The Sanders Campaign: Another Failure of Socialism?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders addresses a news conference in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Sanders Campaign: Another Failure of Socialism?

This one wasn't as deadly as the others.


The failures of socialism have been chronicled many places, from Socialism by Ludwig von Mises in 1922 to Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies by Kristian Niemietz just last year. Perhaps the most contemporary failure, outside the continuing tragedies of North Korea and Cuba, is the sad example of Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialism” in Venezuela, which turned out to be all too similar to 20th century socialism.

But right now we may be witnessing yet another failure of socialism: the sudden collapse of the presidential campaign of self‐​proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders.


Just two weeks ago there was full‐​scale Sanders panic. Coming off his near‐​defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders seemed to be on a roll, building toward a stronger effort in 2020. After the senator’s success in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, he jumped into the lead in national polls. The “moderate” Democratic candidates seemed on the ropes. Bernie was dubbed the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and was leading President Trump in general election polls.

Sanders started to get more attention. Debates over “democratic socialism” heated up. Sanders went on national television to defend his praise of Fidel Castro. Democratic party leaders despaired. And then the voters started paying attention. Sanders lost big in South Carolina, as expected. Not so expectedly, he lost 10 of 14 primaries on Super Tuesday. Then just last night his campaign suffered probably fatal blows, especially in Missouri and Michigan. In Missouri, a state where Clinton had barely edged past him in 2016, he lost to Joe Biden by 60 to 35 percent. And in Michigan, where his upset of Clinton in 2016 had propelled his campaign, voters preferred Biden by 53 to 36 percent.

It looks like voters, even Democratic primary voters, aren’t as enamored of socialism as we had feared. In Michigan he carried voters 18 to 29. But his claims that he could win the presidency by generating a huge turnout of young voters have not panned out. Youth turnout has been lower throughout the primaries than it was in 2016. Sanders loses African‐​American voters and older voters heavily. He did worse with the white working class than he did in 2016. He lost both college‐​educated whites and non‐​college whites.

We’ve worried a lot about the rise of illiberal populism on both right and left, in the United States and around the world. Ideas we thought were dead — protectionism, ethnic nationalism, anti‐​Semitism, and socialism — are back. But I’m breathing a little easier today. It seems that there’s less enthusiasm for the socialist version of illiberalism than I feared.

These results suggest that much of the Sanders 2016 vote was an anti‐​Clinton vote. Hillary Clinton had the second‐​highest unfavorable rating for any presidential candidate polled by Gallup since 1956, second only to Donald Trump. Perhaps it should have been no surprise that an alternative candidate could come so close to denying her the nomination. But in every state up through Super Tuesday, Sanders got a smaller percentage of the vote in 2020 than he did in 2016, including his home state of Vermont.

To be sure, Joe Biden is nobody’s idea of a libertarian or a classical liberal. In rejecting socialism, Democratic voters aren’t embracing free markets. Biden is a big‐​government progressive in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and both his long record in public office and his current positions include a great many things for libertarians to oppose. But he’s no revolutionary socialist, and for many voters he seems to represent an opportunity to return to normalcy and stability. 

Looking forward we may wonder whether Joe Biden will maintain favorability ratings better than those of Clinton. Right now he’s well ahead of Trump in polls about honesty, which was a weak point for Clinton. But the election is still eight months away.

This article by David Boaz first appeared at CATO.

Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders addresses a news conference in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson