Art for Not Unwinnable.
A Bernie could, one day, win. / Phil Roeder
Rick Paulas,  January 16, 2017

Not Unwinnable

What lies behind and beyond the “Bernie would’ve won” meme

A Bernie could, one day, win. / Phil Roeder


As a general rule, it’s wise to steer clear from analyzing memes that originate and evolve on the Twittersphere. Users wield the medium in different enough ways that Twitter is at best a fractured discourse, it moves too quickly to be relevant longer than a day, and the sanest among us have already left (some 8.7 percent of the American population use Twitter every day). But a three-word phrase has been showing up in the real world enough to justify a deeper dive into it. That phrase is: 
Bernie would’ve won.

It’s biting and glib, delivered by the leftist, and that’s by design, an anti-authority middle finger to those liberals who still support a party which insisted they could be trusted to get the job done, and, instead, choked. It’s meant as a straightforward shock, a way to rattle those who wrap themselves in the flag of the Democratic Party for no other reason than it’s not the racist, sexist, or overtly dumb one. But there’s a disconnect between the leftist sender and the liberal recipient. Because what the meme is not—at least, not always—is a claim that Bernie Sanders would actually have won the election.

It makes sense to read it that way, since that is what it literally says. But both our liberal and our leftist know all too well that Bernie didn’t beat Clinton in the primary, for starters, making the whole scenario moot in our current political system. And since Trump won by the slimmest of margins in key states, and lost the popular vote, it’s impossible to pin down any single reason for the outcome.

“Bernie would’ve won” is less about Hillary’s defeat than Trump’s victory, a subtle but meaningful distinction.
 Looking back, the liberals who told you it could never happen will enumerate the many reasons Trump won: fake news, voter restrictions, shady redistricting, the Electoral College, the FBI, the Russians, the inherent sexism of America, the legacy of racism this nation was built on, Pepe the fucking frog. But none of those can be combated in the realm of electoral politics. If you believe Hillary lost because of sexism, what’s the solution? Not to have sexism anymore? If you think it’s because of the Electoral College, you can sign as many petitions as you want, but what’s the actual path ahead? Fighting voter restrictions and racially motivated redistricting is a worthwhile use of time, but unfortunately the Democratic Party has been really, really bad at this. The Russians “hacked” the election; okay, what’s the next step? If America is too racist, or sexist, or too easily manipulable by Russian trolls, then we’re screwed. It’s over. Wrap this bold experiment up and toss it in the trash. These second-order reasons, no matter how legitimate they are, offer nothing in the way of action moving forward.

“Bernie would’ve won” is less about Hillary’s defeat than Trump’s victory.

Trump won because, despite his retrograde slogan, he was the “change” candidate, someone offering more than just a continuation of the same policies, pitted against someone who was lauded and reviled as “the most experienced candidate ever.” He won because, even though he’ll be proved to be full of shit, Trump at least offered lip service to the fact that many workers are hurting. His wall is unlikely and racist, but it’s couched in a narrative about “keeping jobs” in the country. He won because he didn’t claim “America is already great,” a weak and reactive statement so tone-deaf it was shocking that any liberal—anyone who’s been outraged by the murders of African Americans by police, the GOP’s blockade of Obama’s Supreme Court appointment, our lax effort to combat climate change—could have brought themselves to applaud it.

Here are three things, then, that are hard to argue with. People want change, workers need jobs, America is not already great. You can hate Trump’s proposed solutions to these issues—and you should because they’re horrific—but hitting these points, however oafishly, won him the presidency.

If America just needs more than “I’m not Trump” to galvanize enough voters off the couch to tilt the scale in a positive direction, “Bernie would’ve won” offers us some solutions.

To begin with, it’d behoove the opposition party to realize that, when the public is clamoring for that vague notion of “change,” one thing that certainly does not mean is retaining existing leadership. Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as House Minority leader seems a bad first step, but one perhaps steadied if Keith Ellison becomes party chair come the February vote. After that, it’s worth clearing out time in their #resistance schedule to figure out what the working class needs in order to earn their future votes, whether that’s more jobs, a raised minimum wage, or a heavier burden on employers to filter profits back into a higher standard of living for all. And never, ever, ever again attempt to court votes by saying “everything’s already cool, folks.”

The good news is that this election-victory playbook is freely available. The bad news is that it’s out for everyone to see, whether those forces are from the left or the far-right.

At its core, this is what the urgent “Bernie would’ve won” message is hoping to elucidate to liberals. It’s not saying, “Bernie would have, without a single doubt, defeated Trump.” It’s saying “Trump’s victory portends a future victory by the left, but only if the correct lessons are learned.” It’s saying, “Here is how to win elections without compromising your own values or integrity.” That’s not only a necessary lesson, but it offers hope in a time of despair.

So, shout it from the rooftops, chant it in the streets, whisper it to your lover. A Bernie could, one day, win. And if the party that we have left to resist the Trump presidency—as it fails to live up to its promises to workers—doesn’t hear, shout it out a little louder.

Rick Paulas has written for The Awl, VicePacific Standard, McSweeney's, and many other publications. His work can be found at, and his serialized novel-in-progress at

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