Could Bernie Sanders Have Won? What Might Have Been Is Haunting His Supporters

For Bernie Sanders supporters and everybody else who only backed Hillary Clinton as their second choice, the question of whether Bernie Sanders could have won the election is burning right about now. A poll showing that Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump has added fuel to the Bernie Bros' fire, but as is now terribly clear, election polls are a deeply flawed way of predicting election outcomes. There are numerous arguments stating that Sanders would have lost for on reason or another — the unreliability of young voters or a potential candidacy of Michael Bloomberg, for example. However, when it comes down to it, I'd argue that the Right would have brought Sanders down with millions of dollars in attack ads, all centered around two labels: socialist and atheist.

Wait, you're saying, Bernie Sanders is Jewish — which is true, and being Jewish also wouldn't have helped him. But until Trump brought white supremacism into the mainstream, anti-Semitism was sort of a thing that you didn't hear much in polite public conversation. Old news, right? But it's totally possible to be an atheist Jew, and there is evidence to suggest that Sanders does not actually believe in God. He denied that he was an atheist after leaks of DNC emails revealed that staffers had questioned his beliefs as a way of "smearing" him — but think about that for a minute. Even Sanders' public denial of that charge was a way of validating the idea held by many that America is not ready for an atheist president.

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The question, really, isn't about whether or not Sanders believes in God. The GOP and their presidential nominee had no shame in promoting lies about Hillary Clinton to back up their case, and this would have been one of their main barbs against Sanders. In public opinion surveys, atheists are among the most distrusted groups in society, and it's still totally cool to depict them as monsters. Have a look at this trailer for the Christian movie God's Not Dead, and think whether a movie like that, so full of bias and misinformation, could have made about any other religious group without a massive outcry.

Americans don't yet trust atheists, and whether or not Sanders actually is one, this would have been used to take him down. Religion didn't play a huge role in this campaign, but that's likely because the GOP wouldn't have come out on top in that game and the Democrats are generally unwilling to play it; while Hillary Clinton is a devout Methodist, Trump doesn't exactly know his way around a Bible. With Trump claiming to be an Evangelical one side and a Jewish atheist Sanders on the other, religion would have been a much bigger talking point.

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Now to the other damning label: socialist. It's no secret that it's a dirty word on the political right, thanks to America's own Cold War legacy. While many millennials have now embraced the label of socialist, these are not the sorts of people who would have turned the Rust Belt states blue. Young voters were already heavily Democratic, and they're among the groups least likely to show up to the polls.

For the people who were already willing to consider Trump despite the long list of labels attached to him, "socialist" would have been a strong argument against Sanders. And with the role that misinformation already played in this campaign, I would assume that Sanders' detractors on the right would have blown it up so that he didn't just want universal healthcare and higher taxes on the wealthy. "Hillary Clinton is a demon" would have morphed into "Bernie Sanders is Lenin reincarnated" — they're equally as believable.

There is no doubt that the Democratic Party made numerous mistakes to bring about the results that came in on Election Day — but choosing Hillary Clinton as their nominee was not the worst of them. Take a deep breath, Bernie supporters, and prepare your fights for the midterms. Sanders made the party a more progressive version of itself, which is a definite success. There's no reason why it should go backwards now.