Why Bernie Sanders won the debate

The reviews are pouring in and the consensus is clear. The Democrats looked small last night, very small. They bickered, one over the other, raised their eyebrows and smirked and sneered at each other’s jibes. Presidential campaigns are not high school debating contests signaling who’s the smartest or most accomplished person in the room. They’re about the authenticity of the candidate and his or her clarity of vision of the good life, American style. 

Yale University professor Jeffrey Alexander put it best back in the 2012 campaign season   between Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Is Congress reasserting itself? Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations MORE and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat MORE when he wrote: “Incapable of symbolizing, Romney performs the role of the problem-solving businessman. But voters wrap practical promises inside gauzy cultural blankets. What matters is the character of the promiser and his story. These are what citizens can feel. They can’t scientifically evaluate the validity of his promise.” 

That’s why, for all the pokes he got and didn’t always deflect smoothly, Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Trump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose The role (un)happiness plays in how people vote MORE won last night’s South Carolina Democratic debate. He might have flinched on his gun control record, and bewildered some with his defense of what he thinks Fidel Castro’s Cuba did well, but his overall message of social equity — that is, equality in the delivery of social services, and his mantra of support for the middle class — was clear and of the moment. All the other candidates somehow seemed anachronistic, like talking heads from the 1990s, discussing their competence, but none had a message. 


America no longer is a place of assembly lines and the hierarchical corporation where one spends a lifetime. We are a nation sorting our democracy out to deal with an aggressive start-up culture devoid of a secure middle class. We are experiencing another industrial revolution that is restructuring employment patterns and the way institutions are organized. Into that space comes an old populist talking about health care as a right, paying teachers fairly, and universal child care, a universalist version of the more nationalist Make America Great Again. The overlaps, of course, are protectionism and barely a nod towards identity as a political variable. 

Technocrats beware: Whether one agrees or not, the message is clear and easily can resonate with a vulnerable middle class. Sanders’s constant growl, like President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE’s constant frustration, reflects an American electorate growling and frustrated also. Just being against the “status quo” is enough right now to make a candidate a front-runner. If one can articulate a message around that outlier status as a candidate, that campaign is even stronger. 

If being a centrist means, quite literally, being at the center of what the public is thinking — which we can only measure through political participation such as voting behavior — then Sanders retained his place at the heart of the American public conversation right now, if only because he did not swerve from his mantras. The more he was attacked for being a radical last night, the more those attacking him seemed out of date. Remember when establishment Republicans counted on presumed presidential heir Jeb Bush? Déjà vu. 

Time magazine reported in 2016 that Trump’s election, which co-opted the Democratic Party’s historic blue-collar vote, was “a mandate delivered en masse by working class voters sidelined in the modern economy.” That swing state Rust Belt cohort, and millions of others around the country who are trying to navigate a growing income gap, is where the electorate is right now. 

The party establishments and their managerial class have been left behind. They’re just not that relevant anymore. Sanders and Trump have figured that out. All Sanders had to do was survive last night’s debate and stay on message. He did that. He may have been the candidate with the whitest hair, but he remained the most current, shedding technocratic assertions by holding fast to a populist message that speaks to the same voters Trump won over from the Democrats in 2016. 

We have an election season before us with two competing populist claims. This is healthy, because it’s American democracy at work. 

Abraham Unger, Ph.D., is research director at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform and an associate professor and director of urban programs at the Department of Government and Politics, Wagner College, New York. He is the author of “The Death and Life of the American Middle Class.”