Can an unabashedly progressive presidential campaign actually win this November?
11 min read
When I crossed paths with a Democratic Party campaign consultant in Austin last March, I suggested he come out to the local IBEW hall Tuesday night to hear Bernie Sanders, adding that the Vermont senator was pondering a run for the presidency. “You gotta be kiddin’ me,” the political pro snorted. “Bernie Sanders? Let me tell ya, his chances are slim and none, and Slim don’t live in Bernie’s precinct. First of all, no one south of Greenwich Village ever heard of him. Second, who’s gonna vote for some old senator from a tiny state of Birkenstock-wearers damn near in Canada? And for chrissake, Hightower, he’s Jewish. Plus, he’s some sort of socialist, isn’t he?”
So that scoffer was a no-show, but we really didn’t have room for him anyway.
We had expected about 200 people, which is how many the hall would seat–but nearly 500 Texans showed up that night to hear the undiluted, populist message of this senator “no one ever heard of.”
Austin was one of the stops on a cross-country trip that Bernie was taking to assess whether an unabashedly progressive, movement-building presidential campaign could rally any substantial support. If he ran, he intended to go right at the moneyed elites who’ve thoroughly corrupted our politics and rigged our economy to squeeze the life out of the middle class. But, would anyone follow? Were people really ready to do this, and could a 70-something-year-old, notoriously brusque Vermonter with a conspicuous Brooklyn accent be the one to spark such a modern-day American revolt? He wasn’t sure, and even if it might work, he assumed it would be a slow build.
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I was to introduce Bernie at the Austin event, and as we worked our way from the parking lot into the union hall, waving to an ebullient overflow group gathered outside, shaking hands with people standing all along the hallway and up the stairwell, and then squeezing through the jam-packed crowd in the auditorium, I said to him, “Something is happening here.” He nodded and said in an astonished whisper, “Something is happening.”
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower
This was a precursor to what would soon become the “Sanders Sensation,” a spontaneous, unusually vibrant grassroots uprising that has already shattered the Democratic Party Establishment’s holy myth that corporate centrism and SuperPAC money are the only means to victory. Stupendous crowds are streaming into arenas all around the country to hear Bernie’s fact-studded speeches (which are more like ardent tutorials on democracy than rah-rah stump speeches). Not only are people signing up for his populist call to action, but more than a million enthusiasts have also pitched in small donations (averaging around $20-$30 each) to self-finance a viable, multimillion-dollar campaign that can go the distance.
For me, though, the great difference in this Bernie-for-President effort is that grassroots people themselves are taking charge–not leaving all the campaign details to establishment office holders and party operatives who would do the same old thing. From rallies of up to 30,000 people (as Trump would say, these events are truly “Huuuuge!”) to the local campaign committees that have sprung up across the country like hardy spring wildflowers, most of the faces are new, fresh, and excited.
Sure, many progressive old-timers are drawn to his maverick run, as is a cadre of experienced organizers, but the driving force of “Bernie for President” is coming from two encouraging sources: (1) An emerging rainbow of young people dismayed and disgusted by the greed and pettiness of today’s “leaders” who are restructuring America into a plutocracy that sweeps the crying needs of the middle class, the poor, the planet, and the common good under the rug of laissez-faire Kochism; and (2) a potentially game-changing group of working-class mad-as-hellers who had disengaged from a governing system that has deliberately ignored the needs of working stiffs, and worse, cynically used them as political pawns to be demonized and disempowered.
Pondering the phenomenon
Sanders’ populist surge naturally intrigues a wide range of free-thinking, truth-seeking voters, but most don’t know him, and many aren’t sure what to make of his run. These voters are being warned by the Democratic hierarchy that the only way to ward off the Halloween horror of a Trump-Cruz presidency is to set aside their populist idealism this year and stick with Obama-style, don’t-rock-the-corporate-boat liberalism that offers only band-aid reforms. That’s not exactly a turn-on for the majority of people fed up with business-as-usual politics, but still, many understandably want answers to a few basic questions before they hitch their populist hopes to Sanders’ people-powered choo-choo that could.
Question 1: Who is this Bernie character, and where does he come from, politically?
