Do you know who is going to win the 2020 U.S. Presidential election? I do. Granted, Donald Trump and the GOP will go to nearly any lengths to eke out a victory, and we can’t rule out a Trumpian attempt to rig or postpone the election if it becomes clear he’s going to lose. We also know that the Democratic Party sometimes finds creative ways to lose electoral contests that it ought to win easily. So I can’t be sure the election will go off on schedule or tell you who will get the most votes in the Electoral College. But none of that really matters.
The winner in November will be Bernie Sanders.
To be clear: I was never a Sanders supporter and I still don’t think he would have been a particularly effective president. But for a variety of reasons — most notably the COVID-19 pandemic — it is his agenda that will carry the day from January 2021 forward, even if Trump gets the second term he manifestly does not deserve.
Item #1: Universal health care. Not only is the current pandemic exposing the deep iniquities in the U.S. health care system, it is also driving home that fact that lack of affordable health care threatens nearly everyone. There may never be an effective vaccine for COVID-19, we don’t know how long it will take to develop effective anti-viral therapies for those who do get infected, and we don’t know if COVID-19 will mutate into something less contagious and lethal, or something worse. What we do know is that we cannot expect poorer Americans — including many front-line workers — to keep working at risk to themselves without some guarantee that their own medical needs will be met. And if we don’t meet their medical needs, the rest of us will also suffer. Barring the highly unlikely development of a magic bullet against this disease, some version of Medicare for All seems unavoidable.
Item #2: Democratic Socialism. In case you haven’t noticed, the U.S. government has basically taken over the task of keeping the economy afloat and guaranteeing incomes. It’s not doing communist-style central planning, but it sure ain’t neoliberal “let the free-market do whatever it wants” either. We still have a market economy, but the government’s role in keeping it afloat (barely) is increasing steadily. As Howard Fineman (who is hardly a radical) wrote recently, “now even most conservative, libertarian-minded Republicans have publicly tossed aside their claimed objection to Big Government. They have supported and voted for massive new spending on basic income support, health care and more, and probably will do so again in the near future.”
This tendency for states to assert greater control should not surprise us. In any serious emergency—wars, natural disasters, financial panics, etc.—citizens everywhere turn to the state to provide security, order, and the resources needed to survive and then recover. Why? Because public institutions are the only ones that can draw upon and mobilize the entire society, impose the necessary restrictions on individual behavior, and guarantee public order. That does not necessarily mean that they will do so effectively—as the Trump administration’s hapless response to COVID-19 is demonstrating daily — but the point is that there is no real alternative. Private corporations, churches, charities, and other groups can help at the margin, but they lack the scale to confront a crisis effectively. That is why Americans didn’t turn to Amazon, the MacArthur Foundation, Microsoft, or organized religion to protect them after 9/11: it was the federal government that had to formulate a response. Similarly, the only entity that could bail out the U.S. economy after the 2008 financial crisis (or today) was the federal government; not even Warren Buffett had the resources or the authority that was needed.
Given that the scale of the present disaster exceeds either of those events, it is inevitable that public institutions are playing a bigger role in our economic life than at any other time in American history. If you don’t like the word “socialism,” feel free to call it a new form of “state capitalism” (with the emphasis on “state”). And by the way: that’s yet another reason why re-electing Trump would be a disaster: the greater the role of the state, the greater the potential for corruption and self-dealing, which is basically the Trump family business.
Item #3: Income redistribution. How are we going to pay back the debts that are now being incurred to keep the U.S. economy (partly) afloat? As Willie Sutton’s law tells us, we’ll have to look to where the money is. That means the wealthy Americans who have benefited most from recent economic trends are going to have to accept a lot of redistribution. Even the New York Times, which is hardly a bastion of radical-left economic thinking, has figured this out. I don’t know if this will mean an Elizabeth Warren-style “wealth tax,” a return to sharply progressive income tax rates, increased capital gains taxes, or whatever.
