By Christopher Robotham, Editor-In-Chief
Sitting stunned in his suite in the Miami Ritz-Carlton, a distraught Senator Marco Rubio turned to Karl Rove, Rick Wilson, and Stu Stevens, and managed to utter between gulps of water, “How did this happen?” After a bruising primary campaign and billions of dollars spent on advertising, Rubio had lost the presidency to fellow Senator Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont who honeymooned in the Soviet Union, whose response to stories of bread lines from Latin America was, “I think that’s a good thing,” and who once published a controversial article which criticized gender roles through the depiction of rape fantasies. That Bernie Sanders just beat Rubio, 295-243 electoral votes, with a shocking upset in West Virginia – where Sanders had done several rallies and Rubio had ignored – that highlighted the night.
There had been some internal debate on how to run the Rubio campaign. Some advisers thought he should stress his support for aggressive multilateral strikes against ISIS, while others thought his signature issue ought to be comprehensive immigration reform – i.e., amnesty and enhanced border security. Ultimately, they settled on their central issue, with barely a whisper of dissent from inside the campaign, party, or broader conservative media complex: Bernie Sanders is a socialist.
From the declaration of Bernie’s socialism flowed almost all of the Rubio campaign’s advertisements, speeches, and cable news appearances. One could barely turn on the TV without viewing images of Sanders on his Soviet honeymoon or hearing clips of him denouncing capitalism and its “millionaires and billionaires” in his signature Brooklyn accent. Some of the more aggressive SuperPACs raked in and shelled out eye-popping sums for ads directly comparing Sanders to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Rubio joined former primary opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, to passionately lament the Castros and communism, and lined up a litany of experts to denounce Sanders’s protectionism on trade and sky-high corporate and personal income tax rates. They even enlisted Michael Bloomberg as their liaison to liberals to try to convince them to look past Rubio’s steadfastly conservative positions on guns and abortion!
And yet, billions of dollars and countless hours of television advertisements later, it wasn’t enough. Rubio picked up Florida and Virginia, as well all of the states that went for Mitt Romney in 2012, with the exception of West Virginia. While Rubio did win the occasional Democratic defection, it was clear that the “socialism” label not only didn’t stick, but actively galvanized the left to support Sanders. Stories of Sanders voters afraid to speak up, especially those who worked in service jobs, made their rounds on the internet and MSNBC, and social pressure against support for him across much of the country – including even in bastions of liberalism – made it hard to estimate the extent of his support.
Despite running on the mantle of the party in possession of the White House, Sanders was met with tepid support by establishment Democrats, evidenced by Obama’s open criticisms of his tax and trade policies; yet these figures inadvertently aided Sanders’s pitch that he, not Rubio, was the “change candidate.” But Sanders did affront traditional Democratic Party orthodoxy, daring even to say that “all lives matter” at one Iowa rally, speaking glowingly of rural hunting culture at another, and generally expressing skepticism of the party’s increasingly radical line on social and cultural issues.
No matter how tentative his establishment support, Sanders prevailed in spite of the advertisements comparing him to communist dictators and the pointed speeches by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. As the self-professed democratic socialist promised in his victory speech before cheering throngs of debt-ridden millennials and Woodstock-reminiscing boomers the swift implementation of his “political revolution,” Rubio’s campaign, the conservative media industry, and much of the nation watched in horror.
While this scenario did not happen, it very well could have. Had the roles been reversed, had the Democratic Party machine failed in nominating Clinton and the Republican Party succeeded in nominating Rubio, had Democrats and Republicans embodied their roles prescribed in the saying that, “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line,” it very well may have. Indeed, I believe it would have.
Before most American knew the name “Bernie Sanders,” they were treated to a plethora of voices calling President Barack Obama a socialist, a communist; a dictator who had a deep resentment for America, most of its people, its recent history, and its historical role in the world. They said he wanted to take your guns, and that during his administration, the Constitution was destroyed. “Socialist,” “anti-colonialist,” and other epithets had become signifiers that the subject is a Bad Person guilty of Wrongthink. When the proposition of a national health care plan consigns one to the label of “socialist,” a loud and clear message is sent to everyone to the left of Bill O’Reilly:
“If we don’t like you, you’re a socialist‒no matter what you actually say or do.”
A reality of the internet age, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, is that our discourse has descended to roughly a fourth-grade level, the defining aspect of which is the diss-comeback dynamic. And as anyone who has experienced this dynamic knows all too well, when someone says, “You’re X,” where X is supposed to be a bad thing, “So what if I am?” or some variant thereof, is a much better comeback than, “No, I’m not!” As such, Democrats faced with the arduous task of rebutting accusations of socialism turned to the completely understandable tactic of neutralizing the accusation.
Frustrated with the tendency of the right to label center-left ideas as “socialist,” rank and file Democrats stopped seeing socialism as a particularly bad thing; many even saw it as more desirable on account of the ire it generated from right-wingers. What’s more, millennials grew up without the instinctive aversion to communism and socialism ingrained in previous Cold War generations because they were ten or younger when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. For them, their first exposure to “socialism” may very well have been hearing their uncles call them socialists!
The inevitable result of all this was first hinted at by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the Fall of 2011; the left had at least partially embraced the “socialist” label, and the Democratic Party no longer saw it as a liability. This allowed the party to creep leftward without any real concern, and for prominent Democrats, including President Obama himself, to endorse a socialist, even if that socialist couldn’t secure the party’s nomination. President Obama and other high-profile Democrats stayed out of the primary, but the Sanders campaign knew that were they to win, Obama would endorse him. Sanders’s more extreme positions, and his very recent identification as a Democrat meant some would occasionally have to preface statements of support with, “Well, he wasn’t my first choice,” but there was never concern that a significant number of elected Democrats would refuse support, nor was there concern that the left’s intellectuals would abandon him. Perhaps as soon as 2018, Republicans will be forced to reckon with the consequences of ascribing the label “socialist” to the most prominent pro-free trade Democrat, someone whose socialist creds would seem to pale in honest comparison to those of his President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Pence.
Many 2016 election post-mortems have properly recognized that the volume of the cries of “racism” and “sexism” have diluted their impact to Republican voters. It is similarly evident that from this point forward, Democrats will no longer have to run from the label “socialist,” as identification as such is no longer assumed to be reckless and embarrassing to the party, but a legitimate strategy to galvanize the base. Republicans may even see this change as an opportunity for their own party to capture the center, just as many Democrats thought their victory was guaranteed by the Republican Party’s nomination of an extreme candidate. We saw how well that worked.