No one should be surprised by the popularity of Bernie Sanders. Yes, he calls himself a “democratic socialist” – in fact he’s not a Democrat, even if the polls show him beating Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s a socialist of sorts, but Jonathan Cohn had already explained that this sort socialism is not all that scary:
The label socialist isn’t as toxic as it was a generation ago, but the concept remains decidedly less popular among the population as a whole. Socialism – as commonly understood by Americans – means widespread government ownership of business. A candidate or a party seemingly calling for that would alienate most of the public – even in a lefty, earthy-crunchy state like Vermont.
That, however, is not what Sanders is talking about:
Democratic socialism, as generally conceived in the U.S., is a milder, more aspirational form of the ideology. Democratic socialists might not recoil at the thought of government running large industries, but they don’t actively pursue that goal. Instead, they focus on decidedly less radical objectives – like making the welfare state more generous, giving workers more power, limiting the influence of money on politics and policing the practices of business more closely.
You can see that agenda in the initiatives Sanders has proposed and the causes he has championed. He’s a longtime supporter of universal health care in what some would say is its purest form: A single-payer system, in which the government provides insurance directly rather than subsidizing private insurers. He’s called for making taxpayer-funded child care available to all parents, right up through kindergarten. He supports breaking up the big banks and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change. He opposes trade deals that lack what he considers adequate protection for labor. And he supports the public financing of campaigns for federal office.
Some of these ideas are more popular than others. How you feel about them will depend, inevitably, on your own ideological predispositions and, to some extent, how you interpret available evidence on their effectiveness. But none of these ideas is loopy. Most Western democracies have some of these policies, while some Western democracies have all of them. A few have produced such strikingly positive results – variations on single-payer work very well in France and Taiwan, for example – that it’s hard to understand why they don’t get more serious hearings in the U.S.
(Actually, the U.S. does have a form of single-payer health insurance. It’s for the elderly, it’s called Medicare, and it’s incredibly popular – which is one more reason many people think it should be available to everybody.)
That means that Sanders is not that far out:
Clinton is a mainstream liberal, and these days, mainstream liberals tend to want the same things that Sanders does – a stronger welfare state, more regulation of business, higher wages for the lower and middle classes, action on climate change. The question is how aggressively and enthusiastically she promotes these causes, via rhetoric and actual policy proposals.
The answer of course is not very aggressively and enthusiastically. She has turned out to be a careful politician, one who knows how to offend the most people the least. She’s sort of with Sanders on all of this, but careful not to come off as some sort of wild-eyed radical. She’s the calm and steady one, you see – all this stuff should be done, perhaps, but carefully and slowly. Things could get out of hand. And of course that left the passion to Bernie Sanders, and he’s doing just fine as her poll numbers drop and drop. But at least she’s not a socialist. She’s got that going for her. It’s just that the label doesn’t mean a whole lot anyway.
This was apparent back in April 2009 when a Rasmussen poll showed this:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
But that can be subdivided:
Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better. …
Investors by a 5-to-1 margin choose capitalism. As for those who do not invest, 40% say capitalism is better while 25% prefer socialism.
There is a partisan gap as well. Republicans – by an 11-to-1 margin – favor capitalism. Democrats are much more closely divided: Just 39% say capitalism is better while 30% prefer socialism.
There’s a bit more to this:
It is interesting to compare the new results to an earlier survey in which 70% of Americans prefer a free-market economy. The fact that a “free-market economy” attracts substantially more support than “capitalism” may suggest some skepticism about whether capitalism in the United States today relies on free markets.
Other survey data supports that notion. Rather than seeing large corporations as committed to free markets, two-out-of-three Americans believe that big government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors.
That was six years ago. No one should be surprised by the popularity of Bernie Sanders this year. He’s always had a base, one that excludes the investor class, the Wall Street folks who have always been fine with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and excludes Republicans of course.
That’s not enough to go any further. That’s not enough to defeat Hillary Clinton. That’s certainly not enough to win the general election. What is a (democratic) socialist to do? That would be this:
In an unlikely appearance at a prominent Christian university, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Monday the “massive injustice” of income and wealth inequality should unite people across the political spectrum.
From the outset, Sanders noted in his speech at Liberty University that he believed in women’s rights and gay marriage, drawing some cheers but mostly tepid applause in the cavernous Vines Center, where the school regularly assembles during the week. But the Vermont senator said the problems of wealth inequality and economic justice showed that “maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together to resolve that.”
“It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today,” Sanders said at the influential Christian college in Virginia that usually draws Republican presidential candidates. “In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality.”
His pitch was met with scattered applause and many students sat politely with their arms folded during his appearance, declining to clap.
Well, it was a start:
In a question-and-answer session, the student body erupted when Liberty senior vice president David Nasser noted that many students felt “children in the womb need our protection.” Sanders defended abortion rights, acknowledging it was “an area where we disagree,” but said it should not be a decision dictated by the government.
