Bernie Sanders has once again become a phenomenon in the U.S. presidential election. His unlikely rise in 2016 has contributed to what is still his very strong popularity at present. He has been running for president once again in 2020, this time against former VP Joe Biden in Biden’s third bid for the White House. That Sanders’ campaign has relied completely on grassroots funding is remarkable, and the fact that he gave Hillary Clinton (who was funded by corporations and other big-money donors) a run for her money was historically significant. In 2020, Sanders’ base of small donors returned, and early on in the race he was fundraising more than other candidates.
Sanders’s rise to national status can be seen as related to his unorthodox policies and beliefs. A self-described democratic socialist, in the eyes of many Americans he exhibited the most unique political positions in both foreign and domestic policies. He has questioned the Israel-US “special relationship,” and even questioned the idea of American exceptionalism. On the last point, some sought to attack Sanders as unpatriotic.
I’ve covered his unorthodox foreign policy views in a previous article, along with how America would behave on the world stage under a President Sanders. But here, I’d like to imagine America under his leadership.
Millennial disillusionment with capitalist society
Before going into any hypotheticals, we must understand how Bernie Sanders gained so much support in both 2016 and 2020. Multiple voter demographics voiced their support for Sanders, but the most important one is the support from Millennials and GenZ. According to an Axios survey, these two demographics are very disillusioned with American capitalism. Especially the Millennials, who came of age in the mid-2000s against a backdrop of the financial crisis and discontent with the bailout of Wall Street, supporting Sanders —who has often railed against the billionaire class, Wall Street and big banks — was a natural choice. Both demographics are also voicing discontent with the economic inequality in the United States.
In the eyes of many Americans, the word ‘socialist’ is often associated with ‘communism’ despite the completely different meaning behind the two words. It is also associated with countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union. Thus, the word ‘socialist’— even with Sanders constantly correcting it to ‘democratic socialist’ — will always be a taboo word for many Americans. This could also be attributed to generational differences among Americans. Older voters who lived through the Cold War would not want any kind of socialist leading the country. Young people, on the other hand, have no significant issue with voting for Bernie Sanders. Young voters have been a key demographic for Bernie Sanders, although there are difficulties in relying on the youth vote (as evidenced by Super Tuesday results). Their turnout in California, for example, was only 11%. Despite this, in any general election battle between Sanders and Trump, the youth vote would be crucial in helping Sanders win the White House.
A truly unorthodox, odd, yet genuine politician
Politicians are notorious for their often-swinging position on issues. They rarely stand up for their own ideals, and usually follow wherever the wind blows. This causes voters to view politicians as being ingenuine and desperate to win at all costs. Hillary Clinton was a recent example of this. Clinton changed positions and fought for different political objectives throughout her career. She changed her stance on same-sex marriage, supported Obama’s immigration policies before criticizing it during her campaign, initially supported NAFTA and then suddenly suggested a renegotiation, and the list goes on.
People will always question when politicians change stance. Did they change for political opportunism or a genuine willingness to adapt to a changing society? Clinton failed to convince people that she really tried to adapt to a changing America. Combined with people’s dislike for her, this was one of the reasons that people could not trust Clinton. She was branded as someone who does not trust her own convictions.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, did not have this problem. People like him, too.
If Bernie is anything, he is a man of his convictions. For that alone, he deserves praise and admiration. This is also a big reason people supported him —he is trustworthy and genuine. He has been advocating for many of the same ideals, policies and goals during both of his Presidential campaigns, as he did as Mayor of Burlington, as Vermont’s representative in the House, and as a student at the University of Chicago.
Let’s take a look at some of his most important campaign pledges and his positions. He has stuck to the same message for more than 40 years.
He has advocated for affordable housing and healthcare in both of his campaigns. In 1988, Sanders took a trip to the Soviet Union and praised how the Soviets ensured affordable housing for their citizens and low prices for medicine.
Sanders’ position on income inequality? He has been saying the same thing since 1976. Let’s digest a quote from then-candidate Sanders, who was running for Governor of Vermont:“The fundamental issue facing us in the state is that ½ of 1 percent of these people — the richest ½ of 1 percent — earn as much as the bottom 27 percent, and the top 3 percent earn as much as the bottom 40 percent.” (1976)
In an interview in 1991 with C-SPAN, he offered the same message:“What we have seen in the last 10 years is the richest 1 percent of the population have seen an 86 percent increase in their real income.”
And in 1984, he voiced his trademark ‘political revolution’ idea and urged people to take back the country from billionaires and the establishment.
This consistency can be interpreted in two ways. One, is that Sanders has fallen to what Ralph Waldo Emerson described as ‘foolish consistency’ and that Sanders has a ‘little mind’. Two, is that Sanders still genuinely believes that his ideas are what is best for the future of the United States. His belief in his own convictions, and his willingness to fight for them, shows him to be a formidable politician who is not influenced by Washington political expediency, and genuinely cares for the constituents he would serve.
As President of the United States, Bernie Sanders would finally have the chance to implement his deeply-held beliefs and convictions. His brand of democratic socialism is not the same type of socialism that countries such as Cuba implemented in the past. The policies that Bernie Sanders is currently proposing are in-line with policies that already exist throughout Europe. For example, his key policy, single-payer healthcare, is an existing policy in countries such as Netherlands and Switzerland. Tuition-free public colleges exist in Germany and Sweden.
