When Bernie Sanders launched his bid for the presidency in 2015, he was dismissed by political and media elites as an outsider with radical ideas that would prevent him from being taken seriously by Democratic primary and caucus voters.
Now, as Sanders mounts his second bid for the presidency, the same political and media aristocrats speculate about whether Sanders will have a hard time distinguishing himself in a field of candidates who echo his stances on issues ranging from Medicare for All to wage hikes to tuition-free college and implementing a Green New Deal.
Sanders won the ideas primary four years ago, an accomplishment he nodded to in his announcement on Tuesday of his 2020 bid: “Three years ago, during our 2016 campaign, when we brought forth our progressive agenda we were told that our ideas were ‘radical,’ and ‘extreme.’ We were told that Medicare for All, a $15 an hour minimum wage, free tuition at public colleges and universities, aggressively combating climate change, demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes, were all concepts that the American people would never accept. Well, three years have come and gone. And, as result of millions of Americans standing up and fighting back, all of these policies and more are now supported by a majority of Americans.”
The appeal of the ideas Sanders raised with his 2016 presidential bid, to young people in particular, transformed the politics of the Democratic Party and the nation. Now, everyone in the party—well, just about everyone—wants to identify as a bold progressive. As such, we are told, Sanders is just one of the crowd of similarly inclined contenders bidding for a chance to take down Donald Trump.
So is Sanders a victim of his own success? Has he so expanded the range of debate in the Democratic Party that he, himself, is no longer viable?
Don’t bet against the guy just yet.
As media and political elites misunderstood what made Sanders stand out in 2016, they are now misunderstanding what will make him stand out in 2020.
Sanders was the only democratic socialist running for the Democratic nomination four years ago, and it is likely that he will be the only democratic socialist mounting a serious bid next year. His ideology is what has distinguished him in a country where, until his 2016 campaign jump-started the ideological discourse, the “s” word was often relegated to the fringe of the debate. And it will continue to distinguish him—not as an extreme and “unelectable” figure, but as the generator of big ideas that often extend from and build upon the tradition of the New Deal and the “Economic Bill of Rights” messaging that secured the Democratic Party its greatest victories.
When Sanders ran four years ago, he got credit for proposing bold responses to the health-care, education, economic, environmental, and social challenges the country had either neglected or failed to adequately address. The ideas proved to be popular, but they weren’t particularly new. For the most part, Sanders was calling for an American embrace of policies and programs that were implemented long ago in Canada, Britain, Germany, and, of course, the social democracies of Scandinavia.
Sanders’s identification as a democratic socialist was not a liability in 2016. It was a strength. It made him an intellectually dynamic and exciting contender who addressed America’s anxieties and its hopes—not merely because with the solutions he proposed but in the way he put the pieces together by comfortably talking about doing battle with “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” and “the billionaire class.”
At a time when Americans were sick and tired of the political “competition” between right-wing dogma and centrist double talk, Sanders spoke a language that made sense. He focused on fundamental questions and provided fundamental answers: People who are ailing need affordable health care, and a single-payer national health-care program will get the care they need; people working 40 hours a week shouldn’t be living in poverty, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage will make ends meet; young people shouldn’t have to take on overwhelming debt in order to get an education, and free tuition will change the calculus. Ending austerity and addressing inequality costs money, and taxing the rich will help to balance the books.
It was common sense, rooted in the democratic-socialist agenda Sanders has embraced and articulated for the better part of six decades. Such common sense that voters in 23 Democratic primary and caucus contests choose the candidate who was borrowing from the playbooks of the Scandinavian social democrats—as well as American pioneers such as Eugene Victor Debs and the Socialist Party mayors who ran cities like Milwaukee across much of the 20th century.
As in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt consulted Socialist Party stalwarts such as Norman Thomas and A. Philip Randolph, and as in the 1960s, when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations took cues from socialists such as Randolph and Michael Harrington, 2016 proved to be a moment that was ripe for what the Sanders campaign referred to as a “political revolution.”
The moment will be just as ripe in 2020. The challenges that needed to be addressed four years ago remain unaddressed today, and in many cases have been made more daunting by the Robin-Hood-in-reverse approach of Trump and his billionaire-aligned Republican allies in Congress. Because of Trump’s racism and crude attacks on immigrants and refugees and women’s rights, there will be an even greater need to focus on an equity agenda that Sanders was sometimes criticized in 2016 for not emphasizing enough. In 2020, that agenda was central to an announcement of candidacy that declared: “I’m running for president because, now more than ever, we need leadership that brings us together—not divides us up. Women and men, black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, young and old, native born and immigrant. Now is the time for us to stand together.”
In that same “complete the revolution” announcement on Tuesday, Sanders promised that “Together we can create a nation that leads the world in the struggle for peace and for economic, racial, social and environmental justice. And together we can defeat Donald Trump and repair the damage he has done to our country.”
Unlike most of the other candidates, who are evolving toward where Sanders is already at, the independent senator from Vermont simply has to be his own authentic self—the guy who started working with the Young People’s Socialist League and civil-rights groups as a student at the University of Chicago and who joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that Randolph and another democratic socialist, Bayard Rustin, organized in 1963.
