Bernie Offered Us the Future. Why did He Fail—and What did We Forfeit?Roundup
tags: media, Democratic Party, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, 2020, social democracy
Moshik Temkin is a historian who currently teaches about leadership in history at Harvard Kennedy School. You can find his less serious thoughts on Twitter at @moshik_temkin.
As many Americans look sullenly towards the November election (assuming these elections ever take place) and the prospect of choosing between the degradingly grotesque Donald Trump and the depressingly unexciting Joe Biden, it is worth pausing to reflect on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, and what his dropping out of the race means for the United States, and for the rest of the world.
For his many millions of supporters, in the United States and around the world, Sanders was not just a candidate; he was a rare opportunity. More than any other major presidential candidate in at least half a century, he represented the possibility of a drastic, and welcome, break from longstanding American orthodoxies and priorities in both domestic and foreign policy. Although many of his proposals—especially his signal demand for universal health care to replace America's absurdly dysfunctional, wildly expensive, and criminally unequal profit-based system—are popular, older primary voters (those over the age of 50) roundly rejected him in favor of Biden, either because they were convinced by the media that Sanders was "unelectable" (this despite the fact that Sanders has bested Trump in every national poll since 2016, including in crucial swing states), or because they disliked Sanders himself.
And so, in the face of an unprecedented crisis, with a global epidemic that is killing thousands of Americans and devastating the economy, and with a President seemingly determined, with the help of his collaborators in Congress and the Supreme Court, to destroy whatever is left of American democracy, the Democratic Party has settled—at least for now—on Biden: a weak candidate in many ways, clearly past his prime, with an incoherent or platitude-laden message, a tendency to disappear from the public eye for extended periods, a flawed voting record, not much grassroots support, a base that seems to consist largely of septuagenarians, an appeal based on his connection to Barack Obama, and funding that comes mostly from millionaires and billionaires.
The apparatchiks and donors propping up Biden's candidacy are gambling that Americans, exhausted by the avarice of the current president, want to return to the supposed "normalcy" of the Obama era, when Biden was the likeable Vice President. The problem is that some of the worst problems America faces today—including Trump's presidency itself—are in many ways the products of the Obama years, during which inequality grew worse and average life expectancy dropped. Obama's vice president hardly seems like the leader that Americans need to tackle them. Political operatives may not know this, but historians do: time moves forward, never backward. There can be no return to the past, "normal" or otherwise.