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Bernie Sanders and AOC Change Their Tune

Francis Wilkinson
·4 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian senator from Vermont who galvanized the American left in 2016, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old first-term representative from New York who is building on the Sanders coalition, each made a powerful pitch in recent days to their millions of supporters.

Sanders delivered a formal speech at George Washington University. Ocasio-Cortez engaged in a livestream chat on Instagram that has been viewed, as of this writing, almost five million times. Their complementary messages went something like this: There can be no democratic socialism without democracy. And there will be no democracy in America if Joe Biden doesn’t win.

“Whether we like it or not, November is about survival,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The actual balance of our democracy rests in the actions that we choose to make.”

The American left rarely approaches any given election with great enthusiasm. While some leftists regularly vote Democratic, others don’t see the point. The notion that a choice between two flawed (capitalist) candidates is no choice at all is a mainstay of cynicism and apathy. In a famous case of befuddlement, left-wing actress Susan Sarandon in 2016 even suggested that a Trump presidency might prove more beneficial to the left than a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Many Sanders supporters never cottoned to Clinton; it’s arguable that disgruntled Sanders supporters cost Democrats the 2016 election. Those supporters now appear mobilized against Trump, but not everything is different. While Sanders said he strongly supports Biden, Ocasio-Cortez barely mentioned the Democratic nominee. Addressing supporters who feel alienated from electoral politics, she said:

I’m not here to dismiss you. I’m not here to poo-poo you. I’m not here to say you’re wrong or that you’re a bad person. What I’m here to say is that this year, this election, voting for someone — voting for Joe Biden — is not about whether you agree with him. It’s a vote to let our democracy live another day.

Conservatives who misconstrue, deliberately or not, the politics of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, treating their support for European social democracy as a cartoonish longing for Soviet tyranny, would do well to listen to these words. Tyranny is precisely what they fear. This time around, however, the tyranny of poverty and powerlessness has been eclipsed by Trump’s frontal assault on democracy.

In his prepared remarks for a speech titled “Saving American Democracy,” Sanders approvingly quotes Ronald Reagan but never once utters the word “corporation” — his habitual bogeyman. Indeed, after a quick list of his usual topics, Sanders says, “I’m not going to talk about any of them.”

With less than six weeks left to go in this campaign it is my fervent hope that all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, moderates, conservatives — come together to defend American democracy, our constitution and the rule of law. We must ensure, in this unprecedented moment in American history, that this is an election that is free and fair, an election in which voters are not intimidated, an election in which all votes are counted and an election in which the loser accepts the results.

Many supporters of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are young. Trump, the pandemic and the economic crisis have made for a bewildering mess for young people with unsettled lives and a sketchy commitment to voting. The left’s two most prominent champions are offering bracing clarity, framing the stakes of 2020 in the starkest existential terms.

Will it work? The left was anything but excited about Clinton. It often seems blasé about Biden. Paradoxically, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are betting that those supporters who are spectators to the political contest, with no home team to root for, care enough about the game itself to come off the sidelines.

“This is not just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” Sanders said. “This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy — and democracy must win.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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