Was Bernie Sanders ever a real socialist?

Biden on the left

On April 8, 2020, Bernie Sanders canceled his election campaign. Covid-19 and the nationwide protests against police violence have all kept us in suspense since then that it is easy to forget what a crash it was back then after promising beginnings. After Sanders ‘triumphant primary victory in Nevada on February 22, it was widely accepted who the Democrats would vote for their presidential candidate. Bernie Twitter was in awe, and even people from the opposing wing of the party I know began to come to terms with his candidacy and prepared to support the independent Vermont senator's campaign.

But then, on February 29, just a week after Nevada, Joe Biden defeated Sanders in South Carolina. Three days later, on March 3, Super Tuesday, Biden won ten out of fourteen primary elections, many of them by a large margin. And that was it for Sanders too. I've been writing about the Democratic Primaries since 1988 and can't remember a single one in which the likely end result was so drastically and so suddenly overturned.

It is not easy for any politician to admit to himself that he has to break off an election campaign. I think it was particularly difficult for Sanders, since he had called for nothing less than a political revolution. With that he seemed so close to victory that he was probably already preparing the list of speakers at his election meeting in his mind. The admission of defeat is also a problem for its supporters - especially probably those of its most ardent supporters who despise the Democratic Party and those politicians who consider themselves liberals refer to: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama - yes, basically anyone who is not Sanders (or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

But as much as some of his supporters resisted and tried despite everything to knock Biden out of the field - Sanders himself campaigned to bury the dispute. Faiz Shakir, Sanders ’respected campaign manager, told me that when the senator abandoned his campaign, it was clear that cooperation was the order of the day. "Senator Sanders asked me and [his longtime advisor, Jeff] Weaver to reach out to our Biden friends and see what it would bring if we merged these two worlds," Shakir said.

Said friends were Ron Klain and Anita Dunn, two establishment Democrats. In Sanders ‘universe there are de facto two kinds of left. One I would describe as the “far left” in his movement - the aforementioned, mostly younger “Bernie-or-bust” troop, the - all or nothing! - wants to slam the door to the establishment. Her center is primarily New York, and she acts loudly and uncompromisingly. The “inside left,” including people like Shakir, who knows his way around Washington - he worked for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid - thinks it makes sense to push the party's moderate MPs to the left. This group respects people like Klain, a persistent and harsh critic of Donald Trump on the news channel MSNBC, who, as Obama's coordinator in the fight against the Ebola epidemic, showed the world a few years ago that the United States knew how to prevent it from spreading Contain virus.

In fact, there were talks between the two camps even before Sanders campaign abandonment. When the virus came to the fore in the first half of March, both sides negotiated mutual event cancellations. On the occasion of the last round of candidates before the lockdown on March 15, they agreed to shake hands with one elbow bump to replace. Later in March, when the number of infections skyrocketed, they kept each other informed of their respective activities. After Sanders resignation, the discussions between the two camps shifted to questions of substance and to what extent Biden might be willing to adopt parts of the Sanders agenda. This led to the formation of six working groups for the Biden campaign, which were presented to the public on May 13th. Made up of eight members each, these groups deal with the fields of business, health care, immigration, criminal justice, climate and education, with each task force being chaired by a Biden and a Sanders supporter.

The left wing is remarkably present in several groups. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shares the chairmanship of the climate panel with ex-Foreign Secretary John Kerry. Congressman Pramila Jayapal from Seattle, one of Sanders ‘mainstays, leads the health care working group together with Vivek Murthy - head of the US health authority under Obama. The economic group includes economist Stephanie Kelton, a leading Sanders advisor and proponent of the Modern Monetary Theory, which calls for the state to fund major investments like the Green New Deal by printing more money. I understand that the task of the working groups has three aspects: First recommending to the public the political positions that should shape Biden's campaign; Secondly to guide the elaboration of the election manifesto; and third in the event that Biden wins, to act as a transition team (always based on the assumption that the elections will take place at all or will not be falsified). It is reasonable to assume that some members of these working groups could take on important tasks in a Biden administration.

