Shortly after 9 a.m. on the second Saturday in May, at the altar of a massive, ornate church in Northampton, Massachusetts, a lanky, white-haired reverend named Todd Weir assumes the pulpit. His congregation is hosting a conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the grassroots organization Progressive Democrats of America. Before him sits an audience of several hundred. In the course of welcoming them to the church, Weir directs their attention to a bronze relief of the fire-breathing, 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards. “Edwards preached over and over again about the dangers of the concentration of wealth and power that were happening here in the Connecticut River Valley,” he says. “I think he would be here today with the Progressive Democrats of America, saying, ‘Run, Bernie, Run!’ “
The image of Jonathan Edwards — a Puritan in a white powdered wig — stumping for the socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in front of progressive diehards wearing hiking boots has hardly settled in our minds when, several minutes later, a man in a cowboy hat takes the podium and begins whipping the crowd into an even more frenzied state. “I’m happy to be here with you rompin’ stompin’ scrappy ‘n’ savvy attendees, you corporate greed-whackers and butt-kickers,” twangs the populist Texan radio host Jim Hightower. A few more minutes of inspirational preamble follow before he introduces the guest of honor: that “hell-raiser extraordinaire who drives the Koch-head corporate plutocrats crazy.”
A roar emanates from the pews, and 72-year-old Bernie Sanders trudges up to the pulpit. He waves tersely and motions for the crowd to sit down. “What I wanted to do this morning,” he tells his adoring and expectant fans, “is kind of bore you a little bit.”
True to his word, Sanders proceeds to drain all the energy from the premises with an hour-long lecture full of bleak statistics and wonky digressions. Phrases like “chained CPI” and “real unemployment” feature prominently, along with endless talk of the Koch brothers and their abettors on the Supreme Court.
According to the day’s agenda, the speech is supposed to be followed by a 15-minute meet-and-greet for the senator and audience members. Instead, when he finishes, Sanders bounds up the aisle, shakes some hands without breaking stride, then bolts out the front door. Back at the altar, a panel on media quickly assembles. It includes progressive radio host Thom Hartman, a baby-faced labor reporter named Cole Stangler, and the actress-activist Mimi Kennedy, who played the hippie mom on Dharma & Greg. “That,” Stangler announces to the crowd, “was a pretty depressing speech.”
Outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2013. (Getty Images)Indeed it was. The performance was vintage Sanders: brimming with umbrage and entirely lacking in charisma. It was also probably a warm-up act for what could be one of the more intriguing story lines of 2016. For months, it has seemed increasingly likely that Sanders is going to run for president. The founder of Progressive Democrats of America, Tim Carpenter — who died of cancer two weeks before the conference — had started a petition beseeching Sanders to run in 2016, and part of the point of the event was to gin up enthusiasm for his candidacy. Meanwhile, Sanders has visited Iowa and New Hampshire; boasted that he’d make a better commander in chief than Hillary Clinton; and repeatedly said he’s “prepared” to enter the 2016 race, even informing me at one point — without making anything official — that he was “looking forward to running for president of the United States.”
If Sanders runs, he will do so as the candidate of the Democratic Party’s uncompromising left flank. (Despite the fact that he’s an independent, Sanders has suggested he would run in the Democratic primaries, not on a third-party ticket, promising that he doesn’t want to play spoiler.) More so than at any point in recent memory, this segment of the electorate — while admittedly still small — seems to have the wind at its back. Thanks to the Occupy movement of 2011, the subject of economic inequality is now at the forefront of American politics. Last year, left-wing mayoral candidates won surprising victories in Boston and in New York, where Bill DeBlasio spun his progressive populism into a wildly effective electoral strategy. On the cultural front, several left-wing publications — n+1, The New Inquiry, Jacobin — have gained increasing prominence among a base of younger readers hostile to neoliberal economics. They’ve been joined by a much larger audience in propelling Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which advocates radical wealth redistribution, to the top spot on Amazon’s best-seller list. Polls show that hating capitalism hasn’t been so popular in decades.
