The Bernie Revolution
Left-wingers and millennials are crazy about Bernie Sanders. But the Democratic Party establishment is in panic. Just how radical is the 78-year-old who once “honeymooned” in Moscow and now, after his victory in New Hampshire, is fired up to conquer the White House as a "democratic socialist"?
After his victory in the New Hampshire primary election Bernie Sanders is one important step closer of winning the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. That this development in American politics would’ve been unthinkable a mere five years ago - an avowed socialist poised to enter the White House - is a vast understatement.
During his last run for president in 2016, I spent several days in Sanders’ archive housed at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where one can sift through old papers from his mayoralty there in the 1980s. Most of the materials are unremarkable; routine correspondences with constituents or well-wishers. But the archive does provide a glimpse into Sanders’ radical past. In his 30s, he was a member of the Liberty Union Party, a marginal splinter group in Vermont, and ran for various offices on their ticket -- usually only securing small fractions of the vote.
Take a look at the party’s issue matrix in the 1970s and you’ll find oddities that would almost be completely unrecognizable in the context of contemporary American politics. While Sanders served on the party’s platform committee in 1972, to give just one example, it adopted a call for the “abolition of all laws which interfere with the Constitutional right of citizens to bear arms.” This provides a clue as to why Sanders’ early political development was never in sync with dominant party orthodoxies: today it’s regarded as almost a “litmus test” for Democrats to be contemptuous of gun rights.
In the 2016 primary campaign, during which he won a then-shocking 43% of the vote, Sanders was often wrongly cast as filling the role of the average “liberal insurgent” on the order of Howard Dean or Bill Bradley -- two earlier Democratic candidates who’d seized that mantle by appealing to disaffected elements of the party’s affluent liberal coalition. Sanders was always qualitatively different, though, even on purely descriptive grounds: he has explicitly rejected the term “liberal” for his entire life, as it never captured his full political disposition, which has often run counter to usual Democratic Party nostrums.
And unlike so many elites who ascend through the ranks of party politics, Sanders was precariously-employed well into his early adulthood, living in a small ramshackle Burlington apartment and struggling to pay the bills. This ineluctably shaped his formative experiences and political orientation in a way that most of the well-heeled American political class will never intuitively understand. But conversely, it has enabled him to connect with millions of ordinary working class people who, rightly, do not believe that these detached elites prioritize their interests.
In the five years he has been a nationally-known figure, Sanders has successfully de-mystified democratic socialism -- his self-applied label -- by placing the emphasis on “democratic.” Making sure always to affix the word “democratic” ahead of “socialism” conveys his determination to attach the Sanders-style political project to the historical aspirations of the Demoratic Party. Hence, he delivered a treatise-style speech last year in Washington, DC defining what he means by socialism, and called not for the total nationalization of all industry or the expropriation of private property, but “to complete what Roosevelt started” -- that being Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the revered Democratic president who led the country to victory in World War II and created the modern social welfare state.
In situating “democratic socialism” squarely within the ambit of the present-day Democratic Party -- rather than as some outside agitating force -- Sanders has fused his radical past with the more mainstream present.
Still, the question of whether socialism can truly be electorally viable on a national scale does continue to come up. Staff and volunteers currently canvassing for his campaign in the early primary states have devised strategies to address the “socialism” question, as it remains true that a self-described socialist winning the presidency would’ve been virtually inconceivable not long ago. One pivot that seems to work, his (paid) teenage interns have relayed to me in their homey New Hampshire redoubts, is simply to remark on Sanders’ personal consistency; that he has been saying much the same thing for decades, almost to a fault. Voters in the United States are not intensely ideological. Democrats who like Joe Biden, the former Vice President running on a platform of ostensible “moderation,” also tend to like Bernie: because voters’ preferences are informed largely by affective impressions of the candidates, not complicated assessments of policy platforms and political theory.
But for all the plaudits Sanders receives about his consistency -- and it is indisputable that he has been unwaveringly consistent in the scourge of income inequality, the need for single-payer government-provided health care, the superficiality of the corporate for-profit media, and other top-tier agenda items for many decades -- what has materially changed are his political tactics.
The gun rights issue mentioned above would be one example; today Sanders more-or-less echoes the prevailing Democratic Party views on the subject, in contrast with his earlier skepticism of intrusive state power. But his most conspicuous tactical shift has come during the interregnum period between his first presidential campaign in 2016 and the one now underway in 2020. In truth, Sanders never stopped campaigning for president; almost immediately after failing to secure a sufficient number of delegates against Hillary Clinton last presidential cycle, that he would run again in 2020 was a foregone conclusion.
But instead of lobbing barbs from the outside, he moved to extend olive branches to much of the Democratic “establishment” -- an establishment which many of his most steadfast supporters have long reviled as corrupt corporate overlords hell-bent on undermining Sanders at all costs. It’s entirely true that officials associated with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as the party’s big-ticket financial backers, have always reacted with horror and dismay at Sanders’ ascendance in the party -- and if he stays on course for the nomination, that will escalate. But likewise, some of these same interests have found him increasingly accommodating.
