Bernie Sanders has a base that no other 2020 candidate can claim: left-wing politicians around the globe.
From South America to Europe to the Middle East, leftist leaders are celebrating his candidacy, viewing him as an iconic democratic socialist with the potential to lead a worldwide progressive movement at a time when right-wing populism is on the rise across the map.
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Their regard for Sanders burnishes the Vermont senator’s foreign policy bona fides at a time when he is trying to shake the reputation he received in 2016 as a lightweight on international affairs. But it also carries risks for an American politician who will need to broaden his appeal and insulate himself against attacks on his progressive ideals to win the White House.
“There is a danger to collecting maybe not endorsements but positive reviews from far-left politicians around the world when American voters are still not quite sure about how they feel about democratic socialism,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a former staffer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid and the onetime campaign manager for Pete Buttigieg’s run for Democratic National Committee chairman. “And this is not just a Democratic primary conversation, this is also a general election conversation.”
Among Sanders’ admirers: Evo Morales, the socialist president of Bolivia who blasted the United States last year for committing the “most egregious acts of aggression committed during the 21st century.”
Morales congratulated Sanders recently on Twitter for launching a second bid for the White House: “We are confident this progressive leader will have a strong support from the people of the US. Democratic revolutions are built upon democratic elections.”
Not all of Sanders’ foreign fans are so controversial. Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom’s Labour Party have argued that Sanders and their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would have a “special relationship” if the two men both rose to the top of their countries.
“Over the moon that @BernieSanders is running for President in 2020,” wrote Laura Pidcock, Labour’s shadow minister for business, energy and industrial strategy, in a tweet after he announced his candidacy. “Bernie was never just a candidate, his campaign was a movement, galvanising millions & offering hope across the globe.”
Richard Burgon, the Labour Party’s shadow justice secretary, confirmed that “the two teams” — Sanders’ and his party’s — “have talked.”
“Bernie Sanders’ last campaign was part of the inspiration for the way in which Labour approached the 2017 general election,” he said. “Where we went to a very low position in the polls to being the biggest swing to the Labour Party in a general election since 1945.”
Steve Howell, a former Labour strategist, agreed that Sanders’ insurgent 2016 primary challenge influenced thinking within the Corbyn campaign.
“I was not alone among Corbyn’s supporters in reflecting on what Labour could learn from the Sanders campaign,” he wrote in 2018. “Not only was there considerable common ground on policy, they were both ‘anti-establishment’ politicians who had the authenticity and credibility, on the one hand, to counter the right-wing populism of Donald Trump and [Brexit leader] Nigel Farage and, on the other, to inspire and mobilise young people on a scale not seen for a generation.”
In Canada, Israel, Germany and Spain, progressive politicians have also hailed the Vermont senator on social media and in interviews, often speaking favorably of his “Medicare for All” proposal, noninterventionist foreign policy and advocacy for the “Green New Deal.” Sometimes, the excitement is borderline giddy: Stefan Liebich, a Left Party member of the German Bundestag, recently posted a photo of himself holding a Sanders figurine on social media, adding, “#feelthebern.”
To both Sanders and his supporters around the world, it is impossible to fight climate change without international cooperation. To that end, a group called the Progressive International was announced at a convention last year held by the Sanders Institute, a think tank founded by the presidential contender’s wife and son.
The network of left-wing politicians and activists hopes to fight against “the global war being waged against workers, against our environment, against democracy, against decency,” according to its website.
Niki Ashton, a Canadian member of Parliament who joined Sanders in launching Progressive International, said the senator “has shifted the conversations both in the U.S. and around the world.”
In the eyes of progressives across the globe, left-wing populism is needed to take on right-wing authoritarians such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently met with President Trump.
“The far right have internationalised,” Ross Greer, a Green Party member of Scottish Parliament who went on the TV show “Scotland Tonight” to declare his support for Sanders, told POLITICO. “They cooperate and coordinate across borders. So if we are to defeat them, we need to do the same. Bernie gets that in a way I’ve not seen from any other presidential candidate.”
At a 2018 speech at Johns Hopkins University, in which he criticized the Trump administration’s relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, Sanders spoke of the need to stop the “growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism.”
“All around the world, in Europe, in Russia, in the Middle East, in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, we are seeing movements led by demagogues who exploit people’s fears, prejudices and grievances to gain and hold on to power,” he said. “We need to counter oligarchic authoritarianism with a strong global progressive movement that speaks to the needs of working people.”
Leftist leaders across the globe look back at the dynamics of Trump’s 2016 campaign and its connection to the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism and envision Sanders playing a similarly catalytic role on the left if he emerges as the Democratic nominee.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Farage campaigned for Trump and even joined him at a rally in Mississippi. Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign chief executive at the time, avidly backed the U.K.’s efforts to withdraw from the European Union.
The embrace from left-wing politicians overseas, however, could pose a threat to a candidate who has been attacked in the past for expressing sympathy for leftist governments hostile to the United States, including Nicaragua and Cuba in the 1980s. More recently, Sanders’ reluctance to to call Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro a dictator or to recognize Juan Guaidó as the interim president of the country — the position of the U.S. and a majority of Latin American and European countries — drew criticism even from within the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ staffers downplay concerns that support from socialist politicians abroad will foster the impression that his views are out of the American mainstream — which is shaping up as a central GOP argument against Democratic candidates — arguing that Republicans will label any Democratic nominee as extreme.
“They’re always going to do that no matter who the candidate is because they don’t want to have a debate about how Americans deserve health care,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy adviser. “They don’t want to have a debate about making sure prosperity is broadly shared.”
Within the Democratic primary field, the issue is perhaps less relevant: Close to 6 in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have a positive view of socialism, according to a Gallup Poll last year, and, unlike in past years, Democrats now have a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism.
And at a time of strained American relationships abroad, Holdsworth said, “Another world leader praising an American elected official is a good thing in the age of Trump.”
What’s clear is that Sanders’ fate will be closely watched beyond U.S. borders, where many on the left see his campaign as testing the American appetite for left-wing policies and a global progressive movement in a way that no other Democratic candidate does.
“Bernie Sanders is very exciting as part of an international movement against neoliberal economic inequality,” Burgon said. “Given that he’s gained so much appeal in the United States … where that’s a place where these progressive ideas would find it hard to get a following through the political mainstream, I think people in the U.K. and around the world have found that particularly inspiring.”