Bernie Sanders: the great outsider

Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, but he has pulled the party to the left, and turned the primaries into a referendum on income inequality. David Freelander explores


Bernie Sanders had just spent over an hour in the broiling hot June sun, giving an early version of his stump speech in which he railed against “the billionaire class” whose crooked hands were controlling American politics, and then another hour sweating through a series of well-wishers and autograph seekers.

It was 2014, a year before #FeelTheBern swept the nation, and Sanders was making the rounds of the early primary states to gauge the support for a possible run for president. For most Democrats, the prospect of a Sanders candidacy was regarded as a joke. Hillary Clinton was all-but-certain to run, and if she ran, would be the all-but-certain nominee, the one who would have every Democratic office-holder in the nation line-up behind her, her pick of top-flight campaign staff and piles of campaign cash to spend.

Sanders was 72, and as evidenced by the permanent grimace on his face that greeted even his fans, not someone who seemed to much enjoy the political side of politics. Plus he was a self-described socialist, for Godsakes! In the American political consciousness, this meant medical rationing, bread lines and elaborately choreographed dance routines in honour of Dear Leader.

Dissatisfaction amongst the Democrats

But for most of the previous six years, an undercurrent of dissatisfaction had been roiling the Democratic Party, one that gave birth in 2011 to the Occupy movement, which camped out in town squares from downtown Manhattan to Seattle, calling for an end of the hegemony of the One Percent. To many Democrats, Barack Obama had been a disappointment, too solicitous of Republicans, and too willing to appease the interests of big business, whether it be on healthcare, financial reform in the wake of the Great Recession, or taxes.

If there had been a vessel for this anger, it was not Sanders, but Elizabeth Warren. The first term senator from Massachusetts only ran for office when Republicans blocked her appointment to helm a new financial regulatory agency, on the grounds that she would be too aggressive in policing Wall Street.

Warren proved to be a natural politician, laying out in eloquent detail the case for an expansive government, and unafraid to punch the Republicans on the nose if necessary. Plus, Warren’s gender assured liberals cautious of another four years of Clintonian centrism that they would not spoil the chance of best candidate to break the White House’s glass ceiling.

But Warren declined to heed the groundswell, and so liberals were left with Sanders. Lefty favourites had run for president before, but often flamed out in the face of a well-funded establishment figure. But that June day in New Hampshire, Sanders declared: “If I am going to run, I am going to run to win.”

The Sanders Phenomenon

It sounded absurd. Sanders’ first job in politics was as mayor of the liberal utopia of Burlington, Vermont. He moved to the hippie oasis from his native Brooklyn, and before politics made a living as a journalist for the alternative press and by writing and producing film strips about radical political figures, such as union leader Eugene Debs. After a quarter-century in Washington, Sanders was the Senate’s cranky uncle, a gadfly whose primary notoriety came when he made an eight-hour speech on the Senate floor decrying Obama’s continuation of George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

If Sanders wanted to run, fine, most Democrats figured. Let him make the case for a doubling of the minimum wage, massive tax increases and a rollback of the national security state. He would be lucky to get much above single digits, and provide Clinton with easy punching bag as she geared up to take on the Democrats.

Barnstorming around the country, however, transformed the wild-haired Socialist into a genuine phenomenon. Democrats tired of more of the same from the Clintons have thronged to Sanders’ rallies — he drew 26,000 in Boston last year — making him the biggest political story this side of Donald Trump.

His pitch has not been so different from the one he gave that June afternoon in New Hampshire, or, for that matter, the one he has been making ever since he first won election in Burlington by just ten votes: that the system is rigged in favour of corporate interests; that the growing gap between the rich and everyone else is a moral and political calamity; and that the way to rectify this is by a “political revolution” in which millions of people rise up to reclaim their democracy.

It is a call that now appears to have been prescient. And by the time the Clinton campaign caught on, it was nearly too late. Sanders gained steadily on Clinton in national polls throughout 2015, and when Iowans went to the polls on February 1 for the first contest of the long nominating season, Sanders fought Clinton to a veritable tie. In New Hampshire, the next state to vote, he walloped her. Buoyed by voters under 30 who broke Sanders’ way by an unheard of 67 points, Sanders won in a rout.

Refusing to go away

Clinton and the rest of the Democratic establishment tried to dismiss Sanders as the darling of well-educated white elites, and said that once the race turned to states populated by the kind of voters who make up the Democratic base — unions, African-Americans and Hispanics, that the Sanders phenomenon would prove to be short-lived. Young voters, they insisted, were taken merely by the senator’s authentic anti-political charm and his promise of unrealistic giveaways — free college! Universal healthcare! Puppies and ponies to anyone who asks!

A race that was supposed to be an exercise in issue-raising has become surprisingly nasty. Sanders has refused to personally attack Clinton over many of the scandals that the Republicans are sure to bring up in the autumn, including her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State, or some of the dealings of her private foundation. But he has pummelled her support for trade deals that he says have hurt American workers, and painted her as a tool of Wall Street who spent her time after leaving government giving six-figure speeches to Goldman Sachs.

Sanders isn’t likely to win the Democratic nomination, but he isn’t going away either. He has practically matched Clinton in fundraising, powered by hordes of small-dollar donors. He has been surprisingly competitive in states that Clinton was expected to win easily. Even if he loses, he has pulled Clinton much further to the left than she would have liked to have gone, turning the Democratic race into a referendum on the issue of income inequality.

He has proven that among Democrats — especially among young Democrats — that there is an enormous appetite for a sharp leftward turn. Plus, he forced Clinton to run more explicitly as a candidate of African-Americans and Hispanics, since civil rights were one of the few issues that Clinton could get to Sanders’ left on.

In any other year, one not dominated by a billionaire reality television star, the unlikely rise of the rumpled socialist would be the dominant story. This year it has been relegated to a sideshow, but one certain to live on long after this campaign.