While Democrats worry about the possibility of another four years of Donald Trump in the middle of a crowded Democratic Primary with multiple candidates making strides to clinch the Democratic nomination in July, one candidate stands out amongst the crowd: Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont. Senator Sanders, who has sat in Congress for roughly 30 years, is a lifetime Independent and has refused to join either of the major parties – until now. In 2016, Sanders filed to run for president as a Democrat, taking on the favorite-to-win, Hillary Clinton. Four years later, Sanders is running as a Democrat once again, taking on a field that at its largest contained over twenty candidates.
While it’s easy for Democrats to see the obvious threat that Donald Trump poses to American Democracy, it is becoming more and more likely that Trump’s presidency will come to an end this November. While the defeat of Donald Trump would surely be a step in the right direction for democracy in America, there is no guarantee that Washington, D.C. would return to business-as-usual in a post-Trump era. The escalation of polarization between Republicans and Democrats has been a rising issue since Obama took office in 2009. In 2010, Senator Mitch McConnell openly made remarks about his party’s hope of making Obama a one-term president. This polarization has worsened as time has gone on, with the Republicans blocking Obama’s court appointments in his second term. In addition, since the Democrats won back the House of Representatives in 2018, the body has been vehemently anti-Trump and led a successful partisan impeachment effort which was essentially nullified by Republicans in the Senate.
As political polarization worsens in American politics and causes the nation’s democracy to erode further, nothing could be less helpful than the presence of one Bernie Sanders. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die wrote in their book that part of Hitler’s rise to power involved multiple factors, including the infighting amongst a major party, as well as the decision of said party to “co-opt” his platform in an effort to attempt to contain him. This is not to say that Bernie Sanders is an autocrat in a democrat’s clothing, rather that Sanders’ campaign and possible presidency opens the doors to future autocrats after his time in the oval office. Sanders campaign runs on extreme leftist policies. His base is largely made up of younger and diverse voters who more often than not are registered members of the Democratic Socialists of America Party This is reflective of Pippa Norris’ analysis that Millennials largely “express weaker approval of democratic values” . With Sanders’ unprecedented populist movement body slamming the Democratic Party to the left and with Donald Trump running on the Republican ticket, Democrats, both progressive and moderate have come to the conclusion that they cannot afford to lose another election. In acknowledging this, they have welcomed Sanders into the party and some have even adopted or co-opted a few of Sanders’ key proposals.
Levitsky and Ziblatt also write that “This devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent, as alliances provide outsiders with enough respectability to become legitimate contenders for power,” . As the 2020 democratic primary has progressed, it has become clear that by implementing far-left-friendly policies, the Democratic Party has opened the door to a Sanders nomination and subsequently the destruction of the Democratic Party. Not only is Sanders someone who notably does not collaborate, he is also someone whose attitude mirrors that of Donald Trump. Sanders has a very well-known no-nonsense type of personality, who was famously quoted in a 2020 New York Times interview saying “I don’t tolerate b*llsh*t terribly well”. Sanders’ history of forging ahead alone and saying what he wants and feels is something that places American politics in a precarious position. In 2016, Donald Trump hijacked a fractured Republican Party and, in an effort to win, Republicans went along with him. Now, Sanders is taking the Democratic Party hostage with some of his supporters loudly and aggressively popularizing the Bernie or Bust movement, it seems that political norms are flying out of the window left and right, something that Pippa Norris warns about in her journal Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risk .
With Sanders’ surrogates and followers aggressively questioning the legitimacy of the primaries (when they lose) and the campaign largely refusing to dispel any distrust in the system, Sanders’ candidacy grows more dangerous every day. With two center parties forcibly torn to the opposite ends of the spectrum, the political scene has become ever friendlier to the would-be-autocrat. The expansion of presidential powers by Donald Trump and Sanders’ disregard for political norms seem to point to an increased likelihood that an autocrat will soon enter the White House and successfully put an end to American democracy. To be clear: Bernie Sanders is not an autocrat, nor is he a demagogue. However, the success of his candidacy may very well spell trouble for a nearly 250-year-old democracy. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapters 5 and 6.  Norris, Pippa. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.”(2017) SSRN Electronic Journal.
I like your perspective on Bernie Sanders, it not a perspective that I’ve previously considered. I am not sure the extent to which I agree with you, but I do agree that it is dangerous that Bernie seems to allude to the fact that he alone can save democracy. I do believe that his policies are considered far-left, but the things he advocates for are already facets of life in other advanced democracies.
The assertion that Sanders opens the door to autocrats in the future is ridiculous. There is not a single anti-democratic policy on Sanders’ agenda, and furthermore, his policies can only be considered “extreme leftist” as you describe them in the American bubble, in which the Overton window is pushed to the right. It’s not “extreme leftist” to guarantee healthcare to all Americans, especially considering that every other developed nation on Earth has universal healthcare.
