Unlike many political books of its kind, The Land of Flickering Lights, Senator Michael Bennet’s 2019 broadside against partisan discord and dysfunction, offers readers little in the way of navel-gazing autobiography. In the span of one short chapter, Bennet writes admiringly of his father’s career in public service, from senior roles in the State Department to the presidencies of National Public Radio and Wesleyan University, and describes his own journey from Yale Law to a coveted clerkship and then to the Justice Department as “a path similar to that of many young lawyers.” He moves to Denver for an “adventure,” strikes it rich in finance, and, just a few pages later, cheerfully accepts a nickname first given to him by Republican critics: “The Accidental Senator.”
If Bennet writes of his rise to the highest levels of power as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, that’s because it is. It’s the natural, established order of things for well-heeled sons of diplomats to follow the path that he did: hired at the Anschutz Investment Company despite, he admits, being unable to read a balance sheet; appointed to run Denver Public Schools despite never attending a public school himself; appointed to the U.S. Senate despite never before holding elected office. It was always going to be like this; if Bennet weren’t the senator from Colorado, one suspects, he’d be the senator from Ohio or Connecticut, or occupying some State Department sinecure, or editing a prestigious newspaper’s opinion page, like his brother James at the New York Times.
You can’t get appointed President of the United States, though. That’s something that Bennet got a harsh reminder of in last month’s New Hampshire primary, when he received just 0.3 percent of the vote despite a months-long Granite State campaign blitz. He ended his long-shot bid for the White House shortly afterward.
It was the kind of electoral face plant that might cause a candidate to do some soul-searching, to wonder what it was about their message, their platform, their vision for the country that failed so spectacularly to catch on with voters. But in his most extensive comments on his failed presidential run yet, made during an event at the University of Denver hosted by the Colorado Sun and CBS4 on Friday, February 28, Bennet — apparently not one for self-reflection in either books or interviews — instead cast blame in every direction but one.
“I think that I could’ve won if I’d gotten in the race earlier, if the debate rules had been different and I had been able to raise the resources that I needed to raise,” Bennet said. “There are obviously inherent advantages that somebody like Bernie Sanders has in a process that’s so driven by social media.”
You read that right. Michael Bennet — U.S. senator, multimillionaire, Beltway nobility, bankrolled by dozens of influential megadonors from Pat Stryker and Norman Brownstein to Amos Hostetter and Laurene Powell Jobs — was prevented from winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination by your tweets.
This isn’t the first time Bennet has floated such a theory, though it has evolved somewhat as his presidential bid crashed and burned. Complaints about Twitter and Facebook were a consistent theme of his campaign, which released a 170-page e-book on Russian attempts to “divide America” through Facebook memes and attacked more progressive rivals for pandering to what Bennet frequently derided as “the Twitter base of the Democratic Party.”
“I felt the whole time that we were running two different primaries,” Bennet said at DU. “One primary was the flesh-and-blood Americans that I was meeting with in their town halls and their businesses. The other one was the one that was on Twitter and on Facebook. And those things don’t look alike.”
But they do look quite alike in at least one respect: Bennet wasn’t a factor in either of them. He spent most of the winter trudging across New Hampshire to hold fifty town-hall events, winning plenty of attention from local media and endorsements from dozens of state leaders along the way. New Hampshire took a long, hard look at the senior senator from Colorado, and in the end only 984 of the Democratic primary’s 298,523 voters liked what they saw. Fewer people voted for Bennet than wrote in Donald Trump’s name as a joke.
Bennet’s early criticisms of social media amounted to confident predictions that, as the well-worn political journalist’s mantra goes, Twitter Isn’t Real Life — that once ballots were cast, progressive candidates and their Internet-addled supporters would be swamped by a silent, offline majority of sensible moderates. “I don’t think the base of the Democratic Party is anywhere near where the Twitter base of the Democratic Party is,” Bennet told PBS NewsHour shortly after launching his campaign last June.
