Bernie Sanders’ achievement in Iowa, a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton, was one of the most remarkable electoral results in recent memory. Just as noteworthy as Sanders’ rise in the polls — he closed a 50-point gap in Iowa in just over six months — is the way his campaign’s themes and issues have resonated with a mass audience.
The core messages of the Sanders campaign, once scoffed at or derided when they were expressed by Occupy Wall Street, have become common sense for millions of people.
This is especially true among young people. Sanders won a staggering 84 per cent of Democrats under 30 in Iowa.
For some time now, mainstream political commentators have been throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Sanders to dissuade primary voters from taking his campaign seriously. These pundits, presenting themselves as hard-headed realists while wagging their fingers, try to explain away Sanders’ growing public appeal. They are unwilling, and seemingly unable, to look fairly at what the campaign is proposing and how that might relate to people’s lives.
In other words, the pundits’ job is to distract from the things that really matter: the series of concrete ways that people’s lives could be be improved. Sanders’ meteoric rise, whatever else has helped bring it about, is a response to real inequality, stagnant incomes and bleak prospects for many Americans.
For an example of myopic punditry, take a look at how Canadian writer Stephen Marche described a Sanders rally in Iowa late last year:
“Sanders’s exasperation was the principal fact to be communicated, more than any political content. Trump was about winning again. Sanders was about having lost. The vagueness of American politics is what astonished the outsider. It’s all about feelings and God and bullshit. Sanders actually uttered the following sentence out loud: ‘What we’re saying is when millions of people come together to restore their government we can do extraordinary things.’ Nobody asked what he meant. Nobody asked for numbers. They applauded. Better to take it in the spirit in which it’s given, like a Catskills resort comedian.”
You have to work pretty hard to so completely miss the content of a Bernie Sanders stump speech. The same core issues are there every time. And yes, policy proposals, granted ones presented in broad brushstrokes, are clearly enumerated. Even his triumphant speech in Iowa late Monday night relentlessly went through the issues, one by one. Each of these key points highlights ways in which real inequality manifests, and points (albeit in some cases not far enough) toward reform and remedies that will benefit real people. On all these issues, Sanders is offering more than the corporate money supported Clinton.
If the pundits and ideologues weren't sowing so much confusion, it wouldn't even be necessary to point this out.
$15 minimum wage
While some cities in the United States have recently raised their minimum wage, with some even planning to get to $15 within a few years, the inflation-adjusted minimum wage across most of the country is lower today than it was in the 1970s. Consider that. Four decades of economic advance have left the lowest paid worse off. Minimum wage workers today may have iPhones, but too many are barely making ends meet for themselves and their families.
Sanders’ call for a nationwide $15 minimum wage is an integral part of his message that inequality is not natural but the result of policy choices and power. Raising the minimum wage is not only about restoring something ephemeral like dignity, but also about slowly swinging the pendulum of power back towards workers.
Of course, simply raising the minimum wage won’t be enough. Less than 10 per cent of U.S. workers are members of a union today. Reinvigorating the labour movement in a way that brings power back to the grassroots will have to happen for more substantive change. Bernie’s push for a $15 minimum wage across the United States and his focus on the need for greater participation and democracy could help push this more transformative change forward.
Universal health care
At the surface, the U.S. health care system is marked by a huge contradiction: the country manages to both spend the most on health care among developed countries and do very poorly on a raft of health measures.
Bernie Sanders’ championing of universal public health care exposes the simple cause of this disparity: the network of private health insurers, private health providers, pharmaceutical companies and army of consultants who all profit from the unequal and rationed delivery of what should be a human right.
Universal health care would immediately impact the lives of millions of people. The drama of not having coverage or having the wrong kind of coverage or not having enough to pay for a deductible or even just the small dramas of navigating the maze of forms, payments and providers — all of these would be alleviated with the social democratic cure of a universal public service.