Sanders happily calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a loaded term that initially spooks many people. But as Vermonters (who keep electing him–last time with 70-plus percent of the vote) have come to know from his actions and policies, and as the hundreds of thousands of people turning out to hear him are learning, the phrase essentially means being a feisty FDR populist, willing to take on the economic royalists (and welcoming “their hatred,” as Roosevelt put it) in order to (in Bernie’s words) “revitalize American democracy so that government works for all of us, not just the large campaign contributors.”
For him, the key word in democratic socialism is “democratic”–rallying and organizing workaday people to reject the plutocratic corporate order and build “a society in which all people have a decent standard of living, not a society in which a few people have incredible wealth while 47 million live in poverty.” Sanders comes straight out of America’s historic continuum of progressive boat-rockers: the pamphleteers, abolitionists, suffragists, Populists, unionists, Progressives, New Dealers, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protesters, along with marchers for women’s equality, the environment, gay rights … and on into today’s struggles over inequality, oppression, and corporate hegemony.
Raised in a low-income Brooklyn family, he was a student activist and civil rights protestor at the University of Chicago in the ’60s, after which he moved to Vermont. He worked there first as a carpenter, filmmaker, and writer, but his real occupation was grassroots political agitator, constantly exposing and challenging the wrongdoings of the money boys who ran Burlington for their own fun and profit. But suddenly, in 1980, he went from agitator to mayor! He stunned the Democratic old guard at city hall by running as an independent progressive and winning (by a 10-vote “landslide”). As a three-term mayor, then a member of Congress, and now a US senator, Sanders has not merely held office, but put each office to work, creating mechanisms and pushing ideas to help ordinary people and the whole community.
One more useful thing to know about the guy is that he has never abandoned his working-class roots, remaining unusually free of the peacocking strut that afflicts too many in high office. For example, he’s not “Senator Sanders,” but just “Bernie”–everyone calls him that. He lives modestly, flies coach class, and considers $25 a major campaign donation. It’s also worth noting that he has not used his official positions to get rich. While most people in Congress today are millionaires or more, Sanders’ net financial worth is in six figures–one of the lowest of any senator.
Question 2: Why does he think he’s the one to create the people’s movement to democratize America’s money and power?
He doesn’t. To the contrary, Bernie recognizes that the people’s yearning for such a movement is what has created him as a presidential contender. In the words of a song, he’s “the wave, not the ocean.” He’s not only aware of this basic truth, but he’s turned it into an alter call at campaign events: “I can’t do this,” he cries out, “but WE can!”
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
Sanders is carrying this message to people everywhere, not just to safe enclaves of blue voters:
In September, this Jewish democratic socialist became the only Democrat to have the gumption to reach out to hardcore anti-gay, anti-abortion Christian evangelicals. Speaking to 12,000 students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he found common ground and even some enthusiastic support by engaging the students on the immorality inherent in America’s worsening inequality, poverty, racism, religious intolerance, and defilement of the planet. By respectfully approaching them, Sanders demonstrated the potential of civil discourse to transcend big differences on some issues by finding what we have in common and begin relating around the realization that we’re all in this together.
He’s also making a point of campaigning in states that Democratic Party know-it-alls write off as hopelessly Republican–and he’s drawing eye-popping crowds in states that Obama lost, including Arizona, Texas, and West Virginia. He rightly notes that in every state, “the vast majority of people are working people … struggling to keep their heads above water.” Forfeiting their votes is not only “stupid politics,” Bernie says, but a craven betrayal: “You do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people.”
Sanders doesn’t even give up on the red-faced mobs that have been cheering the anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, demagogic drivel of The Donald. While some of Donnie’s trumpeters are just rank racists and bigots–and while our first imperative is to stand with those being assaulted–Bernie understands that many Trump supporters are infuriated and scared because they’ve lost jobs, homes, and hope to the inscrutable forces of greed. Trump & Gang have cynically manipulated this fury, directing people to look down on “them,” rather than looking up at the greedheads causing their misery. Progressives, he says, should be out there trying to refocus this anger, while also offering a genuine alternative of hope. “You have a right to be angry,” Sanders says to them, so let’s work together “to create an agenda and a political movement that will make your life better, not just other people’s lives worse.”
Question 3: Is Bernie serious about actually winning, or is this a symbolic run to raise issues (or Gasp!–just an ego trip)?
