Though it was long ago overtaken by events, the trajectory of the Democratic presidential primary and what it spells for the future deserves more reflection than this rapidly evolving news cycle will likely permit. The stunning collapse of Bernie Sanders’s presidential prospects is almost without precedent in the modern age. The senator from Vermont owes his defeat to many factors, foremost among them the rapid consolidation of Democratic elites around Joe Biden, who took utmost advantage of the political cover the former vice president’s commanding victory in South Carolina provided them. Though that’s a sign of the party’s institutional health, what may be more indicative of the Democratic Party’s political evolution is how its most influential members responded when it looked like Sanders was certain to win.
As Bernie Sanders inched closer to his party’s presidential nomination in February, the progressive commentariat underwent a crisis of conscience. Some resisted this hostile takeover, but many others went about making their peace with the prospect of a self-described democratic socialist as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer.
New York Times economist Paul Krugman sought comfort in the notion that Sanders was no true socialist. “Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term,” he wrote. That label, Krugman argued, wasn’t self-applied but affixed to him by Republicans as part of a “smarmy, dishonest political strategy.” After all, Sanders “doesn’t’ want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning.”
Vox.com’s Ezra Klein followed suit, arguing that Sanders has only adopted a “socialist ethic.” In practical terms, he claimed, Sanders advocates milquetoast center-left policy prescriptions alien only to American ears but familiar to much of the rest of the free world. “Sanders’s brand of socialism isn’t about economic planning,” Vox declared. “It’s about an ethic of solidarity with those the system is failing, not those for whom it’s working.”
Those Democrats who didn’t downplay Sanders’s oft-stated commitment to socialism opted instead to emotionally blackmail their fellow Democrats into keeping their concerns to themselves. “I will argue against him as long as there is a chance of defeating him,” argued Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes. “But in the fight against authoritarianism, it would be a historic error—one centrists have made before—to decline to make common cause with socialists.”
“Even in the most extreme outcome,” which the author Jill Filipovic conceded was nothing less than the implementation of Sander’s agenda, “would you rather live in an America that is akin to a socially democratic Denmark, or an America that is like… any authoritarian fascist state?”
Others took a different course, reassuring themselves that Sanders couldn’t possibly believe what he says. And even if he does, none of it is feasible in legislation. “Chill out about Bernie,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias begged his fellow progressive analysts. “He’s a skilled politician who will govern in a broadly similar way to other Democrats and get the online trolls you love to hate working against Trump like you want.”
Even as the Sanders campaign texted a message to supporters claiming that his rise in the polls has led “establishment” Democrats to succumb to “full panic mode,” genuine panic among Democratic institutionalists was muted. “What Bernie has shown us until now is that he has a very broad base of very, very passionate followers,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “That is the first thing you need for a campaign on any level. Especially in a red or purple district.” Sen. Maria Cantwell appeared to agree, adding that Sanders likely “steals” some of Trump’s votes. “I’m not part of the collective freak out,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, assured reporters.
Sanders has given no public accounting as to how he’s changed his views since the decades in which he identified as a plain-old socialist unmodified by any banal adjectives, if he’s changed them at all. And yet, the senator’s backers insist that Sanders is an advocate of nothing more audacious than social democracy. On what grounds do they support this assertion? Nothing less circular than Sanders’s own public statements.
With an eye toward the presidency, Sanders had spent the better part of the last decade assuring his supporters that his brand of socialism is, in fact, not socialism at all. “Let’s talk about democratic socialism,” he said before an audience of Democratic primary voters ahead of Nevada’s caucus. “Let’s talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark.”
The senator has long leaned on the example set by the Jutland peninsula to make his brand of democratic socialism appear less radical by comparison. “In Denmark,” Sanders averred in 2016, “there is a very different understanding of what ‘freedom’ means.” Nonsense. Western European classical liberalism is hardly unfamiliar to American eyes, even if some of the continent’s social-welfare programs are more robust. It is, in fact, Sanders—not Scandinavia—who adheres to a definition of “freedom” that departs from the American political tradition.
Contrary to the self-soothing affirmations of analysts like Klein and Krugman, Sanders spent years arguing in favor of nationalizing industry, has effectively proposed the nationalization of much of the health-insurance industry via his Medicare-for-All bill, and, as recently as October 2019, advocated “public ownership of major utilities.”