If Bernie Sanders were to win the White House and lead the country, his biggest contribution would likely be an enormous shift in the status-quo of America as the quintessential capitalist society. We could expect a seismic attitude change to occur in the country. We would likely see the Democratic party shift further to the left, with more democratic socialists elected to the United States Congress.
Political challenges, however, would also arise. An even more bitter division between the progressives and the moderates in the party would develop.
Electing a democratic socialist to the White House, coupled with the fact that he is not a “real” Democrat, could pose problems for the Democratic Party itself. Republicans would jump at the opportunity to divide the Democrats even more. It could create a continued deadlock in Congress, not only from Republicans but also the Democrats.
If there were more people who shared his democratic-socialist views in the Senate and the House, it would make Sanders’s dealings with Congress easier. However, for now that is not the reality. This would affect his attempts to pass his legislative agenda in Congress — legislation that not even the entire Democratic leadership would support or with the same enthusiasm as does Sanders.
It can be argued that for a Sanders presidency to be effective, he would also need to flip the Senate to a Democratic majority. It would be difficult to imagine a Sanders presidency succeeding with a GOP Senate, and only the House controlled by Democrats. Otherwise, Sanders’ legislative agenda would completely die in the Senate. On the other hand, past records of Sanders working with Rand Paul and John McCain indicate his ability to be pragmatic, and willing to work across the aisle.
Political challenges aside, we might try to imagine what the ideal America with a President Sanders would look like.
In the first hundred days of a Sanders presidency, minor but meaningful change to the healthcare system, introduction of a spending bill for infrastructure projects, rejoining the Paris agreement, and working on a new Iran deal are all realistic projects. Anything further —such as the wealth tax, Green New Deal, minimum wage increase, and most importantly Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan — would have to wait for a new Democratic Congress.
In judicial affairs, Sanders could potentially fill a Supreme Court seat, which could change the balance of the court from Trump’s judicial appointments. He could also begin stacking the federal courts with more liberal justices. He has voiced his support for impeaching Justice Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court, and as President he may want to investigate Kavanaugh’s allegations again. He would also re-organize the entire Department of Justice and implement wide-ranging criminal justice reform such as ending corporate profiteering from the jail system.
Should he succeed in bringing the midterm elections in favor of the Democrats, we would see a completely different United States. People would enjoy a transition period to a better healthcare system, tuition free colleges, better environmental protections, and a livable minimum wage. Sanders would be the candidate who actually ‘drained the swamp’ of Washington corruption.
Wall Street and other large financial institutions have expressed ‘panic’ over a Sanders presidency. Sanders has virtually declared war on Wall Street. He would ‘break up the big banks’ by reintroducing a bill that forces banks to separate investment and retail banking. He would impose charges on financial transactions and would plan to restructure the Federal Reserve.
If Sanders could achieve all of his plans, it would also dispel the stereotype that all socialist forms of government eventually plunge a country into chaos.
On the world stage, Sanders would reshape the traditional US foreign policy into one where the country would no longer intervene or give special favor to dictators, and instead implement a ‘responsible’ foreign policy. He would make the United States a leader in fighting climate change and stand up for human rights.
As President, it would be essential for Sanders to rally support from his Democratic colleagues and moderate Republicans if he intends to achieve his objectives. It would be difficult imagining Sanders succeeding without winning the midterm elections. However, Sanders is a pragmatic individual, and has the ability to see the bigger picture. Despite being labeled as a grumpy-grandfather type, he so clearly has America’s best interests at heart. His presidency would be very consequential for the country, and the world.
The tough road ahead for Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders has been locked in an equal fight with the other Democratic front runner, Joe Biden. That has now shifted, and Biden has had the momentum since Super Tuesday, and is currently surging in the polls. With Joe Biden currently raking up endorsements from the other Democratic candidates and major figures within the Democratic party, Sanders now needs to show that he can bridge the divide and be a uniting figure — even if not as a viable candidate, but as a gadfly.
In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, journalist Tom Friedman urged Democratic progressives and moderates to work together to create a ‘team of rivals’ that will unite the Democratic Party. Friedman sees that as necessary to defeating President Trump in November — that, in fact, it would make the Dems unbeatable.
At the time of writing, Sanders’ path to the nomination has hit a wall after losing Michigan to Joe Biden. If Biden and Sanders were to accept Friedman’s advice, Sanders could really be a unique figure in a Biden administration. He would either be a tough cookie or the type of individual who can get things done and ramp up support for Biden’s agenda. Since Elizabeth Warren is far more suited for the Treasury Secretary job, Biden could offer Bernie the position of HHS secretary — finally giving Bernie the chance to implement a healthcare plan of his dreams. It may not be Medicare-for-all, though.
This is where Bernie’s pragmatism and honesty will step in, though we cannot discount how ferocious his idealism is.
However, with his deep conviction and his fighting spirit, it is hard to imagine Sanders backing down anytime soon — even if his purpose, and the ultimate result, are just to convince Biden to do the right thing for America.