Last week’s Democratic debates were the first solid piece of evidence we’ve had that the party’s next presidential nominee will likely be someone who positions themselves on the left.
With the notable exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, nearly every other major contender for the nomination attempted to outflank each other on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration to the climate (for the pitiful amount of time it was mentioned, at least). Not only that, but some of them have had years to back up those bonafides at this point; every senator making a run for president aside from Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet has co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, while all except Bennet have co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution in the Senate. And although we’re roughly six months away from the first primary, the first post-debate poll by CNN showed Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders in the top 4 along with Biden, whose lead had been cut by ten points since May.
For all of the potshots Sanders has taken from lesser candidates like the Colorado boys over “socialism,” it’s clear that the ideas he put forward in the 2016 campaign haven’t just held up; they’re becoming a dominant force in the Democratic Party. The problem for Sanders, however, is that everyone else is catching up; Harris and Warren—who’s always been a progressive stalwart on the financial system, but has more recently started to more fully embrace social democracy—are both in a statistical tie with Sanders, which is probably not where the runner-up for the last nomination wants to be.
So Sanders has three choices. The first is that he can stay the course and run an updated version of his 2016 campaign again. His recent endorsement of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s student debt cancellation bill and inclusion of it in his own College for All plan indicates that’s the case, and there’s reason to believe it’s not a bad strategy. After all, it did help him get over 40 percent of the vote in 2016 against an eventual nominee who had virtually the entire party behind her, a level of establishment support that no 2020 candidate even comes close to approaching.
The second choice is to go right in an attempt to convince swing voters he’s not as radical as his opponents make him out to be. Not only would that probably not get him any extra votes, considering it’d be a sharp diversion from the Sanders that the public has come to know, but such a heel turn would probably split his base of support in half. The flip side of that—the third choice—is for Sanders to just lean into it and fully embrace democratic socialism. This would mean calling not just for a Rooseveltian expansion of the safety net, but for the nationalization of key industries rife with greed, corruption, and inefficiency. It would also mean making workers’ struggles the central theme of his campaign, rather than the specific policies that advance that struggle.
Such a move to the left isn’t just counterintuitive in the realm of American politics; it’s also counterintuitive to Sanders himself. Sanders began his career in politics calling for the public takeover of utilities companies, of banks, of pharmaceutical companies. Over time, however, he dropped those things from his platform in favor of an agenda that wasn’t exactly popular during the Third Way era, but at least got him elected and re-elected over and over again.
But there’s several reasons to believe a sharp left turn back to those ideas could benefit Sanders. The first reason is, as mentioned before, Sanders is no longer the only one on stage advocating for Medicare for All. On Wednesday night, Bill de Blasio raised his dumb hand when he was asked the same question about abolishing private insurance companies. So did Warren, and Harris the next night, although she quickly and quietly walked it back. If you like what Sanders is offering, but don’t particularly care for the man himself or his insistence on calling his proposals socialism, you have options that you didn’t have in 2016.
Additionally, after his 2016 campaign, Sanders is second only to Biden when it comes to name recognition, and so most people who’ve already decided that they’re voting in the 2020 primary have an opinion on whether Bernie Sanders is good or not. Given that reality and the fact that he isn’t holding a substantial lead, it would stand to reason that Sanders needs to convince people who don’t feel particularly inclined to vote, much less in a presidential primary, that he’s the best choice in 2020.
But the most important case for Sanders to move to the left goes beyond the realm of presidential politics and speaks to the future of the movement that he’s helped to kickstart and lead for the past four years. Sanders obviously has a vested interest in seeing the socialist project succeed; otherwise, he wouldn’t have done a speech outlining what “democratic socialism” means to him. His 2016 campaign was a success because he pushed the envelope of what’s acceptable and palatable in American political discourse; if he fails to do that this time around and still doesn’t get the nomination, what was the point of making another run at all?
The best possible outcome is that Sanders, win or lose, lays the foundation for a viable socialist project that radically transforms American society into a fairer, more just place, a sort of left-wing answer to what Barry Goldwater did for the right. Anyone on the right would gladly sacrifice Goldwater again 100 times out of 100: a devastating loss in one cycle, in exchange for five decades and counting of reaction. Hopefully, it won’t come to that; if the left is able to replicate that model, however, Bernie Sanders’ contributions to the movement will last long after his presidential campaigns.