As Iowans commence the strange witchcraft known as ‘caucusing’ for their favourite Democratic presidential nominee, the race appears to have narrowed to four main candidates.
They are, from ideological right to left (or, perhaps more accurately, centre-right to left): Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
In recent days, the consequences of failure at the next election have grown significantly, with the sham Senate Impeachment trial effectively telling US President Donald Trump that he can do whatever he wants, and that the only way he can be censured for his actions is at the ballot box.
So, Democrats simply must win this one; there is no telling what horror the next four years might bring if they don’t. It is not hyperbole to say that American democracy might depend on it.
But what’s the best way to beat Trump?
Is it time for bold, progressive ideas that might genuinely address the root causes of so many of the problems that currently ail America? Or, is it vital to nominate someone more moderate who can attract those nearer the political centre, independent voters, and the growing number of Republicans who are totally dissatisfied with the character of the man currently representing their party?
Sadly, few can agree on the best strategy.
In recent days, however, you could be easily fooled into thinking that a kind of consensus has begun to emerge: that the nomination of Bernie Sanders would be roughly analogous to shitting in one’s own bed, or driving the Democratic party bus over a cliff.
The conventional wisdom goes that Sanders is such a far-left candidate that he stands absolutely no chance at the general election in November, and only a moderate candidate like Joe Biden stands any real hope of victory.
It is quite understandable why people would make such an argument. Sanders unabashedly describes himself as a ‘Democratic Socialist’, and the US – thanks to its starring role in the Cold War – doesn’t exactly have a history of fondness for anyone or anything bearing the label of socialism.
In a country that that seems to fetishise wealth and extravagance more than it fetishises actual sex, he has openly declared that billionaires shouldn’t even exist at all.
I’m very old fashioned. I think democracy is about one person, one vote, not billionaires buying elections.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 22, 2019
So, since Sanders began firming as a front-runner in the race, a slew of establishment political figures (among them, famous ‘never-Trump-er’ David Frum, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley), who have declared with a curious degree of certainty that voters need to pick anyone else, basically.
Although my personal hope is that Warren manages to secure the nomination, I am increasingly convinced that Bernie Sanders, contrary to this ‘received wisdom’ of political insiders, might just be the Democrats’ greatest hope of victory.
Hear me out…
Although the root causes for the situation are complex (the GFC, and the political response to it, play a central role), it is hard to overstate just how dissatisfied with modern politics most voters have now become.
Put simply, ordinary citizens think that the political system is completely broken, and no longer works in their interests.
Sadly, they are quite right to think so. This summer, as large portions of Australia were being incinerated, we angrily watched the Prime Minister utterly fail to put the immediate interests of the country ahead of his own party’s long-term ideological interests.
We have become almost inured to the idea that politicians are only out to help themselves, or their wealthy donors. This is probably why the sports rorts scandal isn’t quite as big as it should be. Using public money for your own political ends – whether giving a grant to a local sports club in a marginal seat, or holding money back from Ukraine in exchange for smearing a political rival – is no longer seen as particularly unusual behaviour.
Whenever given the opportunity to express their rightful anger regarding this status quo at the ballot box, voters have increasingly sought the outcome that would shake up the system the most. The vote for Brexit, for example, was exactly this writ large; one great big ‘fuck you’ to the political establishment.
In 2016, American voters were given a choice between a product of that establishment (Hillary Clinton), and a complete outsider. Rather than pick the person who would have kept playing the same rigged game (albeit with a few relatively minor tweaks), a lot of Americans instead opted for the guy who effectively promised to flip the table over and give the middle finger to everyone in the vicinity.
Bernie Sanders might just be able to unite and excite that wide swathe of voters who hate ‘politics as usual’. That’s a huge constituency.
— Stacey Walker (@swalker06) February 2, 2020
It would be an extremely bold choice, but that’s exactly what voters are desperately craving. More than anything they seem to want someone different, and right now – particularly in a political landscape defined by optional voting – the most different candidate might actually be the most electable.
‘Experts’ might say otherwise, of course, but many of those same experts (myself included) also said that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly win in 2016. Likewise, the ‘received wisdom’ fifteen years ago would have been that there was no way an African American man with comparatively little political experience could beat decorated war veteran John McCain to the presidency. But, we all know how that one turned out.
So, forget what the experts say. Yes, Bernie Sanders might be the ‘nuclear option’, but that is exactly the kind of weapon Democrats need to unseat Donald Trump.
Like I said, American democracy might depend on it.
Stephen Harrington is an Associate Professor in Communication at the Queensland University of Technology. He’s a struggling musician in his spare time. Follow him on Twitter: @_StephenH