Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for America to nominate an avowed socialist who complimented the Castro regime, defended Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, attacked 150 years of American imperialism, and—after visiting Moscow—praised the Soviet Union’s youth and cultural programs.
Yet, Bernie Sanders’ second quest for the Democratic nomination got off to an incredibly strong start this week, when he hauled in nearly $6 million within 24 hours of announcing his intention. Many early polls (including one in Iowa) show him trailing only Joe Biden—a man who might not even run. Sanders is also currently crushing the DailyKos straw poll, for what that’s worth.
Even a decade ago, voters would have considered Sanders’ politics a deal breaker―in part because we thought we had learned the lessons of history. Socialism was inherently evil and synonymous with bread lines, atheism, Soviet imperialism, and gulags.
But that was a simpler time, before Bernie gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money in 2016. It was before Donald Trump normalized his own brand of nationalist populism. And it was before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) skyrocketed to fame in 2018, promoting a hipper brand of Sanders-esque socialism.
I know what you’re thinking: Sanders over-performed in 2016, but can you get this soufflé to rise twice? I think you can. Democrats are currently prioritizing the ability to win in 2020 ahead of ideological purity (at least, that’s what they say they are doing), and, according to Politico, Bernie’s aides “argue that he is well-liked in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan —the three Rust Belt states that helped hand Trump the keys to the White House—so Sanders begins with a foothold.”
Aides are paid to spin, but with Sanders, Democrats could have their cake and eat it, too. He could conceivably win working-class white votes in the Rust Belt (and with it, the Electoral College), partly because he largely downplays the identity politics culture wars, and partly because those same voters might be entirely open to the progressive economic policies espoused by Sanders.
What is more, Sanders benefits from having run in 2016. Not only does he possess a built-in fundraising and activist network, but he has inoculated us to his positions (single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, $15 minimum wage), making these once-radical economic policies seem comparatively moderate. They have become part of the Democratic mainstream, having been coopted by most of his 2020 rivals. Couple all that with his decidedly avuncular, authentic, and curmudgeonly appearance, and Sanders’ appeal to Middle America should not be dismissed.
For all of these reasons, Republicans shouldn’t be eager for this matchup. Bernie is a serious contender for the nomination—and the presidency. If any Republicans are foolishly licking their chops hoping for a Bernie nomination, they should be careful what they hope for.
In fact, as a conservative, the thought scares the hell out of me. And this is not just because the repackaging and mainstreaming of socialism is dangerous (although it is). Think about what else this would entail.
Bernie’s nomination would mean an American presidential election featuring a socialist squaring off against a nationalist, with a centrist third-party candidate (Starbucks founder Howard Schultz) thrown in for good measure.
AOC seemed to agree tacitly with this framing, when she tweeted on Wednesday: “While the right keeps screeching on calling everything ‘socialism’…they happily cheer on an authoritarian President & defend the destruction of American Democracy.”
Increasingly, this looks less like the American political tradition, where two major parties played between the 40-yard lines, kept politics moderate, and occasionally co-opted the policies of third-party candidates to prevent them from catching fire.
The old political rules are shifting. A backlash against migration and the refugee crisis has promoted the rise of nationalist parties and leaders in both Europe and America. Anti-Semitism is back, and it is now rearing its ugly head inside the Democratic Party’s progressive movement. There is a sense that neoliberalism is synonymous with greed, timidity, and impotence—it may be headed for the dustbin of history.
Just this week, former British prime minister John Major declared that “Currently, both the Conservative and Labour parties are being manipulated by fringe opinion,” adding: “The rationale for extremists joining mainstream parties is logical: from within them, they can influence policy; from without, they very rarely can.”
With Bernie Sanders poised to make a compelling argument about electability, 2020 could be the year when America finally goes European. The reordering will be complete. The center will not hold.