The 2020 election is underway, and America’s attention has shifted to the Democratic primaries. After winning the popular vote in Iowa, winning New Hampshire, and dramatically sweeping the field in Nevada, Bernie Sanders appears unstoppable. Like the Republican grandees who watched Donald Trump’s emergence in 2016, the Democratic establishment is apoplectic.
It’s easy to empathize with them, and if I were a member of the Democratic National Committee, I’d be scared too. But I am not. Instead, I am convinced the best thing for the United States may be for Sanders to be the Democratic Party nominee in 2020.
To be clear, I do not want Sanders to become president. He is my last choice. I also am rooting for Sanders not because I think it will help Trump, although I do believe this is true. Why then?
Will Sanders Get the Democratic Nomination?
First, consider the current state of the Democratic field and the likely outcomes from the primaries.
Joe Biden has quickly devolved from the front-runner to a long shot whose last hope to remain viable is a commanding win in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg surprised in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he was crushed in diverse Nevada and appears unable to expand his appeal beyond affluent whites. South Carolina will be a big test for him, and polls are not auspicious.
Elizabeth Warren is widely regarded as intelligent and able to appeal to both the left wing and center of the Democratic Party – although evidently not enough to win either group’s votes. Amy Klobuchar seems to offend about as many people as she excites: zero. She might make an excellent president, but we’ll never know.
That leaves Michael Bloomberg, who many centrist Democrats now hope will emerge as their savior. His national poll numbers have risen due to hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, but this was before his shellacking in the Nevada debate. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly leftist Democratic Party nominating a George W. Bush-supporting, stop-and-frisk-implementing multibillionaire who celebrates capitalism, unabashedly supports free trade, and speaks admiringly of China.
His weak Nevada debate performance also critically undermines the foundational argument for his campaign: that he is best suited to face Trump in November. It is much easier to see Bloomberg further dividing the anti-Bernie lane in the Democratic field and serving as the perfect foil for Sanders’ populism.
Unless something changes quickly, one of two scenarios will emerge as the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee approaches:
1. Sanders has the most pledged delegates — say, 40 percent — but is short of a majority, so voting will go to a second ballot.
2. Sanders wins a majority of delegates and is nominated on the first ballot.
Scenario 2 appears less likely, so consider scenario 1. Here are two possible outcomes if voting goes to a second ballot:
1. A relative moderate is selected as the nominee to keep Sanders out.
2. Sanders still wins the nomination.
Democrats Face an Uphill Battle
My dispassionate base case here is a Trump victory for both outcomes. Let’s take them in turn. If a moderate is chosen over Sanders when he appeared to have won the primaries, his supporters will be understandably livid. Many would be likely to stay home in November, vote for a third-party candidate, or even vote for Trump.
That would also reinforce the perception that the Democratic Party is irredeemably corrupt. The strong economy and Trump’s incumbency already make victory for the Democrats an uphill climb, but lost votes from Sanders supporters could render it impossible.
If Sanders is the nominee, he’ll be selling a message that we need to fundamentally reorganize the American economic system at a time record-high percentages of Americans are reporting satisfaction with the economy and optimism about the future. He will undoubtedly run into a buzz-saw of negative advertising focused on the costs of his plans — nearly $100 trillion over 10 years, or roughly five times current U.S. gross domestic product — dramatic tax increases, elimination of private health insurance, and past and ongoing praise for the Soviet Union and dictators such as Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Nicolas Maduro.
Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterms was mostly with relatively moderate, affluent, swing voters in the suburbs. These are not folks who want to “burn it down.” It’s possible Sanders is being underestimated. After all, everyone said Trump was unelectable, too. However, it’s hard to imagine such a contest ending well for him.
What Will Happen if Trump Beats Sanders?
He may not, but let’s suppose Trump wins. The Democratic Party will face a reckoning afterward: “How did we lose?” “What could we have done differently?” “Who’s to blame?” This is the crucial part.
If it appears the nomination was “stolen” from Sanders, and the selected candidate goes on to lose, Sanders’ supporters will argue they were right all along and that the path to victory for the party is the populist appeal of socialism. The counterfactual can’t be proven — would Sanders have won in 2016? In 2020? — but it won’t matter. The actual candidate lost, and even worse, he or she lost to Trump. The left wing is already ascendant, but after this exchange, the establishment will have no choice but to yield, and the Democratic Party will become a wholly left-liberal party.
This will help Republicans in the short term but be terrible for the country. It will facilitate the serious consideration of socialism and other ideas historically relegated to the fringe and will mean future election outcomes will portend dramatic policy shifts.
To Republicans who relish the prospect of facing a socialist Democratic Party, I’d urge them to consider the reality that at some point the Democrats will win. When they do, it’s better for them to tinker with tax rates and social policies than to fundamentally upend the system that has made America the most prosperous country in history. Democrats’ move away from the political center may also convince Republicans they can safely shift right without sacrificing electability. The result will be a more polarized political environment that makes the present appear positively temperate.
If, on the other hand, Sanders is the nominee and goes on to lose badly, the centrists in the Democratic Party will have an opportunity to reassert themselves. In this, Sanders’s defeat could be a repeat of George McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. In the aftermath of that election, Democrats reckoned with the results, recognizing that radicals had taken the reins of the party. Moderates then took charge to shepherd a return to electoral viability. A similar reaction post-Walter Mondale in 1984 led to Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 as a centrist.
Such a Democratic shift would certainly improve their prospects in future elections. It would also incentivize Republicans to hew closer to the center. Both parties, shocked by the populist insurgencies of Trump and Sanders, would be compelled to reckon with the unsavory results of the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus that enriched coastal elites while leaving much of the country behind.
We Must Crush Socialism to Maintain Stability
One of America’s great strengths throughout history has been the domination of our politics by parties of the center-left and center-right. When power changes hands, the shift is subtle. This stability is critical for businesses and households to make decisions about what the future will look like, and it has enabled our enviable record of sustained growth. The results for nations who alternate between far-left and far-right governments are much less impressive — looking at you, Argentina, and much of the rest of Latin America for that matter.
Like it or not, the socialists are here. The only way to change that is to crush their ideas at the ballot box and thereby convince Democrats it’s in their interest to expel them from mainstream American political discourse. If we let the movement fester, there is no guarantee the next face of the socialist left will be a septuagenarian with a history of celebrating murderous dictators or that they will be making their appeals against the headwinds of economic plenty. Let’s gird for that fight now rather than postponing it for another day when conditions may be less favorable.
There is, of course, a risk here: We could lose. But if we can’t make the case against socialism in such a favorable environment, shame on us. In that case, the music was doomed to stop soon anyway. But more likely, we’ll see one of the most unpopular men in modern politics win in a landslide — and then people will know it was his ideas that carried the day, and those of his opponent will return to the dustbin of history.