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Opinion: Bernie can beat Trump, he's the only one who can

Sanders’ centrist critics deliberately miss the point of his appeal, writes Conor Kenny.

Conor Kenny

IN THE LEAD up to the debacle of the Iowa caucuses, the liberal cable news networks in America were faced with a problem – how to downplay the likely strong performance of Senator Bernie Sanders in the first contest to decide the nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2020 general election.

Sanders’ critics on news networks, namely CNN and MSNBC, appear to have opted for a two-pronged strategy – to characterize the septuagenarian socialist as an out-of-touch idealist, in addition to being a dangerous populist who plays to disaffected blue-collar workers.

The first claim is evidently untrue, but the second, far from being a weakness, actually holds the key to understanding why Sanders is the only viable Democratic candidate who can win in November.

The ‘Bernie Bros’

An unfair stereotype has been created of the Sanders supporter, that of the clicktivist male college student with a natty beard, a taste for obscure IPA beer and a penchant for harassing Clinton supporters from 2016 on Twitter.

To be sure, these supporters exist in numbers, but they are equally likely to be found in other Presidential campaigns with millennial appeal – the Warren, Gabbard and Yang campaigns, for instance.

The reason this stereotype is being crafted by mainstream Democrats is that it is a helpful image for the average CNN viewer to have. It paints Sanders’ followers as out of touch idealists with intolerant tendencies, and tars them with the same brush as the campus adherents of identitarian “cancel culture”.

In reality, sympathizers with the Bernie 2020 campaign are far more politically and culturally diverse than the establishment would often care to admit.

Joe Rogan

This was exemplified clearly in the recent Joe Rogan saga, in which the controversial podcaster stated that he would likely vote for Sanders in the primary and the general election.

Rogan is not right-wing, but he has been criticised for homophobic and transphobic comments and it’s fair to say his show reaches an American listenership with culturally conservative tastes.

The backlash that followed Sanders’ retweet of this endorsement, not least from Biden’s camp (who, along with other candidates, had attempted to appear on Rogan’s show), was predictable. Biden criticised Sanders for accepting the endorsement.

Here was Sanders courting an endorsement from exactly the kind of realm that will be influential to winning over Trump supporters in 2020, and this was somehow unacceptable to other Democrats.

Sanders’ appearances on Fox News Town Halls over the last few years have been similarly well-received by audience members, but he is also criticised for having the temerity to appear on that network, too.

This is yet another example of the centrists wanting to have their cake and eat it. Sanders detractors are welcome to try and claim that his campaign’s policies and tactics are dangerous because they speak to the same supporter base as Trump’s, or they can say his politics are out of touch with disaffected blue-collar workers.

But it’s one or the other – they can’t have it both ways.

Biden’s ‘project fear’

Joe Biden, who has been perpetually running for President with varying levels of failure since the 1980s, has repeatedly warned of the dangers of what he views as Sanders’ pie-in-the-sky policies.

He was quick to point out the failures of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent leadership of the Labour Party in the U.K as a warning to the Democrats of the dangers of associating their party with radical socialism.

But even leaving aside the ideological differences between the US Democratic Party and the UK Labour Party, this attempted parallel willfully ignores the fact that the issue of Brexit was the centrepiece of that recent election, and that leftists in Britain have been historically divided on the issue. Such an issue does not exist in American politics.

Attempts to cherry-pick contemporary international parallels in Western democracies are therefore rarely helpful, and it could just as easily be pointed out to Biden that Sinn Fein is currently leading opinion polls ahead of the general election in Ireland, and that Spain currently has a government comprised of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the democratic socialist party, Unidas Podemos.

Socialists can and do win elections, and perhaps this is the real fear for centrists and liberals.

The fact of the matter is that the rules of the game for elections have been torn up in recent years. A moderate, establishment candidate ran against a right-wing populist in the American 2016 election and lost.

A return to that brand of politics entirely misses the point that the centre no longer holds. Trump himself is worried about the prospect of facing Sanders, precisely because of the fact that the Vermont Senator’s policies appeal to his supporter base, as recently leaked audio from 2018 demonstrates.

Democrats would be wise to pick the only viable candidate who can appeal to Trump’s base, and offers a bold enough vision to beat him at the ballot box in November.

Conor Kenny is a former political aide and trade union staffer currently based in Massachusetts.


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Conor Kenny

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