The day before President Barack Obama gave his 2014 State of the Union address, in which he made economic inequality the centerpiece, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made an appearance on CNN’s “Situation Room.” About halfway through the segment, he started to lose his cool.
Sanders and Michele Bachmann, the former Republican representative from Minnesota, had been trading verbal jabs for several minutes and stepping all over each other’s lines, when they landed on the subject of Social Security.
“Do you believe in the chained CPI?” Sanders asked Bachmann, referring to an idea then being considered that would have decreased payments for cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security benefits. He wanted Bachmann to concede that the GOP aimed to cut Social Security. She alternately dodged the question and scolded him for lying.
“I asked you a question, and you wouldn’t give me an answer,” Sanders thundered after repeating the question five times.
“Well, calm down.”
“Do you support a chained CPI?”
Bachmann then expressed sympathy for an unemployed woman who had been featured in an earlier segment of the show: “The reality is, we want Ann’s life to be better.” Sanders responded with an eye roll.
The exchange was typical of Vermont’s junior senator, who entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in late April. He ventured deep into the policy weeds—at the risk of confusing viewers who had no idea what he meant by a chained CPI—and he was impatient, confrontational and determined to get his point across.
That passion and focus can carry Sanders—who famously identifies as a democratic socialist and represents Vermont as an independent—right up to the edge of seeming like a crank. And if he had run against Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary 20-odd years ago, he no doubt would have been dismissed as just that, and easily ignored.
But this is not 1992. Bernie Sanders cannot be ignored—his message speaks too powerfully to the current political moment. And he certainly will not calm down—not when, as he says at every opportunity, 99 percent of all new income is going to the top 1% of Americans, the “real” unemployment rate is 12.7 percent and the United States has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.
Sanders’ passion and single-mindedness seem to be grounded, in large part, in his childhood in Brooklyn, growing up in a small apartment. His father, who immigrated to the United States from Poland as a teenager, was a paint salesman. It was his mother’s dream, never realized, for the family to own a home. “What I learned as a kid,” Sanders told an audience at the Brookings Institution in early February, “is what the lack of money does to a family … the kind of stresses and pressures.”
He didn’t elaborate, but he believes that a growing number of Americans know precisely what he means.
“When you take on the billionaire class, it ain’t easy,” he said at Brookings. He was still deciding whether to run for president. To mount a campaign, he said, “We would have to put together the strongest grassroots movement in the modern history of this country, where millions of people are saying, ‘You know what? Enough is enough.’ ”
He entered the race two months later, apparently persuaded that he can organize a grassroots campaign around the idea that enough is, in fact, enough.
Ahead of the game
The endless election season is a boon for long-shot presidential candidates, giving them a platform, a spotlight and more than a year to make their case. In 1996, Steve Forbes centered his bid for the Republican presidential nomination around a call for a flat tax. There were relatively few proponents at the time. It has since become a favorite idea within the GOP.
Forbes’ flat tax would have cut his own income tax bill by an estimated $240 million. The 1990s were fertile ground for such anti-progressive economic ideas, as poverty fell off the political radar amid the tech bubble. Then, in the early 2000s, the global “war on terror” became all-consuming.
Bernie Sanders spent much of that time in the House, serving as Vermont’s only representative beginning in 1991. He ran for the Senate in 2006, winning with 65 percent of the vote, and was reelected in 2012 with 71 percent.
Through all those years, while economic inequality was mostly off the nation’s political agenda, it was Sanders’ abiding passion. In Outsider in the House, a book he wrote in 1997 about his congressional race the previous year, Sanders wrote, “In America we have the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the entire industrialized world. The middle class is shrinking, the working class is scraping by, and the poor are ever more deeply mired in poverty.”
Sanders was either way behind the times or way ahead of them. Fifty years ago, the movements for civil rights and economic justice, steadily building for years, culminated in the last great wave of social-reform legislation: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps.
Now, 50 years after the Great Society, we are—perhaps—in the midst of another moment of building momentum to address racial and economic inequalities. The Occupy movement’s rise in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was the first sign of the changing times.
In late 2011, GOP spin guru Frank Luntz told Republicans at a conference that he was “frightened to death” of “this anti-Wall Street effort” because “they’re having an impact on what the American people think about capitalism.” And though Occupy as a formal movement has largely faded, its message continues to find new champions and new channels of expression.
