Elections

Sanders’s Attraction and Ascent Are Familiar Internationally

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign town-hall meeting in Perry, Iowa, January 26, 2020. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)
Center-left parties across Europe already have been there, done that.

The Democratic Party could soon be taken over by a leftist who has never formally been a member.

If it’s any consolation to Democrats, it’s a version of the same wrenching dislocation that has beset the center-left throughout the Western world.

One reason Bernie Sanders’ winning the Democratic nomination is entirely imaginable is that it wouldn’t be a freakish occurrence outside the experience of other advanced democracies, but instead, entirely consistent with the travails of traditional center-left parties from France to Sweden.

Seen from a broader perspective, Sanders doesn’t represent a revolution so much as a lagging indicator — indeed, the British Labour Party has already been there, done that.

Across the European landscape, center-left parties have foundered in recent years, often torn apart by cross currents over immigration and by tensions between socially progressive urbanites and traditionalist working-class voters.

“As social democratic parties declined due to the weight of structural changes,” Yascha Mounk wrote in a piece last year in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, “a new crop of left-wing politicians argued that their troubles were owed to the embrace of a more moderate (or ‘neoliberal’) set of policies.” What was necessary was “an unabashed emphasis on the economic interests of the working class, coupled with the full-throated promise of social revolution.”

Sound familiar? Sanders bears the closest resemblance to his equally aged and disheveled ideological cousin from the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn crashed the gates of the Labour Party as, essentially, an outsider. He rose on the strength of a left-wing grassroots movement and won Labour’s leadership contest in 2015, thanks to newcomers who could vote in such a contest for the first time. An unlikely icon for younger voters, he drew enormous crowds and, unavoidably himself, had a distinctive charm for his supporters.

Like Sanders, he also had a history of sympathy for left-wing thugs, hostility toward Western power, a motley collection of kooky allies, and an utterly fantastical domestic program.

After losing two elections, Corbyn is back in the dustbin of history, while Brother Sanders may be tracing his ascent on a larger scale.

A major commonality with the European experience is young voters who are disenchanted with the institutions of Western capitalism, worried about affording a house and paying off student debt. They have no experience with or attachment to old party loyalties and are drawn to exhilaratingly radical and simple ideas.

If Sanders does indeed win the nomination, these kids who aren’t all right will be the shock troops of his revolution. In New Hampshire, Sanders crushed among young voters, winning an outlandish 51 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 and a solid 36 percent of voters ages 30 to 44. (If there were no Democrats over the age of 45, Sanders would sweep all before him.)

These kinds of voters are much more bonded to Sanders than to the Democratic Party — a poll a couple of weeks ago found that only 53 percent of Sanders’s supporters said they’d definitely back the Democratic nominee if it’s not Bernie.

The two political parties are such towering edifices of American civic life that they aren’t going to dwindle away to nothing in one election the way, say, France’s Socialists did a couple of years ago. Instead, the sign of their relative decline is that they are vulnerable to a takeover by political entrepreneurs bringing along their own personal political movements.

This obviously happened to Republicans with the rise of Donald Trump in 2016. Tellingly, the main vehicle opposing Sanders in the Democratic nomination battle in 2020 could end up being Mike Bloomberg, another (until recently) non-Democrat with the support of his own de facto private political party via his prodigious bank account.

That he may prove the only way for the American center-left to avoid the fate of its international counterparts is a sign of its desperation, not its vitality.

© 2020 by King Features Syndicate

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