Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democratic frontrunner, and boy, MSNBC is not happy.
As the Nevada caucus results rolled in Saturday, commentators on the network, visibly annoyed, compared a Sanders victory to France being invaded by Nazi Germany, warned of his supporters using ‘dark arts’, said that it might be better for moderate Democrats if Trump won instead of Sanders, and called Sanders voters a ‘squeaky, angry minority’.
Chris Matthews, who was responsible for the off-color World War Two analogy (and is now facing calls to step down over it), also recently panicked on air about being executed in Central Park by ‘Castro and the Reds’ when discussing why Sanders calls himself a socialist.
The network’s ‘legal analyst’ Mimi Rocah claimed last year that Bernie makes her ‘skin crawl’ for unknown reasons and questioned why women would support him at all. Chuck Todd recently further angered the Sanders camp by repeating the characterization of Bernie Bros as ‘brownshirts’ on air, a move that was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League. Commentator Jason Johnson poked the hive again by claiming that Sanders supporters included ‘racist, liberal whites’ and ‘misfit black girls’.
Moreover, a media analysis published last year argues that the network not only covered Sanders less than his top competitors, they also cover him more negatively across the board.
Sanders’s campaign manager Faiz Shakir summed up his frustration in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, saying that Fox News’s coverage of his boss was ‘more fair’ than MSNBC’s.
The network has been trying to make amends since Saturday’s debacle. Matthews apologized on air Monday for his Nazi Germany comparison, and MSNBC leadership has promised to ‘seek out more smart, pro-Sanders voices’ for their network.
But MSNBC personalities’ irritation with the Sanders campaign is reflective of deeper issues in its stance towards the political landscape of 2020. The root of the network’s meltdown over Sanders can be traced to the fact that his electoral success suggests that Democratic voters are different from the Democratic party that exists in MSNBC commentators’ heads.
MSNBC’s rotating cast of NeverTrump flunkies, old spies, Russia conspiracists, and a Rachel Maddow-styled primetime lineup appeals to few outside of already-converted, anti-Trump Resistance liberals. It does very little to appeal to viewers outside of that bubble — the disaffected people who don’t often vote that Sanders hopes will come out for him in record numbers.
The network’s coverage of the Trump presidency does resonate with a sector of the Democratic electorate, but its growth in viewers appears to come from an older and more professional class set.
Its periodically sky-high ratings suggest that hype over impeachment and the Mueller report can and does attract lots of eyeballs from avid news consumers and the #Resistance left. Whether those topics are seen as important by the wider population is another matter altogether.
Polling data suggests that the two most important issues for the network over the last three years, the Russia investigation and later, the impeachment of President Trump, both failed to register with voters.
MSNBC is not the Fox News of the left. Say what you will about the conservative network, but its primetime hosts actually represent a real, wide constituency of Republican Trump-supporting Americans. What constituency does MSNBC represent? Elite, professional class liberals who want to see an economically moderate, national security-state friendly Democratic party save the Republic from the mean orange man, but who aren’t as worried about economic inequality and people dying because they can’t afford insulin.
The success of Sanders proves that a large and powerful coalition on the left exists that is more concerned with material issues than performative identity politics, more concerned with healthcare than Bernie Bros being mean online, and not at all worried about whatever national security spooks are saying about Russia.
The network’s trouble with Bernie reflects a larger battle for the soul of the Democratic party — the desire among some party elites to jettison white working-class voters and people of color who don’t often vote in exchange for a party of wealthier suburban voters in the ‘Panera Breads of America’ turned off by Trump’s bad words. Sanders’s rise threatens elite liberals with the possibility that the Democratic party that MSNBC thinks exists does not.
Sanders’s success proves that left-wing voters can be just as populist, combative and distrusting of the media and Deep State than any MAGA voter can, and that deeply upsets them.
A squeaky, angry minority, indeed.