“I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government or state government to tell every woman in this country the very painful and difficult choice that she has to make on that issue,” Sanders said. …
“It is easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you,” Sanders said, adding, “But it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
And this was the place for that:
Liberty, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1971, is a familiar stop for Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to connect with conservative evangelicals. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launched his GOP presidential campaign there last March and Republican hopeful Dr. Ben Carson is scheduled to speak at the convocation in November.
Sanders understood that:
Sanders said he was “far from a perfect human being” but was motivated by the vision of the religious teachings of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The senator was raised in a Jewish family and is non-observant, but his campaign said he stopped at a Rosh Hashanah gathering Monday at the home of Michael Gillette, Lynchburg’s mayor.
Pointing to Scripture, Sanders cited the “Golden Rule” of Matthew’s Gospel as a guiding principle to treat others as you would like to be treated.
As the U.S. prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis, Sanders said he agreed with the pope’s views that the financial crisis “originated in a profound human crisis” that saw too many people place a greater emphasis on the pursuit of wealth than faith.
That didn’t fly:
“I’m glad they invited him but I wouldn’t vote for him,” said Nathan White, a junior from Houston. White said he opposed gay marriage and abortion rights and described himself as a capitalist.
Oh well. But another account, from Liberty’s own Cathaleen Chen, offers this:
His main objective was to find common ground with the socially conservative audience on wealth inequality. He even invoked the Bible’s teachings on compassion, focusing heavily on the idea of morality. While the Vermont senator was lauded for his eagerness to face staunch conservatism, what many don’t realize is that Liberty University, the biggest Christian college in the world, was the one to solicit Sanders’ visit, suggesting that partisan polarization may not be the omnipotent force we think it is.
“Do you think it’s moral when 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African American children are living in poverty?” He asked the evangelical audience. “In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry.” In spite of the fact that Sanders very explicitly addressed the differences between their beliefs on same-sex marriage or reproductive rights, Sanders’ 27-minute speech was overall politely received, according to CNN. In fact, he had a small cheering section.
The CNN account offers this:
At the onset of the speech, he made abundantly clear that their views on social matters like gay rights and access to abortion are ones that there will be disagreement on.
“Let me respectfully suggest that there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and in fact to the entire world that maybe, just maybe, we do not disagree on. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to work together in trying to resolve them,” Sanders said. “It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society or anything resembling a just society today,” he continued. “In the United States of America today, there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant.”
In an interview with CNN, Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., praised Sanders for not shying away from sensitive issues and addressing them respectfully with his student body.
He did that by not pandering:
“The views that many at Liberty University have, and I, on a number of important issues are very, very different,” Sanders said. “I believe in women’s rights and the right of a women to control her own body. I believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Those are my views and it is no secret.”
He sees no need to be Clinton-careful. Who has time for that? There are problems to solve, and they won’t be solved by a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals sitting around in a circle talking to each other. It’s time to talk to the other people, and this was part of a Southern strategy. The Atlantic’s David Graham reports on that from Greensboro:
“You all – did I get that right?” Bernie Sanders paused to wonder, mid-spiel. Then he corrected himself: “Y’all.”
“I’ll learn,” the Vermont senator promised to affectionate laughs. It was a perfect encapsulation of the challenge Sanders faces. Having gone from a fringe candidate to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination -leading Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and gaining on her nationally – Sanders doesn’t cater to audiences with the smooth pandering and ersatz accents that more traditional politicians do. But if he is to convert his momentum into a nomination, he’ll have to learn to connect to people in places like the purple state in the South, and, in particular, to the black voters who form the Democratic Party’s backbone across the region.
That’s the major target, not the evangelicals, but he’s well on his way to winning the South:
Of course, the fact that he doesn’t do the things normal candidates do is what excites his fans, thousands of whom came to the Greensboro Coliseum to see Sanders Sunday night. They came from Durham and Salisbury, Winston-Salem and Walnut Cove, filling the venue to capacity. (The campaign said more than 9,000 people showed.) They drove in with new friends from their freshman dormitories or headed over from the National Folk Festival across town. While a few attendees said they were there to find more out about Sanders, many seemed to already be solidly committed to the self-described democratic socialist. And those came wearing campaign gear (one popular t-shirt bears an outline of Sanders’s glasses and famously unruly hair; another exhorts: “Join the political revolution today”). …
It seemed like an unusually committed and excited crowd for this stage in a primary, especially in a state that may not play a major role in deciding the nomination. Many attendees seemed giddily surprised at the turnout. It was the sort of commitment that led most of them to stick with Sanders through a 70-minute stump speech filled with wonky explanations and punctuated with old-school leftist imprecations about corporate greed, although a small but steady stream started filing out after 40 minutes or so. Supporters held signs – both printed and homemade – and attendees’ feet stamping on the bleachers created literally thunderous applause at high points in the speech.
He knew how to play this crowd:
He warns that America is falling behind, rails against sending jobs to China, and repeatedly expressed glee during his speech that his campaign was rattling “the establishment.” And though he’s not as quotable as Donald Trump, Sanders’s speech is not without zingers. “My Republican colleagues get very nervous when we talk about redistribution of income, but you should know that in the last 30 years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth,” he said. “The problem is it has gone in the wrong direction.” When he thanked the audience for coming out, he acknowledged that many folks would roll their eyes at the idea of attending a rally but offered a ready retort: “Anybody who tells you politics doesn’t matter, ask ’em why the Koch brothers are spending $900 million.”