Come 2016, this movement will want a standard-bearer in the Democratic primaries. And with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — whose rhetoric on inequality has made her the de facto leader of the movement in recent years — now signaling that she will not run, it appears that the standard-bearer is going to be Sanders.
In many ways, this seems only fair. The current national discussion about inequality reflects themes that Sanders has been trumpeting for decades. “This guy Tom Piketty, this new book — Bernie Sanders has been saying this for 35 years!” says John Franco, a lawyer who worked under Sanders when he was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. Sanders himself, when I bring up Warren’s infamous claim that she “laid much of the foundation” for the Occupy movement, amusedly raises his eyebrows and coughs four times in succession — “ahem, hem, hem, hem” — to remind me who came first.
Hillary Clinton (Getty Images)Granted, Sanders would have little to no support from the Democratic establishment for a presidential run. When I spoke to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont about Sanders recently, he followed 15 minutes of effusive praise for his junior colleague by saying, “I told then-Secretary Clinton that I would support her if she ran. And of course, I’ll keep my word.” Former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts is not only pro-Hillary 2016, but actively anti-Bernie 2016. “I don’t understand what running for president would do other than frankly show that his viewpoint is not the majority viewpoint,” Frank told me. “If she’s going to be the nominee, why do we want her to be weakened all summer?”
But a Sanders run wouldn’t really be about Hillary. It would be about using the national stage to serve as an evangelist for a certain set of left-wing ideas. Those ideas add up, not surprisingly, to a pointed critique of the American political system, the Democratic Party establishment, and even progressives themselves. How voters receive both this message and the deeply cranky messenger may not ultimately have much bearing on who wins the nomination, or the presidency, in 2016. It could, however, go a long way toward determining the future of the American Left.
BERNIE SANDERS has been known to express annoyance at reporters who comment on his cantankerous image. Spend a little time with him, though, and he doesn’t do much to discourage the caricature. On the April day I trail Sanders in Washington — a month before the Progressive Democrats of America confab — he stands for 20 minutes on a deserted Senate floor, delivering what his press secretary Michael Briggs calls “the oligarchy speech.” Sanders will later complain that he has now given the speech three times, and not once received any media coverage for it.
An hour later, he is back on the floor, where I watch him shout at Louisiana Republican David Vitter in a rousing, if one-sided, parliamentary-style debate over a veterans-benefits bill he has sponsored. (Sanders is the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.) In the Senate press gallery, there is just me. In the visitor’s gallery to my left, there is just Sanders’s wife, Jane, the former president of a small college in Burlington. Sanders looks up at her, makes a goofy face, then launches into his attack.
“What is the largest voting bloc in America? Is it gay people? No. Is it African-Americans? No. Hispanics? No. What?” Answer: “White working-class people.”
Not long after the showdown with Vitter, I sit with Sanders on a couch in Harry Reid’s foyer outside the Senate floor to discuss his highly specific vision for the Left. In recent months, Sanders has indicated he’s willing to use his fire-and-brimstone act not simply to influence a presidential election, but also to lay the groundwork for something of a “political revolution.” “Let me ask you,” he says, his gangly frame struggling to contain itself to our couch, “what is the largest voting bloc in America? Is it gay people? No. Is it African-Americans? No. Hispanics? No. What?” Answer: “White working-class people.” Bring them back into the liberal fold, he figures, and you’ve got your revolution.
Hearing this focus on white voters from a left-winger sounds odd in 2014. Over the past two presidential-election cycles, Barack Obama has cobbled together a coalition of outsiders — women, minorities, yuppies, and young people. In 2012, he won the lowest percentage of white voters for a Democratic candidate in 20 years. Especially with the country’s Hispanic population increasing, many Democrats view the Obama coalition as one that will only grow stronger with time. But Sanders, and those around him, are not impressed. “The Obama way,” says the senator’s former chief of staff, Huck Gutman, now an English professor at the University of Vermont, “doesn’t build a lasting coalition. It wins you an election. Obama wins the election and then he runs into all this resistance. He does not have the country behind him.” (Yes, Sanders’s former chief of staff teaches 19th-century American poetry.)
