It was recently reported that in 2012, Bernie Sanders had to be pressed hard by then-Senate majority leader Reid not to launch a primary challenge against President Obama. For those who have been paying attention to the recent history of the political left, the surprise here is not that the Vermont Senator and self-proclaimed independent democratic socialist was tempted to revolt against the modern embodiment of the Democratic establishment, but that he was successfully persuaded to resist the temptation. The question is: why?
This aborted insurrection may be a cause of lingering regret for Sanders after the Democratic establishment mobilized to deny him the party’s nomination in 2016 and has now again rallied behind the old guard in the figure of Joe Biden. Such machinations have led Sanders to openly declare his opposition to partisan elites in toto, and may lead him to stay in the race even after any hope of securing the nomination has vanished. Should he prolong his campaign after the Ides of March––as might be expected of a movement rather than a coalition––the chief effect will be to diminish his already-battered Democratic rival and to bolster President Trump.
To a limited but energized segment of Sanders’s camp, this may not be the worst imaginable outcome. For this faction-within-a-faction, a conventional Democrat––what Sanders has derided throughout this campaign as a corporate Democrat––poses greater problems than a re-elected Trump administration. This explains why, either in a fit of pique or out of principle, more than 1 in 10 Sanders voters in 2016 pulled the lever for Trump. It’s not a big total, but it’s not nothing.
On this view, Biden’s throwback agenda of modest reform at home and militarism abroad (he voted, if you haven’t heard, for the Iraq war) is further removed from the substance of democratic socialism than Trump’s distracted but abiding distaste for a liberal world order of free trade and undergirded by American security commitments. This 110-proof democratic socialist argument may also rest on the logic––staunchly resisted by ostensibly conservative Republicans in the age of Trump––that if they cannot hold the White House with a principled partisan of their cause, better that they have no illusions about that depressing fact.
The interesting political question that will soon be resolved is whether Sanders himself stands in this camp. He has unequivocally embraced the principle of ousting Trump from the nation’s highest office, but he has also exhibited especial disdain for the Democratic governing class. However that matter is resolved, it is clear that for a growing number of the electorate in Sanders’s movement (as well as a non-trivial number in Trump’s), the managerial elite running the Democratic party have badly lost their way.
What was once a populist Jacksonian coalition of modest rural voters centered in the Midwest and motivated by class interest has rapidly transformed into an urban and upwardly-mobile coalition held together by identity politics and a crusading progressivism that has shown it has little time for the sensibility of blue-collar Americans.. The consequences of this radical shift can be seen and felt in various ways. One of the small but nontrivial effects is that Andrew Jackson himself has become persona non grata in many Democratic quarters. Not to defend Jackson, but his name used to grace Democratic fundraising dinners mere years ago. No longer. He is cancelled.
Sanders’s personal journey from Brooklyn to Burlington is a perfect illustration of this evolution in Democratic politics. When Sanders came of age, these two areas were much less socially and economically divided than they are now. In the decades that Sanders has served as an elected official representing this overwhelmingly white, rural and middle class state, the hipster precincts of New York City and other “super-zips” (to borrow Charles Murray’s term for these affluent and self-sorting areas) have become a defining feature of the contemporary American left, reforming its economic agenda and replacing its cultural priorities.
It does not take a dyed-in-the-wool democratic socialist to notice that today’s Democratic party has betrayed its erstwhile protectionist trade principles and restrictionist immigration policies, and has frequently conspired with Republicans’ rigid free-market libertarian agenda to entrench a plutocratic system that has brought low the working class. (To keep his coalition in tact, and to expand its diversity, Sanders has recently seen fit to jettison his hard-line against low-skilled immigration. It was not always thus.)
The distorted center of gravity in American politics provides a key theme in an important new book by Michael Lind. The New Class War shrewdly traces the trajectory of the Democratic party in the modern era. What used to be a party of the native-born working class united by red-blooded economic populism, Lind shows, has become a party of the affluent native white metropolitan elite allied with immigrants and native minorities and bound together by noneconomic identity politics. Following the 2018 midterm elections, to cite one suggestive datum, forty-two of the wealthiest fifty congressional districts in the United States were represented by Democrats.
Even as the staying power of Sanders’s revolt has disoriented many Democrats in this neoliberal overclass, it has begun to reorient many rank-and-file Democrats back in the direction of populist economics, as the number of young Democrats with pro-socialist leanings has grown in recent years. According to Gallup, in the past decade a majority of Democrats have begun to look fondly on socialism. Not surprisingly, this tendency is most pronounced among the young. A YouGov poll conducted last year for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that 70 percent of Millennials are either “somewhat” or “extremely” likely to vote for a socialist.
By evoking a mythical socialist utopia, often erroneously claimed to exist in Scandinavia, Sanders has managed to pull the Democratic party well to the ideological left. The resonating theme of this primary campaign has been inequality––a classic tune sung by the democratic socialists. It is a measure of the breadth of Sanders’s appeal that his rivals for the party’s nomination compromised with a host of his ambitious and costly measures ranging from onerous government intrusions in the carbon economy to a government-mandated shift in corporate power from capital to labor.
Biden, now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, patently has no desire to topple the American system, and probably little political capital to institute the reforms necessary to assure its long-term viability. But he would stand a good chance of extirpating Trump from our political life, and perform a holding action against the most destructive and resentful kind of populism. In consequence, the acute discontent evident in the proletariat will be suppressed, though not eliminated––to the detriment of both traditional parties.
Arguably the largest unrepresented bloc of voters today are situated in the working class and combine support for a generous welfare state (something like old-fashioned European social democracy) with a distinctly cultural conservatism––what the British political scientist Matthew Goodwin calls a fusion of economic and cultural protection. If this cohort ever became a formidable coalition, the inchoate populist movement would deal a lethal blow not only to neoliberalism but to American conservatism, properly understood.
Whoever next takes the oath of office, the discontent of this bloc will bide its time until a tribune arises who can succeed where Sanders––and Trump––have failed. If Biden prevails in the presidential contest, the obvious place for that populist revolution to culminate would be in a Republican Party that once acquiesced to, and was in turn devastated by, Donald Trump, but had no appetite to return to the old party dogmas.
At that point, the only question would be: Which Trump kid will run?