In 2016, it seemed unlikely that Sen. Bernie Sanders—technically not a Democrat—would become one of the most important figures in Democratic politics and arguably the moderate candidate in the 2020 presidential field. Many may not believe it now. After all, he’s a self-described socialist. But it’s a true story that says as much about the Democratic Party as it does Sanders.
Campaigning in Iowa, Sanders bragged that the major planks of his 2016 campaign—Medicare-for-all, “free” college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage—were considered “radical “ then but are Democratic Party dogma now. He is not wrong (Sanders might have added that he was the godfather of the Green New Deal). Bernie has gone from persona non grata to acceptable presidential nominee among his Democratic Senate colleagues.
Democrats’ leftward lurch was not due solely to Sanders’ 2016 campaign. President Obama’s misgovernance reduced his party to its bedrock supporters, who leaned heavily left. Once the supposed “centrist” Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump based on blue-collar states, progressives pounced on the chance to argue Sanders could have won and his issues were the future of the party. (Conservatives often make the mirror argument when Republicans lose, which is how we got the Tea Party in 2009.)
When progressives rushed to fill the vacuum left by Clinton’s loss, however, they also brought plenty of identity politics with them. More than ever, the Democrats became an “upstairs/downstairs” party led by a small faction far to the left of the rank-and-file on issues including political correctness and identitarianism.
Bernie does not subscribe to identity politics, even though many argue his 2016 campaign failed because it failed to attract black voters, especially older black voters. Announcing his 2020 campaign last month, Sanders told Vermont Public Radio: “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”
The blowback from the left was broad and swift. Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress commented: “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual orientation or identity doesn’t matter is not off, it’s simply wrong.”
Late-night yakker Stephen Colbert “joked” that Sanders was saying: “Yes, like Dr. King, I have a dream—a dream where this diverse nation can come together and be led by an old white guy.” Even a writer at Teen Vogue opined that Bernie’s comment “feels like the equivalent of him telling everyone who is not a straight, white, cisgender male that we shouldn’t care about seeing ourselves represented in our government.”
So far, Sanders has not backed down on a politics based on class, rather than identity. Rather, during the hard launch of his campaign in Brooklyn and Chicago, he highlighted his biography as the lower-middle-class son of an immigrant who went on to lead a sit-in, attend the March on Washington, and get arrested during a civil rights protest against segregation of public schools. He apparently hopes to persuade minorities of his civil rights bona fides and that his vision of politics can work for them as it did prior generations.
Bernie’s approach may not convince identitarians in the primaries. After all, identity politics often represents an inversion of Rev. Martin Luther King’s vision of an America where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Moreover, Sanders continues to make comments and take votes suggesting he is not for open borders.
Sanders’ current polling lead among announced candidates seems to be prompting lesser rivals to try even further-left positions in an attempt to outflank him. Julian Castro criticized Sanders’ position on financial reparations for slavery, where Sanders thinks there are better approaches than writing checks to… someone.
Castro complained: “[I]f the issue is compensating the descendants of slaves, I don’t think that the argument about writing a big check ought to be the argument that you make if you’re making an argument that a big check needs to be written for a whole bunch of other stuff.”
Similarly, Sen. Kamala Harris has come out in favor of decriminalizing “sex work,” a question Bernie avoided in a recent radio interview. He might also be challenged on whether fighting climate change extends to population control, as democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems to believe.
Do Bernie’s currently strong poll numbers (and fundraising) reflect some recognition that what distinguishes him from the emerging 2020 field is his distaste for identity politics? Possibly.
To be sure, early campaign polling largely reflects name identification, which is why TBD candidate Joe Biden is the only name competing with Sanders. But the high name-ID for Biden and Sanders also suggests people should know the two differ significantly on policy. Yet in a national Morning Consult poll and a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers, significant numbers of Biden voters pick Sanders as their second choice (while Biden is the most popular second choice of Sanders voters).
Aside from name-ID, these polls might suggest the old, white, cisgender males still have some standing in the Democratic Party. But more seriously, the early polls may reflect an electorate that prefers old-school, class-based Democratic politics to the brave new world of the identitarian left.