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.