In a typical college gymnasium last Friday, something very special was happening. The crowd of 5,000 had overwhelmed the facility’s capacity, and the energy in the room was palpable. These were no sporting fans, though — at least, not in the traditional sense. What exactly had set the Denver crowd ablaze?
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) June 21, 2015
Bernie Sanders, the firebrand Democratic contender, had drawn a blockbuster crowd larger than that of any candidate on either side of the aisle so far during this election cycle. Spitting fire and brimstone over income inequality and corporate greed, he electrified the attendees, flexing his rhetorical muscles and demonstrating just how strong his ability to galvanize a group of voters could be. The event was one in a series of speaking engagements where Sanders impressed, and unlike some (*cough*cough* Donald Trump *cough*cough*), he didn’t have to pay for his captive audience.
Sanders is an unlikely candidate, but he’s easily the most visible challenger to heir apparent Hillary Clinton. The numbers are far from pretty, with Clinton claiming roughly 60% of the Democratic vote in early Iowa and New Hampshire polls compared to Sanders’ 15% and 18%, but that hasn’t stopped him from firing up the base. Where Clinton is a carefully plotted series of soundbites, Sanders is a populist dragon, drawing from the enthusiasm of highly motivated and vocal Elizabeth Warren fans as he unabashedly proclaims himself a socialist. Politico writes:
It’s like a bad movie for Hillary Clinton, the grass-roots fervor for her rival underscoring the trouble she’s had connecting with her party’s base. Clinton’s campaign is battling the perception of an enthusiasm gap, fueled partly by concerns that she’s out of sync with the newly aggressive liberal wing of the Democratic Party. How deep that chasm is was hard to discern. As she crisscrossed Iowa all weekend — and moved on to New Hampshire on Monday — her events were more heavily orchestrated, high on stagecraft, light on ad-libbing. It all raises questions about just how deep enthusiasm for her candidacy runs.
Bad movie, indeed. Because as wide a spread as the polls may indicate between Clinton and Sanders, it’s not dissimilar to the spread that existed between her and Obama in 2007. In fact, Obama didn’t really surge until January 2008. Somewhere out there, many a Clinton staffer is having traumatic flashbacks to the last time they were confident they had the nomination locked up.
There are some differences between 2007 and 2015, of course, and these differences cut both ways. For starters, Sanders is no Obama. He does a good job of rousing a crowd of sympathetic supporters, but his ability to generate broad appeal is arguably limited. His age plays against him, he’s got a lifetime of unfortunate quotables that could haunt him, and he’s not exactly a glossy orator. His populist views, while tremendously popular with the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party, may come off as too extreme with the bulk of the electorate. The fact that he calls himself a socialist doesn’t help; recent polling indicates that most Americans would not vote for a socialist if one was nominated by their party.
To be fair, that data isn’t exactly overwhelming. The results were within the margin of error, and the aggregate results fails to take into account the massive difference in responses between Democrats and Republicans surveyed on the subject. And this is the second way 2015 is starkly different from 2007: voter appetite for a progressive surge. In 2007, the Tea Party was but a twinkle in the Koch Brothers’ eyes. The political landscape today has polarized in spectacular fashion, with current GOP contenders racing further and further to the right in an effort to capture an increasingly radical base. The left has yet to experience their own version of a Tea Party moment. Sanders — with his anti-corrruption, anti-big money bluster — stands to change that. The moment feels right, and Democrats could capitalize on it if they got their act together. Salon broke it down quite nicely, stating:
A storm’s brewing, but if Democrats feel the barometric pressure dropping they do a good job of hiding it. As the party of government they pay the price for our revulsion at its condition. Voters now espouse liberal views on most big issues: climate change; income inequality; immigration; same sex marriage; gun control; prison reform; foreign interventions. Yet Republicans run Congress and the 2016 race is a dead heat. How can it be? One answer: the government’s broken and Democrats can’t or won’t fix it. Republicans won’t either, but then they don’t plan to use it.
On the issue of corruption, Clinton’s the most vulnerable of all the candidates. She should take steps to shore up her position. For starters, she and Bill should stop trying to justify their seeming obsession with their personal finances. (“When we left the White House we were broke”; “I gotta pay the bills”, etc.) Since 2001 they’ve earned $125 million. Enough is enough. Cancel the pricey speeches or talk for free. Rid the foundation of any hint of a conflict. Ethical behavior begins in the assumption of personal responsibility. Show us you know it.
I doubt she will. She should embrace real ethics reform, but I doubt she’ll do that either. Her campaign model is a perfect match for her neoliberal worldview and it’s all she knows. It’s true of nearly every top Democrat, Sanders being a rare exception. If he wins a few rounds with low-dollar fundraising and grass-roots organizing, it’ll shake conventional political wisdom as nothing has in a long time.
A few years ago, such a missive would have been ideological musing at best, but current data strongly supports exactly what’s being proposed. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll tested the big money narrative among likely voters, and across party aisles, the story was the same: it has far too much influence in politics. We’re talking 84% of respondents feeling the same kind of anger as Sanders over its sway. CBS News reports:
Most Americans see widespread problems with how election campaigns are funded in the United States. Forty-six percent think the system for funding political campaigns has so much wrong with it that it needs to be rebuilt completely, and another 39 percent think that while there are good things in the system, fundamental changes are needed. Just 13 percent of Americans think only minor changes are needed.
Americans across the political spectrum are critical of the way campaigns are financed, but independents are the most negative. Fifty-one percent of independents think the system must be completely rebuilt. And 46 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans agree.
This doesn’t give Sanders a monopoly on the argument, but it certainly does give him a leg to stand on, and that may be all it takes to solidify his relevance. It’s not that it would overwhelm his weaknesses, but that it would put him in a position to shape the narrative. This is where Trump and Sanders actually share some (gasp!) common ground. Like Trump, Sanders’ nomination may be a bit of a stretch. He leans so far left that he may turn off more moderate voters who don’t share the enthusiasm of the Millennials that make up the bulk of Sanders’ supporters. But put him on a stage with Clinton & Co., and he plays a similar role to Trump in the GOP primary debates. Trump, with his over the top rhetoric that rouses the extreme corners of the base to life, will likely push the other GOP contenders to the right. Sanders, with his progressive rage, will likely push Hillary to the left. In some lights, you might say he already has.
The point at which the similarities between the roles that Trump and Sanders will play in this election diverge is at nature of impact. Trump’s push to the right is a nightmare for the GOP; they’re already trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to rebrand themselves as reasonable. But Sanders pushing his party to the left? It could be exactly what beleaguered Democrats need.
For too long, Democrats have been afraid of their own shadow, running to the center in a race to the electoral bottom rooted in the mistaken belief that progressive ideals would alienate too many. As a result, there’s no fire in the belly of the base right now, and in an election that will most certainly motivate the GOP base to turn out in droves to defeat whatever Democrat is ultimately nominated, that’s a problem. A progressive Tea Party moment could spark the flames necessary to drive similar turnout on the left — turnout that could make a massive difference in down ticket races and the advancement of progressive ideas in the legislature at both the national and state level.
In other words, while Sanders may not be the safest bet to win the Democratic nomination, his role in this election is arguably more substantial than that of the final nominee on either side. If he keeps going the way he’s going, and people keep responding the way they have, he’ll completely change the game. And given how rigged things have been to date for most of us, I’ll count that as a far more important win.