[ Should Bernie Sanders be the Left’s presidential candidate in
2020? Hamilton Nolan and Bhaskar Sunkara revive the great American
tradition of arguing about Bernie online.] [https://portside.org/]
LET’S TALK BERNIE 2020
Hamilton Nolan and Bhaskar Sunkara
January 18, 2019
_ Should Bernie Sanders be the Left’s presidential candidate in
2020? Hamilton Nolan and Bhaskar Sunkara revive the great American
tradition of arguing about Bernie online. _
Bernie Sanders speaking at an event in Phoenix, Arizona on July 18,
2015. , Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia
The 2020 election campaign is now upon us, which means it’s time to
argue about Bernie Sanders on the internet.
_Splinter_’s Hamilton Nolan [https://kinja.com/hamilton_nolan]
recently weighed in on the question of whether or not Sanders should
run, answering firmly in the negative
publisher Bhaskar Sunkara heartily disagrees. Below they debate the
differences between Sanders and progressives like Elizabeth Warren
and why nonelectoral organizing is vital to the rising left’s agenda
no matter who runs for president.
As you know, I’m a Hamilton Nolan completionist
[https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Completionist], so I
was disappointed to see that you’re skeptical about Bernie 2020. To
me, he’s qualitatively different than any other candidate, the only
reaching a national audience with a message about providing Americans
with the basic goods they need to live a decent life
like health care and affordable housing. And his message about who’s
responsible for inequality, and who we need to take on to change
things seems to me different than any other potential 2020 candidate.
Why are you hesitant about embracing a seemingly inevitable Bernie
I’d like to qualify this discussion with some caveats: it’s very
early, only a few candidates have declared, we haven’t seen
anyone’s platform, and also, I have no idea how anyone will vote in
2020. That said, I do think that the Democratic primary is going to be
essentially a contest between the left wing of the party and the
I have two primary reasons why I don’t think Bernie should run: 1)
He is very old. He would be eighty in his first term. This is not
disqualifying, but it’s not ideal. All great leaders have to step
aside one day. And 2) Because it is still so early, I think that
Bernie could get behind a good candidate now — who embraces his
ideals — and avoid the possibility of splitting the lefty vote and
allowing a centrist to win.
I think it’s clear who’s running. Elizabeth Warren has announced,
as has Tulsi Gabbard
Cory Booker is hanging out in Iowa.
But my question to you is, who would be a good candidate? To me,
Bernie is not just a progressive Democrat, he has a different base and
appeal. He’s greater than the sum of his policy positions. Because
Sanders simply has a different approach
to politics than other potential Democratic primary contenders like
Consider how simple his messaging was during his campaign: he was more
repetitive and used an even simpler vocabulary than Trump. He told
people that they work hard and deserve more, and the reason why they
didn’t get enough wasn’t because of minorities and immigrants, but
because millionaires and billionaires were profiting from their
Bernie was politicized in the Young People’s Socialist League
back in the day, and I think that’s still apparent in how clear and
powerful his worldview is: the knowledge that there are powerful
interests that need to be taken on if we’re to make change. I
don’t see that in any other candidate.
It’s not just about “here are some policies I support,” it’s
about putting together the type of class power that can actually make
If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was over thirty-five and wanted to
run, that would be another thing. But I don’t think there any
Democrats are quite interchangeable with Sanders. I also don’t think
there’s anyone that has the same appeal with swing voters and those
in the Rust Belt states that Trump used to sneak into the White House.
I am a big fan of Bernie Sanders politically. I think the broad
success of his 2016 campaign really opened up a lane in mainstream
politics for the Left that hasn’t been there in my lifetime. He
talked about starting a movement, and he has done it. And I think he
would agree that the important thing is not his own personal political
success, but the question of how we can actually put meaningful
policies that help people into place, and how we can have success
turning back the inequality that underlies so many of America’s
problems. Principles before personalities.
Of the candidates that are or seem to be running now, I guess Warren
is the obvious choice, although my idea would be to let Bernie himself
handpick someone younger who best embraces his ideals and get behind
them. But even if it is Warren — who I think is generally very good
with at least one obvious recent exception — I don’t see that as a
great loss in terms of the issues at hand.
