John the Baptist of the left

Rich Lowry

A voice crying in the wilderness is supposed to be ignored, not rewarded with accolades and growing influence.

Bernie Sanders is the prophet with honor in his own party. The former socialist gadfly is now the socialist trendsetter. At the moment, he has to be counted among the most successful ideological leaders in a generation in terms of moving the terms of the American political debate and putting previously discounted ideas on the agenda.

This doesn’t mean that he’ll be the next Democratic nominee for president, or even run. It doesn’t mean that his ideas are good (I personally consider them godawful). It does mean that when it comes to domestic policy on the left, it’s Bernie’s world, and the rest of the Democrats live in it.

Sanders was an irrelevance for a couple of decades in Congress. He ran for president to get a higher profile, and succeeded not merely in that, but in seriously challenging Hillary Clinton. He is now a pacesetter in the party, while she rues what might have been.

To be sure, much of this was inevitable. Whatever brake on the left Barack Obama represented was going to be released once he went home, especially if Democrats couldn’t hold the White House. The advent of President Donald Trump pressed the accelerator on the party’s radicalization.

In 2016, though, Sanders embodied the first real political expression of a post-Obama left that was disappointed by his alleged incrementalism and determined to move beyond it.

Sanders’ success represents a version of what has happened to center-left parties around the West, as they have collapsed or been eclipsed by new forces. The Democrats aren’t going anywhere, but Sanders is an interloper. Hillary Clinton is right when she complains that he’s “not even a Democrat.”

This doesn’t matter in the least to the Democrats in good standing who are vacuuming up Bernie’s ideas. You can hardly be a U.S. senator who hopes to run for president if you aren’t co-sponsoring pillars of the Sanders agenda such as “Medicare-for-all,” free college and the $15 minimum wage.

“Just a few short years ago,” Sanders crowed last year, “we were told that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ‘radical.'” Indeed, he was told that, and for good reason. But he had five co-sponsors for a $15 bill in 2015 and has a majority of Senate Democrats now.

The Sanders policies are tangible and substantive (if misbegotten). Compare the period of Republican ferment when the party was out of power under Obama.

The tea party, for better or worse, didn’t have big, signature policy initiatives. Its candidates usually defined themselves by their tactical maximalism and their style, especially a contemptuous attitude toward the establishment. This is why it slid so easily into Trumpism.

Bernie’s own political future is cloudy. If he runs again, he won’t have Clinton as a foil, but numerous contenders who want to ape his substance as younger, less quirky, more polished candidates.

Significantly, Sanders is a laggard when it comes to identity politics, which is becoming even more important to Democrats in reaction to Trump. A 76-year-old male from the whitest state in the union, who has devoted his life to a rigorously class-based politics, can do his best to play along but will never be a natural.

The voters, in the Democratic primaries and the next presidential election, will obviously have a say, and they can upset expectations.

A few years ago, Paul Ryan developed a thorough, coherent approach to the debt that seemed to define the future of Republican policy, before Trump blew right through it. Few would have guessed it at the time, but events were about to make Pat Buchanan and Jeff Sessions look like the GOP prophets.

Who knows how it shakes out for Bernie Sanders two or three years from now? What we do know is that he’s out of the wilderness.