Why Bernie Sanders is More Electable Than People Think

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few days ago, I wrote a popular post about the ideological differences between Bernie Sanders, the egalitarian committed to shrinking the financial sector and boosting consumption by raising wages, and Hillary Clinton, the neoliberal committed to protecting the interests of finance capital. I explained the history of the Democratic Party and how it came to be captured by neoliberalism–the same economic ideology espoused by Ronald Reagan and many of his successors in the Republican Party. Many people found that this clarified the differences between Bernie and Hillary for them. However some people expressed concern that even though they think Bernie’s ideology is more desirable, he may still nonetheless be unable to beat a republican in a general election. A republican victory would be awful for the left–even a neoliberal democrat is still noticeably to the left of a neoliberal republican, especially on issues like climate change or LGBT rights. However, I think there are good reasons to think that Bernie is at least as electable as Hillary, and possibly significantly more so.

The reasons Bernie Sanders is so much more electable than most people think are all tied to the discussion of ideology we had a few days ago. If you read that post, you might remember the chart I used to illustrate the change in the economic ideology of the country that occurred in the mid to late 70’s:

A few people asked me about the source–the data comes from the World Wealth and Income Database. One of the important things to notice about this data is that when an economic ideology catches on in America, it tends to capture both major parties at once. During the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, even republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon reduced economic inequality. Post-1976, even democrats like Carter, Clinton, and Obama raised inequality. Economic ideologies change when there is an economic disaster that is seen to discredit the prevailing ideology. The Great Depression discredited the classical economics practiced by right wingers like Calvin Coolidge, allowing for left wing policies that in the 1920’s would have sounded insane to ordinary people. The stagflation in the 70’s discredited the Keynesian egalitarianism of FDR and LBJ, allowing Ronald Reagan to implement right wing policies that would have been totally unthinkable to people living in the 1960’s. I submit to you that the 2008 economic crisis and the stagnation that has followed have discredited the neoliberal economic ideology of Reagan and Clinton not just among democrats, but for supporters of both parties, and that new policies and candidates are possible now that would have been totally unthinkable to people as recently as 10 years ago.

This has been in the cards for a while. In 2008, democrats thought they had elected someone who was going to change the economic ideology of the country in response to the crisis–Barack Obama. As it turned out, Obama was only a mildly more left wing neoliberal than the Clintons.  There was no breakup of the banks, no shrinking of the financial sector, no increase in real wages for most workers. Some people argue that Obama was a committed left-winger, but was blocked by republicans in congress. This argument cannot apply to his first two years, when he had a super majority in congress. Either Obama or the democratic members of congress that comprised that super majority were unwilling to dump neoliberalism in 2009.

When the public loses confidence in the consensus economic ideology, multiple new ideological choices become possible. Ordinary Americans grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of economic ideological change, resulting in proliferation of anti-establishment movements on both sides–the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. However, there were few opportunities for either of these movements to capture the presidency. In 2012, the democrats were stuck with an incumbent President Obama for better or worse, while the republican anti-establishment candidates split the rebel vote and handed the election to Mitt Romney.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the rebellion going on within the Republican Party. This is a crucial part of the story of why Bernie is so electable. In the Republican Party, the GOP establishment that we talk about is even more committed to the neoliberal economic ideology than the democratic establishment. But the rebels in the Republican Party are not neoliberals at all–they are right wing populists committed to right nationalism. While left egalitarians like Bernie Sanders believe that economic inequality is the cause of wage and income stagnation and economic under-performance, right nationalists blame foreigners and minorities for this stagnation. Right nationalists attack neoliberalism on multiple fronts:

  1. They accuse neoliberals of allowing foreign countries like China to exploit and expropriate our country in bad trade deals.
  2. They accuse neoliberals of allowing foreigners to pour into our country, taking jobs from Americans and undercutting their wages.
  3. They accuse neoliberals of wasting our country’s resources on humanitarian and foreign aid and interventions that do not advance the national interest.

Who does that sound like to you? Donald Trump. Ted Cruz.

Here’s a little chart that helps illustrate some of the policy differences between left egalitarians, neoliberals, and right nationalists:

Ideology Left Egalitarianism Neoliberalism Right Nationalism
Examples Sanders, Warren Clinton, Bush, Obama, Romney Trump, Cruz
Trans-Pacific Partnership Opposes Supports Opposes
Shrinking the Financial Sector Supports Opposes Opposes
Welfare Reform Opposes Supports Supports
Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants Supports Supports (Republican neoliberals pretend they don’t, but vote for it anyway) Opposes
Foreign Aid Supports Supports Opposes
Humanitarian Military Intervention Generally Opposes Supports Opposes
Explicitly Imperialist Military Intervention Opposes Opposes Supports
Living Minimum Wage Supports Opposes Opposes
Obamacare/Romneycare Supports Supports (Republican neoliberals pretend they’ll repeal it, but it’s called “Romneycare” for a reason) Opposes
Single Payer Supports Opposes Opposes
Tuition Free College Supports Opposes Opposes
Outsourcing Opposes Supports Opposes

In 2010, the Tea Party began taking over republican seats in congress. These folks were not merely more right wing than the people they replaced, they were right nationalists, people with a different ideological position. People like Ted Cruz don’t see themselves as part of the establishment, they see themselves as an altogether different political force, and to a large degree they are. Because of the 2008 crisis, these rebels have enjoyed massive support within the Republican Party, and since 2010 they have been in the process of capturing it and turning it into a right nationalist party. Over the last few years, you can probably feel the republicans moving further away from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on a lot of different issues–this is because they are gradually abandoning neoliberalism.

