Figuring out where and how Presidential Candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) fits into politics is tough because Sanders defies categorization and stereotypes.
Even though Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist”, he is not part of any traditional socialist movement. He also embraces some libertarian ideas, such as gun rights and opposition to surveillance, that are far removed from classic socialism. Nor is Sanders part of the Socialist Party USA or the Democratic Socialists of America.
Sanders’ beliefs are also far from the Marxism or Communism that has characterized the American Left for a century. He seems to reject Leninism and the dogma of organized revolution, as promoted by the likes of Noam Chomsky.
Sanders shares many beliefs with classic American Progressives, but he does not call himself one. Likewise, Sanders has many beliefs in common with the Democratic Party, even though he is not part of the organization or its establishment. Sanders could also be classified as a populist, even though he has rejected that label.
This makes Sanders hard for journalists and pundits to classify. It also confuses voters no end because he defies the convenient labels we like to pigeonhole politicians with. So what exactly is Bernie Sanders and how do we characterize his beliefs?
A Man of the Modern Left
The best way to describe Sanders is that he is a man of the modern left or radical left. Bernie rejects the dogma of violent revolution and he is a strong believer in democracy and basic human rights, yet he is strongly opposed to the establishment and demanding of radical change.
Sanders is highly critical of modern capitalism, yet he seems to show little sympathy for government. In fact, Sanders is in favor of strong limits on government power, particularly in regards to law enforcement and security.
More importantly, Sanders is a highly pragmatic figure who is willing to work within the political system and utilize the power of modern media and even business when it suits his purposes. These ideas are not socialism; instead, they are the basic views of Podemos or “We Can”, a next generation Spanish leftist movement that rejects both traditional socialism and modern capitalism.
Podemos is a highly pragmatic, populist movement with no ideology. Instead, it is more of an anarchist or syndicalist organization that is skeptical of all authority.
Podemos and Bernie
Podemos is similar to an American political party in that it is a loose coalition of groups that are opposed to the establishment. Like Sanders, Podemos works for a set of specific concrete goals instead of an ideological agenda; for example, it opposes austerity and demands increases in welfare. Sanders ignores ideology and devotes his time to promoting a few concrete policies, such as single payer health care, government financed college, and stricter bank regulation.
The tactics and strategy Sanders is using in his presidential campaign come straight from the Podemos playbook. They include focusing on a few clear cut goals, ignoring ideology, forming a widespread coalition, fighting for the underdog, attacking the establishment, and leveraging mass media, technology and popular culture to achieve political policy.
A fascinating Guardian piece from March notes that Podemos got many of these ideas from the American Right, which focuses on leveraging media, such as talk radio and Fox News, to influence public opinion. It has also coalesced behind a popular and charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, who looks and acts more like a rock star or a pro wrestler than a traditional leftist politician.
Like American Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich, Iglesias has abandoned many of the traditional trappings of Spanish politics, such as gentility. Instead, he is deliberately combative and aggressive. Like the Tea Party, Iglesias sees the establishment as corrupt and those who cooperate with it, such as the Socialist Party, as sellouts.
Podemos has staged huge rallies like Bernie has and shaken up Spanish politics. It also came out of a protest movement similar to Occupy, which spawned much of the movement behind Sanders. Much of Podemos’ success comes from its willing to use modern communications channels, such as TV talk shows and YouTube videos, just as Bernie has succeeded by embracing social media.
Podemos has grown from a ragtag movement to a serious and sophisticated political organization, much as Bernie’s movement is. It has become one of the three largest parties in Spain and could be in a position to form a government in that country. Podemos has managed to get around 15.7% of the Spanish vote, even though it is less than two years old, according to The Guardian.
The New American Left
One has to wonder if Bernie’s movement could do the same and perhaps take control of the Democratic Party as much as the Tea Party has nearly seized control of the GOP. Like Bernie, Podemos rejects traditional political parties and instead uses them only as organizational tools.
It looks as if the modern left, which has shaken up European and Latin American politics, has arrived in America. One has to wonder if it will be able to shape political debate in the U.S. the way Podemos has shaped the Spanish political debate and the Tea Party transformed Republican politics. Sanders’ mix of pragmatism and opportunism could be the future of the Democratic Party and American politics.
It remains to be seen as if the American people will respond to it in the way the Spaniards have responded to Podemos. The radical left might be about to enter the American political mainstream, which could mark a paradigm shift in U.S. culture and politics, led by an unlikely messiah named Bernie Sanders.