Democratic Party elders are bewildered. Don’t voters understand how unpopular Sen. Bernie Sanders is in Washington? “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” Hillary Clinton, still smarting from the wound he inflicted on her 2016 presidential campaign, said in January. “It’s all just baloney, and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.” The consequences, the party establishment fears, could be dire: Sanders will be George McGovern all over again — roundly thrashed in the general election by a sinister incumbent, just like the unexpected lefty winner of the 1972 primaries.
Sanders does have a historical forerunner, but it isn’t McGovern. It’s Ronald Reagan.
The comparison looks implausible. The genial, soothing, archconservative Reagan, with his Hollywood polish, script-reading skills and two terms as governor of California, seems a long way from the cantankerous socialist senator, with his accent scraped off the Brooklyn sidewalks and his following formed in tiny, remote, hippie Vermont.
But Reagan was also labeled a fringe figure — of the right, not the left. Mainstream Republicans viewed him with alarm and ridiculed his proposals as simple and kooky. Like Sanders, Reagan shrugged off his detractors. Like Sanders, he bore little allegiance to the party. Like Sanders, he was said to appeal to only a narrow slice of voters. The two have something else in common. Both waged a hard-fought battle in a previous presidential primary contest, seeding their insurgent movements and building bases of young voters undeterred by the candidates’ advanced ages. Reagan was a spoiler turned tribune to a new Republican Party. Sanders, a spoiler in 2016, is on his way to remaking the Democratic Party, no matter how this year’s campaign ends.
Reagan emerged as a national figure in the 1960s and ’70s, a proud debunker of “the Washington establishment.” His checkered political history included fundraising for an official in the far-right John Birch Society, sharing platforms with Southern segregationists and warning that Medicare (soon to become law) would put the nation on the road to serfdom. Mainstream Republicans were horrified. “Extremist fringe elements seek to expel the rest of us from the GOP,” John Anderson, a high-ranking Republican congressman, warned when Reaganites began to make inroads into the party. “If the purists stage their ideological coup d’etat, our party will be consigned to the historical junk heap.”
Anderson’s warning came in 1977, a year after Reagan’s insurgent challenge to a sitting Republican president, Gerald Ford, went all the way to the Republican convention, splitting the party in two. Reagan was the leader of a movement, not a GOP loyalist. He had nothing at stake in Ford’s victory and was looking ahead. When 1980 came, he was the front-runner, but the GOP, still fearful, looked for alternatives. “Anyone but Reagan” was a popular refrain.
Forty years later, this history looks familiar. Sanders the provocateur has bashed the establishment and even now won’t retract his praise of Fidel Castro (or, at least, his literacy programs). His “Bernie Bros” seem eager to cast out party regulars and stage their own version of an ideological coup. Yet he joined the race in 2020 with the same advantage Reagan had in 1980: the support gained four years earlier, when people flocked to his rallies, thrilled to his call for democratic socialism and delivered their votes. Sanders very nearly upset Clinton in Iowa, routed her in New Hampshire and harried her all the way through the primaries, refusing to quit even after it was clear that she would win the nomination. Subtract the “superdelegates” awarded to Clinton, and the totals were surprisingly close: 2,205 pledged votes to Clinton and 1,846 to Sanders.
The message should have been clear. Sanders was no mere spoiler but the emerging leader of a movement to wrest the Democratic Party from its longtime leaders. One who saw this was David Axelrod, the architect of Barack Obama’s two victories. In 2015, Axelrod, who runs a political institute in Chicago, invited Sanders to speak there. “Got a first-hand look at the @BernieSanders phenomenon today,” Axelrod tweeted. “2,000 in hall. 500 in overflow. And 2500 couldn’t get in.”
Still, Sanders’s appeal seemed limited in reach. His followers were mainly young — college students, in many cases — and predominantly white. Despite his achievements in Iowa and New Hampshire, he underperformed in South Carolina and Georgia, where Clinton won more than 70 percent of the vote. Reagan, too, was seen as appealing to a subset of his party. “He’s never demonstrated substantial national appeal,” George Will wrote in 1974, when Reagan’s followers were urging him to run. “His hard-core support today consists primarily of the kamikaze conservatives who thought the 1964 Goldwater campaign was jolly fun.”
There was also the problem of Reagan’s age. It made him an unlikely choice to lead the GOP into a new era. “Reagan is 63 and looks it,” Will pointed out. “He looks like an old man.” Elected six years later at 69, Reagan was the oldest president in history (since surpassed by Donald Trump). His age made no difference to young voters. In 1980, he split the youth vote evenly with the much younger incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and did even better in 1984. The pollster Lou Harris found that “younger voters seem to have something of a fascination with and attraction to a President who is approaching 74 years of age.” And they chose him over the Democrat, Walter Mondale, by a wide margin; Reagan won more than 60 percent of the 25-and-under vote. His famous quip about Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” was for the benefit of older voters.
Sanders’s following is also young. He did best with these voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, and in South Carolina he won those under 30, continuing to win that demographic in Super Tuesday states. These voters don’t seem to care that he’s 78.
One reason Democratic insiders resist Sanders is that he defies the wisdom that “the party decides.” They know that this thesis was discredited for the GOP in 2016, when Trump swamped the field, but they prefer to think this is a distinctly Republican problem, a result of ideological bankruptcy. It’s hard for them to accept that their own party is undergoing a similar revolution from below; the idea persists that Sanders is not the leader of the party, but the Pied Piper of an extremist faction and not even really a Democrat. This second proposition is true — Sanders remains an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate — but it doesn’t delegitimize him in the eyes of voters. It enhances his prestige.