The new reality and the change of Joe Biden

Of course, it is in our mutual interest to work together to beat Trump. Today's situation differs significantly from that of 2016, in which Sanders, after losing to Hillary Clinton in the primaries at the beginning of June, let the bitterness run wild well into the summer. The difference can be traced back to several factors: Biden and Sanders get along quite well on a human level, and Biden realizes that he has to take the left seriously. But the determining factor is of course the virus. Most observers believe that Biden has become a different person since the outbreak of the pandemic. Over the past year, he has sometimes spoken of his presidential candidacy as if it were intended to return to a pre-Trump era. Today he is dealing with a completely different constellation. Unemployment is approaching the 15 percent mark and protests and calls for change are becoming more and more urgent. The crisis exposes the precarious situation in which so many Americans lived before the virus broke out with shocking clarity. And in this constellation, Biden suddenly sees himself transferred to the role of Franklin Roosevelt - a leader who grows into the tremendous responsibility that history imposes on it and initiates a fundamental change. Certainly how much Biden has changed is sometimes exaggerated. But the change is real, and the prospect of a Biden presidency - assuming it goes hand in hand with the Democrats gaining the Senate majority - raises very different expectations today than two months ago.

One of the oldest platitudes about presidential election campaigns is that candidates tend to be more left or right in pre-election campaign times, but then move to the center in the actual election. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has been moving to the left since his nomination seemed certain. As early as mid-March, he adopted a variant of Elizabeth Warren's Free College Plan to abolish tuition fees and cancel accrued student debts. On April 9, under the influence of the pandemic, he announced that as President he would lower the age of access to Medicare services from 65 to 60 years, which would open this program to a further 23 million people (including at least one million in Florida and at least 500,000 each in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio). [1]

In both cases, Biden will not take over the positions of Warrens or Sanders ‘in full. His plan to abolish tuition has a household income cap of $ 125,000, while Warren's version has no such limit. (The left-wing criticism of all such “free college for everyone” projects complains that they amount to an unnecessary subsidy for the children of the wealthy; Biden's version avoids this cliff.) And when it comes to Medicare, Biden keeps his distance from Sanders' “Medicare for All ", which provides for the abolition of private insurance. Nonetheless, a number of Democratic officials and liberal (left) activists I spoke to found Biden's moves quite remarkable. They are seen as an expression of both the increased strength of the left within the Democratic Party and a surprising willingness on the part of Biden to approach a faction of his party that for most of his political life - almost half a century - weak and easy to capture was.

The rhetorical change is even more amazing. In a CNN interview on April 7, the day before Sanders (as Biden probably already knew) left his election campaign, Biden was asked what economic situation he would likely face if he was elected. The former Vice President replied, “I think it will even eclipse the situation that FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the historic New Deal] faced. [...] We have a chance, Chris, to do so much now to change some of the structural things that are wrong; some of the structural things we haven't been interested in so far. "

This remark seemed to signal that Biden's new tones meant more than nice words, which are usually used to conciliate groups of voters that are needed. It sounded like he had actually rethought, mainly under the impression of Covid-19. Not so much because the virus would have pushed Biden to the left. Rather, it is reality itself that the virus gave a nudge to the left, and Biden followed it.

Then George Floyd was brutally killed by police officers on May 25 in Minneapolis. The murder and the wave of protests that followed it in America's cities prompted Biden to speak out emphatically and eloquently on racist injustice. Speaking at the City Hall of Philadelphia on June 2, he said, "It is time to deal with systemic racism." It is now about "long overdue steps" such as a legal ban on the police stranglehold, no longer equipping the police with war weapons and creating one National Police Oversight Commission as a central supervisory body. This may not seem exciting at first, but each and every one of these steps would create enormous controversy.

Officially, you don't want to hear anything about a dramatic change in your campaign team. "Actually, from the outset there was not enough appreciation for how progressive we are," complained a Biden employee and pointed out to me a newspaper article from the McClatchy Group from last fall - a comparison of the election platforms Biden and Hillary Clintons. He had already found Biden's program to be “ambitious and left-wing” in matters of health care, climate policy, criminal justice and beyond. "With regard to almost all important issues," it said there, "Biden either expanded Clinton's proposals enormously or introduced new ideas that would have seemed borderline to most Democrats until recently." [2]

That may be so. However, Biden's program didn't look particularly progressive to many, especially young people, compared to Sanders' or Warren's. And it should not be overlooked that it was not his program that paved the way for him to be nominated. What made him the presumably safe presidential candidate was that he appeared to most Democratic voters as the safest choice. His ideology - that he is Not Left is - certainly plays a role: In South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states, there was unmistakable panic among Democratic Party voters at the idea of ​​sending someone with Sanders ‘program into the battle against Trump. But other factors also counted: the familiarity of the voters with Biden, his connection to the beloved Obama and - let's not kid ourselves - his gender and skin color. (It may be strange, but perhaps inevitable, that a primary campaign that began with multiple women and blacks resulted in the two most famous white men).