The point here is not to suggest that the Democratic Party is about to go socialist, or that if Sanders is nominated and elected that America will suddenly be a socialist country. The point is that, after 30 years of globalization, 20 years of digital revolution, and 10 years of automation, with climate change posing an existential threat and with inequality surging in a new age of monopoly, the United States is at a critical juncture. The reactionary policies of the Trump administration will not meet the demands of this moment, but neither will the centrist “New Democrat” or “Third Way” approaches that have too frequently constrained Democratic administrations in the past four decades.
This is a potential New Deal moment, a potential Great Society moment. Bigger ideas, bolder approaches, better answers are needed if this country is going to respond in a meaningful way to climate change, to economic and racial injustice, to the dislocation caused by the collapse of the old economy, and to the monopolization of the new economy by a handful of tech giants.
Just as there was in the 1930s, and in the 1960s, there is now an opening for the Democratic Party to fill a void in our politics and policy-making. But to fill that void, the party must be willing to embrace at least some ideas that have been labeled as “socialist”—and to maintain the embrace even when a Herbert Hoover or a Barry Goldwater or a Donald Trump attacks. Social Security was described as a “socialist” program, but FDR fought for and implemented it. Medicare was attacked as a “socialist” program, but LBJ fought for and implemented it. Major strides on behalf of racial justice, gender equity, disability rights, and environmental protection, to implement fair taxation and to provide a safety net, were often decried by the right as “socialist” initiatives—as backers of a Green New Deal are now learning—but, as these policies have been advanced, society has come to the point even centrists and some conservatives recognize their value.
It is not necessary to claim that democratic socialism has all the answers—certainly Sanders does not do so—but it is necessary to recognize that there are old socialist proposals that have always made sense and new socialist proposals that make sense in a moment of economic, environmental, and social disruption.
Sanders, to a far greater extent than the other 2020 contenders, is prepared to do this. He’s not doctrinaire or romantically idealistic. He’s practical and serious-minded. He’s a former mayor, who ran his state’s largest city ably. He’s been in the US House and the US Senate for almost three decades, compiling a record of getting things right when most Republicans and many Democrats got them wrong. He is a serious thinker and analyst of ideas, who is familiar with social democracy, as it has been practiced and as it now is being practiced in Scandinavian countries—to such an extent that he once organized town meetings in Vermont with Denmark’s ambassador to the United States. And he is prepared to talk about how social-democratic programs have worked well for countries such as Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Canada.
It’s not a hard sell. Polling suggests the people are ready. Social-democratic responses to contemporary challenges—like providing health care as a right, not a privilege; like taxing the rich to fund job creation and green infrastructure—are popular, especially with young voters and with the historically dispossessed voters who must be mobilized to win in 2020. If Sanders runs as a more-ambitious version of who he was in 2016—with comprehensive proposals for meeting the ancient need of equity in a new machine age of globalization, digital revolution, automation—he will stand out from the field of Democratic contenders.
Perhaps sufficiently to secure the nomination.
This is what terrifies Donald Trump. That’s why the president used his State of the Union address to target Sanders and the growing number of elected officials, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identify as democratic socialists.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” the president announced. “America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Trump doesn’t care to know that many ideas that have been attacked as “socialist,” such Social Security and basic-income grants, can be traced back to essays written by the radical pamphleteer Tom Paine, the revolutionary who called the American experiment into being. But Trump does know that at least some Democratic insiders still get thrown off by red-baiting rhetoric. And you can be sure he will apply the “s” label to any Democrat who gets near him in 2020.
What distinguishes Sanders is that the senator from Vermont is not going to be thrown off by Trump’s barbs.
Trump may think “socialism” is a scare word, and many prominent Democrats may indeed get scared when it is referenced, but Sanders is comfortable discussing his democratic socialist ideology. “Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word,” says Sanders.
Sanders is not defensive. He’s aggressive. While Trump equates the humane democratic socialism that millions of Americans embrace with “government coercion, domination and control”—in a desperate attempt to narrow the discourse—Sanders makes honest comparisons that expand and enhance the dialogue.
“I happen to believe that, if the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments,” the senator told me several years ago. “How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do the American people know that? I doubt it. Do the American people even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Most people don’t know that. Do the American people know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?”
What makes Bernie Sanders stand out is an ability to move the discussion forward by educating voters rather than trying to frighten or divide them. At the heart of that education is an understanding that is hardwired into the American experience.
“Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968, when he stated that, ‘this country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor,’” says Sanders. He went on:
It’s time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street, billionaires and large corporations. It means that we should not be providing welfare for corporations, huge tax breaks for the very rich, or trade policies which would boost corporate profits as workers lose their jobs,” he said, echoing a line that he frequently repeats in his standard campaign speech across the country. It means that we create a government that works for all of us, not just powerful special interests. It means that economic rights must be an essential part of what American stands for. It means that health care should be a right of all people, not a privilege.