It’s not just Bennet’s failure and Sanders’s emergence as the race’s frontrunner that have disproven that idea; exit polls in all four early-voting states show clear majorities of Democrats, especially young people, in favor of sweeping progressive proposals like Medicare for All. To a highly educated 55-year-old with a well-established sense of what Americans should and shouldn’t want from their government, that can only mean one thing: The country’s social-media infection is spreading. What a few short months ago could be dismissed as an unrepresentative distraction is now, Bennet says, an existential threat to the Democratic Party and democracy itself.
“The fact that it is so driven by social media suggests to me that some of the other institutions in this world need to pick up some of the slack,” Bennet said at the February 28 event. “Instead, what they did is reinforce the social media bias that we have. And that’s going to be very tough on our democracy going forward.”
It’s a funny definition of “democracy” that can be so threatened by communications tools that give more people the power to shape our political discourse. Messy, loud, deeply flawed, prone to getting things wrong — social media, like print and broadcast news before it, is all of these things and more. But fundamentally, what sets these new digital tools apart from, say, James Bennet’s editorial page or the cable news talking heads who cheer-led Michael Bennet’s run for the presidency, is that on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and TikTok, anyone can have a voice, not just a select group of well-to-do pundits and party insiders.
When Bennet rails against the ills of social media, he isn’t concerned with Silicon Valley monopolies or creeping censorship or underhanded data mining or algorithmic filter bubbles or predatory advertising. He’s railing against the mob — the online rabble that is too fickle, too easily duped by Russian misinformation, too easily tempted by promises of universal health care and free college. He’s deeply troubled by a future in which a nurse from Aurora or a ski-lift operator from Silverthorne can, even if only briefly, be on a level playing field with Bret Stephens or James Carville.
And when Bennet speaks of the need for “other institutions” to “pick up some of the slack,” we should all listen carefully, because what he’s pining for are the days when political outcomes were more reliably decided by established power brokers and esteemed opinion editors — a worthy few, not the unwashed masses.
It’s easy to see why he might prefer things that way. To pick a phrase that has lately appealed to both liberal playwrights and neo-conservative memoirists, Bennet has spent his entire adult life in the room where it happens — in positions of great public- and private-sector power, hunched around conference tables with other very important people, making decisions that impact millions of people’s lives.
In the last few decades, of course, the people in those rooms have had a pretty terrible track record. Powerful Wall Street banks and private-equity firms like the one Bennet helped run made staggeringly massive fortunes while businesses and their workers suffered. Cities like Denver, where Bennet served as John Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, chased luxury redevelopment dollars at the expense of affordable housing. School districts like the one Bennet led bet big on reform measures that have proven dubiously effective while under-investing in teacher pay and other critical resources.
It’s not that Bennet isn’t capable of recognizing the failures of the last thirty years — he’s a harsh critic not only of Donald Trump, but the GOP’s tax cuts on the rich, the influence of money in politics, federal inaction on climate change and much more. But as progressives like Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren attract huge crowds of supporters, online and off, with strident anti-establishment messages and plans to dramatically shift political power from the few to the many, Bennet has a different proposition: What if we just replaced our elites with better elites?
That, ultimately, is what unites Bennet’s moderate policy platform, his reserved political style and his fixation on the shortcomings of social media. What ails us, he told the audience at the February 28 DU event, is not just Trump or economic inequality, but the “degradation of our institutions,” and the only cure is for the American people to place their trust in elected officials who will heal and strengthen those institutions. Whether it’s corporate boardrooms or DNC headquarters or the Senate cloakroom or the Supreme Court chambers, that’s Bennet’s prescription for our “broken politics": to fill the room where it happens with worthier leaders, not to find a bigger room.
The only problem is that for now, as Sanders looks to amass a potentially insurmountable delegate lead in Super Tuesday’s nominating contests, the rabble isn't cooperating. But Bennet and other Democratic institutionalists aren’t giving up.
“Tonight is not going to be our night,” Bennet told a crowd of supporters as he dropped out of the presidential race last month. “But let me say this to New Hampshire: You may see me once again.” And next time you’ll listen, if you know what’s good for you.
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