Mitt Romney, however, was a neoliberal. How did he win the nomination? Romney struggled to attract the support of more than 30% to 40% of GOP voters in 2012, but the right nationalists ran too many candidates, splitting the vote and allowing Romney to eventually get the nomination. In 2012, only Romney, Giuliani, and Huntsman ran as traditional neoliberals. Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum ran to varying degrees on nationalist platforms. The neoliberals were consistently at a disadvantage, but Romney was able to take advantage of the nationalist split to eventually win:

2012 GOP Establishment vs Rebels

In 2016, Bush, Rubio, Christie, and Kasich are running as neoliberals while Trump, Cruz, and Carson run as nationalists:

GOP Establishment vs Rebels

This time, the neoliberals have failed to coalesce around a single candidate and are fighting among themselves. Rubio finished 3rd in Iowa, but 5th in New Hampshire. Kasich finished 2nd in New Hampshire, but 8th in Iowa. Bush finished 3rd in New Hampshire, but 6th in Iowa. The winners of these states were Cruz in Iowa and Trump in New Hampshire, both nationalists. Because Rubio, Kasich, and Bush were each top three finishers in at least one of these states, all three will stay in. The establishment will remain unable to unite, and this will finally let a nationalist take the republican nomination. If you’re a neoliberal republican, you want to lock Rubio, Kasich, and Bush up in a room together until two of them agree to drop out. If you can’t do this between now and Super Tuesday, your ideology is going to lose control of the Republican Party for decades.

The world is different post-2008. Neoliberalism, which was in ascendance in the 70’s and 80’s and peaked in the 90’s, has been in decline since the stock bubble burst at the dawn of the new millennium. The neoliberals have been frantically trying to keep things together ever since. First they created a housing bubble, then when that popped and 2008 hit, they created bubbles in commodities and emerging markets. Those have now popped, and excess investment capital has now piled back into the US stock market, which is again overheated.

Analysts are deeply concerned about a new round of recession this year, though opinions vary widely about how severe this recession might be. The excess investment created by neoliberal economic policies around the world has led to a Chinese stock bubble, an American student debt bubble, and continued weakness in Europe due to austerity. Many of the traditional indicators of impending recession are lighting up–retail sales are dropping, factory orders are dropping, inflation-adjusted growth is in bad shape, even corporate profits are less robust than they were. If this recession does materialize this year, neoliberalism and the political establishment that advocates for it will be even more likely to lose further ground in both parties. All of this is making it increasingly difficult for neoliberalism to retain its grip on the two political parties. The public will not tolerate indefinite stagnation and decline in median household incomes–sooner or later any dominant economic ideology that produces figures like this will, rightly or wrongly, be discredited:

Neoliberalism’s time may already be up in 2016. It’s finished in the Republican Party, and Hillary Clinton is all that stands between the left egalitarians and control over the Democratic Party. The imminent collapse of the dominant economic ideology is not yet widely recognized. Right now, the affluent people who have benefited from neoliberalism are completely confused. They don’t understand why so many people, particularly young people, are flocking to candidates they consider totally insane. You can see this all around you on the internet and in the media–there are columnists, pundits, and TV personalities constantly acting incredulous that the public is not jumping up and down to vote for Clinton, Kasich, Bush, or Rubio. Michael Bloomberg is so confused and disturbed by the possibility that the public is about to pick someone who isn’t a neoliberal that he’s considering an independent run. Like most affluent people, he thinks the only reason the neoliberals are failing is that they are running ineffective campaigns.  Bloomberg and the American neoliberal political establishment live in a bubble–they are insulated from the real-world consequences of stagnant median incomes. They don’t understand the extent to which the public, especially young people, have totally lost confidence in them to run this system effectively and fairly.

What this means is that if this is the year when the voting public decides that it’s done with neoliberalism, the party that nominates a neoliberal candidate will likely lose. If democrats don’t nominate and support the left egalitarian political movement, if they instead continue to nominate neoliberals who continue to allow incomes to stagnate, they are ensuring that sooner or later (and probably sooner) disaffected poor and working Americans will choose right nationalism as the next dominant economic ideology for potentially decades to come.

The public increasingly does not believe in neoliberalism anymore. For democrats to win, we need to show people that we have an ideology that is not neoliberalism and that is more attractive than right nationalism. The only viable ideology for the Democratic Party is left egalitarianism, and the only left egalitarian candidate is Bernie Sanders.

People who expect Bernie to lose still think that neoliberalism is ascendant or dominant, and that the left has to play defense against the right. That may have been the situation in the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s but today neoliberalism is on its last legs. The republicans can see it. They’re moving on. Will we defend the now-decrepit monster they gave us until they inflict a new and more terrible monster upon us, or will we stick up for our own ideology and put up a real fight against Trump and Cruz?

For all of these reasons, Bernie Sanders polls better against Trump than Hillary Clinton does:

Clinton vs Trump

Sanders vs Trump

When the dominant ideology is no longer dominant and the public is looking for something new, you don’t win with more of the same. For the first time in a long time, the public is ready to change the dominant economic ideology. Are we going to do it, or are we going to let Donald Trump do it?

I can’t promise you that left egalitarianism is going to win this fight. But I can promise you that even if neoliberalism can hold on another round or two and Hillary can win this time, sooner or later, if we keep nominating neoliberals, allowing incomes to stagnate, and letting people lose hope in the system, we will lose to a right nationalist and that right nationalist will take our country to a place you don’t want to see. If left egalitarianism is going to be the next dominant ideology instead, we have to fight to make that happen. The country isn’t ready for Hillary or Jeb, it’s ready for a new paradigm. Will we provide that paradigm, or will they? The primaries are still ongoing. It’s our choice–fight for Bernie’s brave new world, or waste our strength in an alliance with an ideology that is not only morally repugnant, but that is politically decrepit and eventually doomed to fail.


The Huffington Post has honored me by sharing a repost of this with their large audience.