What follows from Biden's reconsideration

Before the pandemic, the Democratic electorate settled for a restoration: an attempt to clean up the wreckage of Trump's shipwreck and small tweaks to what Obama had achieved. But that electorate and its presumed candidate seem to see things differently today. Biden has recognized, as his quoted statement in an interview with Chris Cuomo suggests, that history assigns him a new role: His task is not simply to beat Trump and restore America's pre-Trumpian normality, but to make America clear make that this normalcy was never good enough.

What is really significant is what follows from this rethinking. Biden could now be willing to abandon the economic principles that have determined politics in this country for forty years: the neoliberal rules of free markets, the lowest possible state intervention or investment, avoidance of budget deficits and so on. He could thus be willing to free himself from the values ​​and politics that have brought us the rampant inequality of our time, this superclass of billionaires, this ethos of playing off those who are supposedly entitled to their wealth against those who are poor and not deserve better. Republican governments have fully embraced these principles - except for deficits, which the Grand Old Party deals with absolutely unprincipled and hypocritical. [3] But the last two Democratic administrations did the same for a while, for example when Obama began talking about deficit reduction in early 2010. Obama was a bitter disappointment to a lot of people who were hoping for more public funding for infrastructure investments, healthcare, and climate initiatives. "That Obama and his team accepted - yes, even publicly endorsed - the turnaround in austerity policy in 2010 was an absolute disaster," said J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who had served in the Clinton administration.

To fill his words with substance, Biden will have to defy decades-old doctrines about public debt and work vigorously towards massive public investment. "He won't just ignore [the deficit] like Republicans do when they cut taxes," one of his co-workers told me. "But he does understand how great the pressure to act is and what economic price this society is paying [for the current course], as the pandemic shows us."

I also met an external expert who had talked to him about Biden's agenda in group discussions and who told me that the candidate understood the problematic situation I have outlined here very well in every respect. He admitted that the economic impact of the virus and the consequences of Trump's tax cuts would inevitably lead to significant pressure from the deficit hardliners, but said that there was a kind of basic consensus in Biden's surroundings: "He will have a debt burden of around 115 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). But if the Democrats accept this debt inheritance blocking their agenda, we will achieve nothing. ”(115 percent national debt would be the highest ever, except in the situation at the end of World War II.) Biden's reference to Roosevelt, he said quoted consultant, "to the seriousness of the hour - by comparing the current situation with the Great Depression and making it clear how people suffer again and again from market failures, while an underfunded public sector offers them no protection."

Except for that section of the left who continue to distrust Biden, have fundamental concerns about him, or even despise him, it is widely perceived that the candidate is changing.For example, Felicia Wong, head of the Roosevelt Institute, told me, "Vice President Biden has increasingly recognized that our problems are structural, not merely cyclical," a distinction that implies that things will not correct themselves. She was particularly impressed that Biden is now committed to “massive green investments”.

Corrupt and a Marxist in disguise: is Biden moving too far to the left?

The Republicans have by no means escaped Biden's change. A Facebook ad for the Trump election campaign announced that the candidate “is not essentially different from the radical socialist Bernie Sanders” [4] - a slogan that the President likes to spread on Twitter and in interviews. Biden is certainly not a socialist (and the Trump campaign would have labeled him one way or another), but one can still wonder if he's moving too far to the left - so far that his election chances in November could suffer.

Trump will be able to count on 45 percent of the electorate to remain loyal to him - unless the pandemic gets worse in the fall and the economy plummets. Because there were two prominent third-party candidates in 2016, Trump managed to win with 46.1 percent of the votes cast (Clinton got more - 48.2 percent - but Trump won in the Electoral College, the crucial "electoral body"). This year it doesn't look like there will be any outstanding third-party candidacies. It also seems that many who voted green or libertarian four years ago because they assumed Clinton would win anyway, will be more interested this time in beating Trump. That would mean that Trump this time has to win 50 percent, or at least almost half of the electorate. That could be difficult for him, given his balance sheet: Unemployment could - even in an otherwise positive scenario from his point of view - still be above the 10 percent mark in November. [5] So Trump could only do it if he proceeded in the way that corresponds to his toxic modus operandi anyway - by denigrating Biden: he was firstly corrupt and secondly a Marxist in disguise.

