Seven years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders did something remarkable. He brought democratic socialism into the mainstream of the most anti-socialist country in the developed world. He was a serious contender for the presidency in both 2016 and 2020, and in the years since he declared his first run, more self-described socialists have been elected to Congress—Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Rashida Tlaib, and of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Two stories in the last few weeks tell us everything about the current state of this movement.
First, Sanders took on Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in a debate in Boston broadcast by Fox News. He was in peak form, hitting hard and keeping the focus squarely on those subjects where his message is most popular—subjects like health care, wages, retirement savings, and the skyrocketing economic and political power of “the billionaire class.”
Second, AOC went on Instagram to criticize Democratic politicians who don’t like the term “Latinx.” Even though only 2 percent of “Latinx” people use the term to describe themselves and a full 40 percent of them express some level of distaste for it, the second most prominent representative of American socialism felt the need to deliver a little lecture (“in the spirit of pride month”) in which she mocked politicians who are so dismissive of the need for gender-inclusive language that they think it’s a big problem to put “that little x” in their campaign materials.
I’m not an AOC-hater. I think she has the right positions on the vast majority of policy issues and I’m glad that she’s in Congress. But I do worry that she and other young “Berniecrats” aren’t mimicking the things that make Bernie so effective as a political communicator.
Trying to fuse his social democratic policy agenda with relentless appeals to Team Blue in the culture wars won’t give us the kind of movement that could actually win over a majority of Americans and politically realign our deeply divided country—which is what it would take for them to enact that agenda.
Bernie has always had robustly progressive positions on social policy issues. He’s unapologetically pro-choice, for example, and he was a supporter of gay and trans rights as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s—decades before Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dropped their long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage. Ask Sanders about any of those subjects and he’ll give succinct but unambiguous answers that reflect the same moral commitment to egalitarianism that animates his economic positions. And then he’ll pivot to health care and education and raising the minimum wage.
At his best, Sanders seems to rise above the day-to-day noise of red vs. blue media narratives. In the debate with Lindsay Graham, he didn’t attack Graham as a representative of the GOP or of the conservative side of the culture war. Instead, he called him an “effective representative of the establishment.” He didn’t accuse Graham of being a racist or a transphobe. He went after him for his apparent indifference to the “poverty wages” in Graham’s home state of South Carolina.
In a recent essay for New York magazine, Sam Adler-Bell defined “wokeness” as a “communicative register” that presents “unintuitive and morally burdensome” progressive requirements “in a manner that suggests they are self-evident.” While the w-word has been used to mean many different things in recent years, there’s no denying that Adler-Bell’s definition captures a big part of why so many people find “wokeness” annoying. Think of AOC chiding Democrats for being unwilling to put “that little x” at the end of “Latin.”
Sanders is an unimpeachable progressive on social policy but his “communicative register” has never been especially woke. Two seconds into an argument about language choices, he’d be changing the subject to Medicare for All. This approach has served him well over the course of his long career. He represents a predominantly rural state with a Republican governor but he’s regularly re-elected by the kind of margins Saddam Hussein used to give himself in elections in Iraq. He started off the 2016 election as a marginal protest candidate and he ended up beating Hillary Clinton in 22 states. He won West Virginia. Sanders came even closer at the beginning of 2020—he was the Democratic frontrunner until Joe Biden won South Carolina and Pete Buttigieg abruptly dropped out of the race.
In a world where there wasn’t a pandemic and several centrist candidates had stayed in the race, would Sanders have won the Democratic nomination in the same way that Donald Trump slowly turned his plurality into a majority over the course of the Republican primaries in 2016? We’ll never know.
But I have a hard time imagining any of the younger democratic socialists coming as close as he did to winning national power in any future election.
If AOC ran against Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg in 2028, I’d vote for her and hope for the best—but I have to admit that I have a depressingly hard time imagining her actually becoming president.
Who among the young Berniecrats would have a shot? I’m not sure. What the Left badly needs is a different kind of Berniecrat—one who actually acts like Bernie.