Critics who call Bernie Sanders too radical and unelectable because he stands in the way of consensus are missing the point of his appeal, write three social scientists.
Bernie Sanders is leading in the Democratic primaries.* The frontrunner, who is dismissed by the political establishment and treated with contempt by traditional commentators, is winning primary after primary. According to pollsters, the Vermont senator is now in the best position by far to become the Democratic nominee. This slowly dawning realization is unsettling centrists; the distressed rumblings are growing to a fevered pitch and there are increasing efforts to disqualify Sanders.
The headlines on two opinion pieces that appeared in The New York Times this weekend read, “Why Democrats are Bound for Disaster” and “The Democrats Are in Trouble.” They portrayed Sanders’ policy proposals as unrealistic, unpopular and unaffordable. Centrist critics argue that he is too radical and impractical, that he sows division, and thus presents an impediment to forming a broad coalition. The solemn exponents of this perspective generally present themselves as realists who, in contrast to Sanders’ allegedly emotional supporters, are strictly reasoning with cool logic. After a levelheaded examination of the facts, they have concluded that the struggle for social justice is unrealistic.
Accordingly, America expert Willem Post recently described a Sanders event as a “sectarian gathering” where people shed “tears of joy” in an NRC Handelsblad article. Sanders will struggle to grow his base of support, according to Post, “because the majority of voters understand that his leftist policies are unaffordable.” (“Mike Bloomberg Is the Best Choice for Democrats and Republicans,” Feb. 12, 2020). Shortly thereafter, a series of polls appeared showing that support for Sanders was surging. After tying for first place in Iowa, he won both the New Hampshire primary and last week’s Nevada caucuses by large margins.
“Electability” has long been the core mantra of the centrists. It is all well and good to have lots of ambitious plans to help people, but ultimately it all comes down to defeating Donald Trump. And a centrist candidate is more capable of assembling a broad coalition of voters, they argue.
This argument has now boomeranged back on the centrists. Sanders has the largest and most diverse coalition of voters supporting him – a young, multiracial, class conscious movement. The idea that elections are won by moving to the center might also be more persuasive if Trump had not won the previous election over Hillary Clinton, the centrist candidate. Ironically enough, Sanders is the most “electable” candidate at this moment.
In other words, Bernie’s “radical” proposals are very popular. And when questioned about the affordability of his plans for education and health care, he can easily point toward a whole range of European welfare states where such policies are the norm. Why would the wealthiest country in the world not be able to afford to do this? Who is really being unrealistic here?
What is fascinating is that, until now, few people have reflected on why Sanders is winning. Why is a self-declared democratic socialist the front-runner in the Democratic primaries? Of course, this has everything to do with the current state of American society.
Over the last 20 years, social inequality in the United States has risen to unprecedented levels. Since the great recession, 95% of economic recovery has gone to the wealthiest 1%. The richest 10% of the American population controls 70% of the wealth. Health care and education –basic provisions – are so expensive that they force millions of people into debt. The democratic decision-making process is so overwhelmingly influenced by lobbyists, wrote Princeton political scientists in 2014, that the United States can no longer be considered a democracy, but is rather an oligarchy. The climate crisis, which threatens us all, adds yet another dimension to this.
Under these circumstances, what is unrealistic is to want to cautiously implement small, incremental reforms, as centrists have traditionally done. Rather, major systemic change is required. What that demands of a candidate is the credibility and the organizational capability to overcome the inertia of the status quo.
Herein lies the appeal of the cantankerous Sen. Sanders: Voters have faith in his movement precisely because of his unrelenting and uncompromising positions, such as his refusal to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists, billionaires and major corporations. His campaign has raked in the greatest sums of money from campaign contributions, predominantly from “ordinary” Americans who contribute an average of $18 to support his campaign.
In addition to this, he has spent years building a grassroots movement with a diverse base of support. He does this in an ingenious fashion, without erasing the differences among people and without ignoring racism and sexism. Thus, Sanders has the greatest number of endorsements from labor unions, is popular among blacks and Latinos, and enjoys wide support in the LGBT community. In a world where anti-immigration politics overshadow the problems that affect us all, Sanders lifts the smokescreen; again and again, he unyieldingly draws attention to the power of the 1%, to the need for a $15/hour minimum wage and the redistribution of wealth, as well as the threat of climate change.
Sanders is winning because he is the most credible exponent of the desire for change.
Sinan Çankaya and Paul Mepschen are anthropologists; Merijn Oudenampsen is a sociologist.
*Editor’s note: This editorial was written prior to the results in the March 3 Super Tuesday primary races, which has altered the nature of the Democratic presidential race. The editors believe the authors’ perspective remains relevant.