Sanders’ socialism isn’t new or ‘revolutionary,’ but his voters may redefine the Democratic Party

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Bernie Sanders has propagated a notion that he’s leading a revolution, but the senator’s campaign follows a long tradition within Democratic politics.

“Remove his ‘socialist’ branding, which even he defines as little more than an updated form of New Deal liberalism, and you’re left with a candidate who strongly resembles other insurgent candidates going back to the beginning of the modern primary process, from George McGovern to Jerry Brown to Bill Bradley to Howard Dean,” Jamelle Bouie wrote.

The theme gets glossed over, but candidates who run to oppose an “inevitable” or stronger candidate to win, or pull that candidate farther in an ideological direction, is common.

Even Bernie’s “revolution” isn’t an original spark. As recently as 2012, Ron Paul ran for the Republican Party nomination and pushed for a “revolution,” though the details varied. Paul also relied on mass small donations, called a “money bomb,” to fund his campaign.

The 2016 Democratic primary season has been a rare one for the party without an alternative to Hillary Clinton upon her announcement. Her inevitability, however, was questionable, and Sanders found his moment as no other candidates were willing to run. Sanders would have had a more difficult time in a field with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or other popular Democratic candidates. Fortunately for him, he faced the likes of Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. That caused commentators to over-estimate what a Sanders campaign means.

“It feels true that Bernie Sanders has sparked a new movement of the left—a flowering of youthful energy that will transform American politics, or at least pull the Democratic Party to the social democratic left where it belongs,” Bouie wrote. “But it’s not …. far from building a coalition of new voters and expanding left-wing politics to groups who have traditionally eschewed or avoided it, Sanders has simply reconstituted the usual liberal coalition that backs insurgents in a Democratic primary … There never was a Bernie Sanders movement.”

Voting numbers in the Democratic primaries and caucus participation supports Bouie’s hypothesis. The youth vote, which holds some of Sanders’s most rabid supporters, remains low. Sanders isn’t attracting new voters – he’s monopolizing existing voters. Democratic participation has remained anemic, with turnout rates down by double-digits in some states compared to the 2008 Democratic primaries, the last competitive race. The much-vaunted revolutionary movement is more of a reshuffling of priorities in the Democratic Party.

The workers paradise will not be won in 2016. Though many Sanders voters claim they won’t vote for Clinton in November, talk is cheap before a general election. As much as they might resent Hillary Clinton, the alternative of Donald Trump will quickly end such verbal bombast.

The unoriginality of Sanders’s campaign doesn’t make it irrelevant. Much like Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, Bernie Sanders has succeeded in pulling the Democratic Party to the left. Were it not for Sanders, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t speak on campaign finance reform, free college, police brutality, or corporate America like she’s been forced to.

College students and ideological liberals, however, don’t carry the presidency. “The truth is, Sanders is less an innovator than a beneficiary of favorable political and technological trends,” Bouie wrote.

That doesn’t bode well for his chance at the Democratic nomination nor the presidency. However, in generating a strong base among young Democrats, he might succeed in pulling the technocratic, pragmatic wing of the Democrats farther left. Whether American voters will prefer the change remains to be seen.


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