It’s clear that a radical president can shift a party’s center of gravity: Republican public opinion— on immigration, Russia, the FBI—has rapidly moved to align with Trump’s views, and Republican politicians have largely done the same. A Sanders presidency would polarize the national debate in a similar way, pressuring Democratic legislators to side with their leader over the inevitably fanatical Republican opposition.
In fact, Sanders’ movement is already doing just that: No single figure or force aside from Trump has done more to reframe the terms of American politics over the past four years.
Sanders’ political rise emerged from (and accelerated) a crisis of the centrist liberal establishment. Witness the elite panic and personal arrogance that has sent Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg rushing in to relieve and replace Joe Biden, their tottering standard-bearer. Still, while the old world is dying, its replacement with something better is not inevitable. A growing number of college-educated white voters, for instance, are turning to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a former McKinsey consultant whose only consistent belief is in his own greatness. When Sanders insists that “we need to not only defeat Donald Trump, but to take back our democracy from the corporate elite,” he is drawing a line in the sand and indicting the status quo: If Democrats aren’t with the people, then they’re standing against them.
Effective left populism requires a vision of the people and their enemy. This movement’s enemies are the few: a greedy and pathologically destructive billionaire class; the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, insurance and financial industries. By contrast, the people contains multitudes: a diverse coalition of the working and precarious middle classes. Though powered at present by mass youth appeal, a Sanders victory could rapidly energize skeptical Gen X and Boomer voters whose political horizons have shrunk under the decades-long neoliberal onslaught.
Sanders’ program unifies the interests of working-class people without erasing their differences. His deep support in the Latino community and the remarkable enthusiasm he’s generated among Muslims illuminate the contours of a potential realignment that puts those most demonized by the xenophobic Right at the core of a powerful Left. His October 2019 Queens, N.Y., rally with Ocasio-Cortez emphasized the ethical basis of a political coalition rooted in love and solidarity: “Take a look around you, and find someone you don’t know,” Bernie told the crowd. “Maybe somebody who doesn’t look kind of like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
Sanders’ plan to win the general election in red states like West Virginia likewise holds out the possibility that a multiracial working-class coalition can subvert the social divide. When Sanders was asked whether West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin or Montana Sen. Jon Tester, both centrist Democrats, would vote for his programs, his response was blunt. “Damn right they will. You know why? We’re going to go to West Virginia,” Sanders told CNBC. “Your average politician sits around and he or she thinks: ‘Let’s see. If I do this, I’m going to have the big money interests putting 30-second ads against me. So I’d better not do it.’ But now they’re going to have to think, ‘If I don’t support an agenda that works for working people, I’m going to have President Sanders coming to my state and rallying working-class people.’” That’s not fantastical. The working class in West Virginia is restless, with a wildcat teachers strike shaking the state in 2018 and sparking further walkouts in Arizona and Oklahoma. A recent poll shows that a full 69% of West Virginia voters continue to support teachers striking for higher pay. The legislative agenda of any Democratic president depends on a seismic political shift in enough red and purple states that Democrats capture both the House and Senate, and remaking the electoral map requires deepening these movements’ power. Sanders has already used his campaign database to push supporters to the picket lines and could lead a far more massive mobilization from the Oval Office. As sociologist Barry Eidlin notes, FDR’s signing of a 1933 law protecting unions helped spark mass labor organizing in the 1930s, even though the law had no practical enforcement mechanism. Imagine the power of a president using a primetime address to offer his solidarity to a strike wave. It would be historic—and transformative.
Sanders promises to reshape the global order by exercising U.S. power in pursuit of negotiated geopolitical settlements—above all, on the environment. And nowhere does an American president have more concrete power than in the realm of foreign policy and national security.
Unlike Elizabeth Warren, who has no substantive critique of American empire, Sanders has straightforwardly denounced the military-industrial complex, has long voted no on defense budgets, and stands alone in his consistent support for making the United States a partner to Global South struggles. In the 1980s, Sanders stood in solidarity with Central American revolutionaries against the Reagan administration’s bloody support of oligarchs. Recently, Sanders cheered the release from prison of Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former Workers’ Party president, and quickly denounced the November 2019 coup in Bolivia for what it was.
The potential a president has to unilaterally reorder the global power system has been demonstrated by none other than our current president. His behavior has been so erratic that Saudi Arabia is reported to have quietly reached out to Iran, hedging against the possibility that they might one day be unable to rely on U.S. military protection. Imagine what might be possible if Sanders, a relentless critic of the Saudi royal family and the war it leads against Yemen, pushed for a negotiated settlement among rival regional powers.
Sanders could likewise provide unprecedented hope for tipping the balance in favor of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Though imperfect on the issue, Sanders has broken with the pro-Israel bipartisan consensus more than almost any member of Congress.
U.S. foreign policy has long been driven by national security concerns that in reality reflect not any “national interest” but rather the interests of major corporations and the national security state’s conventional wisdom. In 2015, Obama adviser David Axelrod called Sanders “tin-eared” for his repeated assertion that climate change was the greatest threat to national security. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan called him “slightly daffy.” “Some people laughed in 2015 when Bernie said climate change is the most serious national security challenge we face,” says Matt Duss, Sanders’ top foreign policy advisor. “No one’s laughing now.”
As Sanders has stated, “Our endless entanglements in the Middle East have diverted crucial resources and attention” away from addressing climate change. Instead of more war, Sanders pledges $200 billion for the Green Climate Fund to help the Global South adapt to the climate emergency.
U.S. willingness to commit to deep emissions cuts is a prerequisite for convincing other nations to do the same, as international climate negotiations are governed by a logic akin to that of nuclear disarmament: No one wants to go first and be left vulnerable. China must be convinced that a rapid transition will not undermine its economy. Poor countries across the Global South must be assured they will not simply be denied the fruits of fossil-fueled development already enjoyed by the Global North.
Sanders was clear about that at the September 2019 climate town hall: “I think we need a president, hopefully Bernie Sanders, that reaches out to the world—to Russia and China and India, Pakistan, all the countries of the world—and says, ‘Guess what, whether you like it or not, we are all in this together, and if you are concerned about the children in your country and future generations, we’re gonna have to work together. And maybe, just maybe, instead of spending a trillion and a half dollars every single year on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we pool those resources, and we work together against our common enemy, which is climate change.”
Neoliberalism has divided us across borders and atomized our personal lives, leading us to blame ourselves for problems caused by a rigged system. This moment demands a new politics that unites us to confront our shared enemies and transform our society. Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.
This story was produced in collaboration with Jacobin.
is author of All-American Nativism (forthcoming from Verso) and host of The Dig on Jacobin Radio.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
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