“The first principle,” said Richard Feynman, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
When it comes to pundits and politics this year, I’d revise the great physicist’s admonition as follows: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself that Bernie Sanders can’t win – not just the Democratic nomination, but also the presidency itself.”
The warning applies to me as much as to anyone else who has spent the past months, or years, insisting that the senator from Vermont doesn’t have a chance. What it comes down to is this: We don’t want Sanders to be elected, so we tell ourselves he can’t.
According to the theory, Sanders’ support has a hard ceiling: It may be intense, but it’s also cultlike and off-putting. Too many Americans know enough about socialism to want a president who wears the term proudly (even if he insists it’s of a more benign variety). He embraces nearly all of the same policies, like Medicare for All, that raised Elizabeth Warren high in the polls but are now dragging her down.
And then there are those clips of him saying nice things about the Soviet Union, or defending the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, or finding the silver lining in the Castro dictatorship in Cuba. Didn’t Jeremy Corbyn, whose ideological affinities run in the same direction, just lead Britain’s Labour Party to disaster?
It all sounds superficially convincing – and eerily familiar. It’s what many conservatives kept saying about Donald Trump around this time four years ago.
As with Sanders, Trump was seen as being way outside his party’s mainstream: a protectionist in a party of free traders; an isolationist in a party of interventionists; a libertine in a party of moralists. As with Sanders, Trump barely belonged to the party whose nomination he sought. As with Sanders, Trump’s message was that he was fighting a “rigged system.”
And as with Sanders, the ideological distaste for Trump among conservatives was matched to the conviction that he couldn’t possibly win. “Let’s Elect Hillary Now,” was the title of one conservative lament about the popularity of supposedly unelectable Republicans, written toward the end of 2015. I know the article well because I wrote it.
Trump won because he was willing to say loudly what his supporters believed deeply; because, in his disdain for what politicians are supposed to be and do, he exuded authenticity; because he was hated by the people his supporters found hateful; because he had an opponent who, in the minds of his supporters, epitomized corruption and self-dealing; and because he offered radical cures for a country he diagnosed as desperately ill. Despite being the oldest man ever elected president, he seemed (to his voters) fresh, true, bold, and sorely needed.
So it is, and would be, with Sanders. Depth of conviction? Check. Contempt for conventional norms? Check. Opposed by all the right people? Check. Running against a “crooked” opponent? Check. Commitment to drastic change? Check. Like Trump, too, he isn’t so much campaigning for office as he is leading a movement. People who join movements aren’t persuaded. They’re converted. Their depth of belief is motivating and infectious.
The strength of Sanders’ movement is reflected in his blowout fundraising numbers – nearly $100 million for 2019 – which only rose in the wake of his heart attack. If Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire, then the argument about his supposed non-electability will begin to crumble – including among older black voters, who have so far been among Joe Biden’s most important pillars of support.
But even if Sanders won the nomination, how would he win the election? Perhaps more easily than people suspect.
Intensity among Democratic-leaning voters will never be greater. There will likely be no third-party challenger like Ralph Nader to shave his margin, or an influential “NeverSanders” wing among liberal pundits. He will find crossover support from former Trump voters in places like Ohio and Michigan, just as Trump found it from former Obama voters. To energize African-American support, he could choose Eric Holder or Stacey Abrams as his running mate.
Nor will scare tactics work any better against Sanders than they did against Trump. Overwrought comparisons with Hugo Chávez will wear thin, just as comparisons between Trump and Benito Mussolini did. The easiest move in American politics is to show yourself to be less scary than your caricature. Ronald Reagan’s devastating “There you go again” line against Jimmy Carter can be a Sanders quip, too.
I write all this as someone who thinks a Sanders presidency would be ruinous on many levels: by turning the Democratic Party into a socialist one; by turning the American economy into a statist one; and by turning America’s position in the world into a feeble one. I’d hate to see him win the nomination, just as I hated seeing Trump win it in 2016. But wishes aren’t facts. To say Sanders is unelectable is indefensible.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.