After spending a lifetime in third-party politics, Bernie Sanders has devoted the tail end of his political career to transforming the Democratic Party from within. Can he manage to catch lightning in a bottle twice competing against a crowded field? This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.
Full disclosure: I voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary.
“But He’s Not a Democrat!”
Much to the chagrin of his critics, Bernie Sanders is gearing up to take a second shot at winning the White House. He is “too old,” “too white,” and “too radical.” Typically, the runner up in the previous primary would have a strong advantage heading in to an open field. Bernie Sanders, however, is anything but a typical candidate. The presence of Joe Biden, the last Democratic Vice President, complicates things slightly — at least when it comes to conventional media narratives. The advantage that Sanders enjoys is, like everything else about him, unconventional. Sanders still maintains his affiliation as an Independent politician, although he has caucused with the Democrats in the House of Representatives and Senate for his entire career as a federal elected official. As much as this drives his critics insane, Bernie doesn’t have to register with the party — his independence is part of his appeal as a candidate. Having inspired legions of passionate supporters, Bernie enters the 2020 campaign with the strongest grassroots organizing infrastructure in place and all of the voter data and contact information amassed during the previous campaign. He doesn’t necessarily need the media to declare him a front-runner in order to be a juggernaut.
The lasting impact of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign was his artful exposure of the Democratic Party’s fundamental philosophical hypocrisy. Democrats love to level similar charges at their conservative counterparts: Republicans advocate for “small government”, except when it comes to policing their own set of preferred social norms; they want to cut welfare programs for the poor, but love corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the wealthy; they believe that foreign aid is a financial albatross, but that perpetual warfare can be paid for with a credit card; they believe that the budget deficit is of grave concern, but only when a Democrat happens to be serving as President.
Now stop for a second to reflect on the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, and you’ll find a similarly contradictory ideological message: the party leadership doesn’t believe that privatized insurance serves the best interests of citizens, but regurgitated Republican rhetoric that a “Medicare for all” program is a fantasy; they believe that college students should not graduate in debt, but didn’t spend much time or thought on creating tuition-free higher education options; they gradually adopt progressive social positions, but rarely when it came at a political cost; they acknowledge that Wall Street banks are “too big to fail” and that reckless greed has jeopardized the working class, but still actively sought campaign contributions from them; supposedly they aren’t supportive of continuous intervention in the Middle East, but conceded congressional authority over war authorization to the President of their own party; they claim to support the African American community, but actively participated in creating the problem of mass-incarceration and hadn’t spent time developing legislative proposals to address this issue; they admit that the War on Drugs was a failed effort, but could not bring themselves to support the legalization of a relatively harmless substance like marijuana.
The Democratic Party deals in half-measures; progressive values and goals are compromised internally, and consciously, by the party establishment. More than anything, Bernie’s 2016 campaign was a concerted effort to reshape the party by forcing Democrats to confront these inconvenient truths and by empowering a new generation of progressive leaders. What made Bernie’s campaign so compelling was that it was itself a model for fighting back against the issues that plague our democracy and the Democratic Party.
“Feel the Bern” 2.0 — Building Upon Previous Success
The revolution may not be televised, but they never said anything about the internet. Tech-savy Sanderistas turned phone banking into something resembling an online video game; complete with leaderboards, a web browser extension to track calls, the number of delegates in each upcoming state, a count of the total number of calls made for the day, and a live call map to visualize the collective effort of everyone participating in real-time. The Clinton and Sanders campaigns both ran an in-house online phone banking operation, with short training sessions hosted by members of the campaign staff at various times throughout the day. However, the official phone banks paled in comparison to what a handful of inspired, talented grassroots activists were able to create.
Sanders also has a strong online fundraising effort, frequently encouraging supporters to go to his website and pitch in $5 during campaign speeches. In 2016, his campaign raised over $220,000,000 with an average contribution of $27. This was completely unprecedented; an outpouring of financial support in response to Bernie’s refusal to form a Super PAC and take contributions from powerful industries and lobbyists. Sanders still has the list of every e-mail address that contributed to his 2016 campaign, meaning that he will be able to start this operation back up with the click of a mouse. The subscriptions for Sanders’ 2016 campaign newsletter eclipse 3,000,000 distinct e-mail addresses. He also has the 2016 campaign’s voter data at his disposal, all of the information collected by his campaign’s robust phone banking and canvassing efforts.
In a way, the unexpected success of Bernie’s 2016 may ultimately be his downfall. Core tenets of his policy platform, “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, and debt-free college, have been adopted by other candidates. These positions have become a litmus test of sorts for the progressive wing of the party. Other candidates will be seeking to build upon Bernie’s successes, such as Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley. The left lane will be significantly more crowded that it was in 2016, where Sanders occupied that space all to himself.
