How Bernie Sanders Could Change American Politics
The entry of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) into the Democratic presidential contest and the media response to it marks the beginning of a paradigm shift in American politics. The shift is a move to the left prompted by changing economic conditions.
The most surprising aspect of the media coverage of Sanders’ run is the lack of criticism and personal attacks. There have been almost no attacks upon Sanders’ personal beliefs—he proudly calls himself a “Democratic Socialist”—nor his past involvement with the New Left. Instead, the coverage has focused squarely on the issues Sanders is talking about and the proposals he has been making.
What is most surprising is that the media is actually analyzing and even debating Sanders’ proposals. Take his plan to use a so-called Robin Hood Tax on investment transactions to finance free tuition at public universities and colleges. Not only has that generated widespread discussion but it has also sparked a few articles saying why it is a bad idea. The ideas and not the man are attracting attention in this new debate.
Is America Ready for Bernie?
Sanders’ discussion of income inequality and his attacks upon it prompted an even more intriguing response. Almost nobody criticized Sanders or debated his contention of income inequality; instead, they actually listened. The response seems surreal, and it is rather unsettling.
The media’s response to Sanders can tell us a few things about the current state and near future of American politics and society, including:
- Americans generally agree that there is significant income inequality in the United States and that inequality is a problem.
- Americans of all classes, races, backgrounds and education levels are very uneasy about the current U.S. economy and the direction it is taking. People ranging from unemployed workers to hedge fund CEOs do not like where the economy is going. Part of the reason why reporters and talk show hosts are willing to listen to Sanders is that they’re just as worried as the rest of us.
- A great many Americans believe that only radical economic change and reform will be necessary to fix the problems.
- Americans’ faith in the free enterprise system has been profoundly shaken by the events of the last 10 years. They are beginning to think outside the box and consider other solutions. Even socialism is now on the table.
- The economy is the major concern of Americans, not cultural issues.
A Goldwater Moment
Sanders’ sudden acceptance is what one might call a Goldwater moment. Barry Goldwater, for those unfamiliar with American political history, was the long-serving Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona who became a conservative icon with his quixotic 1964 presidential run.
Goldwater lost the election but he transformed the Republican Party and American politics in the process. He did this by running a hard right campaign and refusing to compromise his ideals. In the process, Goldwater shattered a comfortable political status quo in which New Deal-style Big Government was viewed as the only answer to America’s problems and appeasement of the Soviet Union the only way to survive the Cold War, a belief shared by both the Republican and Democratic establishments even if many average Americans were uncomfortable with it.
Goldwater successfully changed the American political paradigm from Center Left to Center Right. He did this largely by smashing the Center Left establishment that controlled the Republican Party during the Eisenhower years.
Obviously Sanders’ politics are diametrically opposed to Goldwater’s, but the two men have a lot of similarities. Like Goldwater, Sanders is an unlikely rule-breaking candidate of strong beliefs. Other similarities Sanders shares with Goldwater are that he has a prickly personality, he wears glasses, and he is of Jewish heritage. A difference is that Sanders is apparently a practicing Jew while Goldwater’s family had converted to the Episcopal Church. Another similarity is that Sanders is an outsider from a small state, like Goldwater.
The main similarity is that Sanders, like Goldwater, is running a campaign of ideas. He is deliberately trying to provoke a debate about ideas and values, and he seems to be succeeding like Goldwater did. When Goldwater ran in 1964, he was reviled as a dangerous radical; by 1980 his basic ideas were the platform of the Republican Party and its new standard bearer, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater’s ideas were small government, low taxes, opposition to welfare and a foreign policy of aggressive anticommunism. The Reagan Revolution was really the Goldwater revolution.
Goldwater succeeded by taking advantage of the doubts and fears Americans had with their status quo—in particular, the belief that Big Government was un-American and a threat to individual liberty and traditional society. Even his official campaign slogan—“In your heart you know he’s right”—was a clever attempt to sow such doubts.
Another similarity between Goldwater and Sanders is that Goldwater viewed moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and not Democrats as his real opponents. Even though he does not admit it, Sanders is really running against moderate Democrats like Hillary Clinton, not Republicans.
How Sanders Is Changing the Political Debate
Sanders is trying to capitalize upon the belief of many Americans that the deck is stacked against them and in favor of the wealthy. He’s also promoting the idea that the present economic system is somehow un-American and unjust. Take this statement to CNBC’s John Harwood:
“Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. Top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think that that is the kind of economy this country should have? Do we think it’s moral?”
“So to my mind, if you have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, you know what, we’ve got to transfer that back if we’re going to have a vibrant middle class. And you do that in a lot of ways. Certainly one way is tax policy.”
There you see a very clever use of rhetoric. Sanders first plays to the doubts; then he offers a solution. He cleverly inserts income redistribution into the political debate—something that would have been unthinkable from a presidential candidate just a few years ago. Sanders reveals himself as a very clever politician who can change the debate and the Democratic Party.
How Sanders Will Change the Democratic Party
By just being in the primary and grabbing media attention Sanders can seriously disrupt the Democratic Party in the following ways:
- By changing the Party’s focus to meat and potatoes economic issues like banking regulations, taxes and college tuition. Since the 1960s the Democrats’ focus has been upon cultural issues such as gay rights and abortion, largely because the New Left that came out of the ’60s had little interest in economic issues and also because such issues appeal to big money donors such as Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types. One result of this could be to lure back many Reagan Democrats who left the party because of its New Left focus. Another is to appeal to working and middle class Americans that feel politicians no longer care about them.
- Forcing the Democrats to develop a real policy of their own rather than simply offering a watered down version of whatever the Republicans are selling this week. An example of this is the tuition proposal, which uses taxes in a way that directly benefits the middle class.
- Smashing the Clinton consensus, which has defined the Democratic Party since the 1990s—the Clinton consensus being taking a hard left stand on cultural issues while taking a center right stand on economic issues. This appealed strongly to campaign donors while alienating much of the party’s base, much as the moderate Republicanism of the Eisenhower years alienated many of the party’s grass roots members. By taking a hard left stand on economic issues, Sanders could split the party. This could spell real trouble for Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 1990s nostalgia.
- Clearing the way for other candidates with more popular appeal to take a hard left stand, much as Barry Goldwater cleared the way for the more popular Ronald Reagan. Reagan first achieved political prominence by campaigning for Goldwater.
Sanders and the Republicans
Sanders presents a serious challenge to Republicans as well because his popularity is a sign that some of their policies have failed or at least are not working as advertised.
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The long-term GOP agenda of tax cuts, cutting government benefits, free trade and loosening economic regulations has not produced the free market utopia we were promised. Republicans need to consider that before they dismiss Sanders. They should also realize that attacks on Sanders are liable to backfire by raising his profile and injecting his ideas further into the mainstream.
A Disruptive Force
My prediction is that Sanders will not win the Democratic primary but he will completely shake up the Democratic Party. He’ll also be far more successful than many people realize, and he could throw a serious monkey wrench into Hillary’s plans, largely by exposing Hillary as the dinosaur she really is; her time has passed, but she does not know it.
Sanders is simply the first of a new breed of aggressive, fire-breathing left-wing candidates who will completely disrupt the Democratic Party and change the political debate. Sanders’ real role is that of the man who sparks the revolution, not the one who leads it to victory. He is the Samuel Adams or the Paul Revere, not the George Washington.
The most intriguing part of Sanders’ campaign then could be to introduce America to the Ronald Reagan of the left. I imagine that person is out there right now, and historians of the future will credit Sanders as bringing him or her onto the national stage. Sanders then is not really a candidate; instead, he is a disruptive force that will change American politics forever.