Sanders’ Progressivism Offers Hope for 2020

The Bern has returned. Millionaires and billionaires nationwide are on life support. Cory Booker is reportedly pleading with his Big Pharma donors to keep a low profile. Barack Obama has been spotted on a coffee date with Joe Biden, who looked close to tears as 44 told him his monopoly on the “favorite grandpa” title is over. Beto O’Rourke has been sighted at a skatepark, brooding and hitting kick-flips. And the president’s White House staffers tell us he may declare DEFCON 4.

Hyperbole aside — though it wouldn’t be shocking if the nation’s 1 percent started seeing their doctors more frequently — Senator Bernie Sanders’ emergence in the 2020 presidential field is exciting. Thus far, left-wing presidential hopefuls have been playing catch-up with Sanders, who has already shattered rival Kamala Harris’ $1.5-million single-day donation record with a staggering $5.9-million haul. Bernie’s 2016 bid, which reshaped the ethos of the Democratic Party, still looms large today; the democratic socialist policies central to Sanders’ campaign three years ago have become staples of the revitalized party, due in no small part to torchbearers like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This leftward drift has come in spite of party traditionalists determined to drag their feet.

Bernie may have sparked the sea of change on the left after his 2016 campaign, but why should he carry it forward in 2020? There are a number of reasons, perhaps the most important being his crossover appeal with Trump voters. Progressives can bemoan the disproportionate leverage wielded by rural voters in the Electoral College all we like, but until this can be addressed, we need to focus on winning them over. Sanders outperformed Clinton in 2016 among rural voters who would later vote for Trump in the general election. Recall that some of these Trump voters also voted for Obama, many of them twice. They are not, in principle, opposed to left-leaning candidates. This appeal has seemingly endured, with Sanders already polling at 19 percent in Iowa according to CNN and the Des Moines Register (behind only centrist Joe Biden, who may not even run).

The elephant in the room is Sanders’ lack of appeal to Black voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in 2016 and have historically been overlooked or lied to by politicians of all stripes. However, this is primarily an issue of optics, not policy. It’s true that Sanders did not spend enough time and resources reaching out to and hearing the political concerns of Black voters in 2016. Nonetheless, Bernie’s oft-overlooked racial justice plan was the most comprehensive agenda of its kind in the 2016 race. The plan breaks down racial injustice into five parts: physical violence, political violence, legal violence, economic violence, and environmental violence. The plan is too detailed to parse through here, but I strongly recommend that skeptics read Meagan Day’s breakdown of the plan on the Jacobin Magazine website. (If Bernie’s website were fully operational yet, I’d point skeptics to the platform itself, but it isn’t at the time of this writing; I’ll happily take bets that it will be there soon enough.)

Another huge advantage of a Sanders candidacy is that the hard part of campaigning is over. He fought tooth and nail in 2016 using only grassroots support and nearly got the same number of votes as Clinof campaigning is over. He fought tooth and ton, who had all the power of the Democratic National Committee and special interests on her side. The populist political infrastructure is already set up for him, which gives him more time to listen to the Black voters that he overlooked and cover other bases he missed the first time around. He’ll also be better positioned to avoid the inevitable gaffes that come with a publicized campaign.

But his age! If the biggest concern about Sanders is his age — and look at how energized he is! — he’s already ahead of the pack. I’ll take marginal health risks over special interests and spotty records any day. We need visionary leadership, and Bernie can provide. There are, of course, valid concerns on the moderate left and the right about the funding and logistics of Sanders’ more ambitious programs, but those are concerns to address as they arrive. As Maggie Koerth-Baker of FiveThirtyEight recently noted, policy packages like the Green New Deal — which Sanders supports — may be impractical, but “practical” solutions thus far haven’t worked. Frankly, we don’t have time to address every deficiency; hopefully, if Bernie is elected, moderate Democrat and Republican congressmembers can spend their energy addressing them when the policies are in motion. For now, full steam ahead. Bring on the Bern.