In fact, if many of Sanders’s policy proposals are familiar to Northern Europe’s social democracies, it’s only because those nations attempted and subsequently abandoned them. For example, Sanders’s plan to impose “Workplace Democracy” on publicly traded companies, forcing them to transfer roughly 25 percent of shareholder wealth to worker-held funds and giving corporate employees 45 percent of board seats. As the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle observed, Sweden attempted something similar only to abandon it “because it poisoned labor relations, and depressed both investment and productivity growth.” Likewise, Sweden is one of three Nordic nations (including dear old Denmark) that repealed their taxes on net assets—the “wealth tax” that Sanders advocates—because the revenue they generated did not compensate for their negative effects on job creation and social cohesion. Indeed, it was Scandinavia’s social democrats who led the charge to create a healthier business climate over the objections of their socialist colleagues.
The kind of statist populism Sanders and his vanguard of proletarian reformers advocate goes well beyond what even European polities would accept. There is perhaps no better example of that than the so-called “Green New Deal.”
This bill and its supporting documents called for shuttering all fossil-fuel-generating power plants, upgrading “every residential and industrial building” in the U.S., and contracting industrial agriculture down to “local scale.” The Green New Deal as envisioned by the bill’s drafters would involve provisions that “guarantee a job” to “all people of the United States,” provide for tuition-free education to help transition the millions of Americans displaced amid the destruction of the productive economy, and disburse a universal basic income to provide for those who fall through the cracks. And, of course, the Green New Deal mandates that all Americans must be provided with “high-quality health care,” a service Democrats increasingly confuse with the provision of medical insurance.
If this offensively impractical proposal doesn’t sound like it has much to do with environmental remediation, you’re not imagining things. As Saikat Chakrabarti, the former chief of staff for one of Sanders’s most outspoken champions, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, confessed, “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all.” It was, he added, “a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” But rather than balk at this insensible positioning statement masquerading as legislation, the bill rapidly secured 60 co-sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate. Eight of the most viable Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 race eagerly endorsed it either entirely or in concept.
Sanders’s planned to get the federal government into the banking business by transforming the country’s post offices into lending institutions. Their idea is to provide low-income earners who do not have bank accounts—a small but not negligible percentage of the population—with a way to avoid predatory payday lenders and check-cashing services that often charge exorbitant rates for their services. It’s an idea whose time has come and gone, as many of the nations that attempted state-run banking are privatizing those institutions.
Sanders had called for an ambitious housing plan that would address the scourges of homelessness and “gentrification” through a public housing construction boom and price-fixing. The prospect of a nationwide rent control scheme that caps prices at just 1.5 times the rate of inflation—a rate far below what even the most liberal states have implemented—is surely the most counterproductive aspect of this proposal. Economists have long known that rent control limits developers’ incentives to build new housing and compels landlords to forgo necessary repairs and renovations to their properties—that is, when they don’t simply convert their properties to condominiums. The plan would cost upwards of $2.5 trillion over ten years.
Indeed, between housing-for-all, Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, universal child care and pre-school, expanding access to social security, “free” college, the cancelation of student debt, and the plethora of progressive pipe dreams that are included in Sanders’ vision for America, the total estimated cost according to the Progressive Policy Institute is roughly $53 trillion over a decade. Sanders might go further than many of his Democratic colleagues, but his party’s objections to this agenda are not ideological—they’re only practical.
Sanders cannot account for at least $25 trillion of this proposed spending, and even Denmark’s example doesn’t get him there. 24.5 percent of Copenhagen’s tax revenue as a percent of GDP is drawn from income and payroll taxes. In the U.S., it’s only 16 percent. “Denmark’s top statutory personal income tax rate, which kicks in at 1.3 times the average income, is 55.9 percent,” National Review’s David Harsanyi noted. “In the United States, that would translate into taxing everyone who makes more than $65,000 at 55.9 percent.” America’s democratic socialists might convince themselves that the assault on the purchasing power of even lower-middle-class Americans is worth the tradeoff in public services, but you’re unlikely to find a critical mass of voters who would agree.
And though he professes to be a committed advocate for constitutional norms and little “r” republican propriety, Sanders has a capacious view of the executive’s role. The senator’s advisors have told reporters that Sanders would have wielded executive authority to circumvent Congress on issues like the importation of pharmaceuticals, the legalization of marijuana, and the legal status of the nation’s undocumented immigrant population. In addition, his aides claim that Sanders could have used the power of the presidency to ban the export of fossil fuels, halt the extraction of hydrocarbons via fracking, and use emergency powers to implement aspects of the Green New Deal by fiat. “We cannot accept delays from Congress on some of the most pressing issues,” read an internal Sanders campaign document reviewed by the Washington Post.
