• Dylan Springer

The Democrats Move Left

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attends a rally in March 2019 (Flickr Public Domain)

The Democratic Party today is totally unrecognisable to the one we knew just four or five years ago. Ever since the ‘Third Way’ reorientation of Bill Clinton’s administration, Democrats have largely operated as a centre-right party. Clinton slashed welfare, deported large numbers of undocumented immigrants, took large-dollar campaign donations, and compromised with Republicans on many key economic issues. Barack Obama, the next Democrat to occupy the Oval Office, more or less stuck to Third Way policies despite placing himself on the left of the party in 2008.

When Hillary Clinton announced her run for the presidency during the 2016 campaign, she positioned herself as the natural heir to Obama and to the Democratic Party leadership in general: she had an impressive C.V. as one of the most influential First Ladies in history, and had served in the Senate and in the cabinet as Secretary of State. Her policies also flowed with the recent history of her party. She ran an avowedly moderate, ‘realistic’, centrist campaign. Her only real opponent during the primaries was Bernie Sanders, the independent democratic-socialist senator from Vermont, who ran on a left-wing platform of universal healthcare, free higher education, and reducing income inequality.

Sanders was roundly dismissed by the pundit class in New York and Washington. Clinton racked up hundreds of high-profile endorsements from politicians and celebrities all over the country. Bernie hardly scraped together a handful. Few took him seriously.

Now, despite having lost the primary to Clinton, the Democratic Party is unequivocally that of Bernie Sanders. Nearly every serious candidate for the 2020 nomination has embraced, at least in name, the major planks of Sanders’ 2016 platform. This was on display during the recent debates on July 30 and 31. Sanders and his ideological ally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dominated the stage, making their more moderate opponents look like cowering outsiders. It is telling that support for the public option — once seen as a far-left idea even inside the Democratic Party — is now the most right-wing policy on the table.

Joe Biden, who has embraced the public option and ‘fixing’Obamacare, was hectored even by other centrist candidates for the alleged inadequacies of his plan. Warren got some of the loudest cheers of the night on July 30 when she told the centre-right John Delaney that she could not understand ‘why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for’. Celebrity candidate Marianne Williamson, famous for delivering odd rants about taking on President Trump’s ‘dark psychic force’ and for her strong support for reparations, also drew big applause for excoriating the moderates on the stage: ‘I almost wonder why you’re Democrats. You seem to think there’s something wrong about using the instruments of government to help people’.

Naturally, this hardly scratches the surface of all the seismic changes the party has seen recently. Once-fanciful ideas like abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security and a ‘Green New Deal’ — merging massive government investment in renewable energy with left-wing progressive policy goals — are being embraced by influential party figures. The new firebrand left-wing Democrats are drawing ire from the old guard (e.g. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi), but it is obvious to most people outside the Washington bubble that the young upstarts have all the energy and all the enthusiasm.

Bernie Sanders may not win this primary. Democrats may end up nominating an establishment figure like Biden, Harris, or Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But no matter what happens, it is clear that Sanders has totally captured the heart and the soul of the party. Whoever ends up leading it will surely have to acknowledge that.

At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and the history of revolutions.