What Sanders is advocating as a solution to this problem is a version of the thesis Thomas Frank laid out in his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? Frank posited that would-be Democratic voters were being stolen away by a GOP that had cornered the market on social conservatism. “How do you have a party that created Social Security lose the senior vote?” Sanders asks me. The answer, he believes, is that seniors have been distracted from the pocketbook issues that should matter most in politics. The Left, in turn, can win them back, along with other white working-class voters, by downplaying the culture wars — what Ralph Nader once called “gonadal” issues — and instead focusing on economic populism.
Of course, Sanders supports gay marriage and abortion rights; he just puts far less emphasis on those questions than he does on economics. “He has an overarching view that transcends our racial and gender differences,” says Tom Hayden, the Students for a Democratic Society hero and former California legislator. “It’s the older view of the socialists who thought class issues could unite all. To ask him to drop that is asking him to change his identity.”
Sanders’s worldview owes something to the Marxist idea of false consciousness — the notion that poor Americans are being tricked into voting against their own economic interests. Not everyone on the Left buys this analysis. “It assumes when people pound cultural passion, they are derivative, that they’re being deceived,” says Columbia University social scientist Todd Gitlin, another veteran of the New Left. “They’re not being deceived. In fact, they feel more passionate about abortion than they do about a wealth tax, and that’s who they are.”
The blue-collar agenda puts Sanders in a complicated position with the contemporary Left on noneconomic issues. For instance, he has cast votes against federal gun-control legislation, like the landmark 1994 Brady Bill, and owes his first congressional victory in part to support from the National Rifle Association. “He doesn’t have a gun,” says his close friend Richard Sugarman, a religion professor at the University of Vermont, when I asked how Sanders — a University of Chicago graduate from Brooklyn — became a Second Amendment guy. “He doesn’t really care about guns. But he cares that other people care about guns. He thinks there’s an elitism in the antigun movement.”
I suggest to Sanders that his vision for a new progressive base of old white guys runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom, but he cuts me off. “Who told you that?” he scoffs. “I’m talking from a little bit of experience. I did get 71 percent of the vote in my state. And despite popular conception — with all due respect to my friends in California, Northern California, where you have wealthy liberals who support me and I appreciate that — Vermont is a working-class state. So I’m glad you raised that, because your analysis is incorrect. And I’m right and everybody else is wrong. Clear about that?”
When Sanders is in a good mood, as he is today, he adopts a didactic tone, happy to school anyone who deigns to question his wisdom. I ask him how exactly he plans to convince millions of disaffected Reagan Democrats to stop voting Republican, and he answers by telling a story about his unsuccessful 1986 gubernatorial run. On the ballot that year was a referendum on the Vermont Equal Rights Amendment. “When they came up with the votes, they found a very interesting thing,” Sanders says, softening his booming, Brooklyn-inflected voice to emphasize the point. “They had people who were voting ‘no’ on equal rights and ‘yes’ for Sanders. And my point is, look: You have a country split on abortion, a country split on gay rights, you have many of these social issues, split on marijuana legalization. But what I believe very strongly is, working [people will] say: ‘I disagree with him on abortion rights, I disagree with him on gay rights, but you know what, he’s fighting for my kids and I support him.’ “
Sanders has enough status that his presidential candidacy would generate attention, but he hasn’t gone so mainstream as to lose the rabble-rousing cred that made him a folk hero to begin with.
