Berned Out for 2024

C. Derick Varn

June 15, 2022

The rise and seeming decline of the Democratic Socialist movement in the US is, in many ways, proof that moving the “Overton Window” through executive candidate runs may have a natural limit. After all, according to New Majority, “DSA stands at 67,000 Members-in-Good-Standing, with 25,000 expired members. This means DSA’s total membership is down by two-thousand from the 94,000 announced prior to the 2021 National Convention.” While the absolute loss of two-thousand members is not immediately troubling, the 25,000 expired membership should be. Indeed, even in “left-wing” strongholds like New York State, the DSA would only get two of its six possible candidates in NYC’s city council. So, even if the Overton Window has been smashed, the pieces aren’t falling in favor of the socialist alliance.

This, however, should not be surprising. Joe Biden’s Presidency has been a Herbert Hoover-level public relations disaster and with good reason: record inflation, an inability to tackle covid, a failure to handle what is likely to be a public debt crisis, the highest Medicare premium hike in recent history, a seemingly botched withdrawal from an unpopular war, a Democratic Congress unable or unwilling to pass even the basics of Biden’s agenda, and the conservatives on the Supreme Court poised to undo a half-century of legal precedent with the Democrats seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Since the DSA is wedded to the Democratic Party with no sign of striking out along an independent political path or even launching significant primary challenges outside of progressive strongholds, it seems the pink tide is about to roll back out to sea with the breaking of the blue wave.

Run Bernie Run?

At Jacobin magazine, Branko Marcetic seems to think he sees a way to cut against the losses that will be suffered by the Democrats: a third presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The deep unpopularity of Joe Biden is only surprising to well-off Democratic party backers isolated from the financial shocks that keep coming. Furthermore, as unpopular as both President Biden and former President Trump are, the Democratic party – as a whole – is, as Marcetic points out, “toxically unpopular.”

Marcetic’s case is a simple one: Bernie Sanders remains one of the most popular national-level politicians in the United States. Even though he will be 82 by 2024, Sanders would be primarying the most unpopular US President in modern history and would be likely running against the second most unpopular one. Sanders could also stem the tide of loss of working-class support from the Democratic Party, Marcetic argues.

Yet the problems here are manifold and they are not just about Sanders’ age. Indeed, Marcetic’s invocation of the case of Reagan actually indicates part of the problem: “It took Ronald Reagan three tries to win the Republican nomination, and that third time, he too was plagued by doubts about his age. Yet he won the nomination and served two terms as a transformational president, shifting culture and the elite political consensus away from the New Deal era and into the neoliberal one.”

The analogy makes clearer the problems of Marcetic’s argument than he seems to realize. The first issue is that Reagan was not the originator of the Conservative movement but was a successor to Goldwater. Secondly, Reagan’s conservatism was a broad coalition that had been building local power in places not traditionally held by the Republican Party, such as the Deep South. Despite his ideological competitors within the GOP beginning the Southern Strategy, it was Reagan who began the local level disempowerment of the Dixiecrats in ways that Richard Nixon had been unable to. Thirdly, Reagan had a coalition of factions within the GOP: the John Birch Society, the Libertarians willing to remain within the GOP, the foreign policy hawks that would become the neoconservatives, and the evangelicals. Fourthly, Reagan codified and expanded the “neoliberal” economic policy, but he did not initiate it. Democratic President Jimmy Carter took more than a few of the first steps away from the Keynesian consensus. Indeed, it was Carter’s appointee to the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, who drove the policy turn towards “neoliberalism” with the raising of interest rates.