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Sunkara writes: "Surprise has turned into panic. With Bernie Sanders leading in early battleground states and competitive with former vice-president Joe Biden nationally, the Democratic establishment is sounding the alarm."

Bernie Sanders. (photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa Press Citizen)
Bernie Sanders. (photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa Press Citizen)

Sanders Is Leading the Pack in Iowa - and That's Good News for Democrats

By Bhaskar Sunkara, Guardian UK

13 January 20

Bernie Sanders has outsider appeal — but knows how to both win and govern

urprise has turned into panic. With Bernie Sanders leading in early battleground states and competitive with former vice-president Joe Biden nationally, the Democratic establishment is sounding the alarm.

“Should Sanders actually pull off the feat of capturing the nomination, Donald Trump would have been given a gift that almost assures his re-election,” says the Daily Beast. Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, has a similar message: “If I were a campaign manager for Donald Trump and I look at the field, I would very much want to run against Bernie Sanders.”

The economy is doing well, and if Republicans get to run a “business” candidate in Trump against a socialist ideologue in Sanders, Messina figures, they’ll win. Obama himself has promised to intervene, if necessary, to stop Sanders.

If you’re a part of the Democratic party’s power structures, the same structures that failed to thwart Republican takeover of local and state governments and Trump’s election, then perhaps you have reason for concern. Sanders is running a different campaign – in rhetoric, ideology and base – than other primary candidates. And he’s clearly a threat to the Democratic party status quo – its large donors and its nomenklatura would be on the outs in a Sanders administration.

But if you’re an ordinary Democratic voter, or just someone worried about the possibility of a second Trump term, there’s no need for panic. Sanders is a candidate with both a long record of electoral success and real progressive accomplishments in both executive and legislative office. He may still be something of an outsider in Washington, owing to his style and political background, but he’s far less of a radical than either his most ardent supporters or implacable foes care to admit.

Sanders represents a new political mainstream in the United States, more egalitarian in outlook than liberalism but less likely to turn off the non-partisan, irregular voters who will need to be won over in November.

The case against Sanders’s electability centers on two things: his age and his ideology. At 78, he is the oldest candidate in the field. But despite his October heart attack, Sanders appears to be in good health – energetic at rallies and quick-witted during debates. It helps, no doubt, that his major competitor in the primary, Biden, just turned 77 and Donald Trump will be 74 this year.

Unable to play up age, for fear of disqualifying Biden as well, most of the attention has turned to Sanders’s embrace of democratic socialism. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, captured the conventional wisdom last April when he said, “Let’s not be so New York and so coastal right? I think it’s very hard to get elected president as a socialist in this country, when you look at the states we have to win.”

This overstates how important “democratic socialism” is as an ideological label to most Americans. To the extent that it’s defined by its mainstream protagonists, such as Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, democratic socialism can be summed up in commonsense terms of fairness and shared responsibility, and associated with Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal (though this too is a relatively obscure point of reference).

What Sanders’s detractors don’t understand is that even though it’s to the left of contemporary liberalism, his redistributive politics has more appeal with self-described moderate voters than typical Democrat ones.

As Jared Abbott and Dustin Guastella point out, millions of Americans are working class, don’t identify with either party, and barely turn out to vote, despite holding more egalitarian views on key issues than your average Democratic primary voters.

These potential voters, like most of the country as a whole, support demands such as Medicare for All, federal job programs, trade unions, free higher education and student debt cancellation. Bridging the gap between the one in four Americans who identify as “liberal” and the two-thirds of Americans who support tax hikes on the rich is crucial to building a majoritarian leftwing politics.

Sanders’s strength lies in his popularity, both among and outside the Democratic base, and his ability to tie together progressive economic and social demands into a narrative that valorizes working people, vilifies a political and corporate elite, and sidesteps partisan “culture war” in favor of populist class war.

He’s an outsider, but one who picks his battles wisely and knows how to frame a debate. Take, for instance, his stance on gun control. Sanders has a “D” rating from the National Rifle Association, and he’s worn that as a badge of honor, railing against the organization and its role in national politics. He’s done this despite representing a state with high rates of gun ownership.

