What should lifelong democratic socialists and social democrats, like me, think about Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist? He isn’t like the socialists whom we know from other countries, where this kind of politics is much more common than it is in the United States. Socialist politicians usually emerge from powerful social movements like the old labor movement or from political parties like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democrats in Germany. Sanders does not come out of, nor has he done anything to build, a significant social movement. That wouldn’t be an easy task in the United States today; in any case, it hasn’t been his task. He has, moreover, never been a member of a political party—not even of the Democratic Party whose nomination he is now seeking. He has never attempted to create a democratic socialist caucus within the party. For all the enthusiasm he has generated, he has no organized, cohesive social or political force behind his candidacy. If he were elected, it is hard to see how he could enact any part of his announced program.
Several conservative writers have said it: Sanders is best understood as a left populist. He stands to the Democratic Party today very much like Trump stood to the Republican Party in 2016. I understand that Sanders stands for policies radically different from Trump’s. He speaks to the needs of millions of vulnerable Americans and to the anxieties of young people entering an unwelcoming economy—and, like populists everywhere, he promises to solve all their problems. But he stands in the political arena without the political support necessary to do that or even to begin to do that. He claims to be leading a movement. Look closely: He is alone with his excited followers.
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