On the first point: The “corrupt” narrative that Trump has been straining - with regard to Biden's son Hunter and his Ukraine business - since last year has so far not caught on. According to a nationwide survey by Quinnipiac University in May 2020, respondents considered Biden to be far more honest than Trump (47 percent said Biden was honest, 41 percent saw it differently; in Trump's case the ratio was 34: 62) misleading Facebook ads will still have an impact next fall. But that doesn't necessarily mean that a critical mass of real swing voters will come to the conclusion that anyone who is against corruption must vote for Trump, of all people.

That leaves point two: socialism. In this regard, the interesting thing about Biden's new positions is that he takes up relevant issues without adopting any 100% leftist positions. He supports the call for the abolition of tuition fees - but only partially. He advocates expanding the Medicare program - but again only up to a point. His climate plan calls for the CO2- To bring emissions to zero by 2050, while left-wing groups want to achieve this goal by 2030. Biden would limit new fracking projects but not affect existing sources. Environmentalists don't like this, but it should help win Pennsylvania, a state that has over seven thousand fracking oil wells.

In some cases, as is so often the case in politics, it is a question of symbolism and gestures. In the real legislative process, unsatisfactory compromises will inevitably result. Climate activists are certainly not wrong when they insist that we no longer have time for this. But it is hard to imagine that our political system could produce anything else. On the other hand, the Democrats often suffer from a problem that many describe as a kind of “negotiating with oneself”: Let's start with 2030 as a target instead of 2050, says this school of thought, and then see what comes out of it. Seen in this way, what counts as “left” can sometimes be highly subjective - more a matter of rhetorical zeal and the use of certain catchphrases as a political location. Two Democrats could basically take identical positions, but if one sells his policies as "prudent" and the other as a challenge to corporate power, these two Democrats will be seen as fundamentally different by the public.

Biden's change is probably less a political change than one of his image. However, we should not underestimate how important an image change can be. It can induce politicians not only to set new accents rhetorically, but also to actually set other priorities. For example, Biden has a pretty tough anti-corruption agenda. It would close loopholes in tax law that allow politicians to hide their property and promises a wide range of further reforms. These are topics that Elizabeth Warren is also very concerned with. I heard from a source in the Warren camp that the "resolution to enforce these standards unilaterally in the executive branch [is] transformative" - ​​so to speak, "system-changing". For a centrist Biden, all of these were just paper words. But Biden, who presents himself as a left-wing liberal fighter - and who has a relationship with Warren that did not exist a few months ago - would, who knows, possibly invest more political capital in these issues. Warren is now well ahead in the field of potential Biden Vizes. If Biden were to choose her, the left would go into ecstasy. That would not apply to California Senator Kamala Harris, the other top candidate. Harris is also a former prosecutor - anything but a recommendation in the current constellation. But she is afro-and asian american woman (her mother is from India, her father is from Jamaica), and Joe Biden is deeply indebted to black voters. After all, it was they who thwarted Sanders and paved the way for Biden to be nominated. For her part, Warren, a Senator from Massachusetts, is struggling with the handicap of the state being ruled by a Republican governor, Charlie Baker, who could appoint her successor, even if that could possibly be avoided. [6]Whom Biden to his running mate makes, that will be perhaps the most momentous of the decisions he is now faced with. Even if someone who is nominated as a vice-presidential candidate seldom plays a major role in the end, you will initially interpret a lot into the nomination itself.

John Cowan, chairman of a moderate Democratic think tank called the Third Way, says Biden has big plans without moving to the left. "Big is not the same on the left," he told me. “To assume this is the fundamental political and intellectual fallacy of the people who follow the prevailing doctrine.” In the sense that Medicare at sixty is “not left” because it is not “Medicare for All”, Cowan is not wrong. It would be a big step nonetheless.