They got it:
Most notably, the crowd was filled with students, who’d come in large groups from universities around the state. Rachel Cole, 18, had traveled with a clique from her freshman hall at Elon University. “I like that he’s so grassroots,” she said. “Some people have been saying he’s the voice of our generation.” A Wake Forest freshman, Zachary Bynum, told me he viewed Sanders as most on touch with “Millennial values” on health, education, and social issues. If it’s hard to believe that the oldest candidate in the race – Sanders is 74 – would energize youth the most, the crowd seemed to prove his point. He has argued that he would galvanize young voters in a way President Obama did but Clinton cannot, a view that Ben Roberts, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, affirmed. “I would be way less excited if Hillary was the person,” he said, but conceded that from his perspective, “she’s way better than the alternative.”
The folks down that way should know:
Since a Republican takeover of the governorship and legislature, the state has passed a huge slate of very conservative legislation, which has opened massive rifts and a series of weekly protests in Raleigh. GOP leaders have cut budgets, slashed education funding, and erected perhaps the strictest voting restrictions in the nation.
Though Sanders made little reference to local woes in his stump speech, several of his proposals resonate strongly with the current situation North Carolina. He demands better funding for schools and free education, and his criticism of free-trade agreements plays well in a state where manufacturing jobs suffered after NAFTA. That holds true even for Old North Staters who don’t ordinarily vote Democrat. Barry Nesbitt, a retired Teamster, showed up wearing a “Keep Pension Promises” t-shirt. Nesbitt told me he’d been a registered Republican until very recently, when he got fed up with Representative Virginia Foxx for her stance on looming pension cuts. Sanders, on the other hand, had backed unions in the dispute, so now Nesbitt was registered as unaffiliated and waiting in line. “I’m here to support Bernie Sanders because he supports us,” he said.
And that leaves the matter of race:
Sanders has been criticized by Black Lives Matters activists for focusing too heavily on class issues, to the exclusion of race. In Seattle, activists shut down a Sanders rally. He badly trails Hillary Clinton among black voters. Sanders has acknowledged his weakness on the issue and promised to improve. He hired Symone Sanders, a BLM activist, as a press secretary. On Saturday in South Carolina, the senator focused on race and was introduced by Cornel West, the black scholar and activist. … Greensboro, with a large black population and a rich civil-rights history, made for an interesting next stop.
Still, he didn’t change his standard stump speech very much:
Forty-five minutes in, he celebrated the Voting Rights Act and lamented the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision hollowing it out. Ten minutes later, near the end of the speech, he finally spoke passionately about institutional racism and police brutality, mentioning Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and others, and calling for an end to mass incarceration. (Even there, Sanders couldn’t resist tying it back to class: In arguing that police needed to be held accountable, he acknowledged that most officers were good at their jobs – and, he noted, underpaid, undertrained, and subject to volatile schedules.)
Those portions of the speech were well-received, but perhaps he was wise not to tailor it too much to a black audience. Even though African Americans make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population (and an even larger portion of the Democratic electorate), the crowd was overwhelmingly white. But black voters who did make it to the rally seemed to think that could change…
They finally heard what he was saying:
“Minorities don’t know about Bernie Sanders,” Briana Powell said – but she said that when she got friends and family members to research him, they responded positively to his message.
Further back in the line, Pam Horn concurred that black voters were starting to notice Sanders. “Hopefully a lot of us come out so we can learn,” she said, and then followed the endless line into the coliseum.
The New York Times’ Charles Blow speaks to that:
There is an earnest, if snappy, aura to Sanders that is laudable and refreshing. One doesn’t sense the stench of ambition or the revolting unctuousness of incessant calculation. There is an idealistic crusader in the man, possibly to the point of being quixotic, but at least it doesn’t come off as corrupted by money or power or the God complex that so often attends those in pursuit of the seat behind the Resolute Desk.
Sanders’s message of revolutionary change to save a flailing middle class and challenge the sprawling influence of what he calls “the billionaire class” has struck a nerve with a fervid following.
I spoke with Senator Sanders by phone about his campaign’s need to reach more African-American voters, and I asked if he was worried about this need to broaden his appeal. While he resisted the word “worried,” he did acknowledge that: “Clearly, if we are going to do well nationally, it’s absolutely imperative that we aggressively reach out and bring the African-American community and the Latino community into our campaign, and that is exactly what we’re working on right now.”
Sanders seemed to understand the challenge ahead of him.
It won’t be easy. There are folks saying things like this – “We have a fundamental disagreement with Bernie Sanders that racism is somehow an offshoot from economic exploitation when the reality is that race and class in America are inextricably linked to the rise of capitalism in this country” – but maybe that can be resolved. Bernie Sanders wonders about capitalism too. He’s a (democratic) socialist after all. And that’s not a bad thing anymore, is it? That label doesn’t mean a whole lot anyway. Maybe it never did.