Lost to many in the midst of the current crisis, Bernie Sanders announced the suspension of his campaign for President of the United States. This came as a shock to many as, despite the fact Sanders faced extremely tough odds to defeat Joe Biden in the Democratic Primary, the Coronavirus is revealing the severe and deadly costs of having an entirely for-profit healthcare system. Adding to this sad state-of-affairs, Bernie apparently failed to use the considerable leverage of his millions of passionate young activists to extract any concrete policy proposals, cabinet positions or anything of significance at all from the now presumptive Democratic nominee.
Sanders’ campaign undoubtedly had an enormous effect on American politics which should be far-reaching and long-lasting. The Vermont Senator has shifted the ‘overton window’ (the space of reasonable political debate) far to the left since his original campaign for the White House launched in 2015. On policies such as raising the minimum wage, Tuition-Free-College ‘Medicare-For-All’ (a universal healthcare system) and the ‘Green New Deal’ plan to neutralise the Carbon-based economy and create millions of jobs, Sanders has managed to bring with him a vast majority of Democratic voters and even a majority of the American public. For this, Sanders will be remembered as a trail-blazer who stood up to the political, media and economic establishment- all in the face of numerous, unfounded attacks on his character ( below).
Nevertheless, the campaign is now officially over and, for the second election in a row, the Democratic Party is nominating an ‘electable’ establishment centrist to take on Donald Trump- this time with the added bonus of said candidate being recently accused of sexual assault and showing clear signs of cognitive decline. This is clearly to the detriment of the Democrats. This time four years ago, Hilary Clinton was heavily favoured to defeat Trump. Though by the time November came around voters found her brand of neoliberalism, mixed with incremental improvements, less palatable than the loud-mouthed populist Billionaire who now sits in the Oval Office.
As Sanders’ 2020 campaign gained momentum prior to the crushing defeats in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, political commentators around the globe looked forward to a monumental battle of Sanders vs. Trump. Not only between two extremely skillful politicians, both possessing an incredible ability to take the people with them on issues, but between two competing definitions of populism. In such a high-profile campaign for the highest office in the world, we would get to see two radically different, but equally interesting, visions of the future.
For a bit of background, Cas Mudde provides a commonly-cited academic definition of populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ which seeks to create some notion of a division within society, between the ‘virtuous people and corrupt elites’. Being ‘thin-centred’ means that politicians wishing to portray such a divide would be able to attach this populist rhetoric onto their own politics. The ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy that populists create will vary significantly between party and country. Crucially though, the aim of populism is to be popular. Populist politicians aim to win over their publics by presenting ideas that will appeal to them, promising to improve their lives.
In much of the world, populism is certainly on the rise. Since the 2008 Financial Crash, a defining moment in political history, millions if not billions of people have discovered that the current economic and political system is not working to their benefit. This has made populism a far more attractive proposal. Creating an image of a ‘corrupt elite’ working to the detriment of the public is certainly a lot easier when living standards are declining, unemployment is rife and inequality is at its highest level in history.
“The Occupy movement, meanwhile, stated they were fighting for the 99%, railing against bankers and Wall Street executives who had profited whilst the rest of the Global Economy failed and ordinary people.”
On the left, this populist moment brought about the growth of parties such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the election- and initial success- of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party- as well as the growth of extra-parliamentary movements such as Occupy. These left-wing populists framed their campaigns as being on the side of ‘the people’, that their platform would fix the inherent corruption in the political economy of their countries which had only been to the benefit of the ultra-wealthy. Corbyn, for example, famously used as his 2017 campaign slogan, ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. The Occupy movement, meanwhile, stated they were fighting for the 99%, railing against bankers and Wall Street executives who had profited whilst the rest of the Global Economy failed and ordinary people. And it was this rhetoric which Sanders channelled during his mass rallies, calling out the ‘millionaires and billionaires’, ‘the 1%’, or ‘1 tenth of 1%’.
On the other hand, there are those such as Matteo Salvini in Italy, Nigel Farage in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil and, obviously Trump in America- who have a very different conception of who makes up the ‘people and the elites’. Those on the right of the political spectrum have generally tended to frame politics around cultural issues including immigration and crime. The dichotomy of ‘us vs. them’ is often presented on ethno-cultural grounds, creating a mythological conception of the nation state as the ‘heartland’ which automatically excludes immigrants, and those members of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ who are supposedly working to the detriment of ‘the people’. Recent right-wing populists have presented themselves as being able to fix their country by actually adhering to the will of the people- closing borders, putting national citizens first, and being tough on crime.
Trump himself largely ran in 2016 on the promises of ‘building a wall’, banning Muslims from entering America, renegotiating foreign trade deals, and cutting taxes whilst also pledging to protect Social Security which so many older Americans rely on. Interestingly, Trump represents a clear break with Republican ideology in some respects- notably in respect to trade where he supports a more protectionist approach as opposed to laissez-faire free trade deals supported by previous GOP administrations. This runs parallel to Sanders’ campaign on the Democratic side which broke with orthodoxy to call for ‘deep, structural change’ as opposed to incremental improvements. Both men have certainly shifted opinions within their own parties, making it far more difficult for future candidates to go back to the pre-2016 neoliberal status-quo.
Especially key with these populist movements, is bringing people into politics who had previously felt left out by the system. Often this has been done by speaking as clearly and colloquially as possible in order to appeal to ‘the ordinary people’ within society. This is something Sanders and Trump both achieved to great affect. Sanders brought in millions of young people, African-Americans and Hispanics into his voter base with his positive message offering solutions to issues of healthcare provision, environmental decline, low wages and a lack of adequate housing. Trump meanwhile, was incredibly successful in mobilising millions of low-income, white working-class Americans with his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’. Both men offer a great insight into political linguistics and argumentation which certainly deserve more comprehensive scrutiny and discussion.
Politically though, the debates between Trump and Sanders would have put these competing definitions of populism on centre-stage. The battle to frame the causes and solutions of the problems facing ordinary Americans would not only have been incredibly fun to watch, but would have had far-reaching consequences worldwide. This was to be a potential defining moment for deciding what kind of society we want to live in. Should nation states open their borders or be closed-off to the rest of the world? Should we change the way our economy works to battle climate change? Should we tackle crime through harsher sentencing or rehabilitation? Do people of differing races, gender identities, sexualities and religions have more in common than not? All in all, do the public value economic populism or cultural populism? Or, as Rosa Luxemburg famously said: “Socialism or Barbarism”.
Sadly, the world is now missing out on such a debate. It is my belief that ‘the left’ and Bernie would’ve won this fight. Whether that’s true or not, from a pure sociological perspective, the world is missing out by not having this most important of discussions out in the open in a battle to lead the ‘free world’. Unfortunately, the comedy value of getting to watch an adderall-fueled Trump obliterate a barely comprehensible Biden in front of millions of people will have to do.