Something strange and unexpected is happening in US politics.
“Under the guise of Medicare For All and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same economic theories that have stifled the liberties of millions over the past century,” GOP Vice President Mike Pence told a major gathering of the American right—the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—outside Washington D.C. last week. “That system,” he continued, “is socialism.”
Two days later, on Saturday 2 March, Donald Trump took to the stage with the same message. “The future belongs to those who believe in freedom,” the current White House incumbent stated. “We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare.”
It’s not unusual for Republicans to invoke the “nightmare” of socialism in an effort to undermine their Democratic opponents. After the 2008 financial crisis, rightwing Tea Party activists denounced Barack Obama’s multibillion-dollar Wall Street bail-out package as a “big government” takeover of US free enterprise. But Obama was no socialist: he was a moderate who operated well inside the mainstream of American political norms—even if his detractors refused to acknowledge him as such.
“Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, John McCain’s climate policy, Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy,” Brad DeLong—an Obama supporter and former senior economist in the Clinton administration—told the website Vox recently. “And did Bush, Romney, McCain say a single good word about anything Obama ever did over the course of eight solid years? No, they fucking did not.”
On this occasion, however, the Republicans might actually have a point—a revolution really is brewing on the left.
Eight days ago—at almost exactly the same time as Trump was speaking at CPAC—13,000 people huddled in the cold Brooklyn air to watch 77-year old Bernie Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont, launch his second bid for the presidency.
“Today I welcome you to a campaign which tells the powerful special interests who control so much of our economic and political life that we will no longer tolerate the greed of corporate America and the billionaire class,” Sanders said, in his now iconic Flatbush drawl. “Greed which has resulted in this country having more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on earth.”
Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist”, enters the 2020 Democratic race as a—if not the—confirmed frontrunner. According to one recent poll, he has the support of 26 per cent of Democratic voters in New Hampshire—traditionally, the second state to ballot as part of the primary process—four points ahead of ex-Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, and more than 15 points ahead of Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have.
That is, by any standards, remarkable. When Sanders first ran for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton in 2015, he was dismissed as an outrider—an eccentric leftist from a tiny north-eastern state with no hope of overcoming the Clinton machine.
He ultimately lost, of course. But by the summer of 2016, when he formally conceded the nomination to Clinton, he’d chalked up 13 million votes, 23 caucus and primary victories, and nearly 2000 pledged conference delegates, far outstripping both his own initial expectations and those of the Beltway press.
Moreover, his campaign transformed the Democratic Party. In the wake of Clinton’s shock general election defeat to Trump, Democratic politicians rushed to embrace key elements of Sanders’ platform—free universal healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee, a $15 minimum wage, increased infrastructure spending, and radical action on climate change.
American public opinion began shifting, too. In 2018, 70 per cent of Americans supported universal healthcare—up from just 21 per cent in 2014—60 per cent backed free college tuition, nearly half believed the government should provide a job for unemployed citizens, and a majority thought the minimum wage should be raised to at least $15 per hour.
Meanwhile, the Green New Deal—an ambitious plan aimed at rapidly transitioning the US economy away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy—became the flagship cause of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a close ally of Sanders’ and arguably the most high profile Democrat on Capitol Hill at the moment.
Given this extraordinary legacy, even Sanders’ harshest critics have been forced to acknowledge the dramatic effect he has had on the American political landscape.
“Congratulations to Senator Sanders on joining the race for president,” Erin McPike, the press secretary for centrist coffee billionaire Howard Schultz, who is himself mulling a White House bid, said in February. “He already has had such a profound impact on the Democratic Party that many presidential candidates hold up his socialist views as their standard.”
And yet, it’s still hard to picture Sanders as America’s next Commander-in-Chief. This may be partly to do with his age. If he secures the nomination and then wins the 2020 general election, he will be 79 years old on inauguration day in January 2021, making him the oldest person in US history to assume presidential office, beating Donald Trump, the current record holder, by nine full years.