When the media reduces Sanders’ program to economic inequality, it glosses over the many social and other inequities that are deeply intertwined with economic inequality. Poor health, for example, is a highly racialized issue. Just look at the enormous gaps in life expectancy and other measures.
Health and economics aren’t separate, and one can’t be reduced to the other, but a system where income and wealth go disproportionately to the 1 per cent while tens of millions don’t have access to health care at all and untold millions have inadequate care only reproduces and deepens deep divisions.
Free public college
Maybe it’s not such a mystery why young people overwhelmingly prefer Sanders to Hillary Clinton.
It might have something to do with his key campaign proposal of abolishing tuition fees at all four-year public universities and colleges in the United States. In fact he’s already put the idea forward, introducing legislation in the Senate for new federal spending on postsecondary education, to be supplemented by state-level funds.
When faced with accusations that free college is unrealistic, Sanders blasts back by listing all the European countries where free tuition has already been introduced. He also calls for relief of student debt, which has become a nationwide crisis. (Even 40-something Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio talks about how he only recently paid off his student loans.)
Students, and the many young workers who can't afford to be students, would appear to be perfectly rational political actors in flocking to Sanders.
Sanders’ pledges to expand and universalize services are matched by his willingness to talk about paying for them. If inequality has grown and public services have deteriorated, it is because money has been flowing upwards and sticking rather than being redistributed.
New income and wealth do go disproportionately to the top 1 per cent and less of the population, as Sanders doesn’t shy from repeating. Any social democratic program will need to reverse this flow. Sanders has proposed higher income taxes on the wealthy, closing loopholes for investment income and taxes on Wall Street speculation to this end.
The senator from Vermont has broken the consensus on the anti-tax, pocketbook rhetoric that has dominated politics in the United States and elsewhere — rhetoric that is the home turf of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ted Cruz. Delivering a full range of universal services will require more people to pay more in taxes and a redirection of resources away from waste such as the military and corporate subsidies.
A truly different economy will require far more democratic participation. Talking about the wealthy paying more, saying that it is “too late for establishment economics” and inching towards greater contributions from most for social(ized) goals, Sanders has opened an important debate.
Taking climate change seriously
It's one of the most repeated applause lines of Sanders speeches: Climate change is real, humans are causing it, and we have a moral responsibility to act to mitigate it.
This statement is maddeningly obvious, but it’s a direct response to the ongoing climate denialism of the Republicans, a party that is one of the last bastions of this retrograde nonsense on the planet.
But as an early champion of climate issues, however, Sanders has one the support of many prominent activist campaigners including 350.org’s Bill McKibben. What's more, his general rhetoric is matched by leadership in opposing specific fossil fuel megaprojects. Whereas Clinton waited years to take a position against the Keystone XL tar sands proposal, Sanders took a strong stand against it early on, helping push the Obama administration to their eventual rejection of the pipeline.
These measures, and other needed measures that go beyond the limits of Sanders’ campaign, require deep political transformation. Contrary to the typical rhetoric of presidential candidates, Sanders has made this reality central to his campaign.
Sanders’ call for “political revolution” is the glue that holds his program together and differentiates him from other upstart Democrats of the last decades. His campaign is not a manicured, media-driven effort to sell a progressive product. He seems to genuinely understand and want to inspire grassroots political mobilization. He will not turn decades of economic degradation into engagement for a truly democratic economy over the course of a presidential campaign, but it is hard to say that his campaign cannot bear fruit for the U.S. left.
Two moments stood out from Bernie’s speech in Iowa Monday night. The first was his finger pointed at the camera early on, calling out the media for willfully misrepresenting his campaign. Then there were his closing remarks, which echoed the common theme of political revolution, imploring those interested in his campaign to join actively.
These simple messages are the stuff to build off on in his campaign: we have to take on powerful interests and we have to do it actively.
Far from being just a lament for what has been lost, Sanders’ campaign has stoked new hopes and energized new political constituencies. Millions of people can see that there is, as the campaign slogan says, “a future to believe in.” But this future won’t be delivered by one politician; this future can only be fought for and won by millions.