Reagan blazed a similar trail. For much of his life, he was not a reliable party man. He was a New Deal Democrat who didn’t join the GOP until 1962, when he was 51. This mattered little to conservatives. They responded to the things Reagan said and saw him as the leader of a Republican Party closer to their idea of what it should be.
The same is true of Sanders. The spoiler of 2016 is now the tribune of the new Democratic Party. Even detractors acknowledge that he has moved the party to the left. His working-class message and issues — free college, universal health care, a $15 minimum wage — are now standard Democratic talking points. They reflect the concerns of a rising generation that thinks the economic odds are stacked against them, even if they have checked all the right boxes. “The 21st century is basically defined by nonessential human beings, who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers,” as a host of the ardently pro-Sanders Chapo Trap House podcast has said. Most Americans think that the health-care system isn’t working and that the federal government should do more to help them. Even those who are leery of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal recognize that he understands the depth of the problem and isn’t content to tinker at the edges. And while raising taxes on the “billionaire class” won’t pay for all the costly programs Sanders wants, a large majority of Americans agree with the principle that the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes.
Reagan, too, was much bolder than party regulars when it came to taxes. His embrace of “supply-side economics” — the theory that reducing taxes on the wealthy would stimulate growth and expand the economy, resulting in greater tax revenue — was ridiculed in 1980. George H.W. Bush, his rival in the primary race, called it “voodoo economics.” Wall Street insiders who normally voted Republican worried that Reagan’s “radically new policies,” as The Washington Post described them, such as slashing income taxes by as much as 30 percent, could “destroy his candidacy.” But the economy had stalled, with high unemployment and rising inflation, and Carter’s more conventional proposals hadn’t worked.
Reagan’s foreign policy beliefs also seemed dangerous at a time when the two Cold War superpowers appeared locked in permanent conflict. His avowed anti-communism struck experts as needlessly belligerent, “tragically wrong and blind to the long-range opportunities for a better East-West relationship,” said Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. But voters too young to remember the high-flown rhetoric of a president like John F. Kennedy, who spoke of a “twilight struggle,” heard in Reagan the first leader of their own era who spoke of American promise, who wasn’t afraid to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” who didn’t seem to sag under the country’s accumulated defeats, including the Vietnam War. The confidence came in part from the long years Reagan spent honing his message, dating all the way back to his time as a General Electric spokesman in the 1950s.
The same is true of Sanders. The message he delivers so relentlessly seems fanatical to some in the Democratic establishment. But among younger voters who have come of age at a time when politics seems cynical and transactional, a game rigged for insiders, Sanders has built a deep reservoir of credibility. He has also worked diligently to attract new followers. His base consisted of more than enthusiastic young, white men as he entered the race more than a year ago. “Sanders is more popular with people of color than white people, and women like Sanders as much as men do, if not more,” Vox pointed out then. He won 27 percent of the African American vote and an overwhelming 51 percent of the Latino vote in Nevada. He has been courting both groups. Latino caucus-goers wearing Sanders buttons were heard to say that his was the only campaign they “ever heard from,” the New York Times reported. He met with overlooked Hispanic voters in California and in Iowa, as well, and on Super Tuesday was the overwhelming choice of Latinos in California and Texas. And he began connecting with African American voters in 2018, when he spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in Los Angeles. Even in South Carolina, where Joe Biden won easily on the strength of support from African American voters, Sanders did as well or better with black voters under 30, according to exit polls, as he did with black voters under 30 in Texas.
As Democrats study the electoral college map, they are intent on winning back the 40,000 white working-class voters in battleground states who defected to Trump in 2016 after, at least in some instances, voting for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. The Sanders campaign’s answer is that he doesn’t need those people, because he will turn out waves of new voters — a progressive version of what was once called the “woodwork theory of hidden conservatives.” Here, history is not on his side. And the early returns have not been encouraging. There was a large increase in voter turnout in South Carolina, but it went to Biden, and a huge turnout of young voters did not materialize on Super Tuesday.
Once again, Reagan suggests an answer. He didn’t uncover legions of new voters. Instead he found them in the other party. For example, evangelical voters went for Carter by 25 points in 1976; in 1980, they went against him by 26 points. Can the “Reagan Democrats” of 1980 become “Sanders Republicans” in 2020? Not if 90 percent or more of Republicans continue to support Trump. The only hope will be to shake loose independents who have grown weary of Trump or catch the fire of Sanders’s truly populist crusade. In the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the number of Sanders primary voters in 2016 who chose Trump in the general election exceeded Trump’s margin of victory in those states by large margins.
Older Democrats remember the defeats the party met when it went too far left. The term “democratic socialist” frightens them, and Sanders’s gleeful class warfare does, too. But to younger voters, Sanders’s uncompromising attitude feels fresh and candid, while “pragmatic” calls for moderation and “working across the aisle” feel hollow and stale. Even if he fails to win the nomination or, if he gets it, the general election, he will have remade the party in anticipation of the time when demographics catch up with his vision and turn important red states blue. Then the new Democratic Party may look back at the spoiler and outlier Sanders, the “extremist” whom “nobody likes,” as the most persuasive voice for a politics of hope in an age dominated by fear.
The paradox of Reagan was that his radical message, while it sounded new, revived beliefs and values that had defined the GOP of an earlier time, when it cast itself as the party of Main Street and what later came to be called “middle America.” His radicalism was really a form of reinvention, and he was its best exemplar. Like Sanders, whose own crusade is rooted in venerable principles of economic and social justice, he seemed to personify the vision he projected.