You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
I have been watching many conservatives speak about Bernie Sanders the way the establishment left spoke about President Trump during the last election cycle. They are giddy with delight that Democrats are likely going to nominate a bona fide socialist. There’s no way that Americans would vote for someone who is so consumed with hatred for the American experiment that he went to the USSR on his honeymoon, they say. They are hate-watching their own caricature.
Most conservatives think that a Sanders nomination represents the long-awaited Götterdämmerung of liberal elites. Moderate contempt for progressives and their increasingly bizarre ideals will finally cleave the party in two, and the two fractions will never be large enough to deprive conservatives of control. They think a Sanders nomination is something to celebrate, not fear.
Perhaps they are correct, but I am not sure this is the case. I do not think a Sanders nomination will destroy the left, even if he loses in the general election. In fact, I think it has the potential to unify the left in much the same way Trump has now unified the right. And I do not believe this involves ideology at all, so much as demographics.
When President Obama left office, he had not groomed any political heirs. This may have been a pragmatic move on his part. When you do not have an heir, you alone get to decide what your legacy looks like. I think Obama did not endorse Biden because Biden’s campaign would have ultimately become Obama’s legacy (and given the insane things Biden says on a daily basis, that would obviously be terrible for Obama). Obama also understood that his frenemy Hillary thought that it was “her turn” after he left office. And he probably knew she was going to lose and was fine with that. Politics is a story of changing tides.
Thus, Obama bought an estate on Martha’s Vineyard and checked out of politics, leaving an enormous vacuum in his party. This occurred at an opportune moment for Bernie Sanders, because something else was happening simultaneously: moderate-left Baby Boomer voters were being eclipsed by far-left Millennial and Generation Z voters within the Democratic Party. The kind of people who supported Obama and the Clintons have been permanently marginalized mathematically. Former hippies who are now playing croquet in sunny planned communities have been replaced by Lenin and avocado toast wages.
While the progressive-left had been stranded in the antechamber of power, they were training for this political moment. Although the outrage du jour mentality exhausts most sane people, for the progressive-left it has offered endless opportunities to build vast personal networks of like-minded individuals (and to radicalize others). Over time, they have created shadow institutions to reinforce strange new norms. They needed exactly the kind of vacuum Obama left behind to say, “Hey, look at all this chaos. We actually have a prescriptive structure, here it is.”
It helps the progressive-left that the moderate-left has put up candidates who stand for literally nothing. The nihilism of elites is on glorious display, and grassroots progressives don’t have to do anything crafty to coax it out. Bloomberg’s motto is “Get It Done” – which he clearly ripped off from Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign. But unlike Johnson, Bloomberg doesn’t say what his “it” is. He doesn’t have any particular vision of government. All he cares about is having someone of his milieu in power. Instead of leadership, he offers rallies with buffets and open bars and pays anyone with more than a thousand followers on the Internet to pretend they like him. (But, hey, he’s stimulating the economy instead of hoarding cash?) Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar also have no vision for government. Biden’s been camped out in government longer than I have been alive, and I am middle-aged. Buttigieg is a PowerPoint presentation that accidentally became self-aware. And Klobuchar is the kind of politician who can sit on a committee related to border issues without knowing the name of the president of Mexico. She’s the Maxine Waters of the Midwest.
When Trump was running for office the first time, I told people that I did not trust polls because so many people were quietly confessing to me that they loved him. I have felt the same way about national polls in the Democratic primary and Bernie. Driving around Florida and other southern states, I have not once seen a Biden bumper sticker. But I have seen quite a few Bernie stickers. And Warren stickers. It was always obvious that he was the front-runner.
Conservatives assume that most normal people will understand that Bernie is full of shit. His policies amount to multiples of the United States’ gross domestic product (and that’s before you start extending any of his grand programs to undocumented immigrants). That is as close to the definition of mathematically impossible as one can get in public finance. Even if Sanders presided over a government that wanted to implement these initiatives, he couldn’t.
But they would do well to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. Bernie has credibility with many people because he seems principled and most people have a powerful bias toward truth. He legitimately seems to believe what he’s saying, and even if his policy ideas are terrible, his criticism of elites is not all that different than Trump’s. The ubiquitous greed and careerism of his fellow candidates only reinforces his message. It’s like free advertising for him. And like Trump, Bernie lives is a world of “we” and “us.” No one thinks Bernie is running for president to improve his resume, a la Buttigieg or Clinton. Not even his worst critics believe that.
Bernie’s not ever going to get up on stage and lay out the technical aspects of any of his plans. But he will get up on stage and explain to people in a most paternal and loving tone that he wants to eliminate every source of financial anxiety they have in their households. Many people will find that compelling. And they will justify it to themselves thus: Maybe he can’t accomplish all of what he’s saying… But if we give him a chance, he might make our lives incrementally better. This is a sentiment that has broad appeal – much broader than the media lets on.
Last year, when I still had a Facebook account, I made some snarky comment about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez along the lines that she did not care what what her policies cost, she just wants the government to make them happen. I was surprised when many of my liberal friends started bombing that remark with hearts and telling me that they were thankful that someone finally gets it. Here I was making fun of her childlike innumeracy and ignorance of basic economics, and they thought that my paraphrasing of her was reasonable. We are seriously about to have a Common Core election, and I find that absolutely terrifying.
Right now, Trump has given the country an economy on steroids. People feel comfortable and systemic risk seems worlds away. They are in a psychological position to make bad decisions in the service of incremental improvements from the perceived safety of a transformed financial landscape. The idea that a billionaire founder of a company with a trillion-dollar market cap might be cut down to size doesn’t bother them. They see these people as public cost centers rather than major employers and major players in the financial markets. They have been trained by both the traditional media and social media to regard capitalism in terms of personalities rather than herds.
And unlike President Obama, Sanders is cultivating political heirs.