Liberal journalists like Yglesias insist that more conventional congressional Democrats will bridle the socialist president, but this is a curious self-deception. These and other like-minded pundits have been the most vocal critics of the Republican Party’s transformation from an institution hostile to Donald Trump and his policy preferences into one that is singularly committed to enforcing his preferences. Amid an unbroken string of Sanders victories, a similar metamorphosis quickly overtook the Democrats.
The Washington Post described the prevailing dynamic among apprehensive Democratic mandarins in terms familiar to any Trump-skeptical Republican: “[A]fter giving Sanders a pass for most of the year, any attacks Democrats launch on the self- described democratic socialist could undermine the party’s chance of beating Trump in November if Sanders becomes the nominee,” the paper’s February 24th dispatch read. “They also risk a backlash from voters who have repeatedly punished candidates who go negative on other Democrats in this race.” The ineluctable power of negative partisanship, strategic considerations, and simple careerism combined to persuade the Democratic Party’s Bernie-skeptical lawmakers that their only option is to accept Sanders’s ascension.
Indeed, Sanders would have found it much easier to remake the Democratic Party in his image. That’s not just because Sanders is an ideologue with a well-defined program, but because that program is one to which his party is already amenable.
A September 2019 poll conducted by Data for Progress found that a full 37 percent of Sanders supporters described themselves as either democratic socialists or just plain socialists, not mere liberals or progressives. As events over the course of the 2020 primary season have indicated, these Sanders backers are not as out of step with the Democratic Party as it’s leading lights would have you believe.
Multiple surveys of registered voters over the course of 2019 and early 2020 showed that Democrats were more favorable toward socialism than either Republicans or independents. A May 2019 Monmouth University poll found that, while 60 percent of respondents believe socialism “takes away too many individual rights,” just 38 percent of Democrats said the same. In February 2020, Gallup found that fewer than half of Americans—45 percent—would be inclined to vote for a socialist president. By contrast, 76 percent of Democrats said they would support a socialist.
Socialism’s doubters might take some comfort from the results of the March primaries, but that solace could be premature. Despite Biden’s strong showing, socialism has not fallen into disrepute among Democrats. According to the exit polls, Democrats who were asked for their views on socialism were not skeptical of that philosophy. In Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and California, more Democrats approved of socialism than opposed it—occasionally, as was the case in Texas and California, by 20-point margins. And while the Sanders campaign turned out what they must consider a disappointing number of young voters, he dominated that demographic. Across all 14 states, the median level of Sanders’s support among voters age 18 to 29 was 58 percent compared to Biden’s 17 percent. In California alone, the Vermont senator won over voters under the age of 45 by a staggering 61 percent. Biden, by contrast, appealed to just 7 percent of younger Californians.
Socialism’s organic rehabilitation among Democrats is evident in the cadre of young ideologues who have assumed rock-star status within the party, many of whom have latched onto Bernie Sanders’s coattails. Linda Sarsour, a self-described democratic socialist who co-chaired the powerful Women’s March before she was ejected from its ranks over her habit of issuing anti-Semitic remarks, was an official Sanders surrogate. So, too, was the evangelist for democratic socialism, Rep. Rashida Tlaib. “We need a powerful socialist movement to end all capitalist oppression and exploitation,” declared Seattle City Council member and Sanders surrogate Kshama Sawant to the thunderous applause of the candidate’s voters. Prominent Sanders backers like Reps. Khanna, Omar, and Pramila Jayapal are not declared democratic socialists, but their policy preferences and ideological proclivities leave little daylight between them and their less self-conscious comrades. And few have done more to proselytize in service to the concept of democratic socialism than prominent Sanders surrogate and political celebrity, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.
These are not fringe figures. They are ubiquitous fixtures on center-left cable-news sets, in print, and on the stump alongside the senator from Vermont. They helped Sanders raise campaign contributions from nearly 1.4 million Americans by the end of 2019—hundreds of thousands of donors more than any other candidate in the race. What’s more, they are setting the Democratic Party’s agenda in ways Bernie Sanders could not despite his decades in the federal legislature.
Bernie Sanders has lost his battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, but the victory enjoyed by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s moderates may ultimately be a pyrrhic one. If the party’s presumptive presidential nominee loses to Donald Trump in November, its transformation into a vehicle for Sanders’s socialist policies and no-quarter politics will be swift. Even if Biden wins the White House, the Democratic Party’s evolution is likely only to have been postponed.
Biden provides a model of comportment that contrasts with the combative style preferred by the democratic socialist left, but he does not offer a profoundly distinct set of policies that compete with the left’s ideological vision. In the absence of that competition, whether Biden is president or not, the Democratic Party can be expected to continue along its drift toward socialism with only varying degrees of alacrity. In the end, Bernie Sanders’s revolution may not have been suppressed but only deferred.