Hamilton Nolan is one of the few class-struggle-oriented journalists writing for a mainstream publication in the U.S. today. For that reason, it is surprising and disappointing to see him use his column to write an anti-endorsement of Bernie Sanders, the only class-struggle candidate for president with a real shot at winning in generations — arguably ever.
Nolan’s main argument is that Bernie Sanders is an old white man, and that he can better serve his own ideals by playing kingmaker rather than running himself. (In a follow-up piece, he acknowledged that “if a year from now the whole field is completely disappointing, I would still vote for Bernie.”)
Nolan writes, “Now the time is ripe for us to try left wing solutions that mainstream pundits normally dismiss as being out of bounds. Universal health care? Free college? Stronger regulation of Wall Street? Forceful downward redistribution of wealth? A true “Green New Deal?” None of these things are implausible now. And all of them are ideas that Bernie Sanders stands for.”
In other words, Nolan likes all of Sanders’s ideas, but opposes him running on pragmatic grounds.
Given the history of the office, it’s an odd sort of pragmatic argument that being an old white man decreases someone’s chances of becoming president. But setting that aside, Sanders has much higher levels of support among voters under 50 and among people of color than he does among older voters or white voters.
A 2017 poll showed Sanders had a 73 percent approval rating among African Americans, 68 percent among Latinos, and 62 percent among Asian Americans. And a January 2018 poll found that 59 percent of voters of all races under 34 view Sanders favorably while 55 percent of them would be inclined to vote for him for president. If young voters and voters of color are supposed to be unwilling to support Bernie because he is old and white, it appears no one has informed these voters themselves.
In contrast, among the three “young blood” alternatives to Sanders that Nolan names, Elizabeth Warren gets as about half as much support as Sanders overall, Kamala Harris gets about a third of Sanders’s overall support, and Sherrod Brown’s name was not polled, in a November 2018 national poll. These young bloods are 69, 54, and 66 years old, respectively.
But let’s allow for a moment that Sanders shouldn’t run. Can Sanders simply transfer all of his ideas and all of his support among voters to another candidate? He cannot.
That is because no other Democrat at a national level support Sanders’s priorities and strategy to the same extent or with the same conviction. If politicians like Warren, Harris, and Brown did earnestly support Sanders’s platform, they would endorse him now, since he is plainly the most popular candidate in the race who will advance such redistributive policies and a class-struggle strategy. The fact that they are instead planning to run against him suggests they do not believe Sanders’s path is the correct one.
Much of Sanders’s popularity comes precisely from the fact that he is not like Warren, Harris, or other Democrats. Elizabeth Warren, who was a Republican most of her life, has been campaigning specifically on the virtues of capitalism. During her tenure as California Attorney General, Kamala Harris defended convictions obtained with false evidence, fought federal supervision after courts ruled overcrowded California prisons a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and dragged her feet on releasing a man ruled actually innocent in federal court.
In contrast, voters trust Sanders because he has maintained the same class-struggle message for forty years. And this leads to the most important reason Sanders must run and the Left must support him: no other candidate has either the desire or the ability to polarize the country along class lines.
No other Democrat so consistently names the capitalist class (“the millionaires and billionaires”) as the root of the country’s problems. While most Democrats take thousands of dollars from big corporations, Sanders not only refuses, but goes out of his way to use his fame to bully them into treating their workers better.
Sanders’s basic message, unchanged in decades, is this: workers are getting screwed by the rich. We need to make it easier for workers to organize and then tax the rich, lower defense spending, and use the money to pay for universal social programs like Medicare for All, free public college, and a higher minimum wage. That message is incredibly popular among voters, but most Democratic politicians — even those who mouth progressive policy positions — either refuse Sanders’s class-struggle rhetoric, or accept it grudgingly.
It is certainly a positive development that more of the country and even some Democratic politicians now support ideas that Sanders has advocated for decades. But pushing for these policies constantly for forty years, during the height of neoliberal government, is not the same as agreeing to support one of these policies in 2017 — especially when that support is a transparent attempt to better position oneself to run for president. It’s surprising that Nolan — who really is a great journalist — falls for it completely. Voters won’t.