Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Eric Levitz discuss whether America’s foremost Democratic Socialist would be better off jettisoning a possibly unhelpful label.
Ben: Bernie Sanders has helped usher “socialism” — for decades an all-but-verboten label in America — into the mainstream in a way unthinkable even a few years ago. But as Eric noted in a piece the other day, a lot of Americans still associate the word with Soviet-style communism — and enthusiasm for various leftist regimes aside, Bernie is definitely not a Soviet-style communist. He’s really an FDR-esque capitalist who wants to upend existing power structures to benefit the many over the few, and ultimately make America more like Scandinavia.
Socialism as a concept may be popular with a lot of young Americans, but wedding yourself to it is still a very risky way to try to win a general election in this country. So why do you think Bernie still prefers “Democratic Socalist” to just “Democrat”?
Jon: I don’t see any rational reason. It seems to be a pure product of long-standing conviction. I suppose maybe it’s a way to differentiate himself from other progressive Democrats? But he has other options to do this.
Eric: Bernie has a background in genuinely socialist movements. In early 1980s Vermont, branding oneself as an independent of some sort, rather than a Democrat, might have made some electoral sense. And the label didn’t prevent him from becoming a very popular senator, who routinely outperforms his party’s vote share in his home state.
By most accounts, Sanders did not spend much of his life strategizing for a presidential run. When he announced in 2015, he did so under the presumption he’d be mounting a protest candidacy. His persona was not constructed with an eye toward optimizing appeal at the national level. So, by 2019, he found himself in the position of either abandoning his long-term ideological identity (and therefore, perhaps, undermining the appeal of his exceptional consistency and indifference to political convenience) or sticking to a suboptimal ideological branding. Not crazy to go with the latter once you’re in that position, imo.
That said, not sure why he needs to be *foregrounding* that identity.
Ben: I agree — suddenly pivoting now would turn off a large portion of his fan base, the fervor of which is his central asset.
Jon: So maybe the question is, why should Democrats nominate a candidate who is wedded to this major liability? Answer: They shouldn’t.
Ben: Hey, I’m running the chat here.
Eric: Well, he polls well against Trump. And other candidates have their own liabilities.
Jon: True, there are other liabilities.
Eric: And all the other candidates are corporate shills who can’t be trusted.
Ben: As Bernie and other Democrats have correctly said, Republicans will label pretty much any opposing candidate a socialist. So there’s an argument that just leaning into it will not put you in any worse a position than anyone else, in terms of being vulnerable to attack.
Jon: That argument drives me crazy. It’s one thing if the other party is calling you socialist, it’s another if you’re calling yourself that. Republicans called Hillary a criminal, that doesn’t mean you might as well nominate a self-described criminal. #Avenatti2020 (the lawyers might want to cut that line).
Ben: So criminals and socialists are the same thing in your mind, eh?
Jon: In the voters’ mind, I wonder which polls better.
Eric: There was a somewhat odd passage in Bernie’s big speech this week in which he seemed to suggest that it was grossly unfair for Al Smith to call FDR’s program socialist (even as Bernie’s whole speech was centered on the claim that it was).
Jon: Conservative media constantly argue that Democrats are going to call Republicans tools of the rich no matter what, so they might as well give the rich a huge tax cut.
Eric: I agree that, unless we stipulate that the Republican Party is terrible at politics and doesn’t know what it’s doing, adopting its preferred description of your program probably doesn’t make much near-term electoral sense.
Ben: Last night, Chris Hayes posed the socialism question to Bernie, and he didn’t really have a coherent answer. I thought that was also a bit strange.
Jon: Yeah, Bernie was playing both sides of that. There’s no real answer there.
Eric: All this said, if Sanders is deeply invested in helping to build a genuinely socialist movement, then his ideological self-identification is tactically sound. No question, DSA would have fewer members, and Jacobin fewer subscribers, if Sanders identified solely as a progressive Democrat.
Jon: He just hasn’t reconciled this with a strategy to actually win.
Eric: At the very least, in addition to identifying as a socialist, he could formally announce that he considers himself a proud member of the Democratic Party.
It’s hard to win the nomination of a party you refuse to join.
Jon: Or if not proud, at least not totally ashamed.
Eric: I think that stance made sense when he was a protest candidate, but doesn’t really check out if you’re trying to win.
Jon: “I am not a card-carrying Democrat, but I do have a card somewhere in my dresser, I believe.”
Ben: Sanders had been in a steady second place in the polls for a while, but has recently been surpassed in some surveys Elizabeth Warren, who pitches herself more straightforwardly as someone who wants to shake up the capitalist system, but work within it. (And she’s actually a Democrat, of course.) Do you think she’s running a campaign that could more realistically succeed than he is?
Jon: Absolutely.The only catch is, I feel like she was running more of a winning campaign to begin with. When she faded, she had to consolidate the left to get back on the map, and that comes at a cost. (My premise is that winning nominees tend to appeal across the party, not align with factions within it.)
It’s rare to capture a nomination via a faction fight. It does happen, but it’s rare and usually costly in the general election.
Eric: I think there’s still plenty of data to support the claim that, for all his liabilities, Sanders is the stronger general election candidate. But within the primary, surveys find that Bernie has a lower a ceiling. A recent YouGov poll found a higher percentage of Democratic voters saying they would be “disappointed” if Bernie won the nomination than said the same about any other candidate except for de Blasio. And a poll from last month showed 28 percent of Dem voters were “not considering” backing Sanders, which was higher than any other candidate.
Jon: “Except for de Blasio” is a clause that is going to appear in lots of descriptions of candidate weaknesses in general.
Ben: Generally, I think a lot of people are really not in the mood for any kind of party division right now.
Jon: Right, 2016 was a more fruitful year for a faction fight.