Bernie Moved the Overton Window, Biden Stepped Through It

The Success and Failure of the Sanders Campaigns

Bernie Sanders and his movement had quite an impact on American politics in 2016 and 2020 but it is almost inconceivable that he will run again in 2024. At the dawn of the Biden administration, what should we make of his campaigns and the potential of his brand of politics going forward?

It is a mixed record. On the positive side, it seems entirely fair to credit him with moving the Democratic party and the entire political conversation to the left. He has been a veritable Overton window-moving machine, constantly pushing for bigger and bolder policies to attack America’s problems and railing against the influence of the rich and the staidness of the political establishment. His arguments tapped into a latent public hunger, particularly among younger voters, for a decisive break with business as usual that merely tinkered at the margins of the American political economic model. They were ready to move left and Bernie showed them the way.

Reflecting his efforts and those of like-minded politicians and activists, Medicare for All and a massive Green New Deal entered the political conversation, as did aggressive action on workers’ wages, taxing the rich and free provision of higher education. As they did, this shifting of the Overton window made policies that were more moderate, but considerably to the left of prior Democratic commitments, a much easier sell both within and outside of the party. One need only look at Biden’s policies on health care, climate change, wages, higher education and, more generally, on levels of taxes and spending to see the concrete results of this shifting window to which Sanders contributed so much.

But there was failure as well, most critically in the coalition-building and political power area. Sanders did much worse in 2020 than in 2016 in the Democratic primary vote (26 percent vs. 43 percent) and was soundly defeated by the considerably more moderate Biden. His supporters have various stories attempting to explain away this poor performance but the fact remains that Sanders could not successfully sell his approach even within a political party that was moving to the left and in the midst of a national crisis.

This reflects the fact that Sanders’ theory of the case on how to build a dominant political coalition was never really much of a theory. It wasn’t much more complicated than “If you say it, they will come”. Denounce the billionaire class and stick to your signature radical policy ideas with little or no compromise and eventually the needed political coalition will emerge. In particular, Sanders quite explicitly relied upon the idea that his uncompromising campaign would be rewarded with a tsunami of progressive, particularly youth, turnout that would carry him to victory in the primaries and eventually the general election.

For example, when a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board asked Sanders whether “a candidate as far to the left as you” would “alienate swing voters and moderates and independents,” he replied: “The only way that you beat Trump is by having an unprecedented campaign, an unprecedentedly large voter turnout.” And Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, stated: “Bernie Sanders has very unique appeal amongst [the younger] generation and can inspire, I think, a bunch of them to vote in percentages that they have never voted before.”

None of this turned out to be true. There was no surge of youth turnout carrying Sanders to victory in the primaries; instead there were surges in turnout among voters who voted against him. And in the general election, which was very high turnout, turnout patterns probably hurt the Democrats more than they helped.

Sanders also argued that his policies and campaign style would reach across racial lines in the working class, uniting white and nonwhite workers. This too did not happen; in 2020 the black and white working classes showed little enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign (though he did perform markedly better among Latino workers).

The uncomfortable fact is that building coalitions and attaining political power is hard, requiring compromises, deft balancing of competing demands and an accurate understanding of public preferences that avoids wishful thinking. Sanders never adjusted his campaign to reflect these realities. Indeed, in 2020 he added a series of more radical and “woke” political positions to his campaign like abolishing ICE, decriminalizing the border and allowing all prison inmates to vote which simply took him farther away from the median voter.

Biden, on the other hand, understood these realities quite well and navigated them masterfully. Sanders may have moved the Overton window, but Biden stepped through it.

Will the younger successors to Sanders’ politics like AOC and “The Squad” and organizations like Justice Democrats do much better? Do they have a better theory for attaining political power? So far, I do not see many signs of this. They do not seem terribly interested in engaging with the complex political calculus that would allow for the building of a broad coalition in a country many voters are open to progressive economic approaches but remain culturally moderate and feel looked down upon by coastal elites. Instead, the approach of strenuous advocacy of radical positions on both economic and cultural issues, including such boutique obsessions as defunding the police, continues. The criticisms of moderates like Abigail Spanberger and Conor Lamb, who question the electoral productivity of this approach, are brushed aside.

This suggests that the role of Sanders and his successor movement will remain confined to moving the Overton window, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But it will be other politicians who step through that window.