But given that the burdens of this crisis are falling disproportionately upon less-privileged Americans — i.e., those who don’t have luxury of working from home and sheltering comfortably in place in gated communities — I find it hard to believe that even today’s GOP would be able to stick the middle and lower classes with the main burden of paying for this. Past emergencies have been powerful social and economic levelers, and this one will be too.
And if you’re fortunate enough to be in the One Percent, don’t panic. The government isn’t going to take the vast majority of your wealth — though some of you may find it prudent to sell that second yacht and fifth vacation home — and you’ll still be in fine shape when this is all over.
Item #4: Foreign policy. Last but by not least, U.S. foreign policy is going to move in Bernie’s direction no matter who ends up president in 2021. Foreign policy was never Sanders’ primary concern, but he called for an end to endless wars, the need for greater congressional involvement in the conduct of foreign policy (and especially decisions for war), a halt in our support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, a more sensible defense budget, the resumption of the Iranian nuclear deal, and “support for democracy, human rights, diplomacy and peace, and economic fairness.”
At the most general level, COVID-19 will inevitably restrain U.S. ambitions abroad. Compared to the need to protect American lives and rebuild the U.S. economy, determining who gets to govern in Kabul or Damascus or Tripoli will matter even less to Americans after 2020 than it does today.
Spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year to safeguard the country against distant, weakly-armed terrorists or third-rate rogue states, or to continue our ill-fated efforts to “spread democracy” with military force, is going to be a much harder sell: more masks, ventilators, and a well-funded public health infrastructure would have kept us a lot safer than a few more F-35s.
Similarly, hyper-globalization was already on probation before the pandemic hit; it’s a safe bet that the United States (and others) will be wary of returning to the same levels of interconnectedness and supply chain vulnerability that were present before the crisis hit. Autarky is not an option and globalization will not end, but a more cautious approach to trade, investment, and population movement is inevitable. Sounds a lot like Bernie to me.
To be sure, some elements of Bernie’s foreign policy are unlikely to be implemented if Trump retains power. Trump won’t start prioritizing human rights or democracy in a second term, and he won’t embrace Bernie’s views on Palestinian rights or climate change. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to leave office after November (to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid in 2024), and the departure of Mr. “Maximum Pressure” would open the door to a new arrangement with Iran at a moment when Iran may well be receptive.
Moving toward Sanders’ position on Iran would allow Trump to claim a rare foreign policy victory. And I wouldn’t rule out Trump turning on his former pal Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who did his U.S. patron no favors by decimating the U.S. fracking industry. Bernie would no doubt agree.
Should Biden win in November, a resurgent Democratic foreign policy elite will undoubtedly try to turn the clock back and pretend that Trump’s tenure was just a four-year national nightmare. Expect to see a renewed commitment to those old foreign policy institutions (NATO, multilateralism, the G7 and G20) and lots of talk about the need for U.S. “leadership.”
Bernie’s call to emphasize climate change, democracy and human rights will resonate well with this agenda, and his idealism will be consistent with the bipartisan desire to confront China and Russia on a number of fronts. A Biden administration will be softer on America’s Middle East clients than Bernie would have been, but U.S. support for these increasingly dubious friends is likely to be more limited and conditional in the future than it is been in the past. “Maximium pressure” against Iran will be abandoned, no matter how loudly the Saudis, Israelis, or their lobbyists in DC keep calling for war. Biden won’t be Bernie, but any attempt to return to “Liberal Hegemony Lite” will be more rhetorical than real.
I’m hardly the first person to conclude that Bernie is the real victor in 2020, a triumph due as much to the global pandemic as it is to Bernie’s charisma, organizing ability, or political acumen. Nonetheless, timing counts for a lot in politics, and some key parts of Sanders’ message were perfectly aligned with this unexpected and unfortunate turn of events. His name won’t be on the ballot in November, but he’ll still be the biggest winner.