I’ll let Bernie take this one: “I am not running to fulfill some long-held ambition,” he told an interviewer in the Nov. 18 Rolling Stone. “I never believed that I would ever become a mayor, a congressman or a United States senator [much less a president]. … I am running for one simple reason: This country today is facing extraordinary crises in terms of climate change, income and wealth inequality; in terms of a political system which is now corrupt and leading us toward oligarchy; in terms of the collapse of the middle class; in terms of more people in jail than any other country on Earth, and in terms of an immigration policy which is clearly completely broken. I just do not believe that establishment politics are going to address these issues. …I do not say ‘Elect Bernie Sanders, I’m going to solve all these problems.’ We need millions of people to stand up and fight back.” In other words, we need “a movement.”
He’s not just serious–he’s on a mission! Sanders is as offended as the great majority of people are that Washington is so totally in the pockets of moneyed elites that these poisonous crises are allowed to fester and spread. Someone finally has to rebel, and no one had stepped forward, so he did. He’s saying: Use me. I’ll be your mechanism, your political tool in 2016 for building a democratic movement that can govern in the people’s interest, rather than for the 1-percenters. Furthermore, he says, even on the off chance that we don’t win the presidency this time, the campaign’s organizational effort will create an ongoing, energized network that will elect other progressives, keep building, and move the movement forward for the next time.
Question 4: Yeah, but the GOP gang is howl-at-the-moon insane, so we need to win now. We’re told that Bernie’s too hot for moderate voters. Directly put: Can Bernie win?
He already is winning. Notice that the Democratic debate this time is not more minimalist, centrist blah-blah, but is focused on full-throated, working class issues: Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, the job-destroying effects of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, whether Wall Street’s monopolistic control of America’s money should be busted up, pay equity for women, free higher education for all (paid for with a “Robin Hood Tax” on stock speculators), getting corporate money out of politics, public financing of elections, the expansion of Social Security, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and … so much more.
By speaking bluntly–not just about the scourge of inequality, but also about who’s causing it and how to reverse it–Bernie has already shoved the Democratic Party into a better alignment with its historic purpose and with the actual views and needs of the people it’s supposed to serve. And that is why he’s come so far so fast. Polls show that the senator “no one has ever heard of” is now leading in the New Hampshire primary contest and is within reach of victory in the Iowa caucuses. Moreover, in direct contradiction of the “can’t-win” myth, recent polls reveal this important fact: If the November election were held today, Sanders would defeat any of the potential Republican nominees–winning by margins greater than any other Democrat! Shocked pundits say Sanders seems to have come from nowhere, but in fact, he’s coming straight from the people. Nowhere is this clearer than in the financing of his run. Even though he flat-out rejects backing from secretive, dark money SuperPACs, and even though he doesn’t hold fat-cat fundraisers or take Wall Street money, he had raised more than $45 million by mid-December, making him competitive for the long run.
Question 5: Okay, but even if he wins, how can he govern, since the Hell-No Numbskulls in Congress will block everything he’s proposing?
The difference will be made by the people. The secret to Bernie’s campaign success is not [Warning: cold truth ahead] raw charisma or mellifluous eloquence, but the very thing that “expert” political consultants tell candidates to avoid: Substance. He is practicing authentic politics, going directly to voters, speaking truthfully about money and power, bringing it home through specific issues that affect them, placing the message in the moral context of right and wrong, and showing them they can come together to do something about their situation. He is giving America’s disenchanted majority a reason to vote again–not for a personality, but for a tectonic shift in public policies.
“I will not get elected unless there is a huge increase in voter turnout,” Sanders says, and he’s showing that TURN-ON is what produces turnout. He notes that, of the hundreds of thousands who’ve come to his events, “90 percent … have never been to a Democratic Party meeting in their life. The energy and enthusiasm that we are developing in this campaign with young people, with low-income people, with working people is …[what’s] needed to create large voter turnouts.”
That’s a grassroots movement that a President Sanders would bring to bear on entrenched business-as-usual Washington–an organized and engaged movement with a broad mandate for change. “My job” says Bernie, “is to activate people to fight for their rights and to force Congress to respond to the needs of working families.”
To learn more and to get involved, here are just a few of the many good-guy-and-gal groups that are working on populist issues.