Bernie Sanders’ Feat in Iowa Shows Democratic Socialism Can Win

By taking the popular vote lead in Iowa, Sanders has upended the notion that running as a socialist is a liability.

Miles Kampf-Lassin February 5, 2020

Bernie Sanders is on track to become the clear Democratic frontrunner. (Jeremy Hogan / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In Octo­ber 2019, less than three weeks after suf­fer­ing a heart attack that pun­dits and oppo­nents seized upon to declare his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign dead in the water, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) held the largest ral­ly of the 2020 cycle in Queens, New York along­side Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑NY). Fol­low­ing his dec­la­ra­tion of I am back,” Sanders chan­neled Nel­son Man­dela in enjoin­ing the crowd of 26,000 that every­thing, always seems impossible…until it’s done.”

A rupture in the core of the corporate-centric Democratic Party establishment that Rahm Emanuel represents is exactly what a Sanders presidency promises.

Sanders’ per­for­mance in the Iowa cau­cus­es on Mon­day — where he main­tains the pop­u­lar vote lead with 71% of precincts report­ing — affirms this adage. Through­out the pri­ma­ry cam­paign, com­men­ta­tors, rivals and estab­lish­ment politi­cos across the spec­trum have writ­ten off Sanders’ can­di­da­cy, treat­ing it as an after­thought — or, more recent­ly, as an annoy­ance to swat away. Despite the Iowa Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s bun­gled report­ing of cau­cus results, which show Pete Buttigieg nar­row­ly lead­ing in state del­e­gate equiv­a­lents, Sanders is cur­rent­ly on top by over 1,300 votes. By lead­ing with the most votes in the first con­test of 2020, Sanders has proven the com­men­tari­at wrong. 

The out­come reshapes the pri­ma­ry race, where Joe Biden — long assumed the most elec­table” can­di­date among Democ­rats — is now com­ing in a measly fourth. Sanders, mean­while, is on track to take New Hamp­shire next week, where a win would estab­lish him as the clear fron­trun­ner. But the results also real­ize an axiom that many on the Amer­i­can Left have long believed, but has now been demon­strat­ed: Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism can, in fact, win.

Count­less hands have been wrung by paid con­sul­tants and strate­gists over the false fear that the man­tle of social­ism will sink any can­di­date seek­ing the high­est office in the land. Just last week, New York Mag­a­zines Jonathan Chait warned that nom­i­nat­ing Sanders would be an act of insan­i­ty,” in large part because of the senator’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. Aside from the fact that Chait has been wrong about near­ly every­thing in recent polit­i­cal his­to­ry, includ­ing his arche­typ­al 2016 take Why Lib­er­als Should Sup­port a Trump Repub­li­can Nom­i­na­tion,” this lib­er­al pan­ic is sim­ply unfounded.

By claim­ing the most votes in Iowa — a rur­al, Mid­west­ern state — Sanders has shown that fears over a Scar­let S have been large­ly overblown. In real­i­ty, the demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist agen­da that under­girds Sanders’ polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy — free and uni­ver­sal health­care, tax­ing the rich, can­cel­ing debt, end­ing wars, expand­ing work­place democ­ra­cy and invest­ing in a liv­able future for the plan­et — is incred­i­bly pop­u­lar.

The pun­dits are already wav­ing their arms, warn­ing that Sanders is unique­ly vul­ner­a­ble to a Red Scare-style take­down because of his polit­i­cal beliefs. On Mon­day morn­ing, MSNBC host Chris Matthews com­pared Sanders’ cam­paign to George McGovern’s failed 1972 pres­i­den­tial bid, say­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic fron­trun­ner reminds him of some old guy with some old lit­er­a­ture from this social­ist par­ty or that,” as if Sanders was more akin to a leafleter for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mu­nist Par­ty than a U.S. sen­a­tor first elect­ed to Con­gress 30 years ago. 

Mean­while, at the Atlantic, neo­con David Frum pro­claims that Bernie can’t win,” refer­ring to him as a Marx­ist of the old school of dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ism, from the land that time for­got.” And Matt Ben­nett and Lanae Erick­son, huck­sters for the Wall Street-fund­ed, Demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­trist think tank Third Way, write in USA Today that Sanders’ social­ist ideas are tox­ic,” cau­tion­ing that Democ­rats must not be fooled by him now.” 

Even Biden him­self, reel­ing from a dis­as­trous fin­ish in Iowa, is join­ing in on the swipes. On Wednes­day, Biden said: If Sen. Sanders is the nom­i­nee for the par­ty… every Demo­c­rat will have to car­ry the label Sen. Sanders has cho­sen for him­self. He calls him — and I don’t crit­i­cize him — he calls him­self a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. Well, we’re already see­ing what Don­ald Trump is going to do with that.”

Such admo­ni­tion is under­stand­able com­ing from a polit­i­cal and media estab­lish­ment that views Sanders’ redis­trib­u­tive plat­form with scorn: Their con­cern over elec­tabil­i­ty” real­ly just masks their ide­o­log­i­cal oppo­si­tion to Bernie Sanders’ polit­i­cal project. But that doesn’t make their claims correct.

Majori­ties of young peo­ple, women and Democ­rats all now say they pre­fer social­ism over cap­i­tal­ism. And sur­vey results from Data for Progress show that in a gen­er­al elec­tion matchup, Sanders’ iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a social­ist would not be a lia­bil­i­ty against Trump. Inter­est­ing­ly, the results indi­cate that Sanders per­forms bet­ter against Trump when he’s iden­ti­fied as a social­ist” and the pres­i­dent as a bil­lion­aire,” ver­sus Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can, respec­tive­ly. As Vox con­cludes from the study, tag­ging Sanders as a social­ist did not seem to under­mine his campaign.” 

Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gabriel Lenz’s research has shown that, in gen­er­al, vot­ers adopt their pre­ferred party’s or candidate’s posi­tion as their own.” As a result, vot­ers are less like­ly to be turned off by a can­di­date iden­ti­fy­ing as social­ist” if they gen­er­al­ly agree with or approve of that candidate.

Sanders is the most pop­u­lar hope­ful in the race and is the most trust­ed on the issues most impor­tant to Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers. And Sanders is reli­ably beat­ing Trump in polls both nation­al­ly and in bat­tle­ground states across the country. 

Rather than serv­ing as a hin­drance, Sanders’ polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy could actu­al­ly ben­e­fit him in the country’s heart­land. Chica­go City Coun­cil mem­ber Car­los-Ramirez-Rosa, him­self an out­spo­ken demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist, writes in NBC News that Far from being aller­gic to social­ism and class strug­gle… the Mid­west has always been a region steeped in it — even lead­ing the way.”

By posi­tion­ing him­self as a can­di­date of and for the work­ing class, Sanders has won the back­ing of low-wage work­ers and young peo­ple of col­or—con­stituen­cies that will be key to win­ning the White House in Novem­ber. In many ways, Trump’s per­fect foil is Bernie Sanders: the son of an immi­grant fam­i­ly who grew up poor, has been con­sis­tent in his polit­i­cal beliefs his entire life and has made work­ers the cen­ter of his cam­paign — and bil­lion­aires like Trump the enemy. 

The threat Sanders pos­es to Trump has been raised by none oth­er than Trump him­self. Leaked audio from a 2018 phone call showed Trump express­ing relief that Hillary Clin­ton chose Sen. Tim Kaine (D‑VA) rather than Sanders for her vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2016. Had she picked Bernie Sanders it would’ve been tougher. He’s the only one I did­n’t want her to pick,” Trump said. Because [Sanders’] a big trade guy. You know he basi­cal­ly says we’re get­ting screwed on trade. And he’s right.

So, if Sanders does indeed have a real shot at beat­ing Trump, why are so many in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic brass sound­ing alarms over his rise? It could have some­thing to do with the fact that Sanders has made the cor­po­rate wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty his foe ever since he launched his first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2015. In June 2019, Third Way pres­i­dent Jon Cow­an called Sanders an exis­ten­tial threat to the future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.” More recent­ly, cen­trist guru Rahm Emanuel said on ABC’s This Week, The fact is one of the threats to the par­ty right now is a rup­ture in the core.”

A rup­ture in the core of the cor­po­rate-cen­tric Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment that Emanuel rep­re­sents is exact­ly what a Sanders pres­i­den­cy promis­es. Which is the rea­son mod­er­ates like John Ker­ry are open­ing the door to jump­ing in the race to stop Sanders if his momen­tum con­tin­ues to grow. Such gam­bits give the lie to the idea that par­ty insid­ers are inter­est­ed in rep­re­sent­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic will of the peo­ple. Instead, they want to pro­tect the neolib­er­al con­sen­sus that’s dom­i­nat­ed the par­ty for the past 40 years — and which Sanders’ cam­paign threatens.

Don­ald Trump has already laid out his strat­e­gy for the com­ing gen­er­al elec­tion. A vote for any Demo­c­rat in 2020 is a vote for the rise of rad­i­cal social­ism and the destruc­tion of the Amer­i­can dream,” Trump said at a ral­ly in June 2019. And in Tues­day night’s State of the Union address, Trump pro­claimed: social­ism destroys nations, but always remem­ber, free­dom uni­fies the soul.”

Trump is run­ning against social­ism, that much is clear. That game plan won’t change whether or not Bernie Sanders is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nominee.

But Sanders boasts an asset that no oth­er Demo­c­rat run­ning can claim: He knows how to explain — and defend — demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism in a way vot­ers can understand. 

At January’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, CNN’s Abby Phillip asked Sanders if his descrip­tion of him­self as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist would serve as a hand­i­cap. Sanders respond­ed: My demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism says health­care is a human right. We’re going to raise the min­i­mum wage to 15 bucks an hour. We’re going to make pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties tuition-free. We’re going to have a Green New Deal. That is what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism is about, and that will win this election.”

In a wide­ly-tout­ed speech last sum­mer, Sanders explained that in con­trast to dem­a­gogues like Trump who meld cor­po­ratist eco­nom­ics with xeno­pho­bia and author­i­tar­i­an­ism,” his demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist vision seeks a high­er path, a path of com­pas­sion, jus­tice and love.”

Achiev­ing that high­er path means reject­ing the kind of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that has dom­i­nat­ed U.S. pol­i­tics for decades, pit­ting work­ing peo­ple against each oth­er to fight over scraps while oli­garchs grow their for­tunes and for­ti­fy their polit­i­cal influ­ence. Sanders’ social­ism seeks to redis­trib­ute not just the wealth of the bil­lion­aire class but also its pow­er, inject­ing more democ­ra­cy — and, as a result, free­dom — into Amer­i­can society.

As polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor, Corey Robin explains at the New York Times, The social­ist argu­ment against cap­i­tal­ism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life com­pel sub­mis­sion to the mar­ket and sub­ju­ga­tion at work, we live not in free­dom but in dom­i­na­tion. Social­ists want to end that dom­i­na­tion: to estab­lish free­dom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the oblig­a­tion to sell for the sake of survival.”

Estab­lish­ing such a sys­tem and cur­tail­ing the role of unfet­tered cap­i­tal­ism in gov­ern­ing our lives may seem a Her­culean task, even impos­si­ble. But after Sanders’ per­for­mance in Iowa, it’s pos­si­ble that this more egal­i­tar­i­an future is firm­ly with­in our grasp.

Dis­clo­sure: The author of this piece has vol­un­teered for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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