Populism Isn't Going to Go Away

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 25: A bird lands on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders podium as he speaks on March 25, 20
PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 25: A bird lands on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders podium as he speaks on March 25, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Sanders spoke to a crowd of more than eleven thousand about a wide range of issues, including getting big money out of politics, his plan to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, combating climate change and ensuring universal health care. (Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders just had a very good week. Six states voted in the past week, and Bernie won five of them. Overwhelmingly. Bernie got over 70 percent of the vote in four states, and over 80 percent in Alaska. All in all, a pretty good week. His delegate count has now hit four digits, with superdelegates added in. That's all pretty impressive, but rather than focusing on his chances for actually winning the Democratic presidential nomination this time around (which are still pretty low, even with that impressive string of victories), instead what intrigues me is how the movement of Democratic populism seems to be growing. If Sanders falls short this time around, the next time a populist runs they may actually succeed. Bernie has already gone a long way towards transforming the Democratic Party away from its embrace of economic centrism (the Bill Clinton and Democratic Leadership Council era) towards a much more people-centered party.

There have been previous attempts to move the party in a more progressive direction before Bernie threw his hat in the 2016 ring. Compared to them, Bernie is doing extremely well. The message Bernie is running on was pioneered by (in the recent past) John Edwards, Howard Dean, and even Ralph Nader. Nader earned a lot of disdain for his run, because he chose the third-party route. Many Democrats still blame him for the 2000 election loss. But that should have been a real wake-up call to the party. If Nader did make the difference in key states, it was because there were enough disaffected Democrats that jumped ship for a more populist candidate. Not many -- Nader didn't win a single state or Electoral College vote -- but enough to make the difference in a close contest between the two major parties. Nader was really following in the third-party footsteps of H. Ross Perot, who actually won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 (but still not a single state or Electoral College vote).

Since 2000, there hasn't been a major third-party run for the presidency. Democrats ran within the primary system, but the message didn't change all that much. The idea that the little people were more important to the future of the Democratic Party than Wall Street and Big Business still existed, and in 2004 two candidates used versions of economic populism in their campaigns. Howard Dean and John Edwards both tried to rally the party around the concept, but both fell far short of winning the nomination. Edwards won two states, and Dean won one and the District of Columbia. Dean only got 167.5 delegates to the convention, but Edwards managed a more-impressive 559. Still far short of the goal, but a respectable number nonetheless.

Edwards tried again in 2008, with his message of the "Two Americas." Minus the slogans he used, his speeches could easily be read by Bernie Sanders today -- the message is almost identical. Unfortunately for him, there were two other strong candidates in the race that year. Edwards didn't win a single state, and only managed 25.5 delegates for the convention. Hillary Clinton won 1,973 delegates (but still lost to Barack Obama), to put that in some context.

It is impossible to know what that race would have looked like without the two notable candidates running to be the "first woman/African-American president," though. Barack Obama's victory was cathartic for the country, in terms of how we see race in politics. Hillary Clinton may achieve the same sort of breakthrough moment on gender, as the first woman in the Oval Office. Plus, Clinton herself is rather unique in the Democratic Party, since she has been a personality on the national stage since her husband's 1992 win. To put all of this another way, a presidential race with Obama and Clinton in it (or just Clinton, for that matter) is not exactly a generic presidential nomination year for Democrats. So it's very hard to generalize or predict what could follow in future contests from the 2008 and 2016 races.

Even having said all of that, though, Bernie Sanders is quite obviously doing a more impressive job of racking up delegates than Howard Dean or John Edwards managed. This, to me, shows the growing appeal of the populist message, at least in the Democratic electorate. Edwards only managed, in his best year, to get fewer than 600 delegates. Looking back even further, previous populist Democrats have also fallen short of this number. Jerry Brown won six states in 1992, but got only 596 delegates. Jesse Jackson only managed to get 446 delegates in 1984. Bernie Sanders is already over 1,000 delegates, and we've still got a lot of primaries left to go.

Bernie could still win, of course. Hillary Clinton could still flame out in one way or another. But let's assume that Bernie falls short this year, in order to look towards the next contests. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, there are two possible outcomes to the election: she loses, or she wins. If she lost, we'd have either President Donald Trump or President Ted Cruz for at least four years. That might be enough for a populist Democrat to win the 2020 nomination alone. Donald Trump is actually more populist than any of the other Republican candidates, at least in his rhetoric. But he likely has no clue how to implement any populist ideas, so after four years of President Trump, there might be a whole lot of voters willing to consider a Democratic populist the next time around.

Even if Clinton wins, she could get challenged by a Democratic populist in 2020. If the economy improves under her watch and she manages to pass some pro-middle-class measures, a viable 2020 challenge will likely not happen. But if the economic cycle turns sour under her watch (we've had a long stretch of improvement, but the business cycle will eventually turn back down again -- which may very well happen under the next president's watch, no matter who wins), then the time will be ripe for a populist Democrat to challenge her. If economic discontent actually grows in the next four years, the ideas of populism are going to look a lot better, in other words.

Bernie Sanders may not win the nomination this time around, unless he can duplicate the very good week he just had throughout the rest of the primary season. It's still a possibility that he does so. But if he falls short, the ideas he fought so hard for are not going away. Hillary Clinton may surprise some Democrats and actually push a very populist agenda items as president, which would help her win re-election, if her ideas were successful and popular.

If Bernie doesn't win, however, and President Clinton follows Barack Obama by appointing her economic advisors straight out of Wall Street, then the economic discontent may grow. Or if Clinton sees a recession on her watch (even if she had nothing to do with causing such a recession), then she also might be vulnerable in 2020. If a Republican wins the presidency, then Clinton likely won't run again, opening up the race to lesser-known populist Democrats in 2020. Even if Clinton has a wildly successful two terms in office, this fight may happen all over again in 2024.

That's a lot of "ifs," I realize. And a lot of possible scenarios. But my point is that even if Bernie Sanders supporters wind up disappointed this time around, the movement they are a part of isn't likely to disappear. This is especially true when you consider the demographics of Bernie's strongest support. Young people are Bernie voters. As time goes on, the young voters start to get older. If they remember why they backed Bernie in four or eight years (assuming they don't get completely disillusioned with the process), then the next time around there'll be even more support for a populist Democrat.

Some Democrats are currently hoping that Hillary Clinton will offer Bernie Sanders a job in her cabinet. Some are proposing a Clinton/Sanders ticket, even. My guess is that should Sanders fall short, he will throw his political support behind Clinton and may even campaign for her, but that he won't accept being part of her team in any way (the only one I could see enticing him might be to lead the V.A.). If Clinton does win in November, though, I will be much more interested to see not whether Clinton offers Sanders a cabinet job, but whether she offers one (Treasury, perhaps?) to Senator Elizabeth Warren. Because while a populist candidate could come out of nowhere in the future (Sanders certainly wasn't on anyone's radar before he threw his hat in the ring), Warren is the most likely candidate to lead a populist challenge in a future Democratic presidential contest.


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