However, Bernie Sanders has spent the past two years fleshing out his policy portfolio with a newfound interest in foreign policy. In a memorable debate exchange, Sanders argued that climate change was the biggest long-term threat to America’s national security. Although he was ridiculed for this position by conservatives, he isn’t wrong: conflicts over scarce resources could become the new battle lines for wars in third-world countries as the increasing frequency of droughts decreases the food and water supply over time. Expanding on this, Sanders has begun applying his views on income inequality to a global scale. In a speech given at John Hopkins University, Sanders argued that progressivism at home was imperative to America’s moral authority abroad and that building a coalition to fight global inequality was necessary to combat authoritarianism.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has referred to Bernie Sanders as her “hero.” She served as a campaign organizer for the Sanders 2016 campaign in New York. Now that she has matured into a political star in her own right, Ocasio-Cortez can give the Sanders 2020 campaign a highly popular surrogate to continue emphasizing Bernie’s popular standing with young Democratic voters. That is, if Ocasio-Cortez decides to endorse Sanders — she is currently waiting to see how the field of contenders shapes up and has declined a preemptive declaration of her support.
OK, Let’s Talk About This Whole “Socialism” Thing
Here’s the uncomfortable truth about Sanders’ critics: “democratic socialism” shouldn’t scare us, because we’ve had a democratic socialist serve as President before. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he won re-election four times — death was possibly the only thing that could stop FDR from winning re-election. Today, President Roosevelt is fondly remembered for his efforts in ending the Great Depression and as commander-in-chief during World War II.
The cornerstone of “American socialism” was created by FDR, an enduringly popular program called Social Security — but, as time has gone on, misconceptions about the nature of that program have grown. Social Security is not a savings account; the payroll tax that comes out of every paycheck does not go into some little deposit box with your name on it. An individual’s contributions into the Social Security fund are tracked and added up over time, and indexed for inflation (the “Chained Consumer Price Index”) to ensure that the value of your contribution does not depreciate over time. When Social Security was first enacted, there hadn’t been a generation of retirees who paid into the system — it was a purely redistributive program; the labor force subsidized a generation of elderly people, who had lived in high rates of poverty due to a lack of income. Each generation of workers fulfills this promise for each generation of retirees, with the promise that those workers are entitled to a pension that matches the value of their contribution to the previous generation’s retirement income.
For millennials, the Cold War is something we’ve only experienced through a history book. Our parents, on the other hand, lived through a time where nuclear bomb drills were routine in American public schools — when older generations hear “socialism”, they remember the hammer and sickle and all of the imagery of Soviet communism. The Cold War mentality of a conflict between two diametrically opposed economic systems, capitalism and communism, has lead Americans to a fundamental misunderstanding of Marxist philosophy — there are pronounced differences between socialism and communism, which Marx viewed as the “final stage” of civilization. The communist catchphrase is well-known: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
However, you might be surprised to discover that socialism has a similar yet profoundly different tagline: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.” Sounds a lot like Social Security, right? Socialism, according to Marx, preserves the right of private ownership. The message of Bernie Sanders forces us to confront uncomfortable truths and conventional electoral wisdom, and that is why his campaign is so important. “Democratic Socialism” further preserves private means of production, and uses government power to compensate for the inequities of capitalism.
The prominence of Bernie Sanders as a national figure not only forces the Democratic Party to reconcile with itself, but also forces Americans to confront the lingering vestiges of a Cold War mentality that has fundamentally held back the working class’s ability to advocate for itself.
Notable Policy Positions
- Bernie Sanders is a long-time advocate of single-payer healthcare. His 2016 campaign put a “Medicare for All” proposal front and center in the national political discourse. He has introduced legislation in the Senate that would make this expansion a reality. This proposal was sponsored by 16 other members of the Democratic Senate Caucus. Presidential hopefuls Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, and Elizabeth Warren signed on to the legislation.
- Debt-free college was also a centerpiece of the 2016 campaign; expect this theme to return as Sanders seeks to motivate students and young voters to turn out in droves to support his candidacy a second time. Sanders introduced legislation to implement this proposal; Elizabeth Warren was a co-sponsor on the bill.
- The national $15 minimum wage is another pillar of Sanders 2016 that should return in 2020. It would be interesting, however, to see Sanders take this a step further by taking a page from Barack Obama’s policy platform and advocating for indexing the minimum wage to automatically keep pace with inflation. This was an Obama proposal that never got much attention or much traction in 2008, but the rise of the discussion about raising the minimum wage makes it an ideal time for this smart policy position to make a comeback.
- Sanders has endorsed the federal employment guarantee that was put forward by Sen. Cory Booker.
