Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today.

What Bernie Brings to the Table

Eric Levitz

This Democratic primary could change everything. New York magazine columnist Eric Levitz discusses how Bernie Sanders’s class-struggle candidacy could realign US politics and what roadblocks it will run into.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. David Becker / Getty Images

Interview by
Jonah Walters

Love him or hate him, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that Bernie Sanders has delivered a dose of vitality to this primary season. Dismissed as a fringe candidate by many during his 2016 run, his signature policies, such as Medicare for All, are now driving the terms of debate for Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with New York magazine columnist Eric Levitz about the Sanders campaign, the promise of clear class-struggle language, and creating a coalition of voters capable of winning the nomination and the White House.


JW

Your recent New York magazine column begins by referencing an age-old debate of the Democratic primary season: Should the party try to appeal to swing voters or try to activate sympathetic nonvoters? How does the Sanders campaign challenge, or maybe reframe, the terms of that debate?

EL

I think the idea that there is fundamental tension between those objectives has never been substantiated, at least with regard to messaging and platform decisions (as opposed to resource allocation). Obviously, it’s impossible to discuss the categories of “swing voters” and “nonvoters” without generalizing. These are rough constructs. But in the aggregate, the two groups have much in common politically.

They tend to be less educated and politically engaged than strong partisans. And since ideological coherence tends to be a learned trait — the connection between the ideas that abortion should be banned, immigration should be reduced, and health care should be a privilege is not dictated by logic, but by the elite signaling of conservative politicians and intellectuals — Americans who pay little attention to politics tend to have heterodox views, whether they are Democratic-leaning nonvoters or genuine independents who show up at the polls every election.

Some progressives assume that, since Democratic-leaning nonvoters are disproportionately nonwhite, messaging that emphasizes the most racially coded issues in our politics — such as criminal justice or immigration reform — is a uniquely potent tool for mobilizing them. And since the median Rust Belt swing voter (a non-college-educated white person) tends to be more predisposed to progressive positions on health care or taxation than immigration or policing, some on the Left conclude that there is this fundamental tension.

But the evidence for that premise has not been strong. Most of the time, “the economy,” “jobs,” and “health care” are more common “top issues” for voters of all racial groups than those we code as racial justice issues.

This does not mean that such issues aren’t vitally important, or that we should triangulate on them. The reasons why centering such issues in campaign messaging may be inexpedient are the same ones for why they’re morally urgent to address once in power: the people most affected by our heinous immigration and carceral systems do not have voting rights.

But if the question is, “What issues or messages should a Democratic candidate center if they wish to maximize their vote share?” the available evidence suggests the answer is about the same, whether one believes it more expedient to target swing voters or nonvoters. In general, both groups of voters tend to be more sympathetic to the Left on — and avowedly concerned with — “pocketbook” issues. This is slightly less true than in previous cycles, due to a growing number of fiscally conservative swing voters in suburban areas. But that contingent still accounts for a minority of swing voters.

One story you could tell about why Sanders polls so much better in hypothetical general election polls of battleground states than centrist punditry would predict — and why he would in fact be a strong general election candidate — is that his anti-establishment persona appeals to nonvoters and swing voters alike.

For a certain category of rural Wisconsin voter, the fact that Bernie has identified as an “independent” who’s critical of both parties is more relatable than his identification as a “democratic socialist” is alienating. Separately, although Sanders is now campaigning on a radical platform, his gift for message discipline, and communicating clearly on health care and inequality, may enable him increase the salience of those issues in a general election campaign.

JW

You mentioned that ideological coherence tends to be a learned trait, created in part by elite signals. But in your column, you’ve mentioned the power of social institutions, notably unions, to generate that kind of coherence, too. And, of course, one of the major goals of Sanders’s campaign is to restore American unionism.

You’ll recall that Sanders loves the phrase “political revolution.” Isn’t Sanders really trying to recompose sections of the electorate that have disintegrated?

