Bernie Sanders' Recipe for Populist Revolution

The following is an excerpt from the new book Why Bernie Sanders Matters by Harry Jaffe (Regan Arts., 2015): 


Once or twice a week in the summer and fall of 2015, Paul Sliker finds himself carrying a bunch of “Bernie for President” lawn signs and campaign leaflets past the house where Sanders rented a room back in the early 1960s, while he was attending Brooklyn College. Sliker is a volunteer for “Team Bernie,” a loose-knit group organizing Brooklyn for Sanders’s presidential campaign.

“It gives me chills to think about what a young, radical Jewish Sanders would have thought had he had the opportunity to glimpse outside his window and look at me in the future,” Sliker says. “It’s pretty amazing how far he’s gotten. I don’t think he would have believed it.”

Sanders in 1960 and Sliker in 2015 have much in common. Both are idealistic and want to change the world. They combine the impatience of youth with the certainty that they have a better way of running the country. The difference is that Sanders at twenty didn’t have a candidate to believe in; he simply believed in revolutionary change. Sliker at twenty-seven believes in Sanders.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest in Bernie all over Brooklyn,” says Sliker, who runs his own communications and marketing firm. His interest propelled him to join Team Bernie. “We’re trying to educate folks out in the neighborhoods. Many people don’t know who Bernie is. It’s the essence of a grassroots campaign.”

The Brooklyn today bears little resemblance to the borough of the 1950s, especially in the neighborhoods in and around Flatbush, where Sanders grew up. The apartment building he lived in as a child remains on the corner of East 26th Street and Kings Highway, but it is now home primarily to older Russian Jews. His alma mater, James Madison High School, down the street from the building, was largely Jewish with a few Italians and Irish kids; now the students are African American and Caribbean, reflecting the demographic changes in Madison Park and that part of Flatbush. In other parts of Brooklyn entire neighborhoods of brownstones and stately apartment buildings have been discovered by young white and black millennials. They are moving in, renovating the buildings, and pushing out longtime residents in the kind of gentrification that is remaking cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

On the night of the first Democratic presidential primary debate, young Sanders fans gathered in bars and homes from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Ditmas, Crown Heights to Sheepshead Bay to watch and cheer on their candidate. Sara DeLaney came to the Dram Shop in Park Slope with her husband, Chuck, and daughter, Lily, to watch Sanders take on Clinton and the other candidates. “Brooklyn has exploded,” she says. “There are cranes everywhere. There are a lot of people moving here from Manhattan.” Like the DeLaneys, others had shown up at the Dram Shop for an event organized by the Sanders camp. “I wanted to be with a group of people who are excited by the issues Bernie is raising. I was rooting for him as soon as he announced his candidacy.”

Why Bernie Sanders?

“Because he believes in a living wage, and so do I,” says DeLaney. “No one can live on nine dollars an hour. And he’s right about the superwealthy controlling our political system. An oligarchy is destructive. Citizens United is a travesty.”

Says seventeen-year-old Lily, “It’s un-American.”

It’s an odd demographic turn: the Brooklyn that immigrants once aspired to leave for Manhattan is now a destination for young entrepreneurs and professionals eager to exit Manhattan. Of course there are lifers and Brooklyn natives like Steve Slavin, and there are still rough neighborhoods like Brownsville, but by and large Brooklyn is for Bernie.

Says Sliker, “It’s a Bernie-fest on the Brooklyn College campus.”

***

When Sanders spent his freshman year at Brooklyn College, the students were predominantly Jewish. That’s not the case in 2015. Flatbush has changed; the college has a multicultural campus. Religion matters less.

Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem to matter that Bernie Sanders is Jewish. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, the fact that he was Catholic was a major issue. Was the United States ready for its first Catholic president? Would that put the Pope and the Vatican in control of the government, many people wondered?

When Senator Joe Lieberman ran as the Democratic Party’s nominee for vice president in 2000, the prospect that a Jew might occupy the Oval Office became a topic of conversation and concern. So why has Bernie Sanders’s Jewish upbringing not entered the public debate? He would, after all, be the first Jewish president. How could that not matter?

It could be that Sanders has other, more outstanding distinctions. Maybe being a socialist of some sort obscures his religious affiliation. It could be that he wears his Jewishness so boldly and obviously, in the mannerisms and accent that Larry David so often lampoons, that voters have gotten used to it. Perhaps the fact that America has elected and re-elected an African American president inoculates a Jewish candidate.

Or it could be that the closer Sanders gets to winning the primary or the general election, the more his religion will become an issue.

Sanders doesn’t broadcast the fact that he was raised a Jew. His wife, Jane, was raised a Catholic. She says they are both spiritual and adhere to basic Judeo-Christian beliefs. In August 2013 Senator Sanders, his brother and their wives traveled to SÅ‚opnice, Poland, the village that Eli Sanders left when he was 17 to come to America. Mayor Adam Soltys gave them a tour of the still small town. They visited the town’s war memorials, local schools and the place where the ancestral family home once stood. According to an account in Tablet, the Sanders boys pressed the mayor for details about their family. He said Eli’s half brother was a leader of SÅ‚opnice’s Jewish community at the time the Nazis invaded Poland. “Which of course,” Larry Sanders said, “meant he was one of the first to be killed.”

That means the part of Bernie Sanders that connects him to Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust will not go away.