- Reportedly, Sanders is working on legislation that would implement Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed “Green New Deal” agenda. Expect this to be the main new piece of Sanders’ domestic policy agenda that augments and freshens his existing platform.
- As mentioned previously, expect Sanders to advocate for building an international coalition to combat global inequality as a panacea to the rising tide of fascism throughout the world. With many candidates lacking in foreign policy experience, this may give Sanders additional credibility as a presidential contender by articulating a unique foreign policy vision that effectively ties into his domestic policy agenda.
- Outspoken support for repealing the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision that declared limits on corporate contributions to political action committees unconstitutional.
- Sanders took a direct shot at Amazon’s CEO by introducing a bill called the “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act,” aka the “Stop BEZOS Act.” This legislation would tax large corporations based on the amount of money that their employees receive in government assistance.
- Despite being panned in 2016 by Clinton supporters as having an appeal limited to white males, Sanders released what is arguably the most comprehensive agenda for racial justice of any presidential candidate in American history.
- One attack from 2016 for which Sanders did not have a satisfying response was surrounding his position on gun control, which has only grown as an issue in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL that inspired a new wave of young activists. Expect this to be an issue where other candidates, particularly those who are trying to compete for Bernie’s supporters, draw a sharp contrast.
Path to Victory
After losing to Hillary Clinton in Iowa literally by a coin toss, Sanders’ 2020 ambitions hinge on a strong showing in the nation’s first presidential caucus. Then, he will have to repeat his 2016 victory in New Hampshire in a field with other northeastern liberal candidates competing for the same prize. Sanders should have an advantage here, but it won’t be a cakewalk. Snagging the first two states in the nomination process would quickly change the narrative surrounding the Sanders campaign — forcing the media to take him seriously much earlier on than in 2016.
With California’s primary taking place on Super Tuesday, mail-in ballots will start going out on the same day as the Iowa caucus. A victory in Iowa could help Bernie’s chances of winning the most populous state in the nation. During the 2018 campaign, Sanders spent significant time in California. Kamala Harris opting to run for President could take the primary’s biggest prize off the board, but the runners-up will still receive delegates. A second place finish by Sanders, at worst, is necessary for his campaign to continue. After California, Sanders will need to focus on improving his campaign’s strength in the rust belt states that became battlegrounds during the 2016 primary. Sanders won Michigan and Wisconsin, and came close in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He will also need to repeat his string of victories in the midwest and the pacific northwest. This is the roadmap to a Sanders nomination, which is much more feasible with a divided field.
However, Sanders will need to successfully prevent the other candidates in the “left lane” from catching fire. Continuing to adopt popular policy proposals by his colleagues, as he did with Cory Booker’s federal employment guarantee, could go a long way in stopping the momentum of his direct competitors by taking away their uniqueness and positioning Sanders as the de facto leader of this group. The one, the only, the original. Sanders will need to distinguish himself by expanding his policy platform, which he has already quietly done with his increasing interest in foreign policy and potential backing of the “Green New Deal” agenda. Sanders will also need to emphasize his platform on racial justice more heavily and incorporate a discussion of the generational inequality created by racism into his broader discussion of the distribution of wealth; this would help to broaden his appeal to minority voters, groups that he did struggle with electorally in 2016.
Another problem for the Sanders 2016 campaign was disorganization within the central campaign, which was required to recruit staff rapidly in an environment where Clinton had already snatched up most of the known talents among Democratic Party organizers. On one hand, this forced Sanders to rely on recruiting passionate activists outside of the party’s bubble. There are reports, however, from former Sanders staffers that many of the campaign’s alumni are eyeing other, younger progressive candidates. Sanders will need to strengthen his central campaign apparatus and retain the talent that he cultivated in 2016 in order to take the next step from an outsider who capitalized on surprising momentum that caught the party establishment off-guard to a true contender and front-runner for the nomination.
As a general election candidate, Sanders will need to focus on the Obama-Trump states: Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida. The first five states in particular should be more hospitable for Bernie’s brand of populism than they were for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, where she lost by razor thin margins. If Sanders carries every state that Clinton won plus any three of Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, that would give him enough electoral votes to secure the White House.
The Significance of Political Revolution
True “political revolution” is a cause greater than any one candidate or any one political party. It is a collective effort to realign our political discourse. I wrote about the theory of realignment in my piece on Elizabeth Warren, where I characterized her as having the potential of becoming “the next FDR.” In a way, the election of Sanders would have even more profound implications for the future trajectory of American politics. Although Warren is well-known for her lifelong campaign against inequality, she is a devoted subscriber to the core theories of capitalism. Where Warren advocates for fixing capitalism and making corporations accountable to the public, Sanders’ position as a democratic socialist makes him fundamentally different in nature from Warren. The election of Sanders would be a seismic change of an even greater magnitude than a potential Warren victory.