It depends on the Senate

In November it will be crucial whether Trump can persuade tens of thousands of voters in key states that Biden's program is socialist. Cowan thinks it won't work. Third Way has literally examined all of the ads and commercials used by GOP congressional candidates to campaign against Democrats in 2018. They called practically everyone a socialist, he says, but if the Democrat in question is not Medicare for All had occurred, the accusation simply did not stick to him. “If a socialist is, people buy the charge, "says Cowan," and if he's not, most of them don't. "

Stuart Stevens is a former Republican Political Advisor who worked for both the Bush-Cheney team in 2000 and Romney-Ryan in 2012. His old party disgusts him now and today, he told me, he considers himself a democrat. Whatever to make of that, it reflects the sentiment of a certain type of moderate or anti-Trump Republicans who might be inclined to vote for Biden. I asked Stevens if he saw a risk that Biden might offend these voters. "No," he said. “I don't think Biden is moving too far to the left. He doesn't have to win white votes. They [the Democrats] don't need a single Trump voter. ”In 2016, turnout for African Americans and Latinos fell for the first time in 20 years, Stevens said. "Romney lost Wisconsin, Trump won it back," he said. "And this, although Romney got more votes than Trump." Whether it was due to a lack of enthusiasm or to voter suppression lag, [7] we don't know, but anyway, says Stevens: The most promising way for Biden is to mobilize as many components of the Democratic Coalition as humanly possible. But if that's his job, it might actually help Biden move to the left on election day, as much as history and tradition speak against it.

Any consideration of what President Biden could do remains a pipe dream if it ignores the Senate. As things stand now, you don't have to be a savvy political observer to know one thing: if Mitch McConnell and his Republicans continue to control the Senate, Biden's agenda is dead, no matter how sweeping and ambitious it may be. That would bring us two more years of frustration - and possibly the Republican retaking of the House of Representatives in 2022.

As a result, everything depends on the Democrats holding the House of Representatives in the fall (as is currently widely expected) and recapture the Senate. In view of falling approval rates for Trump in the first half of the year, experts are granting the Democrats growing chances of success. Many observers now believe that four Republican senators are at grave risk of losing their seats: Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Four more Senators will have to fight hard for re-election in states like - as unlikely as it sounds - Kansas, Montana and Georgia (where both Senate seats are at stake). The Republicans currently have a 53-47 majority in the Senate. One of the Democratic senators, Doug Jones of Alabama, looks set to lose. So the Democrats have to win four seats to get a majority.

It may be that Joe Biden then actually developed Rooseveltian ambitions. There is one thing he cannot expect, however - Congressional majorities the size Roosevelt had. In his first term, there were 313 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 59 in the Senate (plus two senators from smaller parties who supported the New Deal). Even if history should give Biden the chance to lead this country out of Trumpism, out of the pandemic and out of four decades of class war, he will still have to accept that the Senate today is not the one whose doors he first stepped through in 1973. Biden has recently cleared some psychological hurdles, but the most important test will not await him until after his election: the difficult majority search in parliament.

This article first appeared under the title "Biden’s Journey Left" in the "New York Review of Books", 11/2020. The translation is by Karl D. Bredthauer.

[1] See Chris Sloan, Neil Rosacker and Ellyn Frohberg, Nearly 23M Individuals May Be Eligible for Medicare Coverage Under Biden Proposal, Avalere, April 21, 2020.

[2] See Alex Roarty, Biden Is Labeled a Moderate. But His Agenda Is Far More Liberal Than Hillary Clinton’s, McClatchy, 10.9.2019.

[3] Republicans, as is often sarcastically noted, never worry about deficits unless the Democrats rule. As soon as they are in power, they decide on huge tax cuts and run up the deficit. Then when the next Democrat sits in the White House and dares to suggest a few moderate increases in spending, they immediately scream, "But the deficit!"

[4] See Jack Brewster, Trump Campaign Facebook Ad Strategy: Paint Biden as a Socialist, in: “Forbes”, April 13, 2020.

[5] The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasts 11.7 percent. See Phil Swagel, CBO’s Current Projections of Output, Employment, and Interest Rates and a Preliminary Look at Federal Deficits for 2020 and 2021, CBO Blog, April 24, 2020.

[6] See, for example, Joshua Green, Elizabeth Warren’s Path to Becoming VP Is Easier Than It Looks, in: “Bloomberg Businessweek”, May 18, 2020. The matter is not straightforward, but could ultimately result in the large majority of Democrats in Congress changing the succession law and removing Baker's right to appoint a successor.

[7] Various forms of electoral obstruction of non-white population groups. See Michael Tomasky, The Specter Haunting the Senate, in “The New York Review of Books”, September 30, 2010 and the article by Karl-Dieter Hoffmann in this issue.