***

But why does Bernie Sanders matter?
 Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, sees a Sanders moment culled from the counterculture. “It may have seemed, only a few years ago,” Gitlin wrote in the New York Times, “that the ’60s radical moment was consigned to documentaries on Woodstock, pushed out of the spotlight for Occupy Wall Street and a new generation of activists to enter stage left. But here it is again. And it is perfectly timed to crusade against what Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, calls ‘oligarchy.’ ”

That might explain how Sanders fits into Gitlin’s conception of the progressive movement, but what makes Sanders matter to farmers in Iowa, fishermen in Oregon, construction workers in Nevada, retirees in Florida, schoolteachers in New Hampshire, and young executives in Brooklyn?

For starters, Sanders has tapped into the antipolitician sentiment among American voters. Politicians from Reagan to Trump have successfully mined the antiestablishment vein that runs through the American electorate. It just so happens that Sanders’s righteous rage is rooted in the reality of severe income inequality.

The irony of Sanders running against the political establishment is rich. He’s been a professional politician since 1971, running for office every two years until he became a US senator and got a longer term. Somehow he obscures that part of his brand.

For the short term, at least through the 2016 campaign, Sanders will continue to have an impact on the candidates, the discussions, and the tenor of the debates. Months before the primary, he already had steered the conversation toward populist values. Hillary Clinton’s strategists must worry about the sheer numbers that Sanders is wracking up, both in attendance at his events and in his poll numbers. They cannot afford to lose Sanders’s progressive followers, either in the primary or general elections, so they must tack to the left. Sanders has introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he hits that note in virtually every speech. Clinton wants to raise it to $12. Sanders could well force her closer to $15. Both Sanders and Clinton have put forth plans to reform immigration laws, but Sanders goes much further and deeper in making the US more welcoming to newcomers. The New York Times applauded the senator’s plan, compared it to Clinton’s and concluded: “We hope she is inspired to match his boldness.”

Bernie Sanders will matter far beyond the campaign season because his message has become painfully relevant. The gap between the wealthy and the rest of America is wider than at any time since 1928, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, and that gap is more obvious because of the ease and ubiquity of communications in the digital world.

When Sanders says too many American families are working two or more jobs just to remain in the middle class, Americans across the country nod their heads in agreement.

When he notes that most industrialized nations provide paid leave for parents of newborns and observes, “If that’s not family values, I don’t know what is,” people applaud.

When he asks college students whether it makes sense that American students have to take out loans at exorbitant interest rates to pay for tuition they swivel their heads and say: “No.” By constantly reminding voters that tuition to state universities should and could be free, Sanders is creating a movement where none existed. The same is true for health care reform. Sanders would go beyond the complex system set up by President Obama in the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to Sanders, a universal health care system, like Medicare for all Americans, is on the table.

Sanders hammers again and again on the fact that a few wealthy families donate the preponderance of funds to political campaigns. The Koch brothers, for instance, announced that they would contribute nearly $1 billion to elect candidates in 2016. A New York Times investigation proved Sanders right when it found that 158 families—mostly white and male-dominated—donate the lion’s share to campaigns. “The average Joe now wants to talk about campaign finance reform,” says Paul Sliker. “People hear what Sanders is saying about our political system and hear someone who will stand by what he says, because they know he isn’t bought out by some billionaire or super PAC. He represents a crucial step in the right direction. He matters because he represents the possibility of a revival in American democracy.”

Has a subject as arcane as money in politics ever incited such rage?

Sanders has been giving what his aides call “the oligarchy speech” for decades. As Phil Fiermonte says, “The world has come around to see things like he does, through the same lens.”

***

That lens is showing Sliker and the volunteers at Team Bernie the way forward. “No one is out here to put another line on his or her résumé,” he says. “We are united to get a candidate elected who makes some sense.”

But while Sanders might make sense to the young white folks who have recently moved to Brooklyn, he’s a harder sell to the people of color who live in and around Flatbush. “My best pitch is ‘Vote for a presidential candidate who grew up down the street,’” Sliker says. “It stops people in their tracks. They don’t know about Bernie Sanders. But they are starting to understand. Flatbush is warming to Bernie.”

Gitlin writes that the secret of Sanders’s appeal is that he delivers “a moralistic politics that takes seriously the democratic proposition that elected officials must deliver results.” In other words, Sanders knows what are the right and just things to do, and he expects the government to help make those things happen.

Pundits and prognosticators peered into polls in late summer of 2015 and declared that Bernard Sanders had peaked. Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean that he would walk away from the campaign. His campaign showed all the signs of an appartus capable of laying siege to the campaign through the 2016 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. The reason was money. Sanders railed against the campaign finance system that created super PACs—political action committees that could raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash. He disavowed them and raised funds from millions of people in small doses. By using the Internet and social media, Sanders was reaching people who would be receptive to his beliefs. He was salting away millions of dollars at a rate equal to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but hers was financed by bundlers, PACs and wealthy donors. What’s more, Sanders is frugal to a fault and hoards contributions. That points to the very real possibility that he will have reserves stashed away to take his campaign far beyond 2016.

Ultimately, Bernie Sanders matters if he’s successful in his lifelong mission of creating a movement of millions of people who will mount the “political revolution” he believes is necessary. He’s been saying for decades that no one leader can bring about the kinds of changes he envisions, in health care and campaign finance and workers rights. In the campaign he repeated the same riff in his stump speeches. For Sanders it doesn’t take a village; it takes a revolution.

It’s complicated, of course, but Sanders is delivering what a great many Americans consider to be the truth, painful though it might be, and he’s giving them hope and an opportunity to change the country’s course: from exclusion to inclusion, from hoarding to sharing, from oligarchy back to democracy.

That’s why he matters.

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