Three months ago, the smart money wouldn’t have bet a nickel on Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2020. Yes, he had a base of committed supporters, but seemingly little beyond it. He had a serious rival on the left in Elizabeth Warren, who seemed to be successfully courting the women’s vote. He was anathema to the Party establishment, which had thwarted his bid for the presidency in 2016 and was, if anything, even more determined to do so this time around. That establishment included not only Obama and Clinton loyalists (many of whom blamed Sanders for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 and for the four nightmare years of Donald Trump that have followed), but the mainstream media as well. No one had a good word for Bernie. Plus, he was the oldest candidate ever to run seriously for president, and he’d just had a heart attack.
Now, after just a single primary vote and two caucuses as I write, Sanders is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and suddenly on course to take a plurality if not a majority of pledged delegates into the Party convention. A brokered convention denying him the nomination is certainly a possibility, but it would split the Party, likely costing Democrats the November election. Of course, there’s a long way to go until summer. But the fact that things have gotten to where they are now seems to cry out for explanation.
Part of that explanation lies in Sanders’ competition. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign began its collapse when she stumbled over how she would pay for Medicare for All when confronted with scare cost estimates that should have been easily batted aside. Plus, she is a woman, and not only did 51 percent of potential male voters admit they would have reservations about electing a female candidate, but 41 percent of women voters as well. Like it or not, that’s the truth of our present political life.
As for the male opponents who remain: Joe Biden is a walking corpse, Pete Buttigieg is weak-faced, evasive and untested, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire carpetbagger, has run into a buzz saw of opposition from his fellow candidates.
That still leaves us with the question of how Sanders has gotten so far. Part of the reason is, self-evidently, that he is not a Democrat. Sanders began his political career some 40 years ago as an Independent. He is still one. He has caucused for years with Congressional Democrats but never taken the blood oath. In this, he is a unique figure, at least among modern political figures with any degree of prominence. We have a two-party system, designed to remain such. Sanders won’t join the party whose presidential nomination he seeks, even to win the world’s most powerful office.
Well, why won’t he? It’s understandable that a maverick seeking a career on his own terms and satisfied with becoming a senator or governor might choose to be an Independent. But Sanders is not simply that; he is a self-professed democratic socialist. No other figure on the national stage in generations has described himself as such. No one, in fact, even knows what a socialist is nowadays, except that it is so dirty a word that Warren, competing with Sanders on the left, describes herself as a capitalist to the bone. But Sanders, somehow, has gotten away with using it, and it did him no apparent harm in running for the Democratic nomination four years ago. Maybe it would do so in a general election, but Sanders is apparently determined to stick to his label, come what may. In this, he is not merely stubborn. He is serving notice that he means to remake the Democratic Party, or at least return it to an updated version of its New Deal self — not democratic socialism, but social democracy more or less as envisioned by the Henry Wallace wing of the Party in the 1940s and practiced generally in Western Europe today.
That is why he resists advice to moderate his policy positions to woo conservative Democrats or swing voters. He is indeed a revolutionary, not on the general political spectrum — in Europe he would be a centrist — but in terms of the Republican Lite party that the Democrats have become since the 1960s. That party, as Sanders sees it, was repudiated at the polls in 2016. The Republicans don’t deserve to win elections, but neither, he thinks, do Democrats as they stand as a whole. Yes: He has said he will support whomever the Democratic nominee is in the effort to unseat Trump this fall. But if he is that nominee, he will, unless I have thoroughly misjudged him, stick to his guns.
If one regards the present two-party system as one in crisis — as it certainly is, if one considers climate disaster, the debacle of American health care, housing and higher education and the plutocratic oligarchy that runs both parties — then both Sanders and Trump represent a phenomenon that now characterizes our time. Trump, an outsider who became a courtesy Republican to run for president, was able to seize control of a party, whose establishment regarded him with horror and disgust, and bend it to his will.
Sanders, not quite as loathed but certainly feared, is trying to do something of the same with the Democrats. The difference, of course, is that Trump is a demagogue with the instincts of a tyrant, and Sanders is a man of integrity, the most remarkable political figure to have emerged in America in decades. There’s another difference, too. Trump is wholly uninterested in his party except as a personal vehicle; his goal is to transform the presidency into an institution above the law and use it for his private interest. Sanders wants to transform the Democratic Party in the interests of what he perceives as social justice and planetary survival. To do so, if he gets the chance, he would have to bend not only the Democratic Party, but perhaps the presidency as well. The hardest part of Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism might be not the “socialist” part, but the “democratic” one.