The American political world is in a state of suspended animation. Less than a year from now, we will find out if Donald Trump’s vision of a border-restrictionist right-wing politics triumphs over whatever alternative vision the Democratic Party ends up offering. Since the state of the Democratic worldview is still in dispute, what that vision will look like remains very much up in the air. The party’s dominant strand, historically its center-left or liberal sector, has been greatly transformed since—and by—2016. So much so that, when all’s said and done, it may not even be recognizable from last election to this one. We just don’t know what the left-liberal consensus will end up being. We don’t know who it is that will compete against Trump.
But we know who it should be.
It should be Bernie Sanders.
What made 2016 such a surprise is also what makes it a lesson for us today. What we missed then, but hopefully what we can come to see now, is that Trump’s upset victory was the result of a distinctive political vision.
In the 2000s prior to Trump, the Republican Party nominated three people for president: George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Trump has clashed with them all. That’s because the ideology summarized as “America First” is a departure from the neoconservatism and fiscal conservatarianism of recent GOP history. Sure, there are continuities—it is the same political party, after all. But Trump also represented a stark departure. And that different approach worked; it resonated.
What should we conclude from this? In 2020, competing against the Trump phenomenon will require more than Nate Silver’s big data and electoral maps — it will require an equally bold and compelling political vision.
With the failure of early media favorites Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke, and with surging upstart Pete Buttigieg’s abject inability to win over a crucial voting bloc of the Democratic electorate, the race seems to be winnowing down to just three campaigns: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders.
The voters should go with Sanders. Despite Biden’s resilience in national polls, the former vice president might end up too battered and bruised from low showings in the initial states, as well as universally low enthusiasm, to get the nomination. And despite Warren supporters’ best attempts to collapse the differences between their preferred candidate and Sanders, the two remain importantly different.
Not running on an original policy platform, Biden offers a return to a less turbulent, more nostalgic politics. He offers the Obama legacy and the end of Donald Trump.
The appeal here is fundamentally conservative: a proposal to edit out the last few years and splice in Obama’s third term as though the center-left consensus had enjoyed uninterrupted success for over a decade. The Trump phenomenon memory-holed and America back on track, where it should have been all along.
As such, Biden’s primary appeal is to older constituents of the Democratic Party more eager to return to the recent past than they are to figure out the way forward.
We have seen this play out before. Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 running on the same promise of an already-great America. Obviously, she was never going to go apocalyptic given that she was seeking to succeed eight years of Democratic governance and it would have been self-undermining to register despair about where the country was heading. With that said, there is a world of difference between blandly offering a continuation and meaningfully charting a bold new course. Hillary did the former and in the process lost states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—states the Obama coalition had secured years prior.
Biden’s strategy is a replay of Hillary’s unimaginative, unexciting failed presidential bid. He represents the institutionalization of politics, the process by which agendas and values get transformed, over time, into stale political gimmickry; this is what being an entrenched creature of Washington, DC does to a person. Remarkably, Sanders has avoided this perception—largely because he has studiously guarded against boringly assimilating into the Democratic mainstream.
Which means that even if Biden wins, the victory is likely to be short-lived. Would a Biden presidency be able to fend off voices on the right who have already calibrated their critiques to be most effective against Obama-era Democratic policies? Remember: a Biden presidency is based on the premise that the very recent past that delivered us Donald Trump is worth returning to. But Trump won that battle. So why wage it again in the same way?
Is Biden really capable of persuasively beating back an agenda that is against free trade, against Chinese hegemony, and in favor of deviating from the neoconservative consensus that Biden himself participated in with his vote for the Iraq War? Because that agenda is here now. In the form of Donald Trump. In the form of the Republican Party’s lurch into an electorally successful mix of populist-nationalism. Trump’s victory was a rebuke of Obama-era liberalism. Yet that’s what’s going to win the country back?
