Election 2020

America’s Hinge Moment: Sanders or Biden

The results of Super Tuesday will help decide whether more Americans embrace runaway populism or a lost status quo.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at a Democratic presidential primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Joe Biden, the new comeback kid of American politics, laid out the stakes pretty clearly as he basked in the grand consolidation of Democratic Party moderates who—in an eye blink, or so it seemed—stood united behind him onstage in Texas Monday night: Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke.

“People don’t want the promise of revolution, they want results, they want the revival of decency, honor, and character,” declared the former vice president, who only two weeks ago had been all but counted out of the 2020 presidential race but is now surging and focusing his attack directly on Sen. Bernie Sanders, his populist chief rival in the Democratic primary.

The outcome in the Super Tuesday run of 14 state primaries and two caucuses went a long way toward suggesting that  Biden might prove right. The 77-year-old candidate continued his startling political comeback by winning Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Alabama, and Massachusetts, while Sanders took Colorado, Utah, and his home state of Vermont. The biggest prizes, California and Texas, were split, with Sanders tallying well ahead in the former and Biden winning the latter.

Still, it’s likely the race will remained undecided for some time, and the question remains: Do most Democrats—and Americans—want a return to the previous status quo in the form of a Biden presidency, as he suggests? Or do they want an embrace of runaway populism—the “revolution” Sanders has promised for decades—that will have the Vermont senator vying with his fellow populist, President Donald Trump, to drag the United States and possibly the world into further uncharted political territory?

Certainly Sanders is no Trump, as even Biden defenders admit. “Trump’s faux populism, rarely grounded in facts, is an extension of his pathological narcissism. Whatever his campaign slogans, Trump puts his own interests, not America’s, first,” said Michael Haltzel, a scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior advisor to Biden. 

“Sanders, on the other hand, is a genuine populist whose policies flow from a rigid adherence to what he defines as democratic socialism.” 

Sanders argues that he is as far away from Trump in his approach to the world as Biden is—and why, after all, should America revert to a status quo foreign policy that led to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan and a huge loss of U.S. prestige around the world? Sanders often points out, accurately, that he, not Biden, voted against authorizing the Iraq invasion in 2002. Despite being criticized recently for saying complimentary things about Fidel Castro’s Cuba and other socialist countries—he regularly invokes the soft socialism of Europe as a model—Sanders also has fiercely opposed authoritarian rule around the world and has called for rebuilding relations with U.S. allies. 

But although they appear to stand for very different things, Trump and Sanders are in many ways two sides of the same political coin: that of grassroots outrage over flawed economic and social policies adopted by both Democrats and Republicans in recent decades. As right-wing and left-wing populists, they represent “the yin and yang of America’s present discontent; both address, in different ways, the seething sense of unfairness, of inequality in Americans,” as I wrote four years ago at an equivalent moment in the 2016 race.

“Trump emphasizes shutting down job-stealing immigrants and getting ‘better’ deals from the world; Sanders, imprisoning wealth-gobbling, spoiled Wall Streeters and getting ‘fairer’ deals from the world. Both candidates plainly appeal to people who feel that no one is really standing up for them and what used to be known as their middle class.”

Biden’s appeal, on the other hand—and he’s plainly running on this—is more personal than policy-oriented. He’s political comfort food: the nice guy and nostalgia candidate rooted in post-Cold War tradition who hopes to restore much of the world abruptly abandoned by U.S. politics in November 2016 when Trump was elected. Certainly, like all the Democratic candidates, Biden has shifted leftward to meet the demands of Sanders’s progressive appeal, saying labor and environmentalists would have a say in any future trade deals and Obamacare must be improved.

But, fundamentally, he’s still selling centrist Democrat identity politics: “If Democrats want a nominee who’s a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us. We can either win big or lose big, that’s a choice,” Biden said Monday.

He was speaking after his former moderate rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, ex-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar, and former Texas Rep. O’Rourke, all endorsed him in a matter of hours, also warning of the danger from the left embodied by Sanders, who is technically an independent in the Senate. The wild card remains former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the multibillionaire ex-Republican businessman who is billing himself as a moderate/pragmatist alternative to Biden but who, until Tuesday, remained untested in national elections.

Tuesday’s outcome matters not just for the future of American democracy but for what it means in a world in which post-Cold War conventional wisdom about the virtues of democratic capitalism is fast fading—and populists are rising around the globe. From Brexiteers such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the U.K. to such leaders as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, a new phalanx of nationalists is actively campaigning against a globalized world. Trump’s “America First” credo has become, around the world, “(Country name here) First.”

That would probably change less than you think in a Bernie Sanders presidency. If Trump is a neo-isolationist, the former left-wing radical from Vermont (via Brooklyn) is a lifelong, unrepentant anti-imperialist who supports a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces and, even now when he is within reach of the Democratic nomination, refuses to give up the “socialist” label. 

“In many ways Sanders would continue Trump’s retreat from international responsibility,” Haltzel said in an email. “Radically cutting the defense budget and withdrawing U.S. forces from some crisis areas would be a central element of a Sanders foreign policy—a classic case of ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ which would almost certainly come back to haunt us.”

March 4: This story was updated with election results.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh