Photo : Curtesy of Bernie Sanders campaign

Mainstream Democrats want to preserve an imagined status quo. Such a tendency conceals wishful thinking and complacency. Eva Rana explains how the party's leadership insistence on undermining  Bernie Sanders often ends up working in his favor.

It is almost a cliché to reiterate that three men now hold more wealth than the poorest 50 per cent of Americans. In any other country with such striking material inequality, it would not be difficult to imagine some level of class mobilization in politics. But the United States appears to be an exception, where socialism has long been a political dirty word. What then accounts for the growing of popularity of self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders?

Among the choicest monikers Sanders has received from detractors over the years, three recurring words are becoming increasingly salient as we approach the Democratic primaries – socialist, populist, unelectable. What is notable about these terms is that they are all incredibly nebulous, which makes them applicable to diverse (often contrasting) contexts and individuals. For this reason, those who ascribe these labels are seldom held to account for them. But exactly how Sanders chooses to operationalize them is the key to unpacking his rising prospects as a frontrunner among Democrats in the presidential race.

The question of ‘electability’

In 2016, critics proclaimed Bernie Sanders’ reluctance to politicize race over the broader category of class as a misplaced strategy, but such criticisms now appear rather impetuous. While it is true that race complicates issues of class, talking about them exclusively artificially detaches them, making it easier for reactionary elements to exploit the divisions. Sanders’ campaign seems quite well-placed to mobilize Trump’s core base – white working-class voters who feel disenfranchised from the political process and economic system they are expected to participate in, and with whom the Democrats’ standard pitch has ceased to resonate (if it ever did).

The Democratic party risks taking even its traditional supporters for granted if it continues to bunch a diverse set of voters into a homogenous group. Instead, it must explicitly address their unique concerns. After all, Trump’s strength in the polls exists largely because his opponents tend to stick to ‘safe’ talking points.

Voicing a sentiment shared by the populace across the political spectrum – that our political and economic systems are in need of reform – should not translate into unelectability. In fact, by contrast, candidates who smugly brandish their goal to “defeat Trump at all costs” cannot hope to poll too well nationally. Such rhetoric might appeal to that part of the electorate which did not vote for Trump, but what of those who did?

Defeating Trump as an end in itself is not what features at the top of most Americans’ priority list, as the underwhelming public interest in impeachment proceedings demonstrates. To be sure, Sanders has sustained his criticism of Trump as a “pathological liar”. Where he differs from the rest of his party – and where his message resonates with a wider electorate – is in how he chooses to weaponize this critique.

Sanders’ strategy 

Sanders strategically juxtaposes Trump’s narcissism and insincerity against two manifest principles of his own campaign. First, the catchphrase “Not me, Us” is perfectly succinct in repudiating both, divisive politics and cults of personality. Second, he has built cumulative trust by sustaining distinctive ideological consistency across decades, which is quite rare in political careers as long as his. Another unique element of his campaign is a lack of mudslinging which comes so naturally to Trump. Instead, Sanders vilifies embedded structures and socio-economic systems, most notably capitalism. Remarkably, he does this without sounding like a technocrat.

Mainstream Democrats’ fear of the party’s so-called ‘radical’ wing stems from a stubbornness to preserve an imagined status quo. Such a tendency conceals wishful thinking and complacency.

Stubbornness over the ‘electability’ quotient of certain policies also neglects the fact that preferences evolve. The Democratic party’s own position on social security has shifted tremendously since the New Deal of the 1930s, in response to Republican counter-mobilization efforts over time.

Ironically, the Democratic leadership’s insistence on undermining Sanders often ends up working in his favor. Increasingly, every rebuke that the Democratic party establishment hurls at his campaign seems to bolster it by lending credibility to his image. It allows him to continue to stand as an anti-establishment underdog candidate, despite a strong fundraising operation and loyal grassroots support. But the absurdity of America’s electoral process is such that what strengthens his chances on a national scale simultaneously weakens them before the hurdle of party-level primaries is overcome.

Who is a populist?

For anyone observing Sanders’ striking political style in the context of a global populist surge, it may be tempting to place him in the category of Latin American populists. However, a closer reading of scholarly literature on left-wing populists like Hugo Chávez shows that although there is no definitive definition of the term, some semblance of a ‘lowest common denominator’ of populist politics does exist. This evolving consensus has tended to cluster around two necessary (but not sufficient) identifiers of a bona fide populist – ‘othering’ and personalization. Both of these toxic signals are markedly missing from the Sanders campaign.

At the core of populism lies an antagonistic division of society that extends beyond ‘the people versus the corrupt elite’ which both Trump and Sanders have adopted. This dichotomy permeates all levels of the body politic up to a point where sections of the populace that inconvenience a homogenizing narrative are immediately excluded and vilified as the Other.

In a clear repudiation of this strategy, Sanders has consciously cultivated an explicitly pluralistic view of ‘the people’ even if he does antagonize the top 1%. Another characteristic of a populist politician is the promotion of a cult of personality that recognizes oneself as the only hope of redeeming a broken system. An absence of this ‘savior complex’ definitively undermines Sanders’ populist cred. He seems to have an aversion to personalizing narratives, often to his detriment because he has a rather appealing backstory. While he may be learning to channel some elements of his personal life as the presidential campaign progresses, he nonetheless maintains a parallel emphasis on the value of grassroots mobilization.

Socialism(s)

Any functioning definition of socialism is likely to be highly contextual. Skepticism about Sanders is grounded in an absence of meaningful engagement with what political buzzwords might mean for us today. Public discourse around these concepts is largely veered by politicians who often hold a rather patronizing view about the limits of the public imagination. They might have a personal stake in framing complex issues simplistically or juxtaposition their ideas against a deliberately absurd caricature of their opponent’s. On the other hand, popular ideologies have an inherently imprecise character because their constituent meanings are negotiated in practice. These connotations tend to evolve with changing times. This is where Sanders’ emphasis on grassroots participation becomes salient.

Sanders’ “bold” approach allows him to transcend these narrow constraints. He does this not by arguing exclusively over policy facts – a strategy which has repeatedly failed to accrue dividends against Trump – but by channeling political resentment into a convergence towards economic themes. This redirects anti-elitist sentiments away from negative consequences like the erosion of trust in democratic institutions. Sanders does not merely capitalize on existing social divides but aims to favorably shape them in the process.

Sanders’ political strategy demonstrates that externally imposed liabilities do not automatically translate into unelectability. Individuals and organizations do retain some agency over maneuvering the exact narrative, but this must be done proactively by tapping into the cultural and emotional core of contemporary trends, rather than dogmatic adherence to some abstract notion of ideology. What democratic socialism means for America in the 21st century must ultimately be contested on the campaign trail.

Eva Rana

Eva has a background in government and history from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is interested in mapping political discourse, specifically how culture and identity become...