America’s Latest Plot Twist: Sanders as Socialist Cinderella

The man who lost to the woman who lost to Donald Trump is now the one delivering all the previously unthinkables.

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

February 28, 2020

The Cinderella story is a rare and wondrous thing in politics. It takes such an extraordinary alchemy of moment, character, luck and skill that, in the normal, uncorrupted political environments of functioning democracies, the true Cinderella story is visible about as frequently as a blood supermoon.

America’s 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race is currently witnessing an awesome Cinderella story. The political Cinderella of the moment is not a unifying, epigenetically pluralist avatar of aspirational cultural, partisan and national transcendence, as Barack Obama was 12 years ago. He’s an unabashedly irascible, 78-year-old socialist who served in Congress for a quarter-century without ever conjuring a presidential trial balloon headline much less a groundswell of popular demand. In the era of previously unimaginable political storyboards, Bernie Sanders is Cinderella.

This Cinderella story is exceptional not just for the basic logic-obliterating notion of the man who lost to the woman who lost to Donald Trump four years ago being entrusted with the hopes and dreams of so many Iowans, New Hampshirites and Nevadans with an overriding interest in defeating Trump in November. It’s exceptional because the contrast between Sanders and other Democratic candidates — including Elizabeth Warren, a progressive alternative whose downward poll trajectory, like Joe Biden’s, defies all the laws of political gravity — doesn’t seem sufficiently stark to rationalize his astonishing primary juggernaut.

This Saturday, South Carolina will provide, one way or another, a narrative catalyst. In 2008, South Carolina was the state where Barack and Michelle Obama proved Iowa wasn’t a fluke and secured Obama’s momentum as not just a challenger but an inevitability debunker. In 2016, Sanders lost the primary to Hillary Clinton by nearly 50 points. At press time, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Biden at 24.5 percent and Sanders at 21.5 which, on the fundamentals, is astounding.

The outcome of the South Carolina primary will determine whether Joe Biden’s brutal cannonball trajectory will be interrupted by support from the African-Americans who make up 60 percent of the state’s voters in an open primary. It will also determine whether Sanders is somehow imbued with the socialist variation of Trump’s superpower of defying all the behavioural norms known to science and human history in benefiting from credulity-flouting numbers that enable hugely impactful consequences.

Among the consequential deliverables already being produced by the Sanders Cinderella story is panic among Democrats who view moderate support fragmented among Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg providing Sanders with a viable path to the ball (with apologies for how that metaphor hits a wall at the prince charming visual). “In 30-plus years of politics, I’ve never seen this level of doom,” Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way told Politico after Sanders’ win in Nevada. “Today is the most depressed I’ve ever been in politics.”

Another consequence of Sanders as Cinderella is that, if he keeps saying and doing things that reinforce his unelectability nationally (including praising Fidel Castro’s social programs, Kryptonite in south Florida) the threat of a contested convention could become a reality, in a surreal, reality-show-politics sort of way.

In a time when there’s exponential value attached by the new world order plotters evidently plotting in this campaign to any plot twist that makes democracy seem corrupt, unfair and arbitrary (the 2016 Electoral College win, Brexit being unleashed by a hacked, coin-toss referendum result, Donald Trump…all day, every day), a contested convention could produce the nomination of a candidate who didn’t even run but who has the money and tactical machinery to win the floor.

In a context of narrative warfare, the Bernie Sanders Cinderella story may end up being a prelude to an even more far-fetched Cinderella story.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington