Sanders is losing the leftist movement he started

Sanders is losing the leftist movement he started
© Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Hispanic Caucus lawmaker won't attend meeting with VP Harris's new aide The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE (I-Vt.) started the leftist wave currently cresting among Democrats; now, he risks losing it. Embodying the party’s opposition to its establishment three years ago, Sanders has become just one among many. Threatened by Democrats’ identity-politics, he is even more so by the party’s concern over the politics of its identity: Formally embracing socialism. 

In 2016, Sanders went from Vermont local legend to national phenomenon — what Ben and Jerry’s was to ice cream, he was to politics. Failing to win the nomination, he went the distance with Clinton and won an improbable 43 percent of Democrats’ primary votes

From one perspective, he would appear the heir apparent. Building on his strong second-place finish, he could have been presumed to have started on the inside track — just as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE had in 2016, after finishing second to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBarack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle Voting rights is a constitutional right: Failure is not an option Florida looms large in Republican 2024 primary MORE in 2008. Instead, Sanders now more resembles Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968: Having done the hard work of proving a movement’s viability, only to have others come to catch his wave. 


Rather than front-runner, Sanders risks being an also-ran. As the left’s momentum rises, his apparently ebbs. He is currently No. 3 and, according to Real Clear Politics’s recent averaging of national polls (9/13-23), he has just 17 percent support — 26 percentage points behind the actual votes he won in 2016. 

Certainly, Sanders has strengths, which have allowed him to remain close to the top in a crowded, competitive campaign. As the first in from the left, he has a comparatively large committed core of supporters. Combined with his longevity, Sanders brings tenacity and authenticity too. 

However, Sanders’ attrition has outweighed his attraction. Democrats’ identity-politics do him no favors. He is an old, white male before a party electorate desperately seeking to be less of all three.

There also exists an establishment animosity that carries over from 2016. Still unable to admit Clinton’s myriad shortcomings, Sanders’s insistence on staying in remains a convenient scapegoat for the party’s loss. 

Yet, Sanders’s biggest liability is Democrats’ concern as to what his nomination would do to the party’s brand. Nominating Sanders would take Democrats from being just liberal, to being admittedly leftist. 

Specifically, a selection of Sanders would be a qualitative transformation — if not a quantum one. Such a move would bring with it a steamer-trunk’s worth of baggage for Democrats to carry. 

Unlike the rest of the world, socialism in America has never been more than a fringe movement. Regularly there have been political parties of the truly ideological left, but never have they gotten beyond low single percentage points worth of support. 

Since at least WWI and the Soviet Union’s advent, they have personified America’s adversaries abroad. Even after the USSR’s demise over a generation ago, ideologically left regimes continue to do so. Of America’s five major international enemies today, four embrace its doctrines: China, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. 

Inheriting such a legacy is a danger many Democrats can easily grasp. It is one thing to have flirted with Sanders in 2016 — it is another to marry him in 2020 and make him one of the family. 

The enormous fracturing of the Democrats field reflects this reality. Unquestionably and overwhelmingly, they want to go left, but how far left — and how formally left — is another question. 


According to the  Real Clear Politics national poll average, the cumulative candidates of the left have 64.3 percent of supporters. Whereas Sanders had virtually 100 percent of the left’s support in 2016, his 17 percent of support puts him at just over a quarter of the left’s support today. 

Democrats continued fractures are reflected in their currently diffused field. Even with over half gone, no one is close to majority — even among its ascendant left wing. That it is clearly not Sanders now, underscores their quandary with the question of not just who they want to nominate, but who they want to be. 

Democrats’ answer will determine more than just their candidate for this election. While McCarthy lost the nomination in 1968, he helped set an anti-war identity that still defines today’s party. Should Democrats nominate Sanders, he could be similarly definitional beyond just 2020. It is a decision that Democrats are being far more circumspect with now, than they were when so many ran to Sanders three years ago. Poor Bernie. 

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.