Bernie Sanders likes private jets. That, at least, is the malicious word being put about by Hillary Clinton’s former aides this week, just days after Sanders announced that he is again running for president.
Sanders, you’ll recall, lost a vicious fight against Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the first half of 2016. Yet in the weeks leading up to the November election, he held 39 rallies in 13 different states that were pro-Hillary and anti-Trump. Pretty noble of him, you might think, given how the Clinton machine had taken him down. According to Team Hillary, however, Bernie behaved like a bolshie diva. He insisted that chartered planes must take him everywhere. And he has the nerve to preach about climate change and the avaricious 0.2 percent!
Listen carefully to this Clintonite griping, however, and you hear panic. The Democratic party establishment is terrified of Bernie, a true radical who threatens its leadership, and it has no idea how to stop him. Hillary scuppered his insurgency four years ago, just, but the Clintons are gone (for now) and the centre of the Democratic party has shunted dramatically left. Sanders consistently polls as the most popular politician in America. In the 2016 primary, he won 23 states and 46 per cent of elected delegates. It’s hard to see how he won’t do better this time.
Sanders, now 77, may be grumpier but he has a vast movement behind him and his social media power has grown. He declared his candidacy on February 19, and has already recruited one million volunteers. His rivals would kill for a slice of that enthusiasm.
Trump won the presidency with mass working-class support: Bernie’s fan base is arguably deeper and broader, and he has the President in his sights. He’s already talking about winning in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida — states that swung towards Trump last time.
We hear the usual pundit bleating: Bernie is an old white man; the Democrats need diversity. Yet Sanders appeals precisely because he isn’t an identity politics candidate: he’s a social democrat who has spent his life raging against Wall Street greed, the military industrial complex and social injustice. He says all the correct things about gays, lesbians and transgenders, of course, but Bernie in PC mode sounds unnatural, like a vicar talking about grime music. That awkwardness is endearing. It makes millennials swoon: they find him cute and retro.
The Democratic media talk about how he struggles with black voters, and it’s true. Clinton overwhelmingly won the African-American vote against him. On Tuesday, he admitted that ‘maybe I haven’t been as strong on [race issues] … as I should be.’ Still, Sanders fans point out that Bernie was into civil rights long before the mainstream thought it cool. As a 21-year-old, he was arrested while protesting against racial segregation in schools. There’s even a black-and-white photograph of the young, already bespectacled Sanders being dragged off by two mean-looking police officers. Put that in your progressive pipe and smoke it.
Sanders’s 2020 campaign seems more professional — he is dressing sharper, at any rate — and he sounds increasingly tactical. He has long been an environmentalist, but he’s emphasizing more than ever the need for radical action on climate change. He’s also stressing the importance of absolute women’s rights, aka abortion, another progressive fetish.
Bernie has learned to duck the mud that his fellow Democrats sling at him. The #MeToo movement, for instance, has been marshaled into the anti-Sanders cause: allegations about sexual abuse among his campaign staff emerged two years ago. Old Bernie would have shrugged and said the real injustices lay elsewhere. New Bernie knows better. ‘I was very upset to learn what I learned,’ he told a gathering of good–looking young people in Washington on Tuesday. He then did a convincing impersonation of an archbishop as he explained that he has instituted ‘the strongest -protocols against sexual harassment… we take this issue very seriously. It was very painful.’ Such well-honed contrition might not be enough for ultra-feminists, but it ought to placate the Democratic majority.
His centrist detractors can say ‘socialism doesn’t work’ and ‘look at Venezuela’ as much as they want, but Bernie’s core policy positions are now mainstream in America. He’s just a fraction to the left of the British Conservative party: healthcare for all, raising the minimum wage, free public universities. He may be a billionaire-basher, and deep red au fond, as his affinity with -Jeremy Corbyn suggests. But when old videos emerge of him praising the Soviet Union, it doesn’t dent his popularity; it just makes him seem more authentic (Corbyn-loathers, take note). He’s also, as candidate Trump was, strongly opposed to pointless wars. That’s a vote winner.
Some say that in these fervid times, Sanders’s candidacy isn’t revolutionary enough. It’s interesting to note that Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez, the progressive princess who campaigned for Bernie in the past, has so far avoided endorsing him. If the party elite can persuade AOC to break with Bernie, he might find his youthful coalition falls apart.
Bernie is into economic fairness, not cultural Marxism. He rejects trendy ideas such as reparation payments for the sin of -slavery — i.e. bribing black voters with handouts — in favor of more equitable anti–poverty measures. He still appeals to lower-class and rural white people more than the metropolitan melting pot. That is exactly what could eventually win him the presidency. But affluent, PC-mad America could prevent him getting the Democratic nomination first, as it did in 2016. Silicon Valley, for instance, is more likely to support a colorful candidate who toes the party line, such as Kamala Harris, the senator from California. That said, Sanders can now outspend Harris, thanks to his enormous small-donation network. Harris raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign; Bernie got $4 million, and already has $11.5 million in his war chest from last time. He’s the machine now.
According to the polls, the only Democrat who can stop Sanders is Joe Biden, the 76-year-old former vice-president. Biden can match Sanders in the amiable codger stakes, and he is popular because he trots out Obama-like platitudes about bringing the country together. But Biden has not yet announced his candidacy, and he’s an old fraud really, a career politician who has hopped about on race, abortion and taxes, depending on what was expedient. He fell flat when he tried to become president in 1988, after plagiarizing a speech by Neil Kinnock, and again in 2008, when he was monstered by Obama and Clinton. Biden’s poll advantage could melt away upon contact with reality, if he does run. Sanders 2020, on the other hand, is already flying.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.