Why Bernie Sanders Is More Popular Than the Squad
Identity doesn't explain it all
Who is the heir to Bernie Sanders? In a recent feature for the New Republic, I set out to answer this question and explore the state of contemporary socialism. The very short answer is no one. The Squad, the leftist members of Congress who function loosely as Sanders disciples, are still too early in their careers and lacking in tangible political power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most famous, is only 33. The fact that Joe Biden, at age 80, is facing no viable primary challenge from the left is evidence enough that a vacuum on the national stage has opened up. Sanders, who will turn 82 next month, has already endorsed Biden, along with Ocasio-Cortez. Neither has made any policy demands in return for their endorsements. Both, like good Democrats—Sanders is an independent but effectively functions as a Democrat in the Senate—have talked about the dire threat of another Donald Trump term and left it there.
Sanders, of course, was never elected president, and performed worse the second time he ran in 2020. A leftist who campaigns for the presidency in the future must learn from his mistakes and recalibrate for a resilient Democratic establishment and voters who might be wary of radical change. But Sanders pushed further than any unabashedly left-wing primary contender in modern times—the only other Democrat to find such success was Jesse Jackson—and won tens of millions of votes. He almost single-handedly revived the Democratic Socialists of America, who still boast more than 80,000 members nationwide. In 2016, he upset Hillary Clinton in Michigan, and in 2020 he was the victor in California and Nevada, galvanizing a young generation of Latinos. His warning, from his first campaign, that Democrats were losing the white working class and neglecting the deindustrialized Midwest proved prescient after Donald Trump smashed through the so-called blue wall. Even now, with Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the Democratic hold on this region is tenuous at best. Voters of all races sans college degrees are now bleeding out of the Democratic Party. Sanders was always acutely concerned with this vulnerable class and understood how Democrats, whether it was with NAFTA or their embrace of wasteful international conflicts, had slowly abandoned them.
Some leftists, at least online, have taken a different lesson from Sanders’ rise to prominence: he was able to court voters because he was a white man. “The fundamental trick for left wing politicians is if they’re seen as an independent voice or a divisive radical. Sadly the dividing line for this distinction is often gender and race. It’s absolutely not policy,” one user wrote in a post liked nearly 500 times. “This is why Bernie has always polled very well while all of the squad members have underperformed even though they have the exact same platform.” Matthew Sitman, the co-host of the popular progressive podcast Know Your Enemy, echoed these sentiments. “This seems right to me (sadly). A crusty old white guy like Bernie really is perceived differently than, say, AOC,” Sitman wrote.
There’s enough anecdotal evidence to back this up. Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, another well-known member of the Squad, regularly face down harassment from Fox News and various right-wing politicians, as does Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian congresswoman from Michigan. All three politicians are women of color and it’s no accident they’ve encountered such venomous attacks. The amount of scrutiny they’ve endured may have done damage to their long-term political prospects. It’s no longer clear to me that AOC, as formidable as she is, could win a statewide Democratic primary in New York. There are enough Democrats now who have tired of her fiery, digital-friendly progressivism.
To chalk up all of Sanders’ relative success to his identity would be a mistake, however, just as it would be simplistic to say women of color can’t triumph in challenging swing seats where moderate Democrats and Republicans make up a large share of the electorate. Catherine Cortez Masto was just re-elected as a senator from Nevada. Lauren Underwood, a 36-year-old Black woman, has continued to win highly competitive House elections in Illinois. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a 35-year-old woman of Mexican ancestry, flipped a Republican seat in Washington State last year. None of them identified as socialists or even outright progressives, which is not heartening to those on the left who have been hunting for more politicians modeled on Sanders or even Matt Cartwright, the Medicare for All-supporting Pennsylvania congressman who has managed to keep hold of his swing seat. If anything, Cortez Masto, Gluesenkamp Perez, and Underwood are direct refutations of the left-wing argument that it’s “not policy” that determines whether someone can win elections or be popular. Message discipline mattered greatly for all three of those women.
White men, too, are not safe from the wrath of Republicans. Just ask the 46th president, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.