For example, Thomas Piketty’s massive book about rising inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, became a surprise bestseller in 2013; Pope Francis has reasserted Catholicism’s his torical emphasis on economic justice, recently describing inequality as “the root of social evil”; cities are taking the initiative in raising the minimum wage absent leadership from Congress; and pundits and activists are pushing back, in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, against the inequalities and influence-buying built into our politics.
Last year, meanwhile, in a widely read and discussed piece, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates laid bare the deep structural racism that helps perpetuate economic inequalities. The protests and media coverage provoked by police violence against African Americans have helped make the same point. “Plunder,” as Coates told an audience at Johns Hopkins University soon after the protests in Baltimore began in April, “is the key to understanding the relationship between African Americans and the U.S.”
This is a moment, in other words, when Sanders’ laser-like focus on inequality harmonizes with the nation’s political climate. A Gallup poll released in May found that 52 percent of Americans favored redistribution of wealth through heavy taxes on the rich—up from 35 percent in the late 1930s and 45 percent in 1998.
The changing political climate is noticeable enough that even pro-business publications and Republican presidential hopefuls acknowledge inequality as a problem. “It’s worse than you think,” as Fortune put it last year. The piece quoted two scholars who found that wealth inequality “has followed a spectacular Ushape evolution over the past 100 years. From the Great Depression in the 1930s through the late 1970s, there was a substantial democratization of wealth. The trend then inverted, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent increasing to 22 percent, from 7 percent in the late 1970s.”
Responding to Obama’s State of the Union address in January, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has since thrown his hat in the ring for the GOP presidential nomination, said that the economic elites have become “fat and happy” and that “the top 1% earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928.”
In this context, Sanders is more than just another candidate with low name recognition and no chance of actually winning. He is the perfect candidate for this moment. What that means, exactly, remains to be seen.
The Sanders effect
“People should not underestimate me,” Sanders told the Associated Press on April 30. “I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates, and … the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.”
Sanders has an advantage in that the first Democratic primary will be in New Hampshire, where his long political career in neighboring Vermont has made him well known. An upset there would give him early momentum. And in Iowa his campaign events have drawn overflowing crowds. But barring a meltdown by the Hillary Clinton campaign, her name recognition and campaign war chest are daunting—perhaps impossible—obstacles to overcome. In May, a CNN poll showed that just 10 percent of Democratic voters favored Sanders. Fifteen percent favored Joe Biden and 60 percent favored Clinton.
Seeking to explain his long-shot bid, pundits usually note that Sanders will push Clinton to the left. And there is little doubt that he will, at least during the campaign. When he isn’t talking about economic inequality, Sanders is usually talking about climate change. Clinton, who has not distinguished herself on either issue, will be forced to respond. Strong opposition from Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, for example, seems to have forced Clinton to keep her position vague, though she has a history of supporting free-trade initiatives. Sanders, Warren and other progressive Democrats argue that it will hurt American workers and further erode the middle class.
But the potential significance of Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination goes far beyond the 2016 race. And it goes far beyond whatever effects his campaign will have on Clinton.
Since the 1980s, Republicans have promised to grow the economy by cutting taxes, privatizing the public sphere and deregulating the economy. Democrats have mainly promised to limit the damage done by Republicans.
Sanders is a radical because he unapologetically asserts a vision of what government by the people and for the people can actually accomplish—and has accomplished. That vision has animated the progressive movement for more than a century. But relatively few have had the national megaphone that he will hold over the next year. His policy proposals include a jobs program to rebuild roads, bridges, airports and schools; hiking the federal minimum wage; breaking up the biggest banks; reforming the tax code and eliminating corporate loopholes; and investing heavily in renewable energy sources.
“If I do something … I want to do it well,” Sanders told the Brookings audience in February. The measure of whether he succeeds, though, will not be whether he wins the Democratic nomination or even whether he wins a certain percentage of the vote. A better measure will be whether he can help shift our national dialogue and revitalize the progressive movement. What Sanders wrote of his 1996 campaign might also be said of his current run for the presidency: It is “about hopes and dreams that will not be realized in our lifetimes. It is about the fragility of democracy in America.”
On one level, success will mean channeling and amplifying the growing voices of protest against rising inequality—racial, economic and political—in the United States. More than that, it will mean translating the frustration of millions of Americans into an alternative vision of the nation’s future. It will mean making the connection between the Republican agenda and rising inequality—and pointing a way forward for those who are saying “enough is enough,” and who can be mobilized, as Sanders believes, into a grassroots movement with the resources and the will to push back.