Whether Bernie or Warren are president, how would they try to roll
back inequality? They will use the tax code, and they will use the
regulatory agencies, and they will try to work with a Democratic
Congress to pass laws friendly to labor and increase financial
regulation and enact better, more redistributive tax policies and
pursue universal health care and other basic goals. I probably like
Bernie’s politics a little better than Warren’s, but I don’t
think there would really be a ton of difference between their actions
as president on the major issues.
I also think that having a very old guy like Bernie as the head of our
movement has downsides that have to be considered. That is not a knock
on him — we’ll all get old one day if we’re lucky. But leaders
have to nurture new generations for movements to continue and thrive.
And if there’s not going to be a real serious loss on the issues, I
would prefer someone even ten years younger than Bernie.
I would love it if Bernie was younger, but I can’t help but feel
like if Bernie were ten or twenty years younger, he’d be a whole lot
worse than he is today. Maybe what we like about Bernie is that he
emerged from an American left that has long since been defeated
but that at a certain point was capable of politicizing and training
people and then throwing them into an environment where they could
actually engage in mass working-class politics. That’s what Bernie
did in civil rights
labor struggles in the ’60s and he tried to do with a great deal
less success in the ’70s and ’80s.
I’m sure his politics have shifted since then, but his message has
displayed a straightforward consistency. I trust him for that.
Warren is certainly a progressive, but I worry that she’s getting
love from many mainstream Democratic Party policy types, people that
went to war with Sanders. And that she doesn’t have the same
anti-establishment appeal as Bernie and will compromise at key moments
under the pressure of capital, precisely because she doesn’t have a
movement-based vision of political change.
And if we’re going to get pragmatic about it, Bernie Sanders is
someone who’s already been tested at the national stage. Every
little bit of dirt about him has been brought out, and he’s still
incredibly popular. I don’t put too much stock in early polls, but
he’s even beating Warren in Massachusetts
Can you imagine her doing the same in Vermont?
I’m also, by the way, not convinced that the two would compete over
the same voting bloc necessarily. The degree to which Bernie got the
support of people previously alienated from politics or who
self-described as “moderates” shouldn’t be understated.
While keeping in mind my “all predictions are worthless” caveat, I
do agree with you that as a practical issue Bernie is a more
charismatic and fierier speaker who will probably do a better job of
turning out people who don’t usually vote. On the other hand, also
as a practical matter, I don’t think voter turnout among Democrats
is going to be a serious problem in 2020 — the motivation to beat
Trump is extremely high. If you just take the 2016 vote and add in the
burning desire everyone has to get rid of Trump, this is really the
Democrats’ election to lose.
I would depart from you in that I don’t really worry about Elizabeth
Warren, of all people, falling prey to the pressures of capital. She
has built her career on fighting the abuses of the American capitalist
system, and I believe she’ll keep that up. If anything, I think a
Warren candidacy would expose just how awful Wall Street truly is. All
the money guys who usually give to moderate Democrats would back
Trump, since they hate higher taxes and regulation more than they hate
children in cages.
If you don’t like Warren, I wonder if you think there are any other
people Bernie could reasonably recruit to run for president that you
would feel okay getting behind, since Ocasio-Cortez is sadly too
I agree that it’s the Democrat’s elections to lose. They’ll
likely beat Trump whether they tack to the center or the left.
That’s all the more reason for us to go out there and put forth a
credible left alternative.
I think Warren is fine, but her vision of change is a regulatory one
She believes in the core of free-market capitalism, she just wants to
make sure to the rules of the game are clearer and fairer. I’m
skeptical of a potential candidate who’s out there now telling CNBC
that she’s a “capitalist
just one that doesn’t believe in “cheating.” To use a historical
example, it’s like the battle in the early twentieth century between
trust-busting progressives and more radical social reformers. Bernie
comes from the latter tradition.
Our new batch of potential post-Bernie candidates will come from
movements. I’ve been so impressed by some of the teacher leaders
that have emerged out of strikes in recent years — from Karen Lewis
in Chicago to strikers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.
