Looking through the history books, it’s not hard to find examples of failed revolutions  – whether peaceful or violent. Many are all but forgotten, while others were successful, at least in some of their goals: though they were able to disrupt the established power structure, they couldn’t seize control of it for themselves.

The most notorious illustration from history may be the Russian Revolution, which initially succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar but failed to maintain control and establish democracy, eventually leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union.

This pattern is also common in political campaigns that occur within an established democratic framework. An excellent example of this from recent years was the 2003 California recall of Gov. Gray Davis, which was initially financed by then-congressman Darrell Issa, who hoped to run himself. While they were successful in recalling Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race to succeed him and Issa’s gubernatorial ambitions were thwarted  – he didn’t even end up running.

The recent presidential campaigns of Ron Paul in both 2008 and 2012 can similarly be considered an unsuccessful political revolution that nonetheless would prove to shape politics for years to come.

Although he didn’t come close to winning the Republican nomination in either effort, he did awaken a new generation of grassroots conservative activists. When the 2016 presidential campaign began, many presumed that his previous supporters would flock to his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. If the younger Paul had been able to maintain the support of his father’s ardent admirers, while simultaneously making inroads amongst a wider audience of Republican voters, he may indeed have had a shot at the nomination. However, the enthusiasm of Ron Paul’s supporters did not instantaneously transfer to his son, and his efforts came up short.

Instead, many former Ron Paul supporters ended up becoming enamored with a newcomer to the scene: businessman Donald Trump.


Although this may seem odd at first glance, in fact it makes perfect sense. Trump was more of a political outsider than either Paul, having never even run for office before, and brought the same ‘bust-up-the-system’ ideology to the stage as Ron Paul. His vow to drain the swamp echoed Ron Paul’s “End the Fed” mantra, but had a much wider appeal. He wisely seized on immigration and free trade rather than monetary policy, which earned him a broad base of support during both the primaries and the general.

In both of his presidential campaigns, Ron Paul benefited not just from embracing issues no other candidate would but also from who he ran against. In many ways, Ron Paul was clearly markedly different not only from the established frontrunner but from their challengers, allowing him to earn a devoted following. When he ran in 2016, Rand Paul was just one of a number of young, conservative senators gunning for the nomination, making him less notable in a crowded field.

All of this helps explain one of the central questions of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries: why Bernie Sanders has been so invisible after mounting such an effective campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016. During the last campaign, Sanders ran a campaign that was strategically similar to Ron Paul’s campaigns in a number of key ways: he focused on the grassroots, found tremendous support amongst young people, and portrayed himself as more ideologically pure than his opponent. That approach nearly worked, as he came impressively close to defeating a candidate many presumed would be the consensus nominee.

Thus far, it hasn’t worked out quite as well for him this time around. As with the Pauls, part of the reason for his struggles may be the different competition: he faces a larger, more diverse field this time, none of whom seem to be quite as intensely disliked as Clinton was. That makes it harder for him to gain traction, as he loses a key argument that he had four years ago: he’s no longer the only other option.

The other problem Sanders faces is that he succeeded in pushing the entire Democratic Party to the left, to the point that now many of opponents have embraced some his most controversial positions. That leaves more liberal voters with a wide variety of options: that’s quite a different situation than they had in 2016, when Sanders was the only viable alternative to Clinton.

Bernie Sanders may well have succeeded in pushing Democrats (even frontrunner Joe Biden) to the left, but it may ultimately prove to be to his detriment.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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