Is Bernie Sanders the man to beat Trump?

There is no 'silver bullet' theory of how to defeat 'The Donald', but Sanders values and approach make him the Democrats' best bet

US senator Bernie Sanders.

US senator Bernie Sanders.

It has been a week of mixed emotions for Insider. On Monday April 8 we saw a vibrant coalition of union, civil society, and cross-party groups come together for a 'Raise the Roof' rally on housing in Eyre Square.

Along with the anger over the various housing crises we face, there was a sense of hope that this show of unity augured well for concerted action. Then, last Thursday, Sinn Féin locked arms with Fine Gael to narrowly defeat a Labour Party Dáil motion that proposed the State build 80,000 new social housing units over the next five years. So much for 'new politics'.

And so, Insider turned his attention to US politics, a space with no less cynicism, factional positioning, and empty rhetoric. With just about 21 months to go until the next US presidential inauguration, the fight to be the Democratic challenger to face off against Donald Trump is heating up. There are - last time Insider checked - 18 confirmed candidates for the Democratic nomination, with at least another six considering entering the race.

bernie sanders capitol hill

The field is likely to grow slightly as we move through the summer, then get winnowed rapidly, as some fail to gain sufficient traction (measured initially by things like number of individual donors to their campaigns ) and are excluded from all-important television debates and coverage. Then, from 2020, early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire will lock in, not just crucial delegate votes, but narratives of success and failure.

When Rolling Stone, early this week, updated its 'leaderboard' of candidates, senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris topped the list. The leaderboard is, of course, emblematic of what Chomsky has dismissed as the 'horse race' tendency in US political journalism - cover political campaigns first in terms of speculation about success; then in relation to the impact of messaging, tactics, and trivia on success; and after that, in third place comes substantive analysis of policy proposals and actions taken.

bernie sanders flag

Sanders tops the list because he is 'seen' as a front-runner, a handy position to hold, guaranteeing attention in the months to come. That front-runner narrative is driven in part by his strong second-place finish in the 2016 Democratic primary process. However, it is also supported by an acknowledgement that Sanders' 2016 campaign helped put certain policy proposals onto centre-stage - universal healthcare, concerns about economic inequality, proposals for free third-level education - and to change the narrative around leftwing politics in the United States.

Sanders is an unapologetic, and long-standing, proponent of democratic socialism, and his advocacy for his policy proposals has long included pointing to the work of democratic socialists elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where universal healthcare, the social safety net, access to education, and dignity at work, have long been signature issues of the parties associated with the PES, the Party of European Socialists, such as Labour here in Ireland, the Parti Socialiste in France, and the SPD in Germany.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Democratic socialism is seeing something of a resurgence in the US, with several adherents elected at local and federal level. The most prominent recent addition is probably AOC, as recently-elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [pictured above] is known, along with Rashida Tlaib, a congresswoman from Michigan. Policy proposals backed by AOC and Tlaib, like the Green New Deal plan, may not have yet gained congressional backing, but like Sanders, they are helping to change the narrative about what issues are seen as 'on' the policy agenda, as well as the range of solutions seen as 'viable'.

'The goal of the Sanders' 2020 campaign is that "the movement we build together can achieve economic, racial, social and environmental justice for all"'

While there has been a shift to the right in European politics in recent years, there are some positive signs here too. Just this week, the SDP triumphed in the Finnish elections, with the likelihood it will now lead in government for the first time in more than two decades. In Spain, opinion polls put the PSOE in the lead, as we get into the last two weeks before its general election. While opinion polls suggest continued fragmentation in European elections, the PES and its allies in the S&D group are likely to, once again, form one of the two main blocks in the parliament, just behind Fine Gael's EPP grouping.

bernie sanders fistpump

The goal of the Sanders' 2020 campaign is that "the movement we build together can achieve economic, racial, social and environmental justice for all". There are resonances there with the PES at a European level, and its longstanding commitment to developing the 'social pillar' of the EU alongside economic rights, and also to the vision for Galway championed locally by Labour, with its 'Living City for a Living World'.

Just as Labour representatives like Ged Nash have focused on the rights and dignity of those in low-paid work - with increases to the minimum wage, the establishment of the low pay commission to secure ongoing increases, and introduction of union organising rules that make it easier for workers to advocate for better pay - Sanders has endorsed calls for a nationwide $15 minimum wage in the US.

Peter Buttigieg

Looking towards Sanders' prospects for next year, it seems likely he will, once again, be in the final pool of candidates - if nothing else, his pugnacious grit makes it unlikely he will drop out sooner than is prudent, though part of what has helped him thrive as an independent in Washington has been an ability to assess risk/reward, and react accordingly.

The current rivalry at the top of the 'leaderboard' illustrates a number of different ways in which the Democratic field can be divided, and on which candidates will be judged. There are those on the economic Left (Sanders, Sen Elizabeth Warren, and a few others ) against more centrist/conservative economic visions. There is division over foreign policy, with Sanders recently allying himself more closely with the non-interventionist wing of the party.

'One of the challenges for 2020 will be having a vigorous campaign, yes, but also ending it with a reasonably united Democratic party'

Issues of gender and race will matter, again, in this cycle - six women have so far declared as candidates, with a seventh (Stacey Abrams of Georgia ) also considering a run, though Insider would suspect she will keep her substantial energies and talents for other projects; there are at least five visible minorities in the race, along with the much-hyped mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Peter Buttigieg [pictured above], a gay man. Having such a diverse panel of candidates is not merely a matter of optics - it will shape the conversations that happen in debates and on the campaign trail; which should contribute to media framing; and is likely to shape national conversations (big and small ) around not just the presidency but a slate of policy issues that intersect with it.

Coming out of the 2016 race, there was a lot of bitterness among those who felt betrayed - Clinton supporters who viewed Sanders as an interloper, a Manchurian candidate who had, in running a vigorous and hard-hitting campaign, scuttled Clinton; Sanders supporters who witnessed the establishment protect its own, and believed rules had not just been bent, but broken; on both sides, those who blamed the opposing candidate (and their supporters ) for Trump's win.

One of the challenges for 2020 will be having a vigorous campaign, yes, but also ending it with a reasonably united Democratic party that is best-placed to defeat Trump. Insider does not subscribe to any singular (or simplistic ) explanation for Trump's 2016 win - and consequently does not have faith in any single silver bullet theory of 'how to beat Trump'.

Bernie and Alexandria

Economic and cultural tensions (especially around gender, race, and the so-called 'liberal agenda' ) play out in complicated ways; Trump was able to leverage both celebrity and his cultivated image as a maverick 'outsider' who would tell truth to established power; and the Trump campaign's usage of heuristic data mining to analyse individual voters (drawing on consumer marketing approaches ) undoubtedly played a role.

For Sanders, the strategy is (on one level ) fairly simple: stick to his core message, the vision of society he wishes to see. Not that it is monolithic - Sanders has paid some heed to critics of his weaknesses on issues of race and gender, and rebuilt his campaign team to reflect his commitment to equality on those issues. But much as with President Higgins here, Sanders' appeal lies in the authenticity of his commitment to a vision of social justice. It is the rare cynic who doubts Sanders' desire to see effective action on economic inequality.

Now all Insider needs to do is suppress that inner cynic, and hope.


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