowa caucus, failed miserably, and caucus staff were left for days trying to piece together the results.

* Before any results were released, Buttigieg declared victory on twitter and at a CNN town hall.

* While the world is waiting and watching Iowa, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) released a curious 62 percent of votes, showing Sanders in the lead for popular votes, tied for delegate votes, but Buttigieg is in the lead for SDE’s (State Delegate Equivalents), an intermediary calculation between the popular vote and the national delegates, but not representative of either.

* The IDP announces that Buttigieg is leading, while the country is left waiting for 38% of the votes to come in. Even though AP called it “too close to call,” the corporate media already had its front page headline.

* Satellite caucus results (representing Bernie’s strongest precincts) are finally counted toward the very end. With 97% of the votes in, Sanders was about to overtake Buttigieg not only in popular and delegate counts, but also in the SDEs.

* Tom Perez of the DNC halts the count and orders that a “re-canvas vote” begin immediately.

* The Sanders campaign releases its discrepancies sheet, after finding more than a dozen discrepancies in the SDE data, showing that after their audit, Sanders not only led in popular votes, but also in SDEs when the satellite caucuses were counted.

* Both the Sanders and Buttigieg campaign declare victory, but most corporate media outlets continue to report Buttigieg as the winner.

During the four days that it took the IDP to reach a 97% vote count, the Washington Post, Slate, CNN and other major corporate media outlets had already declared that Buttigieg won Iowa, which gave him a nine-point boost in the polls going into the New Hampshire primary.

After Sanders’ huge win in Nevada, FiveThirtyEight projected Sanders to “rack up wins on Super Tuesday.” Except for Alabama, Sanders was projected to win every Super Tuesday primary. In addition, he had substantial polling leads in the delegate-rich states of California and Texas.

On Super Tuesday, it just so happened that California and Texas were plagued with massive voter lines and malfunctioning voter machines. In Los Angeles County, home to more than five million voters, a new $300 million voting system malfunctioned, causing voters to have to travel to multiple polling locations to cast their ballot. Two-three hour lines were recorded across the state. Election officials in 15 counties reported issues with their computer systems, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The result was that many people were only able to cast provisional ballots, and their eligibility would not be confirmed until after election day.”

Texas was plagued with even longer lines and malfunctioning voter machines, especially in districts with high numbers of black, Latinx voters and college students. More than 750 Texas polling sites have been shut down since 2013, “when the Supreme Court slashed federal oversight of Texas and other Southern states under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” At Texas Southern University, a historically Black college, some voters waited for more than six hours to vote due to dozens of malfunctioning voting machines and too few staffers to check people in. At the time the polls closed, Texas was “too close to call,” with the corporate media declaring Biden the victor by the end of the night.

On March 7th, four days later, Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole discovered 44 thumb drives containing uncounted ballots from six cities, representing some 7,000 ballots and about one-tenth of all Texas polling locations.

In the key battleground state of Massachusetts, Biden was coming in at 5th place just three days before its election. Sanders was in first place, followed by Warren, then Buttigieg, then Bloomberg, then Biden. According to The Hill, “Biden’s win in Massachusetts was particularly unexpected because he hasn’t led a poll in the state in months.”

So what happened between Feb. 28 and March 3rd that could cause so many electoral upsets on Super Tuesday? Well, on March 2nd, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out of the race and endorsed Joe Biden. The New York Times reported, “Rarely, if ever, have opponents joined forces so dramatically, as Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg went from campaigning at full tilt in the South Carolina primary on Saturday to joining on a political rescue mission for a former competitor, Mr. Biden, whom they had once regarded as a spent force.” Within a week, several other Democratic presidential candidates who had heavily criticized Biden on major policy issues snapped into line with Biden endorsements, including Corey Booker, Kamala Harris Sen. Beto O’Rourke, Deval Patrick, and Andrew Yang, who had been an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter since 2016.

A few media outlets, including NBC News, suggested that Obama was the invisible hand behind the sudden Biden alignment, with one unnamed Democratic aide saying “Donors have been waiting on the sidelines for either Biden or Bloomberg to become the clear alternative to Sanders.” According to Politico’s Ryan Lizza, who spoke to several of Obama’s advisers in the fall of 2019, Lizza reported that “Obama said privately that if Bernie were running away with the nomination, Obama would speak up to stop him.” And according to The New York Times piece on April 14, 2020, “Mr. Obama has been considerably more engaged in the campaign’s denouement than has been previously revealed.”

