The Sanders Phenomenon

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist but not a Democrat, seeks the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. The story is rich with paradox: the Democrat-of-convenience as tribune of the party’s ancestral commitments; the grumpy old man lighting the youth afire; the defender of the working class become darling of the chattering classes; the hero for the left emerging just when so much of it feels so besieged. Yet Sanders is a disarmingly simple figure, a Rip Van Winkle deep in the Green Mountains from a lost age of class politics. His ideology is universalism; his rhetoric is the jeremiad.

An analysis in advance of the first Democratic debate

Image by Gage Skidmore via flickr.

Editor’s note: The first Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential campaign will take place tonight. In advance of the debate—a look at Sanders’ candidacy up to now.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist but not a Democrat, seeks the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. The story is rich with paradox: the Democrat-of-convenience as tribune of the party’s ancestral commitments; the grumpy old man lighting the youth afire; the defender of the working class become darling of the chattering classes; the hero for the left emerging just when so much of it feels so besieged. Yet Sanders is a disarmingly simple figure, a Rip Van Winkle deep in the Green Mountains from a lost age of class politics. His ideology is universalism; his rhetoric is the jeremiad. Though we have lost our way, he explains, someday the people will rule. As the left has atrophied, those venerable chords strike young crowds as altogether new. Sanders asks Americans “to fight for justice—a concept we don’t hear too much about anymore.”

The late Obama years offer an opening to the left. As Tocqueville first noted, radical alternatives have their moment when rising expectations remain unfulfilled. Barack Obama insinuated in 2008 that his arrival in the White House would unleash radical transformation and build a more equal society. Instead he faced the power structure and the state structure as they are. The greatest burst of legislation since the Great Society failed against the yardstick that he himself had encouraged. Soon Occupy and Black Lives Matter arose. And now the Sanders moment.

Any Democratic president would face the intractable veto points that thwart Obama. Foremost among them, the House of Representatives will almost certainly remain in Republican hands after 2016. Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner, has shaped her profile to these realities, offering leading Democratic constituencies detailed plans that emphasize “the profligate use of executive authority.” Clinton has won endorsement from 8 sitting governors, 30 Senators, and 117 members of the House. No governors have backed Sanders, nor have any of his colleagues in the Senate. He has only two endorsers in the House, the co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus he founded (Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, whose roots lie in 1960s-era Chicano organizing in Tucson, and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, best known as the first Muslim in Congress). While Sanders has loyally backed Democrats on procedural votes, the lifeblood of Congress, for a quarter century, he still refuses to join the party whose nomination he seeks. If Bernie Sanders wins the Democrats’ nod, it would be the most shocking upset of the modern nomination era. Since latent white nationalism is far closer to the political surface than latent socialism, even a Trump nomination would rank as less surprising.

Sanders is playing the long game. Barney Frank, one of two members of Congress to endorse Sanders in his 1990 run for the House, offers the central indictment: “There is not only no chance—perhaps regrettably—for Sanders to win a national election. . . . His very unwillingness to be confined by existing voter attitudes, as part of a long-term strategy to change them, is both a very valuable contribution to the democratic dialogue and an obvious bar to winning support from the majority of these very voters in the near term.” To be clear, Sanders—who rarely sugarcoats his strategic dilemmas or the left’s, only their resolution—makes basically the same argument. He will win only if he changes the rules of the game. That means raising turnout and slashing its class bias, stopping big money, and fundamentally transforming attitudes. More generally, he argues that “the great political crisis in American society is the quiescence of working people.” It is a crisis not easily solved.


What got us here is reasonably clear: failures at key junctures to structure politics. The sharpest loss came in 1896. More than any other movement that ever took root on American soil, Populism, rooted in the rural South and West, challenged industrial capitalism. It might have sustained the mass politics we conspicuously lack. Yet it failed to entice the northern worker, and collapsed. Eugene Debs, Sanders’s hero, his American Railway Union crushed by the state, read Marx in the Woodstock jail, gave up on reformism, and built his Socialist Party as a sectarian splinter. The major parties shifted from mass mobilization, symbolized by the torchlight parade, toward elite persuasion—and the working class largely stopped voting. Turnout rates dropped precipitously, in the North as well as the Jim Crow South, and never recovered. In 1896, 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. By 1912, turnout had fallen to 59 percent. The highest figure since has been 64 percent, in 1960. Sanders still stares into that void. As Walter Dean Burnham observed in 1967, “One is indeed inclined to suspect that the large hole in voter participation which developed after 1900 corresponds to the area in the electorate where a socialist party ‘ought’ to have developed.”