Sanders’s obsession with a group of voters who abandoned the Democratic Party decades ago may sound quaint. But it actually gets at an anxiety many on the Left share. In a 2013 Slate essay, Barry Friedman and Dahlia Lithwick argued, despairingly, that gay marriage represented the only remaining unifying principle in the progressive movement. In a March piece for Harper’s, University of Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. went further, claiming that mainstream liberalism had abandoned its left-wing economic agenda altogether. Sanders’s prescription would fill this ideological vacuum.
After our conversation in Reid’s foyer, we walk back to Sanders’s office on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. On the wall of the office hangs an absurdly large sword. Inscribed on it are the words, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never,” a condensed version of the famous Winston Churchill line. I ask about its significance. “Well, it’s mostly used when journalists really bother me,” Sanders deadpans. “We’ve had some real tragedies. When they really ask dumb, dumb questions, we unleash the sword.”
In fact, the clunky weapon — once I learn its backstory — strikes me as yet more evidence of Sanders’s faith in the ability of economic populism to unite different kinds of voters. The sword was given to him by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who would seem to have little in common with Sanders, but in fact allied with him in the ‘90s to rail against free trade and collaborate on veterans issues. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful sword,” Sanders says, lingering in front of it, his default gruffness melting away. “I like Ross, actually. I wonder how well he’s doing. We come from different worlds in every sense of the word “¦ ” He trails off, before snapping out of it and abruptly ending our interview. “So. OK. Good.”
Sanders (Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)SANDERS does come from a very different world than both Perot and the socially conservative white, working-class voters he hopes to woo. He was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1941. His father, Eli, had immigrated to New York from Poland more than two decades earlier. The rest of his family, which stayed behind, died in the Holocaust. Sanders’s mother, Dorothy, also from a family of immigrant Jews, had been settled on the Lower East Side a bit longer. Bernie and his older brother Larry didn’t grow up poor, strictly speaking — their father worked his entire life as a paint salesman — but the family never had enough economic security to afford the house their mother long dreamed of buying.
Bernie says that his paycheck-to-paycheck upbringing — “having felt that insecurity, that neediness,” as his brother puts it — shaped his thinking on economic justice. According to Larry, Bernie once ran for high school student-body president on a pledge to provide scholarships for orphans in Korea. He also later hosted a sort of impromptu summer camp for underprivileged New York City children on a plot of Vermont land he bought as a young man.
After high school, Sanders attended the University of Chicago, where he joined the Young People’s Socialist League and spent very little time studying. After graduating, barely, in 1964, he moved back to New York and worked briefly for Head Start, which had just been created. But the more formative experience may have been the half-year he spent in the mid-‘60s on an Israeli kibbutz. “There’s a sense of community he likes. He would like to believe people can work together who are opposed against each other by economic forces,” Sugarman says. “Historically, the socialist Zionism was involved in farming and making things, and that part appealed to him.”
Communitarianism, agrarian socialist Zionism, whatever you want to call it, Sanders sought a version of it in Vermont. In 1968, he and his first wife, a college sweetheart whom he would divorce several years later, moved to a small shack near Montpelier. For the next decade he ran repeatedly and unsuccessfully for statewide offices under the banner of the fringe Liberty Union Party. Meanwhile, he made ends meet primarily by traveling the state hawking educational film strips. (A 30-minute Eugene Debs documentary that he put together was his piÃ¨ce de résistance.)
In 1981, running as an independent and promising to govern as a “democratic socialist,” Sanders pulled off a surprise victory and became mayor of Burlington, the largest city in the state. Much of Burlington’s political establishment was genuinely disturbed by the prospect of a Sanders administration. “I think everyone’s scared right now,” one state senator told a reporter. After his 10-vote victory had been certified, Sanders said his goal as mayor was a “rebirth of the human spirit.” (Later, according to his friend and former staffer George Thabault, he called a press conference without an actual topic in mind. When an aide asked him what she should tell reporters he would be discussing, he grew flustered and shouted, “The human condition!”) Establishing sister-city relationships in the USSR and in Nicaragua — at one point visiting Daniel Ortega in Managua — didn’t do much to dampen criticism of Bernie and his “Sanderistas.”
