Does Sanders Prove that the Left Is Coming Back?

Or would it have happened with or without him?

My problem with this Ryan Cooper piece isn’t that I necessarily disagree with his argument. Actually, I do not think that I do. My problem is that he doesn’t give me many reasons to accept his argument.

If the question is whether or not the candidacy of Bernie Sanders will have a significant and lasting impact, and/or that its surprising strength is a leading indicator of a resurgent left-wing in American politics, then I think Cooper needs to do better than to point out that Sanders “ran on extremely aggressive and easy-to-understand left-wing policy.”

Of course, Cooper also points out that Sanders had been “for years the most left-wing member of the Senate, from the second-smallest state in the nation.” But I don’t think either of those facts help us answer the question.

What Cooper is responding to is a study by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels which purports to show that “it is a mistake to assume that voters who support Mr. Sanders because he is not Mrs. Clinton necessarily favor his left-leaning policy views.”

Exit polls conducted in two dozen primary and caucus states from early February through the end of April reveal only modest evidence of ideological structure in Democratic voting patterns, but ample evidence of the importance of group loyalties.

Mr. Sanders did just nine points better, on average, among liberals than he did among moderates. By comparison, he did 11 points worse among women than among men, 18 points worse among nonwhites than among whites and 28 points worse among those who identified as Democrats than among independents.

It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly account for such substantial cleavages. They are reflections of social identities, symbolic commitments and partisan loyalties.

Yet commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism, or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.

It’s true, we might expect a Blue Dog Democrat or a candidate like former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to run stronger than Clinton among whites and men and independents. Of course, a common mistake is to think that independents are in the middle instead of on the fringes. This is probably never more true than in a partisan primary or caucus. So, Sanders’ strength with independents might be the key to seeing where his left-wing support was coming from.

What we definitely know is that a ton of Sanders’ support was coming from young voters, regardless of race or gender. And that seems to me to be the best indicator that the future will be more friendly to Sanders’s brand of politics than the past.

But, then, is Sanders really responsible for this future? Did he indoctrinate a whole generation of kids into despising Wall Street and capitalism? Will it be relatively easy in the future to raise tax revenue and win support for things like free college education and needed infrastructure spending?

It’s hard to disentangle something like that, but Sanders at least gave voice to a resurgent left and found a receptive and enthusiastic audience with our nation’s future voters.

You can try to diminish how left-wing his support actually is by pointing out that racial minorities (who presumably have the most to gain from a left-wing resurgence) actually rejected his pitch and stuck with the woman who made all those speeches to Wall Street executives. You can point out that women, who trend more left than men, were not persuaded to abandon a chance at having the first woman president, but I don’t see how that means that they love Goldman Sachs and expensive college.

There are a lot of men who don’t really like Hillary Clinton, and not a few who aren’t thrilled with the idea of any woman being the president. But I don’t think that explains why Sanders was so popular on our college campuses.

My intuition tells me that a combination of demographic change, expensive college, expensive housing, and stagnating wages will lead to a resurgent left in the near future. I don’t think Sanders created this future, but he identified what they’re going to care about. And he proved that you can now say things in American politics and get taken seriously when only a few years ago you would have been laughed out of town.

The flip side is what Trump represents. He represents the nonconstructive reaction to our economic difficulties, and he also represents the crackup of the Republican Party. The GOP isn’t going to be able to continue in its old form and have political success on a national level. Their national security/pro-business/Christian conservative model is not only completely rejected by the next generation, but there’s no longer any consensus between those groups even within the party.

So, the left will enjoy a period here where they play the Harlem Globetrotters to the Republican’s Washington Generals. I think that guarantees a left-wing resurgence. Just think about the Courts, for starters.

As a result, I think the Sanders campaign will be remembered fondly. I think it will be seen as a turning point. I’m just not sure it will actually deserve a whole lot of credit for anything other than being timely.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.