Most profiles of Bernie Sanders describe him as something like a “1930s-style radical.” They are correct, but underspecified. Sanders is neither strictly a New Dealer, in the lineage of those public-spirited men whom Felix Frankfurter sent down from Harvard to build the administrative state, nor a Popular Fronter. Instead Sanders still grapples, as we have not since, with the question of how much power the economic elite should hold in a democratic society. Sanders has spent his years in public life pushing against both the New Deal’s political settlement and its policy settlement. The former ardor has cooled. Sanders, like the right wing of the Socialist Party in 1936, has finally bowed to the inexorable logic of the electoral college and subordinated the third-party dream to the Democratic Party.

Sanders wants to recreate, and then transcend, the now-shattered New Deal political economy. Northern liberals—black and white—wanted a universalistic welfare state, including national health insurance, combined with coordinated macroeconomic strategy designed to fight unemployment. Southern Democrats held the swing votes, and thwarted them. Social policy was stratified, with generous programs distributing benefits primarily to middle-class whites, often through the tax code, and underfunded programs, generally run by states, serving the poor, black and white. Far from disdaining universalistic programs for subordinating race to class, as Sanders’s skeptics now claim, African-Americans proved universalism’s most dogged champions; targeted programs largely excluded them—initially de jure, later de facto. For decades, the Congressional Black Caucus budget, which Sanders has loyally supported, has proposed massive investments in public jobs and expansions of universal federal programs.

The Sanders platform is old unfinished business, not just a response to the challenges of our own time; it would strike labor-liberals of the New Deal and Fair Deal years as depressingly familiar. His central planks emphasize universal programs to strengthen the welfare state, making child care, health care, and college affordable to all. The emphasis on young children and working parents is the only new element, and even there, the policy instrument is still grants-in-aid to the states.

When asked in July “what it means to be a socialist,” Sanders replied that “when you look at basic necessities of life—education, health care, nutrition—there must be a guarantee that people receive what they need in order to live a dignified life.” This vision echoes T. H. Marshall’s vision of social rights as essential pillars of modern citizenship. By making social rights fundamental rights, it stands to the left of Rawlsian liberalism. It also makes clear Sanders’s discomfort with new identity politics, which often subordinate claims for a modicum of wellbeing, or else sneak them through the back door as claims for a particular group rather than for everyone (“people”) in the polity. But as socialism, it’s milquetoast meliorism.

Sanders marks his class politics not between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but between “the proliferation of millionaires and billionaires” and everyone else. Occupy termed the former “the 1 percent,” but Sanders was there already. As he told supporters in Burlington on election night in 1996, “there is something wrong in this country when you have 1 percent of the population owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.” Nordic-style universalism and old-fashioned American radical democracy converge on the same solutions.

Bernie Sanders is also a Sixties radical—just not, however, a kind we now remember. Again, some distinctions frame his politics. Unlike Shactmanite veterans of the Old Left, he never deluded himself that working-class anti-Communism meant endorsing mass carnage in Southeast Asia, or stopping feminism. Unlike the New Left and the associated movements that sprang from it, he kept his sights on what in 1971 he termed the “disparity in the distribution of wealth and decision-making power.” Decades before the bailouts, he worried about big banks’ pernicious influence across the economy through interlocking directorates. Sanders marched on Washington in 1963 for Jobs and Freedom, but that Sixties has been sublimated and forgotten.

Its key document is not any part of the underfunded War on Poverty, but the Freedom Budget for All Americans, prepared in 1966 by Leon Keyserling—who, as a young man had drafted the National Labor Relations Act for Robert F. Wagner—for A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the organizers of the great march three years prior and veterans of the Socialist Party. It proposed full employment and expanded and federalized welfare and gestured toward a guaranteed income. In language now unthinkable, it pledged “to wipe out the slum ghettos, and provide a decent home for every American family, within a decade.” Martin Luther King, Jr., of the SCLC, Stokely Carmichael (!) and John Lewis of SNCC, Walter White of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Walter Reuther of the UAW and David Dubinsky of the ILGWU (both ex-Socialists), and academics John Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, and Pauli Murray all signed on to its principles. “This war against want,” it argued, “must be color blind. Negroes will benefit most relative to their numbers because, for reasons not of their making, want is most heavily concentrated among them.” Yet the Freedom Budget had no chance whatsoever in Congress, even at the zenith of possibility, and the seeming unity among its endorsees soon fractured.


The Sanders coalition looks like what Democratic consultants call the “wine track”: whiter, younger, better educated, and more liberal than Clinton’s. Lunch-bucket Democrats susceptible to group-based appeals are the “beer track.” Labor (at least within the CIO) and African Americans, the great backers of universalistic politics, represent the critical missing groups.

There’s nobody to mobilize them. The unions are shadows of their former selves. In July 1978, Doug Fraser, the last Reutherite to lead the United Auto Workers, wrote a prescient salvo against a “one-sided class war.” The UAW had 1.5 million active members at the time. It now has four hundred thousand. In the public sector, membership has remained steady, and public-sector unions are some of the only institutions in red and purple states mobilizing on behalf of a robust government. And now public workers (save in public safety, where race and violence swirl the usual alliances) find themselves under withering assault, Public Enemy No. 1 for the Koch network and its quasi-party Americans for Prosperity. The response has been feckless at best.