But Sanders also managed to temper his image. After being elected, he conceded, “I’m not going to war with the city’s financial and business community, and I know that there is little I can do from City Hall to accomplish my dreams for society.” Indeed, what got him sent back to City Hall three more times was his reform of a complacent municipal government that had been run by the same political machine for decades. “He totally changed Burlington from a place that was run by cronyism and the old-boys network for the benefit of the developers and the business community,” says Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen, who opened up shop in town shortly before Sanders assumed office.
“His idea of coverage is just: Report what he said. And if he says it, it’s important.”
To wit: He saved money by opening the city’s insurance policies to a competitive-bidding process. He created a spunky economic-development program that has for three decades incubated a vast swath of profitable, socially conscious local businesses. He successfully sued a railway company to wrest control of the Lake Champlain waterfront, which was later developed into an urbanist utopia — bike paths, green space, and so on. His legislative creativity and good-government initiatives in turn helped garner support for more-liberal causes, from creating a perpetual trust fund for affordable housing to keeping regressive property taxes low. Sanders, to use the early 20th-century term of art, governed more as a “sewer socialist” than a genuine radical.
By the time he was elected to Congress, in 1990, Sanders was vacillating between his old and new identities; he was somewhere between bothersome gadfly and useful advocate. “When he first went down there, a lot of the leadership basically had no time or interest in him because he had spent his entire campaign attacking” them, says Chris Graff, former Montpelier bureau chief at the Associated Press. A few months into his tenure, for example, Sanders was accidentally invited to a meeting that Sens. Leahy and Jim Jeffords were conducting with the secretary of Agriculture. Neither was happy about it. “He thought, ‘Why even go now?’ ” an aide to one of the senators told The Washington Post. “We knew Bernie would just start yelling and arguing.” (In general, says his brother Larry, Bernie never “fancied entering a bureaucracy where people told him what to do. He’s a very individualistic socialist.”)
That same year, however, Sanders cofounded the Congressional Progressive Caucus and became a key spokesman for the Left in an era of Republican ascendancy. “The Democrats had the stuffing knocked out of them [in 1994], and they didn’t know what to do in a minority situation,” Graff recalls. “And Bernie of course knew what it was like to be the outcast in his party of one, so he became at that point a real strong spokesman for the Democratic agenda and against the new Republican majority.” He also began finding niche issues on which to collaborate with the Right, working with then-Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on prescription-drug reimportation and sharing a stage with Pat Buchanan at one point to rail against NAFTA.
The insider-outsider act continued after he became a senator in 2007. In 2010, he staged an eight-hour filibuster to protest the eventual extension of the Bush-era tax cuts; but just this month, he and Sen. John McCain struck a major deal to reform the Veterans Affairs Department. All of which helps explain why, on one hand, Barney Frank says approvingly that Sanders has become “indistinguishable” from a liberal Democrat, while the director of one left-wing advocacy group who’s sympathetic to Sanders tells me he has limited insider clout. In other words, Sanders has enough status that his presidential candidacy would generate attention, but he hasn’t gone so mainstream as to lose the rabble-rousing cred that made him a folk hero to begin with. “There’s a kind of unplugged, ‘speak truth to power’ vacuum that Bernie could fill and will fill instantly,” says one Democratic Senate staffer. “He’ll draw 200 people in Iowa and part of it is: a new exhibit in the zoo. People will come out and see it for the novelty.”
Sanders is interviewed in his office in Burlington, Vermont, in 2006. (Brian Snyder/Reuters/Corbis)A FEW WEEKS after we met in Washington, I traveled to Burlington to spend time with Sanders on his home turf. I’d hoped to get him to give me the grand tour of the city, or at least a glimpse of the rock-star status Vermonters are said to afford him. It was not to be. I spent the day window-shopping aimlessly while I waited for his staff to call. Around 5:30 p.m., I finally got time with him in his office.
