What did we learn from the primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn who once again made a strong but unsuccessful run at the Democratic nomination?
(1) The union-hall Left is without a representative for its traditional immigration restrictionism. (Or, at least, without a representative in the Democratic Party.) Sanders was for years a forthright immigration restrictionist, well to the restrictionist side of many conservatives of the Wall Street Journal. Throughout the 2016 campaign, he went to union halls and gave speeches denouncing “open borders,” which he characterized as a “Koch-brothers proposal” to flood the United States with cheap immigrant labor and thereby undercut the position of the U.S. working class. “It does not make a lot of sense to me to bring hundreds of thousands of those workers into this country to work for minimum wage and compete with Americans kids,” he said. His talk on immigration might as well have come from the mouth of Donald Trump. Trump noticed this — and so did the identity-politics Left, which began a campaign to bully him into changing his views. Soon, Sanders was — in the inevitable expression—evolving on the issue. One of the great challenges of being a demagogue is staying one step ahead of the demos.
(2) The demographic shift in the Democratic Party is not necessarily a shift to the left. The Democrats are a party in which the power is held by a caste of relatively well-off white people (the little old liberal white ladies) but the numbers and the votes increasingly come from a party base that is less affluent and less white. Sanders’s movement is dominated by champagne socialists: well-off, college-educated white people who resented having to pay back their Cornell student loans. Black voters, on the other hand, strongly preferred Joe Biden, a more moderate Democratic hack of the familiar kind. Senator Sanders and the former vice president have more in common than it might seem: Neither of them is a native speaker of the language of “social justice” and intersectionality, and their attempts to incorporate yesterday’s voguish enthusiasm into their rhetoric have been pretty weak; even with his 1970s Vermont-stoner radical posturing, Senator Sanders, with his focus on labor and social programs, is closer to a New Deal liberal than is, say, Julián Castro. But if you really want an old-fashioned Democrat, why not vote for an actual old-fashioned Democrat? And that is what Joe Biden is. African Americans were not brought into the Democratic Party by Barack Obama—they were brought into the Democratic Party by Franklin Roosevelt. And though they are by no means politically homogeneous, their politics have been, broadly speaking, a New Deal politics. The boutique radicalism of well-off Millennial college graduates raised in the suburbs of wherever may not be the future of the Democratic Party.
(3) Senator Sanders is an echo of Trump in that he has shown that party establishments do not matter very much when it comes to fund-raising or message-broadcasting — he is not even a member of the party whose nomination he sought. But while the Republican Party is more heavily a party of ideology and tribal cohesion, the more coalitional nature of the Democratic Party requires more management and more machinery. (The GOP is a party of identity politics for one group of people; the Democratic Party is a party that coordinates the identity politics of a series of groups of people.) So the parallels are not exact. But while Senator Sanders does not have President Trump’s talent for spectacle, the near-success of his campaign shows that the Democratic Party is far from immune from the sort of outside-inside hostile takeover the Republican Party experienced in 2016. But it seems unlikely that a finally successful populist movement within the Democratic Party is going to look like what the idiot children of the Sanders movement were hoping for. The affluent and educated Sanders element is culturally adjacent to the Clintonite Davos Democrats and their program of elite technocracy; Senator Sanders himself represents the whitest state in the Union, is married to a college administrator, attended an elite university, etc. A populist movement with its origins in the actual communities Senator Sanders purports to speak for would be a different thing entirely.