If you’re celebrating Bernie Sanders’ exit from the 2020 presidential race as the final act of democratic socialism, the legacy he leaves should temper your cheer – and it’s not just Joe Biden shifting left to woo the Sandernistas, there’s a compelling case for Bernie becoming the global left’s most enduring icon since Che Guevara.
Socialism’s history is a long, sorry tale of disillusion, but once in a long while a charismatic leader comes along to re-energise the faithful and convince the doubters that perhaps, this time, the ‘failed idea that never dies’ deserves another shot. Never mind that once elected, socialists tend to either give up large pillars of their ideology or blame the economic chaos they unleash on nefarious external forces (especially the US).
What really confers icon status on a leftwing leader, ironically, is not achievements in power, but the romanticism of opposition, where their ideas never have to deal with any of the messy reality of governing. The charismatic but ultimately powerless Sanders fits the bill to a tee.
He has big shoes to fill and a few trump cards. The last such leftwing icon that comes to mind is Salvador Allende, the ‘Jim Morrison of socialism‘, whose ejection from Chile’s presidency in a US-funded coup mean he is remembered as the victim of Western imperialism, rather than for his own disastrous economic policies. Uruguay’s José Mujica is a more recent example, having struck all the right chords at home and abroad. He routinely moralised at the UN about living within the planet’s environmental means and rejecting consumerism in favor of his beloved “simplicity”, while turning Montevideo’s presidential palace into a homeless shelter and donating his salary to charities.
What’s striking is that even the saint-like Mujica has not actually implemented a particularly radical agenda. Granted, he raised social spending to alleviate poverty, but only marginally from already Nordic levels. Indeed, Mujica’s core legacy remains his socially liberal reform agenda, particularly legalising marijuana. And if you earn The Economist’s country-of-the-year award, are you even a socialist in the first place?
Where radical leftists have ploughed on undeterred, happy endings are remarkably rare – not that this has necessarily triggered a rethink among the faithful. On the rare occasion they seem to be doing well, even moderates are quick to pile in and claim that it shows a ‘different way’ is possible. Recall the praise heaped on Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in his early years in power as a man of the people and anti-poverty crusader? Leftwingers confronted by the cataclysm of Chavismo fall back into that familiar defensive crouch – “that wasn’t real socialism”.
What sets Sanders apart is that he falls neatly in between these two markedly different groups—the would-be’s and the abject failures. He will forever remain a would-have-been. Having never reached the levers of power, his fantasy of a new, different version of socialism, that ‘this time it would have been different’ will endure.
For a certain kind of European, Bernie holds a particular appeal as a socialist mole in the land of supposedly unbridled capitalism. Let down by the performance of social democrats on their own continent, the European left found solace in an American icon speaking their language of business-bashing and pie-in-the-sky economics. Even more romantic is that he did so by taking on a Democratic Party establishment that many European leftists see as a centre-right movement, just as beholden to special interests as the Republicans.
Just days after President Trump’s tour of Europe in May 2017, Sanswea paid a visit of his own to Berlin, where he was greeted by a crowd of 1,000+ students at the Free University. There’s little question Sanders is vastly more popular than Trump in some parts of Europe, particularly among those enthralled by his opposition to Greece’s troika-imposed cure of austerity and his repeated praise of Nordic-style social-democracy.
Of course, a large part of Bernie’s appeal outside the US is also down to a complete misapprehension of America’s own domestic problems. The yuppy Bernie Bros who populate his rallies are a world away from the desperation and poverty of the inner cities and the Rust Belt.
The other thing that makes European Bernie-mania so odd is that his agenda and their own are completely assymetrical. Though he is by no means a mainstream centre lefitst, some of Sanders’ core demands – universal healthcare, cancelling student debt, a higher minimum wage – are already the norm in much of Europe. That forces European leftists to look for ever more stuff to expropriate and nationalise – be it the railways, energy sector or, in Jeremy Corbyn’s case, broadband internet.
It’s also worth noting that the kind of youngsters most drawn to the Sanders brand of radical leftism have it much tougher in Europe than in the US. At least before Covid-19 hit, young Americans could largely expect to leave the family home at a relatively early age and enter a job market rich in opportunities.
For many Europeans that is far from the case. In my home country of Spain, for instance, one in every three under-25s is jobless—expect that figure to explode post-COVID—and as many as two thirds of those aged 16-34 are still living with their parents’ home due to a combination of unemployment, high rents and low wages.
All this makes the hard left’s solutions an easier sell to young people. Even a 70-year old former college president promising a leap from late-capitalism to crowds of 20-somethings looks messianic at a time when Che Guevara t-shirts are falling out of fashion. And the fact he fell just short of actually reaching high office will only cement his place in the pantheon of heroic leftwing failures – at least until the next blowhard comes along.