It was precisely the failures of the liberal class and the Obama brand of Democratic politics that destroyed the party and paved the way for Donald Trump. In 2016, the DNC was driven to near bankruptcy, and the party had lost over a thousand Democratic state and federal public offices under Obama’s watch, from state senate and house seats to governorships and state office positions. Despite Obamacare being the administration's signature political victory, healthcare is still the number one issue for Americans across various polls. Does Biden expect us to believe he can resolve problems Obama made?
The last thing this country needs is a 2020 victory that leads liberals into thinking the end of history is here again—that we have ushered in the decisive triumph of Obama-era center-leftism, here to stay but with no new ideas or policies to advance.
What would likely happen at that point is such a vision would be swiftly beaten back by the same forces that upended it the last time, rendering a Biden term a mere temporary stopgap along America’s rampaging march toward a durably populist future.
Biden doesn’t inspire the grassroots. This year, Sanders has pulled in $43 million from microfunding alone; Biden’s at $13.2 from the same category of small-dollar donors.
A Biden presidency would only delay the inevitable, the new normal: insurgent and passionate political visions like those of Trump and Sanders that harness antiestablishment vigor toward issues like derailed family formation, low wage growth, and skyrocketing healthcare costs.
To propose a true alternative to Trumpian politics, a wholly authentic opposing worldview is needed. Instead of laser-focusing on Trump as an individual, the way to break his spell over American politics is to simply cast a better one.
This is the role that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both playing — that of the progressive visionary. Sanders has shifted the Overton window on the left to include Medicare for all, student-debt forgiveness, a Green New Deal, and has springboarded the careers of Justice Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who now publicly back his presidential run. His role as a political luminary is ensured. Yet Warren has been making inroads to the same territory.
Emphasizing her past in bankruptcy law and consumer protection, Warren represents a similar strand of populist left-wing politics that includes breaking up tech monopolies, imposing a wealth tax on the richest of the rich, and Medicare for all. Warren, like Sanders, is preoccupied with the economic freedom of ordinary Americans, and has mounted a challenge to the institutions responsible for denying it to them in the first place.
In the world of mainstream media, Warren is a superstar, while Bernie is, as Nate Silver so artfully put it, mere “residue.” Indeed, it’s hard to shake the impression that the media see Warren as basically a better version of Bernie.
What that misses is that the differences between Sanders and Warren are substantial.
Warren has made it known that her stance against PAC money ends when the general election begins. In addition, Warren has already transferred PAC money from her 2018 Senate fund into her 2020 presidential bid, despite publicly declaring she would not seek PAC or donor money during the primaries. As money in politics and the question of oligarchy have become central to left-wing democratic politics, for Warren to have transferred donor money and registered an openness to PAC money during the general sends a troubling message. It positions her as a recipient of the same corporate cash she claims to stand against.
In the general election, countless lobbies can be expected to try to find an opening for the purposes of distorting the Warren agenda to suit their own objectives, as the current line of reasoning surrounding wealth and political power on the American left would imply. This makes it difficult to view her stance on money during the primaries in a vacuum. Sure, in isolation, it seems impressively Sanders-like; but viewed in context, the Warren campaign’s anti-oligarchical posture might just be nothing more than a temporary measure in order to win the nomination, rather than an authentic belief.
This should be worrying. Not merely because, if accurate, it would represent meticulous political calculation from a candidate supposed to be the principled antidote to such a thing, but also because in this election, against this candidate, it’s more important than ever to prioritize sincerity and authenticity.
The Warren campaign has gotten a lot of mileage out of presenting her as the candidate with “a plan for that.” But the image of a wonk and a series of complex plans are no substitute for good judgment. In 2017, Warren offered a “spirited defense” of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a man so aligned with conservative values that he promised he will “absolutely not” support a Sanders candidacy even in a general election against Donald Trump. What’s more, you could reliably expect Manchin to vote against Medicare for all. So why use your reputation to boost his? Sanders, for his part, has said he would support primarying Democrats who don’t back key elements of his progressive agenda. Which candidate seems to understand how you consolidate political support behind a progressive legislative push—the one propping up an anti-progressive who will end up voting with the opposition party, or the one who will put all his political weight behind replacing such anti-progressives?
