Election 2016

As 2016 Presidential Voting Begins In Iowa, Bernie's Revolution Is Underway

Modern times and Sanders' longtime message have coalesced.

Photo Credit: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock

Bernie Sanders has accomplished many great things in his 2016 presidential campaign—no matter what the outcome is in tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

He’s made Americans pay attention to economic and class-based injustices like no other Democratic candidate in many years. He’s engaged and excited young people to a degree that hasn’t been seen at least since President Obama’s first campaign in 2008, and he’s done it by rejecting the craziness of the world and saying that government can be a positive force for real change. His solutions are not radical, but seen historically, are the unfinished business of the New Deal started by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he's pushed other candidates, especially Hillary Clinton, back toward the party’s roots where ordinary Americans had equal standing with big business in government’s eyes.

"He’s provided enthusiasm and excitement like nobody else,” said pollster John Zogby, who has written two books about millennial voters. He says millennials are drawn to Sanders' integrity and his belief that government can improve their lives and long-ignored problems.

Iowa's Democratic Party caucuses could be the biggest night of Sanders' political life, especially if young voters come out like they did for Obama in 2008. Sanders has not lost an election since running for Congress in 1988. Two years later, when elected to the House as Vermont’s only congressman, he ended his victory speech with words that sound familiar today. “Tonight, as I stand before you," he bellowed, "I think that maybe one small state might go down in history as being the leading state in a poltical revolution… which takes power away from the multinationals and the wealthy and gives it back to the people, where it belongs!”

Above all, Sanders has been consistent in his values and message for years. Today, people across the country, especially younger people, get that and are inspired. Last week's Quinnipiac Poll in Iowa found more than three-fourths of Democrats under 45 back Sanders, not Hillary Clinton. Bernie’s call for a people-powered political revolution has not changed, but the times have, and have caught up with him. It’s as if all the trends he’s been talking about for years, every shade of economic inequality, by class, sex, race, as well as bottomless corporate greed, ongoing environmental degradation, endless militarism and bloated Pentagon budgets, and a right to health care, have gained mainstream credibility. He gives voice to it.          

In last week’s CNN Iowa town hall, he offered some more personal reflections, saying he was sad that his working-class parents, especially his Polish immigrant father, were not alive to see him as a senator, let alone a presidential candidate. In some ways, he sounded as surprised as anyone that his presidential campaign has taken off, because when he first floated the idea in 2014, even those who know him best dubbed it unlikely.

The Nation called Bernie the most unlikely of candidates, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem unlikely at all. “Sanders is the unlikeliest of prospects: an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate but has never joined the party, a democratic socialist in a country where many politicians fear the label 'liberal,' an outspoken critic of the economic, environmental and social status quo who rips 'the ruling class' and calls out the Koch brothers by name,” the Nation wrote in March 2014. At AlterNet, we were among the first to say do it, but run as a Democrat.

Back then, Sanders told one of his few longtime journalistic friends, the Nation’s John Nichols, “I don’t wake up every morning, as some people here in Washington do and say, ‘You know, I really have to be president of the United States. I was born to be president of the United States.’ What I do wake up every morning feeling is that this country faces more serious problems than at any time since the Great Depression, and there is a horrendous lack of serious political discourse or ideas out there that can address these crises, and that somebody has got to represent the working-class and the middle-class of this country in standing up to the big-money interests who have so much power over the economic and political life of this country. So I am prepared to run for president of the United States. I don’t believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight.”

That was not very different from what Bernie said a quarter-centrury before, when he made a cassette tape in 1988 with 30 Vermont musicians on one side—you may have heard his versions of old labor and folk songs—and on the other side talked about what socialism meant to him and why he was involved in politics. “It means a lot of things,” he said. “I think first though, and most important, it [socialism] means that you have a vision that’s very different from what the status quo politicians have, and essentially, what it means is that you have a feeling that this world can be radically, radically different from what it is right now, and that what’s going on in front of your eyes is crazy, it’s not real, it’s a phase of history that needn’t exist and that someday will pass.”

Sanders became the four-term mayor of Vermont’s largest city, home to many universities and colleges with a sizeable youth vote. “Socialism… really means nothing more than democracy,” he continued on the cassette. “It essentially means that to as great a degree as possible, human beings can control their lives, their workplace, their environment, and the truth is that in a nation of 230 million people in a complex society, no one quite knows how that’s going to work. I mean, that’s not easy."

Zogby, who has been in the polling business as long as Sanders has been in Congress, said Sanders' youth appeal is easy to explain. People between the ages of 18 to 33 have not lived in easy times, he began; as young adults, they faced the Great Recession and the gig economy, and they are frustrated. This is not stereotypical “angry white males,” Zogby said, but a widely held view that people in power are not making things work for them. They got excited about Obama, who promised a different approach, but disengaged after the Obama-GOP stalemate essentially became the new normal in Washington.

Sanders offers a contrast and answers, Zogby said. “For young people, it’s not a scary answer. Democratic socialism, if it means government doing things on behalf of people, why not try it? And for the young people who have libertarian streaks, he’s been on the right side of human rights and civil issues.”

Meanwhile, Zogby said Clinton appears to younger people as a “penultimate inauthentic politician—even when you find her appealing, which one of her is showing up today? Bernie is consistent. This is what I wrote about in both books: the importance of authenticity to young people.”

Bernie’s revival of the New Deal’s agenda is appealing to older voters, Zogby said, adding he remembered what it was like before there was Medicare—federal healthcare for seniors. “The New Deal wasn’t so bad the first time around,” he said. “And there were the same criticisms. But we didn’t go to hell in a handbasket.”

As the weekend began, there were several signs the Clinton campaign was preparing for Sanders to win in Iowa and New Hampshire—or at least the fight for the nomination would be a long one. The final poll by the Des Moines Register had Clinton in the lead by only 3 percentage points. Her campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail noting that Sanders had more individual donors, which they want to counter. And she agreed to four more debates—including one next Thursday in New Hampshire, where he’s ahead in the polls.

This means that for the next month, at the very least, millions more Americans will be hearing Sanders talk about social and economic injustices, New Deal-like remedies and what values are at stake for the soul of the Democratic Party and the country’s future.

For Sanders, his supporters and many Americans, that’s a revolutionary political development. And that revolution is now.          

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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