Sanders needs the votes of Vermont hunters. But luckily, they see him as a foe of lobbyists and a friend of theirs, and not an anti-second amendment zealot. They keep electing him, despite his support for gun control. This, in a nutshell, is how we win in a polarized country. We don’t fight a liberal culture war, but rather we change the terms of the conflict so that we can win the broadest base possible and marginalize the powerful interests that dominate politics and the economy.

Of course, we can only go so far with anecdotes. A relatively unknown figure, playing catch-up in closed Democratic primaries, Sanders fell short in 2016 and wasn’t able to prove his electability against Trump then. However, his overall electoral record is a strong one. As Matthew Yglesias acknowledges, Sanders’s statewide results compare favorably to those of Democratic presidential nominees in Vermont:

In 1992, Sanders got 58% to Bill Clinton’s 46

In 1996, Sanders got 55% to Clinton’s 53%

In 2000, Sanders got 69% to Al Gore’s 51%

In 2004, Sanders got 67% to John Kerry’s 59%

In 2012, Sanders got 71% to Obama’s 67%.

Sanders is personally popular, he’s campaigning on a popular set of issues, and he’s figured out a popular way to tie those issues together. Sanders has managed to take a sprawling program and make it seem cohesive, and not like a laundry list of progressive concerns. And his record speaks for itself, he’s a seasoned campaigner who knows how to win elections.

The strongest case against Sanders has nothing to do with his electability or his democratic socialist identification, but rather with the disconnect between his political demands and a gridlocked political environment.

Of course, this concern has nothing to do with his chances against Trump. A lot of good would be accomplished simply by removing the president and his party from the Oval Office. Not only would rightwing judicial and agency appointments be replaced by progressive ones, but Sanders would be able to pursue action on a host of issues – from climate change to criminal justice – through executive orders. He’d also be able to chart a new course for American foreign policy, keeping us out of unpopular wars and whittling down our sprawling imperial presence.

But legislative failure and administrative incompetence in Washington would hurt Democratic re-election chances in 2024 and candidates at every level. It’s here that Sanders’s record as a public servant is instructive.

When Sanders first came to prominence in Vermont, the state was relatively conservative. Burlington, in particular, was dominated by a few major families and a bipartisan political machine. Failed policies and constrained city finances led Sanders’s predecessor as mayor, Gordon Paquette, to push austerity, cutting public services and the salaries of municipal employees.

After his surprise mayoral election, Sanders found himself stymied by his city council and powerful business interests. He moved forward by rallying activists, forging new coalitions and slowly expanding his base by improving the delivery of public services and communicating honestly with his constituencies.

Yglesias, of Vox, has described Sanders’s time in both Burlington and Washington as periods of savvy organizing, pragmatism and success. But it’s worth emphasizing that Sanders did not engage in compromise for the sake of compromise. He pursued alliances to serve his base and his actions managed not just to deliver material gains, but to help reshape politics in Vermont.

In Washington, Sanders’s coalition-building meant teaming up with liberal representatives (and occasionally cutting deals with conservatives) and voting for imperfect legislation, but at the same time using his platform to evangelize for his longer-term vision. Sanders wouldn’t have maintained his reputation as a principled outsider if his effectiveness wasn’t married to this ideological stubbornness.

In 2009, when Obama met one of his leftwing supporters, the Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, he reminded her that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. With a commanding electoral mandate, the president must have felt confident that he had a formula for success. But under his watch, the Democrats lost 13 governorships and a whopping 816 state legislative seats.

The same figures who steered the party under Obama also assured us that Hillary Clinton was closer to the “median voter” and thus more electable than either Sanders or Trump.

Maybe it’s time we stopped pretending that Messina and Obama know how best to win elections in the United States.

Sanders is an anti-establishment figure, and one with a decades-long history on the left, but his policy commitments are not outside the new American mainstream. If he can galvanize the same “moderate” irregular voters who have been drawn to him in the past, he won’t just beat Trump, he’ll set the stage for a long-term political realignment – the political revolution he calls for.

Sanders is a rebel, but he’s one who people know and trust. In other words, he’s the perfect candidate for 2020. your social media marketing partner
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