Berned Beyond Recognition: How Sanders’s Rise Changes U.S. Foreign Policy



Michael Hirsh | Foreign Policy

After Iowa, Bernie Sanders’s progressive views will shape America’s approach to the world for a long time, especially on trade.

It’s long past time for Democrats to stop pretending that Bernie Sanders is an aberration and his ultra-progressive brand of politics is going to go away. That’s one lesson to take from the Vermont senator’s decisive conquest—messy though it was—of the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the chaos of the Iowa caucuses this week as the 2020 campaign formally got underway.

We’ll talk in a moment about the insurgent Pete Buttigieg, the come-from-nowhere wunderkind who was vying with Sanders for victory in Iowa with only partial results announced Tuesday night, following a major failure in the tallying of votes on Monday. But the powerful performance of Sanders and his fellow progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in Iowa—while Biden trailed well behind—was evidence that some things probably won’t be the same come November, no matter who wins the Oval Office. One of those things is U.S. foreign policy. We are in a new era for both parties: the postpost-Cold War era.

What has changed? First, the Washington Consensus is mostly dead. This is the Reaganomics-lite that a generation of Democratic centrists, beginning with Bill Clinton in 1992, embraced and practiced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the debunking of command economics. The Washington Consensus prescribed free trade, budget discipline, privatization, and deregulation. But over the years economists who have endorsed this approach have come to admit that they badly underestimated the effects that “hyperglobalization” would have in devastating America’s industrial middle class. 

The result was that many Democrats, or independent voters who tend Democratic, felt ignored by their party as it facilely endorsed globalization and Wall Street deregulation with scant attention paid to middle-class support, education and job retraining, and other policies designed to ameliorate the loss of industry to overseas competition. Many of these disaffected voters later supported Donald Trump.

“Free trade has become toxic for both parties, and the Trump victory in 2016 brought that message home for those who hadn’t grasped it already,” said David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who has documented the impact of the “China shock” on American workers. “The fact that blue-collar workers, union workers, manufacturing workers, have effectively switched parties tells you that the Democratic embrace of globalization and the ‘bridge to the 21st century’ [in Bill Clinton’s words] was seemingly a bridge too far.”

Four years ago, this simmering anger within the traditional Democratic base yielded up a new star, Sanders, who for decades before had been seen by the party establishment as a wild-haired fringe socialist (he’s not even technically a Democrat) who spoke to mostly empty rooms but who now found that his bold, uncompromising progressivism was resonating big time. It still does. So Democrats should finally learn the lesson that Hillary Clinton so abysmally failed to take on board in 2016: To her everlasting regret, Clinton gave short shrift to Sanders’s influence and ideas in the general election—despite nearly losing to him in the primaries—and found herself stunned by Trump, who adopted some of the same ideas.

No Democratic front-runner can afford to forget that again, especially when it comes to trade.

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