EL

Yes. I think that one of the many disfiguring ailments afflicting our body politic is the collapse of institutions that serve to engage and politically educate their members — the decline of trade unions being the most malignly consequential.

Voters are currently very atomized, and almost all political education and engagement is driven by the media — which is driven by “political elites,” in the broad sense of “individuals with an exceptionally high interest in politics.” Social media has democratized this elite significantly, in my view. In the age of four networks, I don’t think our favorite first-term congresswoman from Queens would have anywhere near the influence that she’s already accrued. (No way would CBS have showered AOC in the level of coverage necessary to turn her into a self-funded juggernaut overnight if she hadn’t already made herself into a ratings grabber via self-publishing and self-broadcasting platforms.)

I think a significant portion of the Left’s gains in the discourse, in low-turnout municipal elections, and among Democratic congressional staffers and think-tankers is attributable to this democratization of media. But much the same can be said for the Trumpist right. And regardless, in a world where anyone with a Netflix account has ready access to $1 billion of on-demand entertainment, the constituency that’s tuned in to the #discourse is going to be relatively small and idiosyncratic.

So I think Bernie’s ambition to revitalize trade unions and social movements — and rebuild the infrastructure necessary for mass, democratic politics — is a laudable one. Where I currently depart from the Jacobin line is that I’m skeptical a presidential campaign can significantly advance that project as a campaign.

The Sanders movement strikes me as being about as deeply media driven as most others. Which is by necessity, since that is simply how national politics works in a society as atomized as our own.

I think that Sanders’s policy agenda — with its emphasis on promoting worker organizing and abetting workplace militancy, among so many other things — could plausibly facilitate a broad realignment once implemented. But my view is that any Democratic nominee is going to win or lose on the margins in 2020.

Bernie’s cred as an independent might help him compensate for weakness among Trump-skeptical suburbanites in battleground states — such that his coalition would be marginally more working class than other nominees’. But I don’t believe that any candidate can overcome the forces that are currently polarizing not just our electorate along lines of education, correlated attitudes toward immigration, diversity, and social change, but also those of many other Western democracies.

JW

I think at Jacobin we tend to agree that there’s been a collapse of the liberal center in all the Western democracies, and that the Right has been better able to capitalize on this unique historical moment than the Left.

EL

I think the center left, or liberal center, is much less potent and more vulnerable than it was when Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were presiding over the late 1990s boom. But I think socialists and the Left can get a little overly cocky at times — though weak and compromised, Third Way–ish liberals do still have the reins in much of the world. And Joe Biden’s campaign is still raging against the dying of the light here at home.

JW

Joe Biden is certainly a fly in everyone’s soup at the moment.

EL

He really is. Even the Wall Street wing finds him so dispiriting a figure it refuses to accept that rallying behind him is easily their best play.

JW

Let’s get back to Sanders. I think you’re right to point out that “pocketbook issues” are the key for driving mass support for a Democratic presidential candidate, among swing voters and sympathetic nonvoters alike. But I think what’s unique about Sanders is that he’s not just promising better welfare programs — he’s also presenting a strategy for achieving those programs that is rooted in class struggle. He’s not just saying, “The government owes you health care,” he’s saying, “We’re going to get you health care by disciplining the billionaires.”

This is the “anti-establishment” part of his politics you think is widely appealing, right?

EL

I think that campaigns’ overarching narratives matter more than the details of their policy platforms. Although it’s a little tricky, since there’s obviously a relationship between the two. But in general, I think that the clarity of Sanders’s narrative — and his willingness to name not just an “us” but a “them” (the billionaire class) — is more potent and broadly appealing than any of his policies.

JW

I’m asking about Bernie and the billionaires because I’m curious about the distinction you draw between leftist politics, on the one hand, and the desire for big structural changes, on the other. You’ve suggested that leftist politics won’t motivate voters, but that support for class-struggle programs like Medicare for All (M4A) might.