On March 13th, Yale University poll-watcher Ralph Lopez reported “wildly divergent exit polls in South Carolina and Massachusetts.” Owner of, Theodore de Macedo Soares reported that in South Carolina and Massachusettes, Biden gained five and seven points over the projections of the unadjusted exit polls, falling outside the typical margin of error for Edison Research polls, which is three percent. “Soares has noted that it is particularly suspicious when other exit polls seem to be quite accurate in other contests, or with respect to candidates of little interest. In 2016, exit polls between Hillary Clinton and Sanders were off in a manner that favored Clinton, but were always within a point of being accurate in other races.”

In March, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the CDC to warn against gatherings of more than 50 people. Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio declared states of emergency leading up to their March 17th primaries. In an open letter to the DNC, thousands of people including medical professionals, called on these states to postpone their primaries in order to “give states enough time to explore alternatives to in-person voting at a sufficient scale.” The Sanders campaign supported this postponement. The Biden campaign, along with the DNC, encouraged voters to go to the polls anyway. On March 16th, Ohio made a last-minute decision to postpone its primaries. Arizona, Florida, and Illinois proceeded with in-person voting. Two Florida poll workers reported contracting Covid-19 just after the election. Reports of low voter turnout barely made the news, in spite of extremely low turnout in Chicago, for example.

And then came Wisconsin and the historic scandal of an election that endangered the lives of Wisconsin voters, who were under a Stay-At-Home order during their primary. In a decision referred to as a reckless disregard for public safety, “the Wisconsin GOP forced an election during a pandemic and people are going to die.” Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers made multiple attempts to postpone the primaries out of a grave concern to public health, finally issuing an executive order. Evers was first blocked by the Republican-controlled state legislature, then again by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court. Not only did the Supreme Court rule against postponing the elections, but it reversed a decision that had extended the absentee-voting deadline giving people a chance to mail in their ballots. The Sanders campaign objected early on, arguing that “People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote.” Meanwhile, the Biden campaign repeated ignored pleas to pressure Wisconsin to postpone their primary.

Many of Wisconsin’s poll workers, who are overwhelmingly elderly, followed CDC guidelines and stayed at home. Due to a mass shortage of poll workers, Milwaukee went from 180 to just five polling locations. Voter lines stretched for city blocks, while thousands of masked voters waited hours to cast their ballots. Forcing voters to choose between health and civic duty, The New York Times reported, “It added up to an election almost certain to be tarred as illegitimate.” Columnist Paul Krugman suggested that “Authoritarian rule may be just around the corner.”

From Iowa to Wisconsin, this is the state of US electoral democracy. Our elections are becoming highly symbolic, but failing to act as an actual lever for determining our candidates or policies. Are we to be content with our national elections being a charade that we participate in every four years, knowing that the ruling class will be deciding the candidate regardless?

How do you explain that in state after state, Medicare for All and the climate crisis have been Democratic voters’ top issues in this primary season. And yet, the one candidate who built his platform on these very issues somehow fell off the radar overnight, after Obama and the Democratic establishment coalesced behind Joe Biden? It is actually little consolation to me that Sanders won “the war of ideas,” when the reasons he lost have everything to do with our broken democracy.

From systematic voter suppression to broken voting machines, seven-hour lines, closed polling stations, forced elections during a global pandemic, and computerized vote tallies that wildly diverge from exit-polling, our electoral system is in deep crisis. In a nation that claims to be a global beacon of democracy for the rest of the world, the state of our elections actually suggests that far from demonstrating democracy, we are on a slippery slope to authoritarianism.

Audre Lord famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Perhaps it has always been foolish to believe that a corrupt, corporate political establishment run by oligarchs would ever allow us, the people, to make fundamental transformations to our material conditions through the mechanism of elections. But at present, it’s one of the only tools we’ve got. If we don’t fix what is broken, it may be gone forever.

Erin McCarley is an independent photojournalist, filmmaker and writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her still photography, videos and/or writing have been published by Dissident Voice, CounterPunchCommon DreamsReal Progressives, Yes! MagazineDue Dissidence, The Christian Science Monitor, the WestwordteleSUR EnglishFree Speech TV in Boulder, CO, KLRU TV in Austin, TX, the MIT Press, the Ford FoundationScience DailyThe Daily Texan, and others. She also co-hosts the political podcast Crawdads & Taters: Red State Rebels.