Can moderate Democrats sign on to a progressive president?
The short answer could have been ripped from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign: “Yes, We Can!”
The longer answer is more qualified, but it does seem to point to the central question of whether an unabashed progressive such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders will win over the Democratic electorate and ride that support to the White House.
The Super Tuesday primaries this week point to a qualified “yes.” Sanders certainly has momentum, despite former Vice President Joe Biden’s comeback, and he could still secure a majority of delegates ahead of the convention in July.
The road ahead can be perilous, however, not least because a contested convention in July could lead to a repeat of 2016. To avoid that debacle, Sanders will need to focus on coalition-building and winning over the leadership of the Democratic Party, or, to use Sanders’ terminology, “the establishment.”
Which means it may be time to put aside the “us against everyone” narrative that has come to define him—which was literally the subject line of a fundraising email the Sanders campaign sent out Feb. 25. Yes, most party officials aren’t his fans, and if no candidate wins a majority of the delegates, “superdelegates” wading in at the convention does smack of party elites putting their thumbs on the scale.
But for all the criticism Sanders and his supporters have levied at superdelegates, he may need them. That’s because the key demographic that Sanders says will support him, young first-time voters, haven’t been showing up in at the polls in numbers that could swing the election.
The Super Tuesday exit polls point to expected results, with Sanders winning the 18-29 and 30-44-year-old demographics. But there were a few surprises. Exit polling in Texas, for example, showed a surge in voters over 65. Biden handily won that age group, carrying him to victory in that state on Tuesday in one of the more surprising upsets.
Two key battleground states in the upcoming general election, Virginia and North Carolina, also contributed to Biden’s comeback. Virginia, a bluish-but-not-reliably-so state that any Democratic candidate must win, saw turnout rise almost 64% over the 2016 primary. North Carolina, which was won by Barack Obama in 2008 but went for Trump in 2016, saw a primary turnout increase of 11% from 2016, putting the state in possible swing-back territory.
Is fear of socialism driving the older voter turnout? Or is Sanders’ revolution not catching fire the way he’d hoped? Or is it a little of both?
With Super Tuesday behind us, the usual hand-wringing about socialism emerged not just from conservative pundits, but even from more mainline Democrats.
That the race has now crystallized into a Biden vs. Sanders competition is a good thing. Narrowing the field to two will allow both candidates to hone in on their central messages both for beating Trump and for how they would govern.
It’s important to note that Bernie Sanders isn’t the scary extremist his opponents paint him out to be. In his policies, he’s pretty much in line with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, and in Europe he’d be considered a traditional labor party candidate: left of center, but nothing like the continent’s old-school communists.
It’s not particularly useful to debate the semantic difference among democratic socialism, socialism, and communism, primarily because the people who don’t know the difference don’t want to know, and Trump surely will smear any Democratic nominee as a socialist.
That was the theme—“America vs. Socialism”—at the big Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 27. We should know by now that arguing about labels isn’t going to have any other result except to feed far-right hysteria. (Biden would do well to heed that same warning.)
Here’s the kicker: Many polls that are focused on policy proposals reveal that a wide swath of Americans of all political persuasions like such as programs that qualify as “democratic socialist”: lowering prescription drug prices (sometimes with government involvement in manufacturing or funding research), paid family leave, clean water, legalizing marijuana, and bankruptcy reform. People like this stuff. They want to keep their health care and Social Security.
The “scary socialist” epithets being tossed at Sanders by fellow Democrats aren’t really coming from a place of ignorance about what the labels mean. All the Democrats are significantly to the left of any Republican in power. Even Michael Bloomberg would be considered a conservative Democrat/liberal Republican in the mold of Lincoln Chafee or Bill Weld… people that today’s Trump-über-alles Republican Party have all but expelled.
There may be a little bit of genuine misunderstanding around the label in the Democratic electorate, but the policies themselves just aren’t the issue. The fear-mongering intent of the “socialist” label seems to stem primarily from anxiety that Sanders couldn’t beat Trump.
Mostly, skeptics point to Sanders’ more divisive proposals, such as free college education, eliminating private insurance, and a housing guarantee for everyone, regardless of income. These are what puts Sanders’ campaign firmly on the left end of the spectrum, and which any reasonable observer knows would be unlikely to pass a Congress controlled by a politically diverse Democratic coalition without major changes.
This is assuming Democrats even manage to flip four Senate seats without losing any, such as Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama. The down-ballot races matter just as much as the presidential race. Even if Sanders wins, if U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell remains the majority leader, the “revolution” stops cold.
The worry about beating Trump is real. If Trump wins a second term, the American experiment with democracy is likely to be finished. But, again, any of the Democrats can beat Trump, and that includes Sanders. Trump has the potential to be his own worst enemy, if only the Democrats would get out of the way and let him.
That means moving beyond the “circular firing squad” stage of the Democratic primary, and making the focus of the race about Trump. It’s his reelection. Saying he lacks the qualifications and character isn’t enough; it didn’t work in 2016, and like bad software coding, with Trump’s supporters, his unfitness is not a bug, it’s a feature.
The election has to be about what Trump has done and plans to do: take away people’s health care, overturn Roe v. Wade (or render it toothless), pack the courts with right-wing ideologues (this part is easy for him, since he’s working from a list provided by the Federalist Society), continue to loot the U.S. Treasury for personal gain, burn alliances, kiss up to dictators, and on top of all that, simply do a bad job at everything he tries to do.
Sanders can do this and sell his domestic agenda, because his domestic agenda promises the polar opposite. All Sanders has to do is overcome his own weaknesses.
It may be too much to expect him to stop explaining that democratic socialism isn’t socialism, which isn’t communism or authoritarianism. But he does need to show he can work with the Democratic Party he wants to lead.
Sanders has spent his career giving a Bronx cheer to the Democratic National Committee, something for which—surprise!—many Democrats aren’t rewarding him. His promise to mobilize millions of new voters to his cause hasn’t been reflected in turnout yet, and he needs to start running as if he wants to lead a coalition party, which is what the Democratic Party is, with progressive, mainline liberal, and moderate factions, of all ages, ethnic groups, genders, and sexualities.
Insisting everyone but him is wrong about everything, and that everyone must sign on to his revolution, is a recipe for schism, and he may find that the DNC is unlikely to come to his rescue if his delegate count falls short at the convention.
Plus, Sanders needs to stop making his own boneheaded goals, such as defending Cuba’s literacy rate. Cuba’s not an issue in this election, and all Sanders did was give many people in a key swing state one more reason not to like him. The truth is the truth, as he said, but if the election comes down to a debate about whether or not Cuba or the Nicaraguan Sandinistas or the Soviet Union did good things in addition to bad things, Trump will win, and win bigly. The election is ultimately about Trump, and if Sanders wants to win, he needs to keep that front and center—while providing a clear, focused, coherent alternative to what four more years of Trump really looks like.
The primary’s not over yet, but it will likely wrap up soon. In less than two weeks, half of the 3,979 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will have been assigned. The party’s accelerated primary schedule is doing what it was designed to do and avoid a repeat of 2016: not just the extended intraparty conflict between the Sanders and Clinton camps, but also what happened with the Republicans, in which the non-scary candidates split the vote nine ways, allowing a scary extremist to win the nomination without ever getting a majority of the total votes.
There is a path forward for progressives even if Biden wins the nomination, but if Sanders wins, progressives need to show the rest of the country, especially all the swing state voters, that he’s not a scary boogeyman, and he really can represent all Americans. He can do that without watering down his platform, but he needs to show that everyone is welcome to his party.