EL

I’m not totally convinced that centrist hand-wringing about Medicare for All will prove misguided. I think the evidence is much more mixed than they suggest. But I don’t completely write off the subset of polls showing majority opposition to M4A when it’s framed as abolishing private insurance and raising middle-class taxes.

I think these frames are misleading, and I suspect a large majority of voters would support single-payer [health care] if the likely trade-offs were made completely clear to them. But given that you are going to have an exorbitantly well-funded Trump campaign, the entire health-care industry, and most of the mainstream media framing single-payer in demagogically negative terms, it’s not clear to me that the public’s disposition toward status-quo bias and distrust of their government won’t ultimately be activated in a general election campaign, and render Medicare for All less electorally expedient than “Medicare for All Who Want It” (irrespective of the fact that the latter would entail very similar disruptions if it actually resembles what Biden and Buttigieg are promising).

On the other hand, recent polls show that Medicare for All, without counterarguments attached, remains popular after all these months of high-profile attacks. And they also show that voters still overwhelmingly trust Democrats more than Republicans on the issue of health care. I think that that may mean a lot more than anything else. For years, Republicans held positions on gun safety that polled horribly — and yet still beat Democrats on the question of which party was most trustworthy on the issue (this has mercifully changed in the past couple years).

I think this is where Bernie’s perceived independence, and clear class-war storytelling, have promise: he does very well in polls on questions like “Which candidate has your interests in mind/cares about people like you?” To the extent he can maintain that trust, I think he’ll be in a position to sell Medicare for All, and other “leftist” positions, to this ideologically inchoate portion of the public we’ve been discussing.

JW

Before I let you go, I have to ask you about Elizabeth Warren. She’s trying to appeal to many of the same nonvoters and swing voters as Sanders, but without calling for the same kind of class-struggle strategy.

EL

I don’t totally agree with the premise of your question. I think the rhetorical distinctions between Sanders and Warren are pretty fine-grained. Both name the same basic villain — the billionaire class, corporate America — and cast social movements and trade unions as agents of progressive change. Warren launched her campaign with a commemoration of the Bread and Roses strike.

I do think there are real ideological distinctions between them, and that some of these — such as Sanders’s keener interest in the cause of the global left — could prove consequential once in power. But I don’t think their rhetorical distinctions are sufficiently sharp or well defined to register with the lay public.

JW

Not surprisingly, I see the Sanders campaign as being more distinct than you do on this count. But would you say Bernie is a better general election candidate than Warren?

EL

Electability is in the eye of the beholder. But it’s quite plausible to me that Sanders is the stronger general election candidate, despite his socialist branding and relative deficit of establishment support.

I think Sanders has a few potential advantages in a general [election]: one, which we’ve gestured at already, is that he isn’t quite a Democrat. Which is a major asset for reaching the subset of swing voters who identify with neither party — including the small but potentially critical pool of third-party voters. Two, he has years of experience in appealing to white, secular non-college-educated voters in Vermont, a population that is distinct from — but still somewhat similar to — their demographic peers in Wisconsin.

Relatedly, Sanders got to where he is largely on the strength of his skill as a campaigner — which is to say, by making it through the gauntlet of local, congressional, and Senate elections. This wasn’t true of Hillary Clinton, for example. Clinton strikes me as a very talented and formidable individual who did win a large popular vote majority in the face of some headwinds. But it is a fact that she did not make it to the summit of American politics by winning elections at successively higher levels of government.

A similar thing can be said of Warren. I personally think she’s a much stronger campaigner and orator than Clinton was. But Warren became a plausible Senate candidate on the strength of her policy chops and issue-based advocacy, not her retail political skill. So one could argue on that basis that Sanders is more battle-tested.

How one weighs all of that against Sanders’s potential liabilities (his age, avowed socialism, tenser relationship with his party, etc.) is inescapably subjective. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s the safer bet. But I’d like to qualify that speculation — along with all my others here — with the disclaimer that I am not a political scientist, or historian, or seasoned campaign veteran. I’m just a humble blogger who’s trying to make sense of stuff, best I can.