Bernie Sanders’ second presidential bid has run out of steam. His likely defeat is very deserving. He's a terrible candidate, and as David Frum argued in the Atlantic Trump would have beaten him easily. His shocking popularity four years ago is just more proof that Hillary Clinton was a staggeringly unelectable person who benefited from the old DNC nomination process. But anybody arguing that his revolution is over needs a little history lesson. There's a very good chance that Sanders’ ideology will eventually sit upon George Washington's throne.
There’s a long tradition of failed presidential hopefuls winning the ideological presidency about a decade and a half after they crash and burn. Until now, this tendency has mostly been a phenoma on the American right, because the American left has generally been built upon coalitions of minorities instead of policy driven ideology as Biden is continuing to prove.
But the historical pattern is clear: a failed bid for the presidency built on an ideological foundation can succeed spectacularly down the road. Call it whatever you want, the moving of the Overton window or simply the romanticism of a lost cause, this has happened twice in the last half century and Sanders' two presidential campaigns have all the signs that the cycle will repeat. But this time the cycle is coming from the far left.
In 1964, Republican Nominee Barry Goldwater was spectacularly defeated by the incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater's campaign was almost entirely ideological. He was a Conservative's Conservative, by the standards of the day. His best selling “Conscience of a Conservative” (mostly ghostwritten) outlines his politics perfectly. In essence he wanted to push back against New Deal Progressivism with capitalism and defeat the Soviets with military deterrence. His ideological phoenix would arise from the ashes sixteen years later when Ronald Reagan was elected President.
Then in the 90s, paleo-conservative ideologue Pat Buchanan ran for president thrice. The first two times, he attempted to win the Republican Nomination. In 1992, he primaried the incumbent George Bush Sr., and despite losing, garnered a respectable following. He failed to win the Republican nomination again in 1996. His third and last presidential bid was with the mostly forgotten Reform Party. Like Goldwater before him, Buchanan ran almost entirely on an ideological platform. He ran on social conservatism and isolationism, from both an economic and military standpoint. And like Goldwater, sixteen years after his final failed presidential run, this ideology became the President of the United States in the form of Donald Trump.
Trump is clearly not an ideologue and he personally does not reflect any of the values that his 2016 campaign was built upon. But there is a kind of MAGA doctrine, and it's basically the same stuff Buchanan continues to promote through his punditry. Trump won the presidency by being anti-aborition and anti-immigration. Anti-abortion gave him the Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics. And anti-immigration basically gave him anybody who was tired of feeling bad to be proud of America, or as the Vox or Slate crowd calls it white identity politics.
The problem that Goldwater and Buchanan both had is very similar to what is holding Sanders back from making it to the top of the democratic ticket: they are men of principle and almost entirely lacking in charm. Politics is ultimately about playing the game, and it runs off people with charisma and interpersonal chutzpah. Politics needs people who can persuade and actually get things done, the best politicians are flexible not ideological.
Reagan clearly was formed by the steady diet of Henry Hazlitt and F.A. Hayek that he had been consuming after turning away from Hollywood style progressivism, but he’s known as the “Great communicator” not the great Austrian Economist. And while Trump is in many ways repellent, and not nearly as great a businessman or deal maker as he claims, he connected with many Americans because he allowed himself to vicariously vent their frustrations.
It may seem like insanity to segments of the American left, but the MAGA hats feel like he was willing to love them when the elites of their country were not. No one, not even his most die hard fans, could ever accuse old Pat Buchanan of seeming loving or empathetic. The public simply does not respond to principles, they respond to campaigns that respond to them. The public responds to personality not policy. Sanders has the wrong kind of personality. He calls school children dumb and defends bread lines. His ideology is still waiting for its populist svengali, cause he ain’t it.
Sanders has moved the DNC much further left, but more importantly by being the first openly Socialist presidential hopeful he has moved the Overton window. And in five years his protege, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, will be old enough to run for President. If the pattern holds maybe it’ll be President AOC in 2036. The ideology only needs the right vessel to hold the crown and take the throne.