Sooner or later, the Democrats’ decades-long march to the left was bound to end in the explicit embrace of socialism. That moment may now have arrived. A self-described socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has won the New Hampshire primary after getting the most votes in Iowa’s shambolic caucuses. Sanders has strong supporters nationwide — cadres, you might call them — and enough money to go the distance.
Socialism remains unpopular, for very good reason, in the United States, and it is least popular among those Americans who saw what it meant in the era when the senator took up the cause. They learned something from the world’s experience even if he did not. Many Democrats remain dubious about socialism. In New Hampshire, Sanders got only a quarter of the vote while the relatively moderate candidates (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar) combined to get a majority among them.
Except, of course, that they did not combine, and show no sign of doing so. And another claimant for the not-Sanders position in the primary, Michael Bloomberg, decided to skip New Hampshire. A dedicated core of Sanders supporters could keep forming a plurality and win the most delegates for Sanders. Because Sanders had a strong showing in the primary four years ago, this possibility startles us less, perhaps, than it should. America’s rejection of socialism has made it exceptional among advanced nations. For the country’s oldest political party to nominate a proud supporter of it would be a major change for the worse.
Sanders has for decades praised left-wing authoritarian dictators, especially in Latin America, so much so that it is fair to question the importance of the adjective in his label of “democratic socialism.” His agenda involves federal spending increases of a fantastic $100 trillion, according to a critic who, unlike the senator, has thought it worthwhile to add it all up. And he has the ideologue’s habit of wishing away aspects of reality that are inconvenient for him. Thus our economy, with falling poverty rates and rising wages, is in his mind failing; and the country will save money by giving more lavish health benefits to a larger number of people.
The Sanders phenomenon thus raises two urgent questions: Will the Democratic Party decide to walk off a cliff? And will it manage to get Americans to come along for the trip?