In fact, Sanders and his supporters standing up to the political establishment might be the only real shot at PREVENTING democratic backsliding, as the DNC and GOP are corrupt and a Sanders presidency is the only opportunity to mobilize the American people in such a way to combat corruption.
Rudy, you argue that Bernie Sanders’s “extreme leftist” rhetoric is classic populism and part of the democratic backsliding in America today. I agree with some aspects of your argument, but hope to demonstrate an alternative point of view; namely, that while Sanders’s rhetoric does indeed show signs of the populist style, which is detrimental to democratic norms, he is not an extreme leftist, and his economic policies themselves may do more to help than hurt American democracy. Whether his “populist-lite” style will actual to disrespect for democratic norms in his actual term as President (if elected), or whether it will remain a case of overly zealous voter mobilization tactics by an otherwise normal politician, remains to be seen. For now, however, his campaign and its policies should not be dismissed out of hand.
You are correct in your analysis that some elements of Bernie Sanders’s campaign represent a symptom of the democratic erosion taking place in the larger political environment of the United States. Many of his tactics are similar to President Trump’s during the 2016 election, when he questioned political institutions, like the legitimacy of the primary elections that he didn’t win, and convinced his supporters that they, the downtrodden people, were the only real hope against the corrupt elite political establishment. As stated by William A. Gaston in The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy, populist tactics like these damage democratic norms. Any candidate that engages in them, whether that is Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or anyone in between, is reckless at best in their handling of the American public.
(It should be noted, however, that while Sanders himself is an outsider to the Democratic Party with some obnoxious manners, he is not himself a populist leader, nor does he seem to aspire to the autocratic condition that populist leaders hope to attain to. In his Iowa Caucus speech (https://www.businessinsider.com/bernie-sanders-iowa-2020-rally-speech-transcript-2019-3) this February, Senator Sanders stated the following:
“This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country. And I’m talking about Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the military industrial complex, agri-business, the prison industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry and a corrupt campaign finance system that enables billionaires to buy elections. These powerful special interests are going to spend a lot of money to try to defeat us. But we have something they don’t have: the power of the people.”
This certainly does sound familiar to the “us versus them” attitude taken on by many populists, including President Trump. However, actual authoritarian tendency, besides the boisterous “get it done” attitude which is common to many politicians, is absent in Sanders’s rhetoric. The division between the American people he has built his campaign on, which is between the ultra-rich and the working class, would exist with or without Sanders. It is difficult to run a left of center campaign without some reference to “the Elites” and “the People,” especially when that is the economic reality of the situation.)
Bernie Sanders is not, as you say, an extremely and dangerously leftist candidate. He is admittedly more left of center than the United States is used to, but not so much that liberal democracy cannot tolerate, or even derive its own survival from, some of his policies. As Daron Acemoglu writes in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, intense inequality and the concentration of much wealth in the hands of a few is detrimental to democracy. In the same vein, Richard Wike and Janell Fetterolf show in their article Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence that a frustrated working class that feels that their economy has failed them is more likely to support authoritarian systems of governance. It is an honorable position to want to protect the needs of ordinary Americans, who, by-and-large, are only asking for safety and security for themselves and their families, from those who are already well-off and continue to unendingly chasing bigger and bigger profits at any cost. Policies to achieve such not-so-lofty aims are by no means extremely leftist, and they may actually prove vital to sustaining democracy in America. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page also concur in their book Democracy in America?, where they argue that there needs to be a more even distribution of wealth for democracy to actually occur. If wealth translates into power in government, then it naturally follows that a people deprived of wealth is a people deprived of choice. If Senator Sanders intends, as he claims, to make the concentration of wealth more representative of American society, he may in fact be the best for democracy.
In general, Americans should demand better of and for themselves. We should seek to make our system more trustworthy and sustainable for all involved rather than damage it further in order to simply procure a temporary “win” for one particular team. In the same way that you must first trust a bicycle’s capacity to hold your weight, even if you have fallen off of it before, for it to keep you balanced, we must start to place some trust in our political system before it becomes truly trustworthy. While perhaps Sanders’s campaign would be better for the American political climate if he framed it differently from a quasi-“class war” – maybe as a way to heal the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots in American society, and alleviate the symptoms of said divide – he does not present an immediate populist danger to the country. Some of his rhetoric, including the “elites vs people” narrative that you have pointed out, is no doubt unhealthy for America, but the real judgment should be saved for if he disrespects political norms while in office. If he acts within respected bounds and tries to build a better country for all on those terms, then all is well. If, however, he oversteps democratic values and divides the country further, then that will be the moment when the American progressive movement has to decide whether it will still oppose populism when it is right in front of them and promising to give them exactly what they want.