Today, Bernie Sanders is not in a good mood. He walks into the sparse little conference room where I had been waiting and slumps down in a chair. Clinging to my dream of a lakeside jaunt with the senator, I mumble something about how maybe he has a few minutes for show-and-tell, among the fine people of his city. “Among the people?” comes his incredulous reply. “I do that all the time. No, I really don’t have time.”
The interview devolves from there. I toss him a softball about his upbringing, wondering why, after having grown up economically insecure, he voluntarily spent his first 40 years in a similar hand-to-mouth state of existence. Obvious politician answer: “Because I was more interested in helping others.” Bernie Sanders answer: “You’re my psychoanalyst here? What?” I ask him if he thinks a socialist presidential candidate like Eugene Debs could thrive today. “Right now, what I have to do, when I’m finished with you, I have to go back and worry about how we do weatherization,” he snaps. “Right now, I’ve got a job to do, which is to represent the state of Vermont, and do some other things. So thinking about whether someone like Eugene Debs will do well or not, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know.”
Clearly, a Sanders presidential campaign would be a tempestuous affair. As Graff puts it, “He has no social skills.” The media, specifically, would be likely to find itself on the receiving end of his wrath. That’s because Sanders — like many true believers of all political inclinations — doesn’t have lot of patience for those who want to question him. “His idea of coverage is just: Report what he said,” Graff explains. “And if he says it, it’s important.”
“Half of the good television that appears is Bill Moyers,” Sanders says when I ask him to name some acceptable media figures. “I think Ed Schultz does a great show. I was just on his show. He’s great. Ed is a voice out there speaking for working-class people. Rachel Maddow. Most of the folks on MSNBC do a good job.” But to watch Schultz interview Sanders is not to watch an actual interview; it’s to watch two people agreeing with each other. He’s similarly fond of The Nation, where he discussed his presidential ambitions at length in a March interview with Washington correspondent John Nichols. As Briggs, Sanders’s press secretary, puts it, “Nichols sometimes does my job better than I do.”
Those outlets’ highly ideological approach to journalism makes them more, not less, credible in Sanders’s opinion. “You have a situation in a country where the middle class is literally collapsing, and in my view the country is moving towards an oligarchic form of society,” he says. “That’s the reality you have to address. You can’t be ‘objective.’ ” He adds: “I wrote a piece in The Huffington Post on what the Koch brothers stand for. Not just how much money they give, but what they stand for. You should check it out. Would National Journal do a good piece on what the Koch brothers stand for?”
It isn’t just the media that Sanders sometimes fails to charm. Ralph Nader was once close enough to Bernie that a photo of the pair appeared on an old Sanders campaign flyer. These days, Nader can’t get Sanders to speak to him. “In the last year, I’ve probably called him 50 times or more,” he tells me. “I’ve lost count.” In April, Nader sent Sanders a personal letter accusing him of being “a lone ranger, unable even to form a core progressive movement within the Senate,” and asking why he never returned his phone calls. He received no reply.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Getty Images)When I get back to my hotel room, several hours after my interview with Sanders, I flip on the TV and find Elizabeth Warren promoting her new book on Charlie Rose. She’s telling a story about a down-on-her-luck casualty of the financial collapse. “That’s what the economic crisis of 2008 meant,” she says. “It was people. Like this retired woman who lost her house and at least for a while ended up in her car because some banker made quota by calling her and selling her an exploding mortgage.” Rose, looking entranced, sheds his cool veneer and gushes, “I totally agree.”
Warren and Sanders, on substance, disagree about basically nothing. They both grew up working-class. Each has a loyal progressive following. (Sanders, for what it’s worth, has more than double her Twitter followers.) Yet, watching Warren charm Charlie Rose, the differences between the two are clear. Warren speaks in a way that is designed to persuade and convert. Sanders, by contrast, proudly touts the tedium of his own rhetoric. He just wants you to eat your vegetables.