Consider the ongoing war in the Democratic Party between the Justice Democrats and the entrenched party elite. Elizabeth Warren has sought to play both sides of the fence. Notoriously, she neglected to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016, while other politicians valiantly backed Sanders’ left-wing vision. Why did Warren decline? Turns out she was among those being vetted for VP consideration by Hillary Clinton. Which means that when it mattered most, Warren chose to ignore a robust left-wing candidacy, a candidacy her supporters say is extremely similar to her 2020 agenda, because a higher political office was potentially available.
Primary platforms can induce myopia among observers. Comparing Sanders and Warren’s recent agendas side by side, one might get the impression that they are very similar candidates. But zooming out and projecting what a Warren or Sanders presidency might look like gives us a better sense of the divergence.
For example, not many people saw too much daylight between Sanders’ and Warren’s Medicare-for-all proposals initially. Yet that’s precisely the problem: Commentators treated Warren as if she were Sanders 2.0 before Warren ever got around to answering key questions about her particular version of this massive policy initiative. On the debate stage, Sanders leveled with the American people and straight up said we would need to approve a tax hike; infamously, Warren declined to answer. Unsurprisingly, when the facts came in, Warren’s version of Medicare for all turned out to be significantly different than Sanders’. Charting a three-year transition plan that starts with a far more modest proposal to create a public option and expand Obamacare, Warren boxed herself into fighting two separate protracted political battles over healthcare, with the most radical phase occurring after a 2022 midterm election that will undoubtedly be highly contentious. This is both a progressive betrayal and a political absurdity.
We were told the two candidates were indistinguishable on this—yet, Sanders’ progressive vision is the same as before and Warren’s Medicare-for-all proposal ended up careening toward center-left dilution. That’s a microcosm of their candidacies. We’re told they’re the same; but when you actually look at the details, they’re not.
With Warren’s hesitation to endorse Sanders’ robust left-wing agenda all because the promise of a higher office was dangled before her, with her closeness to the media and unwillingness to challenge party elements that are inimical to progressivism’s forward march, and with her stance on PAC money in the general election, it’s unlikely that the left will feel reassured about the prospect of a Warren presidency.
And it’s not just about the left! There’s a real authenticity problem here for Warren that will inform how all of America sees her. From her decades-long false identification with Native American ancestry, to her unwillingness to level with Americans about the costs of Medicare for all, to the possibility that she lied about whether her kid went to private school—regardless of what one thinks of these charges, she’s starting to look like the standard politician that Donald Trump would relish running against.
When the opponent is historically intolerable, as Trump is, the winning agenda must be a stinging rebuke from the other direction. And it must come with the moral force of an authentic leader. Warren’s not the right person to deliver that.
Bernie or Bust
Sanders has no such authenticity problem. At the end of the day, he can be taken at his word. There is a reason he has yet to formally identify with the Democratic Party. For a progressive visionary, authenticity is essential. Anything less is an opportunity for Trump to demagogue his way to a second term. Democrats can’t take that risk again.
Too many in the Democratic Party are still convinced that Donald Trump, and his broader vision of right-wing nationalism, is little more than a joke that can be defeated through legal procedures, appeals to “norms,” and the promise of yesterday. The failure of the Mueller Report to kickstart Trump’s removal, as well as the uninspiring nature of the Biden campaign, stand as reminders that Trump is for real. He requires an ideological rebuke, not kid gloves or a wonk who is friendly with the Democratic Party establishment.
What happens next year will have dramatic, world-defining ramifications. If the Democrats walk away from Sanders, from the opportunity to seize the moment with an anti-oligarchical, authentic populism, the mistakes of the Obama years will be repeated. Beating Trump is only the beginning of a new progressive movement, not the end. If the president who replaces Trump is anything less than a visionary capable of reshaping American politics from the ground-up, the dynamics of Trumpian populism won’t be extinguished, and will flare back up stronger than ever.