Bernie Sanders is considerably older and “maler” than Elizabeth Warren — and, at this point, one could even argue that he’s a smidgen to her right on economic policy. Granted, the Massachusetts senator has been less fulsome in her advocacy for Medicare For All. But Warren’s plans for taxing the one percent’s wealth, breaking up tech monopolies, putting workers on corporate boards, providing universal day care, tackling the housing crisis, and taming agribusiness add up to a vision of sweeping, social democratic change at least as ambitious as her rival from Vermont’s.
This fact, combined with Warren’s proven technocratic chops — and the profound social implications of the U.S. electing a female head of state — has led some progressives to question the rationale for Sanders’s candidacy. In response, the socialist senator’s supporters have emphasized the distinctions between the two candidates’ ideological commitments and political biographies. In their telling, Warren is a Brandesian liberal whose faith in the liberatory potential of market capitalism kept her in (the shrinking liberal wing of) the Republican Party for much of her life. Sanders, meanwhile, is a Debsian socialist whose belief in the indispensability of class struggle long confined him to the far-left fringe of American politics. In the 1980s, Warren supported Ronald Reagan’s GOP; the mayor of Burlington backed the Sandinistas.
I’ve been skeptical of the practical significance of these differences. In Donald Trump’s America, the left would seem to be light-years away from reaching a point at which the policy distinctions between Warren’s “accountable capitalism” and Bernie’s “democratic socialism” would begin to matter. Both candidates favor breaking up concentrations of corporate power, bolstering labor unions, and treating health care, housing, childcare, and higher education as social rights. And on all these fronts, both will have to settle for whatever modest, incremental advances the Jon Testers and Amy Klobuchars of the Senate are willing to countenance. Meanwhile, whatever Warren’s background, there is no question that she can be trusted to stand up to regressive corporate forces within the Democratic coalition. No one fought the party’s Goldman Sachs wing more incessantly — or effectively — during the Obama years than Warren. And if she prefers to describe her social democratic vision as capitalist out of an aversion to the phrase “socialism” — well, that’s an aversion she shares with a large majority of the American electorate. (Plus, it’s hard to see how boiling down the definition of socialism to “European levels of transfer spending and unionization” expands the Overton window in a leftist direction.) Finally, while it is quite plausible that Sanders’s brand of politics is uniquely conducive to movement-building (as his backers insist), the evidence for that claim doesn’t strike me as dispositive.
Or so I recently thought. I now believe that this analysis missed one critical point: Sanders’s socialist background and orientation might not (necessarily) render him uniquely effective at building progressive movements or advancing egalitarian change at the domestic level — but they do appear to have those effects on an international one.
Warren’s background as a Republican-voting technocrat hasn’t stopped her from mobilizing populist anger at creeping plutocracy. But it did prevent her from assembling a decades-long record of decrying American imperialism, and defending left-wing governments the world over. Sanders’s socialist background, on the other hand, led him to do precisely this. And while that record of international leftist solidarity could be a liability with the American electorate, it’s a singular asset within the global left — and in an era when the survival of decent civilization likely depends on building a powerful, transnational left-wing movement, that is no small asset.
As Politico reports:
Bernie Sanders has a base that no other 2020 candidate can claim: left-wing politicians around the globe.
From South America to Europe to the Middle East, leftist leaders are celebrating his candidacy, viewing him as an iconic democratic socialist with the potential to lead a worldwide progressive movement at a time when right-wing populism is on the rise across the map.
… Among Sanders’ admirers: Evo Morales, the socialist president of Bolivia who blasted the United States last year for committing the “most egregious acts of aggression committed during the 21st century.” … Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom’s Labour Party have argued that Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn would have a “special relationship” if the two men both rose to the top of their countries … In Canada, Israel, Germany and Spain, progressive politicians have also hailed the Vermont senator on social media and in interviews, often speaking favorably of his Medicare-for-All proposal, non-interventionist foreign policy, and advocacy for the Green New Deal. Sometimes, the excitement is borderline giddy: Stefan Liebich, a Left member of the German Bundestag, recently posted a photo of himself on social media holding a Sanders figurine, adding, “#feelthebern.”
… In the eyes of progressives across the globe, left-wing populism is needed to take on right-wing authoritarians such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently met with President Trump.
“The far right have internationalised,” Ross Greer, a Green member of Scottish Parliament who went on the TV show “Scotland Tonight” to declare his support for Sanders, told POLITICO. “They cooperate and coordinate across borders, so if we are to defeat them, we need to do the same. Bernie gets that in a way I’ve not seen from any other presidential candidate.”
Sanders does not owe this international reverence solely to his advocacy for the global left as a young (or, more precisely, less old) activist. The Vermonter may have been conspicuously reluctant to discuss foreign policy in 2016. But this time around, he’s offered a clearer vision for what a progressive geopolitical agenda should look like than any of his competitors. With the help of his foreign-policy adviser, the one-time left-wing foreign affairs blogger Matt Duss, Sanders has woven the Trump-Russia scandal — and the president’s broader affinity for foreign dictators — into a tale about the global struggle between the forces of democracy and the “authoritarian axis.” Plutocrats the world over are using their wealth — and the retrograde politics of right-wing nationalism — to insulate their privilege from the threat of genuine democracy, no matter the dire consequences for the poor, vulnerable minority groups, or even the planet’s survival. Elizabeth Warren has struck similar notes in her public remarks on foreign policy. But Sanders has matched his lofty rhetoric with boldly progressive stances on concrete geopolitical issues to a degree that Warren has not. Sanders has established himself as the Senate’s most passionate defender of Palestinian rights (admittedly, a title somewhat akin to “the world’s largest chihuahua”), led the opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen (and has called for a broader rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance), voted against increasing the Pentagon’s budget (Warren voted for it), and announced the formation of a “Progressive International” with radical Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis.
To be sure, Sanders’s foreign policy vision is still inchoate. On the critical questions of how the U.S. should navigate its relationship with a rising China, how it should seek to reorganize global trade and investment in a progressive direction, how it should balance its domestic interests with its obligations to developing countries — and, above all, how it should deploy its economic and diplomatic power to combat climate change — the senator has offered few details. And the utter lack of a left-wing foreign-policy infrastructure in the U.S. could make ironing out such details a difficult (and potentially, ideologically compromising) process.
Nevertheless, through his actions in the Senate and his alliance-building abroad, Sanders has established his commitment to viewing progressive change through an international lens, and his interest in using the powers of the presidency to advance such change on the global level. For the moment, Warren has not. And considering that the next Democratic president will have far more unilateral authority over foreign affairs than domestic policy, this is no minor distinction.
Ultimately, Sanders’s substantive advantage on foreign policy may be less important than his decisive edge in the crasser matter of fundraising. Right now, there is one populist Democratic candidate who has the financial means to sustain an extended campaign, and it is not the senator from Massachusetts. But when and if Warren grows the ranks of her small-dollar army (and/or beats back the “electability” concerns that are suppressing her support), her next priority should be to direct her technocratic talents to the global sphere. It’s fine and good to amass a large pile of bold, imaginative legislative proposals that the next Democratic president will never be able to pass. But it would also be productive for Warren to put together a foreign-policy agenda that her administration wouldn’t need Joe Manchin’s permission to pursue. Bernie Sanders may be the race’s only democratic socialist — but he doesn’t have to be its only democratic globalist.