In 2016, the Democratic Party’s presumptive leader said single payer could “never ever come to pass.” Today, one-third of Democrats in the Senate, including most Democratic 2020 hopefuls, have signed on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, and more than 60 percent of House Democrats have co-sponsored Rep. John Conyers’ (D‑Mich.) version.
Much of the party’s shift to the left can be attributed to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and his dogged progressive advocacy. His leadership on issues such as a $15 minimum wage, free public higher education and labor rights makes him the clearest, most consistent and, yes, the most popular voice on the political Left. Sanders doesn’t follow consensus: He makes it. Voters know the difference.
There’s a widespread lack of confidence in our government and its leaders, contributing to an enthusiasm for outsider candidates. Insiders can claim experience, but are limited by long records that force them to rationalize their “evolution” on subjects from gay marriage to free trade.
Outsiders are vulnerable to accusations that they’re knownothings, but without prior commitments, they’re able to make bold promises — be they about low healthcare premiums or a border wall — while claiming independence from political debts.
What makes Sanders unique is that he can claim the best of both identities. He’s a battletested, nonpartisan ideologue with a record as long as it is reflective of political integrity. From gay equality to the Iraq War, Sanders’ ability to get it right so often isn’t just luck — it’s indicative of his commitment to principles over party, politics or donors. It’s that commitment that won him overwhelming support in working-class (and I don’t mean white working-class) strongholds in the Midwest.
But despite all the qualities in his favor, there are three credible concerns progressives have raised about Sanders.
Some doubt the viability of a candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist, even if they support those politics. This underestimates socialism’s popularity. Sanders himself earned 43 percent of the 2016 primary vote despite low name recognition, a corporate media blackout (they wouldn’t even air his campaign announcement) and opposition from the Democratic National Committee. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Sanders has consistently maintained a double-digit lead over Trump in polls.
Candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are showing that “democratic socialism” is just as likely to provoke a red wave of progressive candidates as a Red Scare. The Left must resist self-defeating skepticism; as Nathan Robinson put it in Current Affairs, “The most serious barrier to accomplishing political goals is the people who insist that they cannot be done.”
A more persuasive argument is that, at age 79 in November 2020, Sanders would be the oldest president-elect in history — eclipsing Ronald Reagan, who started his second term at 73 and ended it rumored to be suffering from dementia.
This concern is not irrational. But both Joe Biden and Trump, if elected, would also be older than Reagan. Concerns about age should be rooted in empirical measures of health, not ageism.
After spending this spring reporting on Sanders, hustling to keep up as he bounced from Nashville to Jackson, Miss., I have few doubts about his physical stamina. And unlike in Reagan’s case, there’s no sign of any decline in his mental faculties. In the worst case, vice presidents — especially well chosen, ideologically wellmatched vice presidents — provide a safeguard.
But the issue most likely to define the primaries is not age, but race.
In 2020, Sanders will literally pale in comparison to likely establishment hopefuls Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and frustrate voters who are tired of an endless stream of white male presidents.
In some ways, that’s how it should be. Diverse candidates matter in part because they are likely to bring diverse perspectives. But diversity means very little if it doesn’t translate into policies that speak to the interests of women and people of color — interests that I believe are best advanced by progressive candidates.
Elizabeth Warren, the most likely progressive alternative to Sanders, has much to recommend her, including a powerful record of advocacy against the very corporate interests that rile Sanders fans. But it’s worrisome that she’s failed to shake Trump’s racist taunts of “Pocahontas” by giving a satisfactory explanation of her self-identification. After all, she’ll face much worse in 2020.
Democrats must advance the candidate who best represents the interests of the American people — particularly the most vulnerable — and who can best communicate those interests to voters. It’s what citizens deserve in a (vaguely) representative democracy. More cynically, it’s also the path toward electoral victory.