Bernie Sanders’ big gamble is that the Democratic and even national electorates are far more liberal in domestic policy and far less concerned with foreign policy than they appear to be on paper. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight pointed out during last week’s debate between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, almost half of Democratic primary voters identify as moderate or conservative, contrary to what many would think given the momentum that Sanders has appeared to build behind his campaign.
Behind these appearances, however, lies a political reality that most Sanders supporters will have to confront sooner or later. Once their favorite candidate moves beyond the neighborly confines of New Hampshire to the rest of the primary, Sanders advocates will have to figure out how to win over voters that are far more conservative. Furthermore, American legislators are even more conservative than Bernie Sanders. Although Bernie Sanders has grassroots support in liberal states, there is not a top-down movement, or as Sanders prefers, “a political revolution,” being mirrored by Democrats running for local, state, and national seats across the country.
As much as gerrymandering is to blame for the dearth of Democrats in state legislatures, governors’ offices, and the Congress more broadly, poor voter turnout and the desires of the constituents themselves also bear the yoke. Senator Sanders makes a very convincing causal argument at every campaign stop and media appearance that the post-Citizens United political climate is to blame for a lack of progressive change in the United States. Nevertheless, however influential Super PACs and their unlimited anonymous donations may be, this election cycle has proved that ad spending does not influence voters or voter turnout in the way that was once thought to be true. If that were the case, then Jeb Bush would be leading the Republican race by a landslide.
The sad truth is that much of what progressives hate about the elite in America is also represented by many constituents, as can be shown in their distrust of certain demographics in leadership positions. A Gallup poll from June 2-7 this past year reveals not only Americans’ confidence in institutions, but also the kinds of people from which demographics they would feel comfortable voting for, with “a socialist” rounding out the bottom at 47 percent behind atheists and Muslims.
It is fair to point out that Americans have misconceptions about what socialism is. There is also a strong argument to be made that Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism is in fact not socialism at all. However, it should give Sanders supporters pause that in a country as Christian and religiously fervent as the United States, people are more willing to support a Muslim or an atheist than a socialist for President.
Nevertheless, Sanders keeps pushing on with a progressive platform that will likely win him New Hampshire, with Sanders’ odds to win now above 99 percent. His platform has been labeled anti-establishment, but more importantly, it is heavy on addressing income and wealth inequality, which he justifiably believes is the issue of our time. It is also rather light on foreign policy, which became even more evident at last week’s debate.
From calling Crimea “Crimeria,” to answering a question on what to do with troops in Afghanistan with a meandering response on Jordan, Iraq, and Syria with no mention whatsoever of Afghanistan itself, Sanders appeared to be out of his element when forced to discuss foreign policy. After the Paris attacks last November, Americans have become increasingly concerned with foreign policy and the war on terror. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is a Clinton supporter, levied a harsh criticism on Sanders’ “lack of knowledge” on foreign policy, and even went so far as to say that unless he looks different now, she never saw him come to security briefings when she would come to the Hill.
On Meet the Press on Sunday morning, Sanders conceded that Clinton has far more experience in foreign policy than he does, but he insisted that he has “been to briefings.” Liberal pundits such as Chris Hayes have observed that in his current state, Sanders would be obliterated on foreign policy during a debate with any Republican challenger. It would be unwise for the Sanders campaign to continue to leave open a massive blind spot in foreign policy, especially once the race moves towards the south in the so-called SEC primary, where Sanders, with around 20 percent support from African-Americans in states such as South Carolina, already faces an uphill battle.
Now that Sanders has proven himself to be a formidable and legitimate candidate in the Democratic Primary, he will come under increased media scrutiny. Though he may never experience the amount of media scrutiny that Clinton has encountered, Sanders will no longer be ignored or marginalized in the national media in the way that he has been, especially if he wins big in New Hampshire. Expect more pieces like Yahoo’s feature on Sanders’ radical political past to come out, especially in the realm of foreign policy, where Sanders has supported factions such as the Sadinistas in Nicaragua. Sanders’ national profile has reached a level far beyond expectations, and with that comes increased examination (but also funny cameos on SNL with Larry David).
An important but often overlooked question in 2016 politics is: Where would Bernie Sanders be if Elizabeth Warren had decided to run for the presidency? There were signs very early on in the speculation surrounding 2016 that if Warren chose to run, she would have a sizable coalition, a little over 40 percent of the Democratic Party. Sanders stepped into the void left open by Warren’s decision not to run and has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. Now, Bernie Sanders must prove that he can win in the south and the Heartland without compromising on his principles, and that he can engage in the same level of discourse as Clinton when it comes to foreign policy. If Sanders can do these two things, and if his predictions hold true about the liberal leaning of the American electorate being stronger than Nate Silver’s data suggests, then we may very well be in for a political revolution.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.