In Expanding 2020 Field, Bernie Sanders Sees Beto O’Rourke As Prime Competitor

Screengrab/Beto for Texas/YouTube

Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke's growing popularity has Bernie Sanders supporters concerned about 2020.

As suspicion grows that Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke will enter his hat in the ring of Democratic presidential candidates in 2020, the Bernie Sanders movement increasingly sees the up-and-coming politician as the biggest threat to the Vermont senator’s chance at reaching the White House.

In recent weeks, the most staunch Sanders supporters have launched social media attacks against O’Rourke, who gained national prominence during the 2018 midterms as he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

But rather than the cult of personality assumed by onlookers striving to understand (or belittle) Sanders supporters, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait sees a more cohesive ideological basis behind their thinking — and he cautions that this group does not characterize the whole of Bernie’s following.

The Sanders partisans who are attacking O’Rourke — like Zaid Jilani, David Sirota, Branko Marcetic, Elizabeth Bruenig — are not representative of Sanders voters as a whole. This distinction is the key to deciphering the whole episode. Sanders attracts the intense support of a small left-wing intellectual vanguard who see American politics in fundamentally different terms than most Democrats do. The primary struggle in American politics as they see it is not between liberalism and conservatism, but between socialism and capitalism.

Sanders labels himself as a socialist and frames his rhetoric in Marxian class terms, which sets him apart from other Democrats. (Even a progressive like Elizabeth Warren calls herself “a capitalist to my bones.”) Socialists — at least those who aren’t willing to settle for the incremental advances traditionally held out by liberal Democrats as their only option — see Sanders’s presidential candidacy as uniquely compelling. The struggle between Sanders and other Democrats strikes them as far more significant than the contest between the non-socialist Democrats and the Republicans.

The voters who pulled the lever for Sanders, by contrast, are ideologically indistinguishable from the rest of the party. Among the minority of voters who identified as “very liberal,” the most left-wing choice, Sanders and Clinton performed about equally. In 2016, Sanders voters actually had more conservative views on economic inequality and changes to Social Security and Medicare than Clinton voters did.

Enter O’Rourke.

The Texas Democrat “poses an obvious threat”, Chait writes, because he has “replicated aspects of Sanders’s appeal”, and — together with O’Rourke’s “classic handsome, toothy, Kennedy-esque charm” — this presents a high-risk scenario for Sanders’ loyalists.

“Reading Karl Marx is cool,” saidNomiki Konst, a Sanders loyalist and candidate for New York City public advocate, to NBC. “Doing a livestream while you’re doing your laundry is a gimmick.” The comment sums up the left’s well-grounded fear that Sanders’s hard-core ideological appeal can be easily disarmed with personal charisma.

What’s more, O’Rourke possesses an “Obama appeal”, which doesn’t sit well with the far left but is likely to endear him to the majority of Democrats.

The frequently invoked comparisons between O’Rourke and the 44th president explain both O’Rourke’s wide appeal within the party ranks and the mistrust he has inspired on the far left. Socialists generally regard Obama as a failure; Sanders often critiqued Obama implicitly, sometimes explicitly.

O’Rourke’s burgeoning image as the next Obama is the very reason socialists reject him. “I think they are suspicious of Beto because he has taken oil and gas money, he’s becoming the darling of big donors, and Obama likes him,” says historian Michael Kazin. “Beto is a lot like Obama, true;” writes Breunig, “it’s perhaps time for left-leaning Democrats to realize that may not be a good thing.” Of course, given that 95 percent of Democrats approve of Obama, this message has fairly limited utility as a line of attack.

Chait concludes that Sanders’ supporters are right to fear an O’Rourke candidacy in 2020, noting that writing off such fear is a lax response to the current battle playing out on social media.

Baffled liberals, many still nursing wounds from 2016, see the passionate intensity of the Bernie movement as a personality cult, propelled by unthinking devotion to him (or spite at the party that they believe rigged the primary against him). It is anything but. The socialist left belongs to Sanders simply because there is no other presidential candidate who meets their exacting ideological criteria. They see O’Rourke as a threat to their project because, in important ways, he is.

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