Bernie Sanders does not look like a man who aspires to be the most powerful leader in the world. In fact, his appearance would suggest the opposite; in his rallies, better described as grandpa rants, Sanders will hunch over his podium, pointing with an accusatory finger as he yells at his audience about the economic ills that plague the American middle class. And so it is interesting indeed that an unkempt 74 year old Jewish senator from Vermont with a thick Brooklyn accent would now be an iconic figure among left-leaning millennials and young people all across the United States.
It is even more surprising that he has managed to become a serious challenger to the Clinton political machine. Sanders started out as little more than a fringe candidate, and half a year later he is outraising the Clinton campaign despite not having any super PACs sponsoring him, and has even managed to eke wins for multiple states. The surprise hasn’t been limited to writers and political pundits; even Sanders himself has expressed confusion about the fact that his rallies manages to fill stadiums with people. The man is stunned by his own success.
As an outsider, I’ve had plenty to be amazed about with this election, particularly on the Republican side, and I’ve made that known in multiple posts in the past. But Sanders, while a far less entertaining figure than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, has been the one American politician that has impressed me the most over the course of this campaign.
Why is that? It’s because Bernie Sanders is an idealist; anyone who has been observing this election knows that. He has run his campaign exactly according to his own ideals: an issue oriented campaign, funded by ordinary voters that would bring his favourite theme of economic injustice to the forefront.
Ideal #1: Focus On the Issues
Watch a Democratic debate and a Republican debate side-by-side and it will be clear that there are stark differences between the two parties and how they are conducting themselves. The Republican presidential primaries have been an insult festival where the candidates sling mud at each other every couple of hours; their level of civility during a discussion belongs to elementary school. (After all, their debates now involve the frontrunner boasting about the size of his private parts). The Democrats, while not beyond making questionable claims about each other, have actually behaved like adults.
I think that at a level, we can give the credit to Bernie Sanders for how the presidential primaries have turned out. Rare is a politician who refuses to run negative attack ads. Instead, Sanders has resolved that he would run an issues-based campaign, and he has stuck by his promises.
“This may not be great politics…” the senator once declared to Clinton in a debate, “But the American people are sick and tired of hearing your damn emails!” Sanders then went on a rant about how the American middle class was disappearing. I don’t know of another politician who would have given Clinton the pass on her email server that Sanders did in the first Democratic debate; it was, after all, the easiest way to go after Clinton. Giving her the pass ensured that the emails never really became an issue for discussion again in the primary.
I’ve watched a lot of Thai politicians, who often blur policy and personality in a dangerous way. In my opinion, Sanders is a breath of fresh air; finally a politician who is actually willing, to the point of insistence, on focusing on the issues, and only the issues.
Ideal #2: Financed By the People
I’ll never get my head around how the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Citizens United v. FEC. (This was the ruling that paved the way for unlimited campaign donations to super PACs, allowing massive amounts of money to pour into elections). I guess that money is a form of an expression to a certain extent, but it seems so completely detrimental to a functioning democracy to let a couple of corporations and billionaires choose which candidates get elected and which don’t.
And so Sander has done the United States a huge favour with how he has run his campaign: he has accepted no donations from major corporations and billionaires, and does not have a supporting super-PAC. What Sanders has done instead is build a grassroots operation that is funded by ordinary voters who chip in small donations. Passionate supporters have contributed to ensure that Sanders has been able to outraise (and outspend) the Clinton campaign in many key states.
In a way, this is where Sanders and Trump is most similar. Both market the fact that they do not accept large donations from corporations as evidence for the fact that they cannot be bought. Whether or not it is true that they are beholden to absolutely no one, it must at least be comforting to their supporters to know that Sanders (or Trump, for that matter) would not be automatically compelled to bow to the interests of fossil fuel industry or the Wall Street firms.
Ideal #3: Real Beliefs
The bottom line, however, is Sanders’ no-nonsense campaigning and his unique campaign financing are second to the most important part of his appeal: his actual ideals and beliefs.
Sanders is an idealist; there is no doubt about that. He dreams of turning the United States into a Scandinavian utopia where income is relatively equal, healthcare is universal for all, college is free, and banks aren’t too big to fail. And he is devoted to his dreams. As colleagues who know him testify, he talks about little more than income inequality and Denmark.
It’s also important to note that these ideals are truly part of his core beliefs. An experienced politician, he has a long record of public service, first as mayor of Burlington, then as congressman and now senator for Vermont. Speeches can still be found of him speaking from a decade or two ago and he would be echoing the same ideas that he still espouses today; there has been little “flip flopping”.
This campaign ad probably does the best job of summarising Sanders’s core ideals:
But at this point, for all his grand plans, Bernie Sanders may be a doomed idealist. Firstly, if he does become president, a prospect that seems unlikely at best, Sanders would have to face a Republican congress that would villify him more than he’s ever been in his life and would do all they can to block every one of his measures from passing through and becoming law (after all, if they couldn’t accept Obama, how could they ever accept a self-described democratic socialist?) Secondly, it’s much more easy to imagine that he would never win the nomination, let alone the presidency; after losing Super Tuesday and showing that he has made no inroads with the black voters he needs, his path to the nomination has narrowed considerably.
In the end, however, perhaps it does not matter whether or not Sanders himself makes it to the White House. He’s already made a substantial impact on the 2016 race by shifting Clinton leftwards considerably; she now talks regularly about how she would not be beholden to Wall Street, about saving the middle class, and has even promised to get the dark money out of politics (conveniently leaving out the fact that she’s received who knows how much of that dark money). Sometimes, it feels like she’s borrowed Sanders’s policy platform and made it her own. The improbable success that the senator has had has made sure that his ideas and views were heard.
Most important is the fact that Sanders has run his campaign according to his own ideals. He has not wavered in his conviction to start a grassroots political revolution and to be true to his beliefs. We have become numb to how corrupted politics is that perhaps we no longer expect any standards from our politicians. This should be a message that resonates across borders; whether in the United States or Thailand, we can all use more politicians who don’t flip-flop and who actually have real beliefs, rather than just being in politics for personal gain
So, today, I praise Senator Sanders. Regardless of how he fares in the upcoming primaries, and whether or not he wins the nomination or the presidency, he has already given many people inspiration. A doomed idealist he may be, but that doesn’t matter, for he’s also an ideal public servant. At the very least, he’s shown us what an honest, good politician is like.