I've gotten into a number of arguments about how Bernie Sanders would have faired in a general election had he (somehow) won the 2016 democratic primary. I remain exceptionally skeptical, for a variety of reasons I'll outline here—but of course I can't know he wouldn't have won, likewise, no one else can know he would have, such is the nature of counterfactuals.
The central point of my skepticism is due to the word socialism, and the fact only a small fraction of the American electorate has an accurate idea of what socialism actually entails.
Liberals in America tend to use the word as synonymous with pro-government involvement, more progressive taxation and more redistribution of federal funds from the most fortunate (wealthiest) people to the least fortunate (poorest). This is the obvious solution to problems of poverty, to rising healthcare education and housing costs—and those problems are a solution to many other problems: a healthier, more stable, more educated society brings various benefits—reduced crime, reduced unwanted pregnancies (and abortions), better wages, higher productivity.
American conservatives tend to view the word socialism as a problem. For the latter half of the 20th century America pretty heavily propagandized against communism, and socialism was often lumped together with it and became collateral damage.
This is all besides the point that Sanders isn't a socialist, he's a democratic socialist, which is an entirely different thing. The problem is the American electorate is very stupid, and the significant fraction of the electorate that opposes socialism isn't likely to notice, understand, or care, about the difference. And this is why I am so skeptical that Sanders could have won a general election. The republican smear machine is quite incredible; recall that in 2004 John Kerry—a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war (and yet also a public, vocal critic of it later!)—was “swiftboated” and they successfully convinced people that George W. Bush (who spent the Vietnam war AWOL in the Air National Guard as the son of a powerful political family) had a more respectable service record than Kerry. (Maybe in large part due to the fact that he later spoke his conscience and opposed the war.)
Why Progressives Shouldn't Support Bernie, by Barney Frank, July 22nd 2015. (This op-ed he did for Politico persuaded me in late August of 2015 when I came across it, though it ignited a hot debate on my facebook page. Note he begins the article by pointing out Bill Kristol's excitement at Sander's candidacy! This should have been a huge red flag for anyone who's ever listened to Kristof speak.)
American's views of Socialism, Capitalism, Are Little Changed, Gallup comparing opinions from 2010, 2012, and 2016. (About 35% of America has positive views of socialism, only about 13% of republican leaning voters.)
One of the arguments I've heard that Sanders' candidacy was beneficial rather than detrimental is that he excited young people, likely raising the young turnout. While it's true he excited young people, I'm not sure he had a significant impact on their turnout, nor is it clear that it would be in areas that mattered. (I should look more closely at the primary, I know he tended to win smaller states, and more caucuses than elections.)
The other main argument I've heard was that Hillary was never going to win anyway, which I am also unsure of. 2016 vs. 2012: How Trump's Win & Clinton's Votes Stack Up to Romney and Obama, by Hamdan Azhar for Forbes. (Turnout was pretty similar to 2012, so 2016 had the most votes ever cast, however Hillary fell shy of Obama's reelection by ~70,000 votes (note she lost the electorate by a total of just ~77,000 votes divided among three counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) , while Trump improved on Romney's total by about 2 million votes. Since it seems possible that Comey's public statement just days before the election could have swung it alone, I don't think anyone can credibly “know” that Hillary couldn't win. (Let alone the many other factors mentioned above.)
All this said, I don't mind Sanders. I preferred Hillary but would've happily accepted Sanders had he won the primary. Early on I was dismissive of both his & Trump's chances, and he did do much better than I would have expected but it was not in any way close. For comparison the 2008 primary between Clinton & Obama was far closer, yet Hillary conceded much earlier than Sanders did. (I consider this to have potentially harmed Hillary, though I think there are many small reasons, and given that she lost by 70,000 votes in particular states, any one of the small reasons may have been enough to push her under & hand Trump the presidency. Comey's last minute statement, Russian interference, Wikileaks, a year of media focus on emails and years of opponents focusing on Benghazi as if it were anything but political opposition (which was even admitted!); even plain old misogyny, Sanders' entire campaign, though the divisiveness it bred (in part due to Russian influence no doubt) and the prolonged nature of it would be the main issues.)
I became concerned with wealth & income inequality in 2010, when I first came across a study showing the disparity between the actual wealth inequality, the public perception of it, and the public ideal/desired distribution. I mentioned it to a friend in the summer of 2010 at a bar, and he told me not to worry, “whenever wealth gets too unbalanced one of two things happen: either laws are enacted to help lessen it, or heads get chopped off”. So as Sanders emerged as a vocal critic of wealth inequality, I was initially supportive of it. But as time went on I began to convince myself the issues isn't exactly wealth/income inequality, but rather the low end wages. Discussions of the minimum wage made me realize that the simplest most straight forward solution low income wages (simply require them to be higher—true living wages), would likely exacerbate wealth inequality. (Giving the poorest people a big raise means a big increase in spending (since the poorest have no room for savings), and spending means more consumption, and increased consumption benefits the owners & investors the most. Wealth doesn't trickle down (as golden shower ‘economists’ would want to believe), it flows upwards, with the tiny trickles of the poorest spending combining into larger and larger tributaries until there is a massive flow to the wealthiest people.)
But given that raising wages for the poorest people could worsen wealth inequality, I do not think that is justification for opposing it. Hence I came to see the problem not as inequality, but just low end insufficiency (I'd need to think of a better name to make that work).
After this I began to realize another benefit to refocusing efforts on low end wages rather than inequality: focusing on inequality divides people into rich and poor, making rich the enemy. But the rich are a fantastically powerful ally. (Of course it'd be great if we all had equal say, but the reality is that money remains a powerful influencer in our country.)
Between these two points I persuaded myself that wealth inequality is the wrong issue to focus on.
(There are other points to be made in favor of wealth inequality concerns, like the fact that progressive taxation is the only way to really fund the society, or the redistributive nature of progressive taxation & generous aid to the least fortunate (especially considering to many of them wages aren't even relevant) is justifiable on purely moral grounds (let alone that a good economic argument can be made for them as well).)
I no longer want to identify with the terms liberal or democrat—or really any political ideology. If I have to pick one I'd probably go with progressive. However at heart I am a scientist and would prefer a scientocracy, wherein we would use science to determine policy. (That is, investigate problems, perform experiments to study proposed solutions, figure out what works and what doesn't rather than just arguing it, use mechanisms like double blinding and adversarial collaboration, repetition, and peer review, to help distill good ideas from bad ones.)