‘I’m Right and Everybody Else Is Wrong. Clear About That?’

Bernie Sanders will likely represent the hard-line Left in 2016. Will he help or hurt the movement?

Bernie Sanders illustration
National Journal
Simon Van Zuylen Wood
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Simon van Zuylen-Wood
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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 pièce 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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