Let’s give Bernie Sanders his due

This New York Times article is called “Ocasio-Cortez Pushes Democrats to the Left, Whether They Like It or Not.” The Times’ Shane Goldmacher writes:

Not so long ago, left-wing activists were dismissed as fringe or even kooky when they pressed for proposals to tax the superrich at 70 percent, to produce all of America’s power through renewable resources or to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Then along came Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and her social-media megaphone.

In the two months since her election, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has had the uncanny ability for a first-term member of Congress to push the debate inside the Democratic Party sharply to the left, forcing party leaders and 2020 presidential candidates to grapple with issues that some might otherwise prefer to avoid.

Ocasio-Cortez is a phenom and a force. But Goldmacher gives her too much credit. It was Bernie Sanders who, above all others, pushed Democrats to the left.

Sanders, a socialist, came from nowhere (not even from the Democratic party) to nearly defeat Hilary Clinton. Had the playing field not been strongly tilted in Clinton’s favor, he might well have been the Democratic nominee for president.

Some may view the Sanders vote as an anti-Clinton vote. But Clinton was reasonably popular among Democrats, popular enough to deter all challengers for the nomination considered serious by party leaders and the media.

Once he got rolling, Sanders generated tremendous enthusiasm among white Democratic voters. One doesn’t generate a high level of enthusiasm simply by not being Hillary Clinton. Nor was there much about Sanders other than his ideology that could have generated enthusiasm.

Therefore, it was all but inevitable (1) that in last years elections, far left Democrats would pick off some congressional seats in deep blue jurisdictions and go on to raise a little hell in Congress and (2) that some Democratic presidential aspirants would pitch their campaigns at Sanders voters by sounding, and expanding upon, Sanders’ themes.

It wasn’t inevitable that a 29 year-old former bartender would play an outsized role in any of this. Ocasio-Cortez deserves credit for pushing herself to the forefront. However, she should be viewed more as a symptom of the Democratic party’s expedition to the left than as one of the causes.

Even Sanders is, to some degree, a symptom. Goldmacher says that “not so long ago, left-wing activists were dismissed as fringe or even kooky when they pressed for proposals to tax the superrich at 70 percent.” But many Democrats have long favored taxing the “superrich” at a rate like that. More generally, many Democrats have long disliked American capitalism.

Sanders’ contribution was his willingness to make his dislike of capitalism the centerpiece of a run for the presidency — a run that opened the floodgates.

Sanders failed to win the nomination in part because party officials stacked the deck against him and in part because he couldn’t win many votes from racial and ethnic minority groups. Herein lies Ocasio-Cortez’s potential contribution to the Democratic left (which Goldmacher misses). She appears to have the ability to blend Sanders-style socialism with leftist identity politics. (I say “blend” rather than “marry” or “merge” because the two are probably insufficiently compatible to support a marriage or even a true merger).

Ocasio-Cortez can’t run for president. Thus, for purposes of the 2020 campaign, the blend will have to be sold to the American public primarily by someone else — someone like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

Standing alone, socialism or would be ruinous for America So would the prevalence of hyper-identity politics. A blending of the two would be truly toxic.