I’ve been impressed by the leadership of National Nurses United’s
RoseAnn Demoro. Out of the spark that Sanders helped start emerged
organizations like Justice Democrats and the rebirth of the Democratic
Socialists of America that brought us Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and
other new working-class leaders.
I think we need Bernie 2020 and time to help develop and train more
people in this mold. But at the moment, we only have one eligible
Warren is a potential ally in the cause of social justice, but I see
her as coming from a different movement. Its leadership fundamentally
needs to be democratic socialist. I’m going to cast my vote against
Trump, but not without advocating for the most forthrightly combative
and progressive vision of political change.
People are fed up and they want something different. Bernie, like AOC,
is a candidate that can use the Democratic platform but not run as
“Democrat.” That’s exactly what we need.
You seem to see this as a zero-sum game. Can you imagine a scenario
where Sanders is running and pushing Warren to the left, but Warren is
making sure that the Sanders team is dotting all their policy I’s
and crossing T’s or whatever it is people say? And in the end, they
form an alliance and support whoever is more competitive in the last
legs of the campaign?
Trump certainly wasn’t hurt by having other hard-right candidates in
the last Republican primary.
I absolutely think that Warren and Bernie together complement each
other and their combined strengths would produce a more ideal
candidate. Indeed, that is what I am advocating, in the form of Bernie
getting behind her or someone equally good early on. If he did, he
could help pull her campaign to the left and unite the left of the
Democratic Party around a clear favorite. It wouldn’t just be him.
But the upsides would be that the set of political policies that got
enacted would be virtually the same, we would have the first woman
president, and she would be less likely to drop dead in office.
Primaries aren’t quite a zero-sum game but splitting the lefty vote
is a real issue — having ten candidates or whatever in the race this
time is a lot different from 2016, when there were two. It’s easy to
imagine a lot of early state primaries where the left vote gets
divided between Bernie, Warren, and one or two others, and then Biden
wins. Those early victories build on each other. Maybe I will turn out
to be wrong about the centrist versus left nature of this election,
but if not, this is a real risk. I think Trump was qualitatively
different from the other Republican candidates in 2016 — he won
because he was the most antiestablishment and unusual, not because of
where exactly he landed in the traditional left/right spectrum.
Maybe we can end this on a brighter note. I, too, am looking forward
to the day when DSA candidates can make legit runs for national office
on a much broader geographic scale. You’re probably a little more
plugged into DSA than me (I am a dues-paying member but not a
meeting-attender) — what do you think the prospects are for DSA in
national electoral politics?
I think the socialist left was basically dead in the United States up
until a couple years ago. Now it’s for sure alive, but our pulse is
The biggest problem is that we don’t have a real working-class base.
Through electoral races at the local and state level
through big national runs like the Sanders campaign, through strikes
and social movement organization, we can start to build one.
Ultimately, we have to be aware of our weakness and to what extent the
return of democratic socialism has been just a media event.
But I have a lot of hope. Everything in US politics is hollowed out
and up for grabs. People are looking for alternatives. Whether or not
its Bernie, I hope future left candidates match both his clarity and
moral outrage about the fact that so many people are suffering in a
world filled with so much abundance. I think on this point, we’re in
I fully agree on the depth of the problems facing America.
Fundamentally, we are facing a corrupt system fueled by crony
capitalism that has captured our political system and led to an
inequality crisis that is eating away our society on many levels. And
it will take something very big to turn it around.
As for Bernie, I will always give him credit for bringing the Left
into mainstream politics more successfully than any politician I’ve
been around to see. Ultimately, though, electoral politics come second
— first comes practical institutions like labor unions, which
demonstrate democracy in action. We need to rebuild organized labor in
America — or build a new modern equivalent to labor in its stronger
days — in order to lay the groundwork for any rise of socialism in
politics. I guess we should stop talking and get to work.
Hamilton Nolan is senior writer at Deadspin.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of _Jacobin_.
Our new issue [https://jacobinmag.com/issue/breaking-bank] is out now.
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