Here’s exactly why Bernie Sanders would have done better than Clinton, for what it’s worth

A lot of people are hurting right now. A lot of people are not only confused, but devastated and terrified for their safety in the years to come. A lot of things about this election were fucked up and a lot of things about a Trump presidency are sure to be fucked up. Seriously, there is so much to unpack here. But for starters, let’s look at where the Democratic Party went wrong. Objectively speaking, Bernie Sanders would have done better than Hillary Clinton, and there are numbers and valid rationalizations that speak to this.

Obviously “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” can’t change the fact that we’ve elected a dangerous, bigoted, and deeply ignorant Cheeto to be our next president, and millions of people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and so many other marginalized peoples will suffer the consequences.

But, it’s important that those of us still absolutely mystified by the election of Donald Trump start to understand how this happened. Notions of white supremacy and the romanticization of our nation’s racist past played a pronounced role in all of this, don’t get me wrong. Like, whitey showed up and whitey won. But there were other factors in play here too, and the fact that Sanders would have fared markedly better against Trump shows what else was going on.

National line-ups showed Sanders leading Trump by as much as 15 points, and roughly 10 points on average, while state-by-state polling showed that Sanders could have won 364 electoral college votes to Trump’s 174. It’s worth noting that polls got the general election completely wrong, so it definitely isn’t a certainty that a Sanders v. Trump general election would have gone this way, but it could have. And the sun could burst into a cascading wave of a trillion golden seagulls at any moment. Who the fuck knows. I’m just throwing out scenarios here. Clearly, the media doesn’t know shit, but the world is on fire so let’s play “what if” for a minute and see if we learn anything.

As the WikiLeaks emails indicated, the DNC had a very clear favorite throughout the primaries (hint: it wasn’t Bernie), which was pretty shitty. The emails don’t indicate that DNC officials actively did anything that changed the outcome of the primaries, but they certainly didn’t help Sanders. He performed phenomenally and mobilized millions of disillusioned Americans, but the fact of the matter is that more Democrats and Independents voted for Clinton than for Sanders, and she became the nominee.

Now, on to what would have happened in an alternative universe where Sanders and Trump faced off. Throughout the primaries, Sanders and Trump were compared annoyingly often — and if you were like me and loved Sanders’ message of equality and unity for an inclusive “future to believe in,” you were disgusted by the fact that his progressive message could in any way be likened with Trump’s promise to restore a past (and perpetuate and embolden a present) rooted in white supremacy. But what the outcome of the general election reveals is that, while in neither values nor ideology, the respective ways in which Sanders and Trump appealed to Americans were remarkably similar.

bernie sanders hillary clinton
CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Both were dubbed anti-establishment candidates, and despite the fact that President Obama and the Democratic Party did many things to help and uplift the American working class, for many this wasn’t enough, and was simply perceived as Democratic elites feeding breadcrumbs to the masses.

Objectively speaking, Obama’s administration did improve the standard of living somewhat through Obamacare, which resulted in millions of Americans formerly uninsured obtaining healthcare, and through economic growth. But there remained millions mired in poverty whom Sanders spoke to by pointing out that in many ways, the Democratic Party protected wealthy elites and did not do enough to help the millions of poor people of color who remained economically disenfranchised. I mean, those are facts. His plans for single-payer healthcare, tuition-free public education, and a higher minimum wage spoke directly to poor marginalized communities who knew that economic enfranchisement is requisite for social mobility in this society.

Where Sanders stood with poor people of color and compassionately regarded the link between racism and classism, Trump spoke to the economically disenfranchised and frustrated by blaming people of color: for taking “our” (white people’s) jobs, spreading crime through inner cities, coming to America from war-torn parts of the world just to bring terror, etc.

Both drew on the frustrations and discontent of poor Americans. Sanders blamed economic injustice on elites and a system that enabled them. Being an elite and enabled by the system, Trump could not utilize this narrative; but being a white man devoid of shame and decency, he could and did use a narrative that blamed minorities and glorified a past in which white men did not have to share anything with minorities and women. His narrative portrays the “greatness” of America’s past as white people not being “forced” by the “establishment” to share this greatness, as the establishment supposedly is doing to them now. In so doing, he connects racist and xenophobic ideals with simply being “anti-establishment.” As the famous adage goes, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

That being said, the real contest was never about Democrats vs. Republicans, decent vs. indecent, experienced vs. inexperienced. It was about the anti-establishment taking on the establishment. Sanders’ anti-establishment symbolism of love and peace would have stood a powerful chance against Trump’s ant-establishment symbolism of hatred and chaos, or at the very least, would have drawn support from Independents barred from voting in Democratic primaries, who refused to vote for someone they perceived as an “establishment” candidate.

The establishment image was pegged to Clinton long ago, she was helpless to shake it off, and (clearly) it was not popular with the masses this election season. Personally, it blows my mind that a white man who inherited millions from his father and spent his life thriving on a system built around favoring people like himself could be pegged as “anti-establishment” but hey, we’ve been trying to bridge that maddening logical canyon for 18 months and I’m cool with taking a break this week.

Hillary Clinton US Vice President Joe Biden Campaigns With Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Scranton, PA
CREDIT: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Polling that shows Sanders crushing Trump in the general obviously has its pitfalls. For starters, most of it was conducted during the primaries, before Clinton became the nominee, and who knows what would have changed throughout a general election season of Sanders campaigning against Trump. Actually, to briefly answer that question, Sanders’ far less eventful political career is obviously void of the same scandals and evidence of “corruption” of Clinton’s, so that would have been to Sanders’ benefit, too, since Trump’s campaign strategy relied on hit jobs attacking Clinton’s honesty.

The “dishonest” and “corrupt” narratives associated with Clinton only further aligned her with the rigged establishment, where Trump just appeared even more anti-establishment when the media caught him being dishonest and corrupt (not paying taxes, etc.), and thus more appealing to his supporters.

At any rate, what’s done is done. The DNC needs to be reformed, for sure, but right now it’s important and most productive to mobilize for the sake of helping those who need it most now, and are poised to need help even more urgently in the months and years to come. We could all take a page from Sanders’ book: acknowledge that we must work with Trump on some level (but we sure as hell don’t have to be nice or gracious or happy about it, and anyone who claims otherwise is — make no mistake — human lubricant that will help our new white nationalist president elect fuck us hard and fast), but hold fast to our values and refuse to work with him if this involves bigotry. He’s also promised to be Trump’s “worst nightmare” if the future president goes after minorities, and I wholeheartedly believe Sanders will be just that.