As the dust settles on Super Tuesday the race for the Democratic nomination, previously fractured and gender diverse, has evolved into a two-horse race between two white men in their late 70’s. While Sanders and Biden share the same decade of birth they offer very distinct visions of the future for both the Democratic Party and the United States.
Biden looked like a spent force as recently as a fortnight ago but from the jaws of defeat managed to snatch victory in 10 states. Sanders, the front runner going into Tuesday won only 4 (although the four included California with its considerable number of delegates) and will now have to address Biden’s primary asset, namely the conventional political wisdom that only Biden can win. This viewpoint is based on a narrow interpretation of why Hilary Clinton lost in 2016. The argument goes that she was an exceptionally divisive candidate who ran a tactically deficient campaign. Specifically, she didn’t spend enough time talking about or visiting key states previously held by Obama such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Therefore, a less contentious, experienced democrat with brand recognition can adjust that misallocation of resources, speak to the concerns of blue-collar workers in those states and push them back into the democratic column.
However, there is an alternative view which paints a more challenging picture for Democrats. That is that 2016 represented a hinge point in Presidential politics. Large parts of the United States felt and continue to feel cruelly left behind by globalisation and income inequality. They reacted in one of two ways, they voted for a morally questionable reality TV star who promised to drain the swamp or they didn’t vote at all. In this version of America, a conventional experienced candidate like Biden promising to restore dignity and get things back on an even kilter may struggle to cut through the noise created by Trump and the surrounding circus. To cautiously contradict Michelle Obama, perhaps when they go low, going high won’t quite do.
As with most things both in politics and life the reason for Trump’s victory four years ago is not solely one thing or the other but in reality, a combination of many factors. However, one thing is clear, as in 2016 the Democratic Party elders have flinched at the prospect of nominating Bernie Sanders for President. Pete Buttigeg, Amy Klobuchar and Mick Bloomberg when announcing their exit from the race this week went onto immediately endorse Biden. With varying degrees of subtlety each cited electability as their primary motivation. Obama and Clinton (Bill and Hilary) have in recent weeks made similar assertions.
A perception exists of Sanders as an uncompromising ideologue pushing unprecedented expansion of government and the aggressive reallocation of capital. In current U.S. politics his policies would represent significant change but are they really that ground breaking? He is advocating nothing more than what we in Europe have grown to consider mundane facts of life. Universal health care, subsidized child care, subsidized third level education and paid parental leave will considerably improve the life quality of middle-class Americans and increase social mobility. In order to pay for these programmes, he proposes an increase in the tax burden of the wealthiest, with an emphasis on large tech companies. In considering how radical an approach this would be, consider the following: In 2017 and 2018 Amazon through a series of exemptions and loopholes paid $0 in federal income tax. In fact, in 2018 they claimed a rebate. In 2019 they paid $162 million which sounds like a lot until you consider that they made a $13.9 billion in pre-tax revenue in 2019, rendering their liability at 1.2%.
Sander’s approach to climate change is perhaps the closest to what could be considered “extreme”: he advocates for a complete ban on fracking, the controversial drilling technology that has driven the oil and gas boom in the U.S. and reduced dependency on foreign oil. Such a policy has alienated those aforementioned blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania, a mass oil and gas producer. In contrast Biden proposes incremental change with the curtailing of the practice on Federal land rather than an outright ban. The contrast in approach distils the distinction between the candidates: Biden the pragmatist nudging incremental change and Sanders the revolutionary kicking in the doors. This perception is Sanders’ key strength but also the reason many centrist democrats have to date vehemently opposed him. In order to win he needs to bring people to the polling booths for the first time. Specifically, young people and Latinos. The most effective way to do so is to talk the language of “movements” and “revolutions”. However, this fiery language comes at the expense of the more conservative elements of the democratic voter base and the unquantifiable “swing voters” who can be persuaded by either a Republican or a Democrat. Sanders and his supporters, most notably the high-profile Alexandria Ocasio Cortez argue that politics has changed dramatically and that to thrive the Democratic Party must change also. Traditionally the party could rely on Labour unions as a means to bind it to working class white voters, however as those unions have become diminished in influence that connection has been undermined. Therefore, the old rules don’t apply.
Evident from the Ukraine impeachment affair is that Trump has been preparing to run against Biden since taking office. In the event that Biden prevails he will be attacked on his son’s ties to the Ukraine, his previous campaign for President (which included a scandal around the plagiarizing of a Neil Kinnock speech) and his support for the Iraq war. This will be familiar territory. Trump has proven his ability to defeat conventional candidates with a history at the centre of national politics. In 2016 he saw off both the Bush and Clinton machines in short order. In stark contract Sanders would represent a very different type of challenge. Much like Trump’s, Bernie’s supporters see themselves as part of a movement which allows to them to express something about themselves and their values. They have an emotional connection to the candidate as it is clear why Bernie is running for President. This is something that both Trump and Obama managed to create but crucially eluded Hilary Clinton.
Opponents of Sanders have often made the comparison to Jeremy Corbyn who pushed the Labour party hard to the left and to two progressively disastrous defeats. However, perhaps a more applicable comparison exists closer to home and the rise of Sinn Fein.
Mary Lou McDonald’s party successfully galvanised not only young urban voters but older rural voters on a promise of substantive change. Just like in Ireland, Americans are still reeling from the financial crisis and believe that they are paying a disproportionate price for the wrongdoings of a political and financial elite that they cannot access. Perhaps, after years in the political wilderness and narrowly missing out in 2016, Bernie’s time has finally come.