In the post-2016 period, for instance, Sanders co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader who might as well be the archetypal “establishment Democrat.” He appeared onstage alongside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is detested by the party’s progressive activists. And he mounted an awkward but shrewd nationwide “Unity Tour” with Tom Perez, the embattled head of the DNC who most recently presided over the fiasco that was this year’s botched Iowa caucus -- the outcome of which is still in dispute.
But despite these overtures to the party brass, Sanders has adroitly kept another foot on the outside. His grassroots organization formed after 2016, “Our Revolution,” functioned as a sort of quasi-campaign operation that cultivated and maintained a nationwide activist network in the leadup to 2020, and is affiliated with Democratic Party institutional structure but not fully enveloped by it.
Until recently, American commentators systematically downplayed Sanders’ chances of winning the Democrats’ nomination in 2020. Led by their chief data guru Nate Silver, pundits hyped the chances of no-hopers like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris, both of whom summarily crashed and burned. Sanders’ singular formidability should have been obvious all along, as the nationwide political network he developed from the 2016 campaign had only gained in influence within the party, and was just waiting to be activated.
At the same time, Sanders has always exhibited more political and adaptability than both his supporters and detractors are sometimes willing to admit. In 1986, he ran for governor of Vermont as an independent candidate on a platform that included reducing taxes, and his mayoralty of Burlington often erred on the side of fiscal conservatism. This wasn’t a product of any temporary embrace of supply-side economics, but a quasi-libertarian streak of skepticism toward state power that has a strong left-wing foundation: the taxes Sanders was calling to reduce were in his mind regressive and punitive, and effectively allowed the rich to get off scot-free. Keeping the city he ran within its means showed that a socialist could effectively master the nuts-and-bolts of daily mundane governance. These are the types of arguments he might make in the general election to broaden his appeal further, as Donald Trump and the Republicans prepare to relentlessly portray him as a wild-eyed socialist zealot.
Another major shift: Sanders has expressed virtually no misgivings about the years-long Democratic Party fixation on issues like alleged “Russian collusion” in the 2016 election (an allegation undermined by the Mueller Report), something that it’s easy to imagine a younger Bernie viewing with incredulity and chagrin. But the current iteration of Bernie has repeatedly offered progressive legitimacy to this histrionic narrative, which essentially asserts a vast plot of foreign infiltration in the U.S. electoral system -- a heedless, self-destructive preoccupation American liberals have deluded themselves with ever since the election of Trump.
Sanders circa 1980 would have likely rebuked this preoccupation, especially given his interest in challenging U.S. foreign policy conventions and forging good relations with the Soviet Union: his archives contain letters of accolades from Soviet correspondents, and he “honeymooned” in Moscow in 1988. (It wasn’t actually a honeymoon, but that’s certainly how Trump and the Republicans will depict it. Which also adds a layer of irony to the prospective general election debates, as Trump has been mercilessly accused by Democrats of being a stooge of Russia.)
Sanders suffered a heart attack last October -- in the middle of a campaign event in Nevada, no less -- but remarkably, it seemed to enhance his political fortunes. One would have reasonably assumed the total opposite: that a 78-year-old man suddenly being inflicted with such a serious health scare would more-or-less be the end of his campaign. Instead, though, the event crystalized the drive of his supporters, perhaps causing them to remember why he inspired such passion in them to begin with. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand democratic socialist freshman Congresswoman from New York who volunteered on Sanders’ campaign in 2016, subsequently endorsed him after talking to him on the phone while he was in hospital. (That she would endorse Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, or even endorse anyone at all, was never a certainty.)
So flanel-wearing Sanders organizers, many barely old enough to vote, have flooded the early primary states. They praise Sanders for his steadfastness and his endurance. Compared to younger, left-wing candidates, they see him as the uncorruptible "original". You cannot go to a snowy mid-sized New Hampshire town without coming across a campaign field office emblazoned with “Bernie” signage, a function of the massive fundraising prowess he has amassed, based almost entirely on small-dollar donations: another bonafide “revolution” in American politics. And it’s easy to laugh off the enormous army of social media agitators constantly waging online war in Sanders’ defense, but that’s an underrated asset in the current political/media landscape.
There will certainly be resistance to Sanders as he strides toward the nomination; older, monied Democratic power brokers will struggle to reconcile how their party could’ve been overtaken by a socialist movement, as qualified as the “socialism” moniker may be in Sanders’ telling. Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and one of the richest men in the United States, has launched his own parallel campaign with the not-so-subtle subtext of being a last-ditch insurance policy against Sanders for panicked rich liberals. (And Sanders has already declared the DNC’s sudden accommodation of Bloomberg “an outrage.”) The ensuing clash -- modulated socialism versus oligarchic, friendly-faced capitalism -- will be epic.
NOTE: Some of the archival material referenced here stems from a piece I wrote for The New Republic on Sanders in 2015: https://newrepublic.com/article/122309/bernie-sanders-archive-bustling-mysterious-young-men
Michael Tracey is a freelance journalist based in Jersey City, NJ. He has written for several established media such as Vice, New York Daily News, The Nation or The Independent. Tracey has been in New Hampshire for the past month and a half covering the campaigns of Democratic candidates.