Under siege, labor leaders seek refuge in the familiar Clinton campaign, even though their preferences are far closer to Sanders’s. Given ample sentiment in the party indifferent to unions or much worse, they fear losing what influence they still have. Sanders has won endorsement from only one international, the militant National Nurses Union. (The United Electrical Workers, expelled from the CIO in 1949 when it failed to toe the anti-Communist line, will probably follow suit.) I can find no national survey data on union members’ preferences to gauge how representative are the widespread reports of enthusiasm for Sanders among the rank and file.

Finally, Sanders has had little success breaking into the African American community. Vermont is a tiny wine-track state, the whitest and most rural in the union. It shows. At the end of June, Sanders’s staff, by one estimate, was 90 percent non-Hispanic white, compared with 68 percent for Clinton. As others have wisely observed, Sanders has stumbled, not least in his approach to activists from Black Lives Matter. Nor does he have a substantial black left to serve as his opening wedge. He is in similarly uncharted waters appealing to immigrants and the children of immigrants. While Clinton can appeal to multiple audiences with group-based appeals at some variance with one another, when Sanders makes a case inside his watertight worldview, it raises hackles—even if he advocates the very agenda that civil rights leaders backed through the middle of the 20th century. Those politics now seem distant.


Murray Kempton once wrote that that Norman Thomas conveyed “a feeling that there is something glorious about being forever engaged.” And so with Bernie Sanders. His errand into the Vermont wilderness has made Sanders into something more foundationally challenging than another hypothetical challenger from the left—Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, say, a Hubert Humphrey without the bellicosity, or the breakaway star of the Obama era, Elizabeth Warren, both prairie Populist and Brandeisian Progressive. Hence a central paradox of the Sanders phenomenon. The new inequality, refracted through the late Obama years, has created the moment for a figure who has said the same things for decades, whose hero died in 1926, whose solutions largely come out of the 1935 playbook. The same fights remain: challenging concentrated wealth and power; providing people the necessities of life. When Bernie Sanders dares the new precariat to dream of social democracy, he dares it to dream a very old dream.

Beyond the particulars, with any politician aiming to reorient the polity comes a narrative about America. And, again, Sanders takes an older road, between the hard left and conventional liberalism. To his more doctrinaire supporters’ consternation, Sanders is no anti-American; a few weeks back, he wrote off Hugo Chávez as a “dead Communist dictator.” Nor is the Sanders narrative a typical tale of uplift, heard in thousands of perorations and expressed best in recent years through the way that Obama has deployed “hope.” Bernie Sanders, rather, tells his story about America in that most American form, the jeremiad. It melds two deep strands in American socialism: the agrarian radical and the Hebrew prophet seeking justice in the land. No other American political figure speaks in this register, at once bracing and romantic.

We have strayed into wickedness. “The billionaire class and corporate America and Wall Street and corporate media have enormous power. . . . they control this country, and they have controlled this country for a very, very long time.” If we take the struggle into our own hands, we may purify ourselves and come to virtue. “Please do not tell me that in the United States of America, at a time when we’re seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, don’t tell me that we have to have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.” Sanders, however, offers an America without Edenic innocence. As he explained at Liberty University last month, we are “a nation which in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles.” He aims not for the mythic land of opportunity or the latter-day re-creation of the yeoman farm, lodestar of the old agrarians. The goal is an idea: “the full potential of equality that is our birthright as Americans.” If Sanders is ambivalent about America, he unironically celebrates Americans. No American politician in decades—maybe in the postwar era—has spoken of “the people” so convinced of their essential goodness.

“We have something that they do not have and that is: we have the people, and when people stand together, we can win,” Sanders told students gathered in the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago a few weeks back. It is an old and resonant idea, beloved—to take the frame of the year’s other political sensation—of history’s losers more than its winners. This fossil from an earlier, perhaps more innocent, age of American radicalism keeps his relentless sense of possibility against all odds. If we push hard enough, Bernie Sanders still believes, the people will ultimately rule.

In 1979, Sanders made a filmstrip about Eugene V. Debs. It concludes with Sanders speaking as Debs, rendering the railroader from Terre Haute in the cadence of Brooklyn. Debs’s words foreshadow the complexities in the Sanders moment—and still tingle the spine:

The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve—a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born manhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister—and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

August 24, 2011

Wisconsin has gone blue, as they say, in the last two presidential elections, but just barely.

November 26, 2014
Hands Up
December 26, 2011

The meeting was led by a tall, skinny Philosophy graduate named Jacob, and a chain-smoking Politics student.

December 13, 2010

In Detroit, race is never not an issue, always at least subtext when it isn’t quite text.

More by this Author

March 11, 2016
Trump and the Republicans
December 24, 2016
The Lists Told Us Otherwise