It’s also difficult to imagine the huge corporate interests that hold sway over US politics (what Sanders calls the “donor class”) allowing someone as radical as the Vermont Senator to take power at the executive level—or at least doing nothing to stop him as he advances towards it.
“As in 2016, I think it has to be assumed Sanders will not get a fair airing in the media and I think a quite hostile posture from the big networks should be expected,” Luke Savage, a staff writer at the influential American leftist magazine Jacobin, says. “The bigger risk, if he starts winning, is that the race will get extremely ugly and big donors will pour millions into attack ads.
“Who knows whether that would matter? It might just validate Sanders’ narrative more. But I think the biggest obstacles will be open institutional hostility since name recognition isn’t really a problem for him anymore.”
Then there are more basic political factors at play. 2016 was a straightforward contest between Sanders on the left and Clinton in the centre. In 2019/20, the Democratic field is much bigger and more diverse. Instead of having one other candidate to compete against, Sanders has (at the time of writing) 13, and many of those—notably, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—have shifted to the left in order to bolster their appeal to the Democratic base.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, in particular, could pose a challenge for Sanders. Despite having been a registered Republican until the mid-1990s, Warren’s fierce attacks on Wall Street after the 2008 crash have earned her credibility on the American left.
“I have lots of respect for Elizabeth Warren,” the New York-based writer and leftwing podcast host Katie Halper says. “She has been a spectacular champion of working people against big banks and finance and gets what working people are up against.
“Bernie brings with him a uniquely coherent philosophical/political perspective, informed by social justice. Warren does not have that core. His foreign policy and climate positions are much more progressive than Warren’s. But it will be interesting to see how her positions play out during the primary process.”
One thing Sanders does have in his favour is an enduring sense of anti-establishment momentum and insurgency. Surveys show that massive 57 per cent of Democrats have a positive view of socialism, and Sanders’ unrivalled capacity to raise money—he brought in $5.9 million from so-called “small donors” within 24 hours of having announced his presidential run—indicates a massive groundswell of enthusiasm for his agenda among liberal activists and campaigners.
In addition, millennials—the fundamental core of the Bernie base—now represent the single largest age cohort within the American electorate and are, on average, more likely to support Sanders than conventional Clintonian Democrats such as Biden, Booker, and Gillibrand.
In practical terms, grassroots organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—which are at the forefront of the new millennial left—could also prove pivotal over the next 12 months. With 55,000 members across the US, the DSA has grown exponentially since 2016—and reports suggest it is preparing to launch a national campaign to back Sanders’ in 2020. If that happens, it may help tip the scales in a more radical direction during what are bound to be extremely tight primary and general election battles.
“The details of our involvement are still being debated within local [branches] around the country, but it is safe to say that DSA will endorse Sanders and that we will likely have our members canvass, phone-bank, fundraise, and mobilize voters for him,” Alec Hudson, a DSA activist in Chicago, says. “We are living in what is essentially a new gilded age, where the power of billionaires reigns unchecked.
“Sanders is a full social democrat who does not believe that the interests of the vast majority of people are the same as the interests of those with economic power who have driven policy and doctrine [in the US] for decades.”
None of this means that Sanders is going to seize the Democratic nomination, much less make it all the way to the White House.
America has never elected a socialist leader before. The closest the country has come to socialism was the programme of far-reaching social and economic reform implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s and ‘40s during the Great Depression. But FDR was an early Keynesian liberal—not an anti-capitalist—who believed state intervention was necessary to save the free market at a moment of potentially terminal crisis.
Sanders, by contrast, comes from a distinct ideological tradition anchored in radical working class politics—politics that remain marginal to the majority of American voters.
That said, half a decade ago, no one anticipated the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. And a decade before that, some people said white America wasn’t “ready” for a black president. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont, is running for the presidency—and he intends to win. Maybe it’s time we reassessed our sense of what is, and what isn’t, politically possible.
A shorter version of this piece was published in the Sunday National on 10 March 2019.