OF COURSE, the point of a Sanders presidential bid isn’t really about Sanders himself. It’s about what he would represent on a primary debate stage. “The obvious rationale for a Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy,” says political commentator David Sirota, who worked as Sanders’s communications director when he was in the House, “is not that Bernie Sanders is some brilliant politician who can operate the levers of power in Washington. It’s not Bernie Sanders’s experience running the State Department. It’s that the politics of America have become corrupt in both parties “¦ and the candidate of the Democratic Party represents that. Therefore, there needs to be an alternative politician.”
When picturing what Sanders will look like in this role — as the Left’s spokesman during the primaries — it’s easy to dwell on the obvious characterological traits, and whether they will prove off-putting or, in some bizarre way, endearing. But perhaps the most important question is whether Democrats will, or should, give serious consideration to Sanders’s central theory: that their party could successfully woo working-class white conservatives.
At some level, the dream may not be as crazy as it sounds. A September 2012 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 70 percent of white Americans who didn’t graduate from college think our economic system favors the wealthy, 62 percent favor raising taxes on millionaires, and only 5 percent think abortion or same-sex marriage is the most important issue facing the country. In a 2013 piece for The New Republic, Andrew Levison and Ruy Teixeira argued that a “significant group of white workers who currently vote for the GOP are ‘open minded,’ not progressive but persuadable.”
Of course, the point of a Sanders presidential bid isn’t really about Sanders himself. It’s about what he would represent on a primary debate stage.
In Vermont, Sanders has shown that some of these voters are perhaps more persuadable than is commonly thought. By conducting endless town halls and visiting countless farms over the last 40 years, he has built up a level of trust that has allowed residents to shrug off his “socialist” label. “I think what he has the unique ability to do is frame the problem so the common person can understand the problem,” says Sanders ally Jim Coots, who runs a health clinic north of Burlington and describes himself as a tea partier. “I haven’t seen Patrick Leahy in Franklin County in five, six, years. … Bernie stands out because he gets back and visits. In the trenches with a farmer today, maybe a student at UVM the next day.”
For all his rhetoric about the Koch brothers and right-wing Republicans, Sanders is more interested in class solidarity than in ideological purity. “The word, the ‘Left,’ I don’t exactly even know what it means,” he tells me at one point in Burlington. “Do people believe we should expand Social Security and not cut it? Yeah, they do. Do people believe we should have a massive jobs program? Yeah, they do. Is this the ‘Left’? ” The workers-of-the-world-unite attitude explains why Sanders recently delivered his stump speech to audiences in several states in the Deep South: He truly thinks it should be possible to apply the strategy he has mastered in Vermont to a broader swath of the country.
Sanders’s ambition is not exactly new. Everyone from William Jennings Bryan in 1896 to Robert La Follette in 1924 to Jesse Jackson in 1988 to John Edwards in 2004 has tried to marshal left-wing economic populism to capture the working class. The appeal is easy to see. About a fifth of the country’s voters are white, working-class Republicans. Turning just a small percentage of them away from the GOP would give Democrats not just a firmer coalition in presidential elections, but also a far stronger position in Congress.
Then again, none of the aforementioned left-wing populists won the presidency. And nobody expects that will change anytime soon — a fact that Sanders, for all his faith in the logical integrity of his arguments, seems to understand. At the end of our interview in Burlington, he launched into one of his standard media critiques, laying out all the places a platform like his — a single-payer health care system, a carbon tax, a higher minimum wage — would never see the light of day. “Not going to be on most talk-radio shows,” he said. “I don’t think Rush will be talking about it. Sean will not be talking about it. CBS won’t be talking about it.” I suggested that his revolution needed more than just a Bernie Sanders. “Belieeeeeve you me,” he said, a little smile breaking through. “It surely does.” And with that, he thanked me and walked out of the room, leaving me to sit in my chair, staring at photographs of Vermont.
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