It’s better to gird for the fight against socialism now than to put it off to another day.
The 2020 election is underway, and America’s attention has shifted to the Democratic primaries. After winning the popular vote in Iowa, winning New Hampshire, and dramatically sweeping the field in Nevada, Bernie Sanders appears unstoppable. Like the Republican grandees who watched Donald Trump’s emergence in 2016, the Democratic establishment is apoplectic. It’s easy to empathize with them, and if I were a member of the Democratic National Committee, I would be scared, too. But I am not. Instead, I am convinced that the best thing for the United States may be for Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic Party nominee in 2020.
Let me clarify two things. First, I do not want Bernie to become President; he is my last choice. Second, I am not rooting for Bernie because I think it will help Trump (though I do believe this is true).
Why then? Let me explain. First, let’s consider the current state of the Democratic field and the likely outcomes from the primaries.
Joe Biden has quickly devolved from being the frontrunner to being a longshot whose last hope to remain viable is a commanding win in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg surprised in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he was crushed in diverse Nevada and appears unable to expand his appeal beyond affluent whites. South Carolina will be a big test for him, and polls are not auspicious. Elizabeth Warren is widely regarded as intelligent and able to appeal to both the left-wing and center of the Democratic party—though evidently not enough to win either group’s votes. Amy Klobuchar seems to offend about as many people as she excites—zero. She might make an excellent President, but we’ll never know.
That leaves Mike Bloomberg, who many centrist Democrats now hope will emerge as their savior. His national poll numbers have risen on the back of hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, but this was before his shellacking in the Nevada debate. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly progressive Democratic party nominating a George W. Bush-supporting, stop-and-frisk-implementing multi-billionaire who celebrates capitalism, unabashedly supports free trade, and speaks admiringly of China. His weak debate performance also critically undermines the foundational argument for his campaign: that he is best suited to face Trump in November. It is much easier to see Bloomberg further dividing the anti-Bernie lane in the Democratic field and serving as the perfect foil for Bernie’s populism.
Unless something changes quickly, one of two scenarios will emerge as the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee approaches:
- Bernie has the most pledged delegates (say, 40%) but is short of a majority so voting will go to a second ballot.
- Bernie wins a majority of delegates and is nominated on the first ballot.
Scenario 2’s outcome is obvious, but it also appears less likely, so let’s consider scenario 1. If voting goes to a second ballot, there are two possible outcomes:
- A (relative) moderate is selected as the nominee to keep Bernie out.
- Bernie still wins the nomination.
My dispassionate base case here is a Trump victory for both outcomes. Let’s take them in turn. If a moderate is chosen over Bernie when he appeared to have won the primaries, his supporters will be understandably livid and many are likely to either stay home in November, vote for a 3rd party, or even vote for Trump. It will also reinforce the perception that the Democratic Party is irredeemably corrupt. The strong economy and Trump’s incumbency already make victory for the Democrats an uphill climb, but lost votes from Bernie supporters could render it impossible.
If Bernie is the nominee, he’ll be selling a message that we need to fundamentally reorganize the American economic system at a time when record-high percentages of Americans are reporting satisfaction with the economy and optimism about the future. He will undoubtedly run into a buzzsaw of negative advertising focused on the costs of his plans (nearly $100T over ten years, or roughly 5x current US GDP), dramatic tax increases, elimination of private health insurance, and past praise for the Soviet Union and dictators like Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Nicholas Maduro. Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterms was mostly with relatively moderate, affluent, swing voters in the suburbs. These are not folks who want to “burn it down.” It’s possible Bernie is being underestimated (after all, everyone said Trump was also unelectable), but it’s hard to imagine such a contest ending well for him.
He may not, but let’s suppose Trump wins. There will be a reckoning in the Democratic Party afterward: “How did we lose?” “What could we have done differently?” “Who’s to blame?”
This is the crucial part.
If it appears that the nomination was “stolen” from Bernie, and the selected candidate goes on to lose, Bernie’s supporters will argue that they were right all along and the path to victory for the party is the populist appeal of socialism. The counterfactual can’t be proven (would Sanders have won in 2016? In 2020?), but it won’t matter. The actual candidates lost, and, even worse, they lost to Donald Trump. The left wing is already ascendant, but after this exchange, the establishment will have no choice but to yield, and the Democratic Party will become a wholly left-liberal party. This will help Republicans in the short term but be terrible for the country. It facilitates the serious consideration of socialism and other ideas historically relegated to the fringe and means that future election outcomes will portend dramatic policy shifts. To Republicans who relish the prospect of facing a socialist Democratic Party, I’d urge them to consider the reality that at some point, the Democrats will win. It’s much better for that to mean tinkering with tax rates and social policies than fundamentally upending the system that has made America the most prosperous country in history. Democrats’ move away from the political center may also convince Republicans they can safely shift right without sacrificing electability. The result will be a more polarized political environment that makes the present appear positively temperate.
If, on the other hand, Bernie is the nominee and he goes on to lose badly, the centrists in the Democratic Party will have an opportunity to reassert themselves. In this, Bernie’s defeat could be a repeat of George McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. In the aftermath of that election, Democrats reckoned with the results, recognized that radicals had taken the reins of the party, and moderates took charge to shepherd a return to electoral viability. A similar reaction post-Mondale in 1984 led to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 as a centrist. Such a shift by Democrats would certainly improve their prospects in future elections. It would also incentivize the Republicans to hew closer to the center. Both parties, shocked by the populist insurgencies of Trump and Sanders, would be compelled to reckon with the unsavory results of the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus that enriched coastal elites while leaving much of the country behind.
One of America’s great strengths throughout history has been the domination of our politics by parties of the center-left and center-right. When power changes hands, the shift is subtle. This stability is critical for businesses and households to make decisions with a degree of confidence about what the future will look like, and it has enabled our enviable record of sustained growth. The results for nations who alternate between far-left and far-right governments are much less impressive (looking at you, Argentina—and much of the rest of Latin America for that matter).
Like it or not, the socialists are here. The only way to change that is to crush the socialists’ ideas at the ballot box and thereby convince Democrats that it’s in their interest to expel the socialists from mainstream American political discourse. If we let the movement fester, there is no guarantee that the next face of the socialist left will be a septuagenarian with a history of celebrating murderous dictators or that they will be making their appeals against the headwinds of economic plenty. Let’s gird for that fight now rather than postponing it for another day when conditions may be less favorable. Assuming victory, America will be better for it, and future risks to the American experiment curtailed. There is, of course, a risk here—we could lose. But if we can’t make the case against socialism in such a favorable environment, shame on us. In that case, the music was doomed to stop soon anyway. But more likely, we’ll see one of the most unpopular men in modern politics win in a landslide—and then people will know it was his ideas that carried the day, and those of his opponent will return to the dustbin of history.
Brian Linville (MBA ’20) is an MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School, where he is Co-President of the Free Enterprise Club and HBS chapter of the Adam Smith Society. Before business school, Brian served as a Nuclear Submarine Officer in the U.S. Navy, managed U.S. Navy nuclear engineering recruiting efforts nationwide, and worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.