"Feel the Bern" van photo by Bill Lueders
At the last candidate forum before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton stood, smiling, as as she was made to watch the latest Bernie Sanders television ad. The sweet strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” washed over the audience, as beauty shots of farms and cities, middle-aged couples and adorable kids rolled by. As the song built to a crescendo, the camera panned the faces of Sanders supporters at several of the huge stadium events where he has been packing in record crowds.
“I think that’s great. I think that’s fabulous. I loved it,” Clinton declared. Then she quoted Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”
As the Clinton campaign grew increasingly nervous about the Sanders surge, Clinton and her surrogates were leaning hard on their core message: that Sanders does not have the prosaic governing skills necessary to be an effective President.
Hillary, they insist, is the practical choice.
But the pragmatic arguments against Sanders miss what really matters about his campaign.
The important issue is not whether Sanders, as an individual, is most skilled at the fine art of political deal-making and compromise. What’s notable is the movement he represents, and what the outpouring for him says about Americans’ dreams and aspirations—and the potential for organizing those dreams and aspirations into real political power.
There is a great populist uprising afoot in our country, on both the left and the right. The Sanders campaign is riding a wave of discontent with policies that favor the top 1 percent, and the sense that, as Senator Elizabeth Warren puts it, “the system is rigged.”
It has been more than a year since the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party began agitating for a presidential candidate who could carry the banner of Occupy Wall Street, Fight for $15, and the large numbers of voters, especially young people, who see shrinking opportunity and growing inequality as the major issues of 2016.
Bernie Sanders took up that challenge. And in the last year his campaign captured the popular imagination in a way that stunned even the candidate himself.
The hunger for Bernie’s message shows how much the country has changed.
Millennial voters, who have grown up in the post-Reagan era, are not persuaded that “big government” is their enemy. Sanders, with a hefty margin of support among young people, is running as an unapologetic democratic socialist.
One thing his campaign has achieved in the last year was to make “socialism” the most looked-up word on Merriam-Webster’s website in 2015.
Millions of young Americans are open to the idea that the United States should join the rest of the industrialized world in providing universal health care to its citizens. They consider it reasonable to propose that our country, like many countries in Western Europe, make college tuition-free. They are appalled by the obscene wealth of the top 1 percent and want some of that wealth redistributed downward. They are inspired by how Black Lives Matter has exposed police violence, a biased criminal justice system, and other forms of structural racism.
“Today, amid leftwing militancy and racial strife, a liberal era is only just beginning,” Peter Beinart wrote in his piece, “Why America Is Moving Left,” in the January/February issue of The Atlantic.
The Democratic Leadership Council—which throughout the 1990s promoted tax cuts, no increase in the minimum wage, NAFTA, welfare reform, the tough-on-crime policies that led to mass incarceration, and Bill Clinton’s pronouncement that “the era of big government is over”—has closed its doors.
Still, Hillary Clinton and her surrogates argue for “a sensible, achievable agenda,” as she puts it on the campaign trail, over Sanders’s poetic call to arms.
In his New York Magazine essay, “The Case Against Bernie Sanders,” Jonathan Chait writes: “It seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment if they win.”
Congress will block Sanders’s idealistic proposals—especially universal health care, Chait argues. So not only is Sanders a danger to Democrats because he might lose, he’s a poor risk because he won’t even be able to achieve his goals should he win.
Hillary is more likely to win because she can appeal to “moderates and conservatives” Chait further elaborated when I joined him recently for a discussion of his article on MSNBC.
But if anything is clear in this crazy political year, it is that incrementalism and a focus-group-driven appeal to swing voters is out of sync with the times. Taking the “safe” route by hewing to the center is a risk in itself, if it leaves the majority of voters uninspired.
Americans are ready for bold proposals. They are fed up with the insider game of politics in Washington. That might mean we are in for a scary, rightwing populist administration, or, as Beinart argues, it might mean that we are headed into a more progressive era. A lot depends on the infrastructure and organization at the grassroots level—the kind of organizing below the surface that propelled the Bernie Sanders surge.
Much of the reason Sanders caught fire is a direct result of an underfinanced and understaffed campaign that relies on grassroots movements more than traditional political infrastructure.
“Instead of asking if it would be dangerous to have a young Latina in Communications Workers for America introduce Bernie in Arizona, they went for it,” notes Steve Cobble, political director and co-founder of Progressive Democrats for America, which launched the Draft Bernie for President movement. “The Clinton campaign would have been more cautious. They were trying not to make a mistake.”
Yolanda Bejarano is the young union organizer who introduced Sanders in Phoenix. Other young activists in the labor and immigrant-rights movements have stood with Sanders at rallies around the country, in contrast with the more high-profile politicians and entertainers who join Clinton on stage.
As a result of this relaxed approach, Cobble points out, Sanders became a vehicle for progressive activists who joined and helped to shape the campaign. They range from Dreamers to Occupy veterans to climate activists led by Sanders' friend Bill McKibben, to single-payer advocates including National Nurses United and the grassroots activists for fair wages and fair trade around the country who formed Labor for Bernie.
Sanders’s appeal as a truth-teller who is not beholden to Wall Street or corporations was always clear. But the momentum his campaign would build was not.
“It was unpredictable,” says Cobble. “No one saw this folk hero thing coming.”
Millions of voters see Sanders as the candidate who best articulates their aspirations for a more just society.
So now what?
Both Barack Obama, through Organize for America, and Ralph Nader, through the Green Party, promised that their presidential campaigns would leave behind organizations that would push for progressive values and represent the interests of ordinary Americans against the intimidating infrastructure of money and entrenched power. In neither case did the promise bear fruit.
Organize for America never developed into a vehicle for independent progressive organizing. Instead, it folded into the institutional Democratic Party. And Nader abandoned the Green Party, never helping it grow it into a major third party force.
Sanders has hired Obama campaign veteran Scott Goodstein of Revolution Messaging to run his impressive social media operation. He has also criticized the missed opportunity to build Organize for America into a lasting force for progressive change:
“What Obama did not do," Sanders has said, "is when he got into office, say to the Republicans, 'You're not negotiating with me, you're negotiating with tens of millions of people.'”
Win or lose, the movement Sanders galvanized will help determine our country’s progressive future.
That includes the members of Black Lives Matter who have criticized Sanders for not dealing directly with racism and police violence early on. Sanders has responded by reaching out and trying to bring together the movements for racial justice and economic justice. As Van Jones pointed out in our February issue, there can be no viable progressive movement in America that does not put the concerns of people of color at its center.
In his last pitch to voters in Iowa at the candidate forum at Drake University, Sanders explained his campaign in his simple, direct way, noting that the crises faced by the nation today, including inequity, poverty and a rigged political system, “are so serious that we have got to go beyond establishment politics and establishment economics.”
He did not exactly recite poetry, but he did make a plea to move the political discussion to a higher plane: “In my view, we need a political revolution where millions of people stand up and say, ‘You know what? That great government of ours belongs to all of us, not just the few.’ ”
That’s music to a lot of Americans' ears.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive magazine.