A SWISS JOURNALIST working in the United States tells a story of people from her home country asking about the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and wondering if he is some kind of dangerous radical.
She would simply reply, “He’s a social democrat,” an explanation that everyone understood because she was identifying him with a tradition that went back over a century in Europe.
But for many in the United States, what Sanders was saying was kind of crazy — or at least new. His campaign arguably introduced the country not to 21st-century politics, but to 20th-century politics. As Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, told the Sanders campaign kickoff crowd, “This guy’s been saying and doing the same stuff for the last thirty years. If it weren’t so inspiring, it’d be boring.”
Sanders has now written the book on social democratic campaigning in the United States — literally. It’s called Our Revolution, and it’s structured kind of like one of his campaign rallies (I was a Sanders delegate to the convention and therefore went to many of these events). Part one is preliminaries, and in part two Sanders talks issues, issues, issues — and it contains much more detail than any campaign rally. Either part stands on its own.
Ben Cohen was not entirely accurate in his above remarks — it’s actually well over 40 years since Sanders walked into his first meeting of the Vermont Liberty Union Party in 1971 and walked out as the group’s US Senate candidate. The party was prescient, if premature. Sanders would get but two percent of the vote in the following year’s election. He recalls that people who heard his first campaign radio interview
may or may not have agreed with what I said, but what they probably remember was a constant thumping sound on their radios. I was so nervous that my knee kept shaking and banging up against the table. The sound engineer kept waving his arms for me to stop, but there it was. My first radio interview — thump, thump, thump.
From there he made a few more single-digit statewide runs before being elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 — by 10 votes. In 1990, Vermont sent him to Washington, DC, a place he tells us he had been before, but “was never inside the Capitol until after I ran for Congress.” He would become the longest serving Independent in congressional history by essentially supplanting the Democrats in the races he ran.
Our Revolution contains more biographical material than Sanders ever gave up on the stump. Why did the Brooklyn boy migrate to the bucolic state of Vermont? Because Boy Scout summer camp had given him a taste for things like “observing beautiful starry nights for the first time in my life.” But before that he was off to the University of Chicago, getting his first campaign experience in the successful reelection campaign of alderman Leon Despres, an independent member of the Chicago City Council opposed to Mayor Richard Daley’s Democratic organization, and getting arrested in a civil rights demonstration aimed at desegregating the Chicago public schools.
The first glimmers of a Sanders national candidacy probably came with his eight-and-a-half-hour 2010 filibuster speech against an extension of George W. Bush’s upper-income tax breaks. Yet, as late as 2013, he would tell an interviewer that he was “at least ninety-nine percent sure” that he wouldn’t make the run. But he tells us he had serious problems with “Hillary Clinton, the centrist candidate of the Democratic establishment” being “anointed as the Democratic nominee and […] allowed to run without opposition.”
He had no doubts about her skills, but felt that the “Clinton approach was to try to merge the interests of Wall Street and corporate America with the needs of the American middle class — an impossible task.” And then there was her fundraising, which conflicted with his principle “that you cannot take on the establishment when you take their money.” And her infamous vote for the Iraq War and support for “a number of initiatives, including policies in Libya and Syria, which were too hawkish from my point of view.”
When the decision was made to go, Sanders sought advice from the campaigns of Jesse Jackson, whom he had supported in 1988; Dennis Kucinich, whose 2004 and 2008 campaigns never took off, but, in Sanders’s view, “forced the debate in the Democratic primary process into a direction it never would have gone without him”; and Barack Obama, who although “more conservative than Jackson, Kucinich, or myself,” had run “one of the most brilliant campaigns in the modern history of our country.”
All the good advice notwithstanding, however, in the eyes of the national news media this venture was a non-starter. After all, he was a “socialist.” But soon the surprises started.
First there was the money. As Sanders writes, “The media may not pay much attention to the ideas that a candidate espouses, but they do pay attention to your fund-raising capabilities,” and the $1.5 million he raised from 35,000 donors in the first 24 hours after announcing his candidacy got their attention. Eventually this would grow to $228 million in eight million individual campaign contributions from 2.5 million contributors. Successful beyond any reasonable person’s wildest dreams, the campaign’s internet and social media fundraising success was almost too great, in that traditionally fundraisers have had a secondary value of bringing people together, which does not happen when you contribute online, leaving people to find each other out by other means.
And then there were the debates. Eager to get to the issues, he dismissed the idea of trying to sink the front-running Clinton with petty scandals with the memorable line, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
And for anyone who, like this writer, had been waiting for the return of a national level electoral left since George McGovern’s 1972 run, there were multiple pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-you’re-not-dreaming moments, like when he said, “Let’s talk about democratic socialism.” Or mentioned the US Government–inspired 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, and the 1954 overthrow of President Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. Or when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security.
Which brings us to the massive age gap in the Sanders vote, which turned out to be just about the exact opposite of what most expected. He had problems connecting with older voters, which he explained with five reasons: their fond memories of the Clinton years, the desire of older women to see the first woman president, their absence from social media, their belief that he must be old and tired, and negative impressions of the word “socialism” rooted in memories of the Cold War against the USSR. As contemporary polling shows, socialism is not a scary word if you’re young — if you’re 30 years old now, you were five when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so for you socialism probably means Sweden. If millennials have not lived with the fear that the Reds were going to arrive on our shores, they have grappled more than their elders with the knowledge that the human race could wreck the home planet — and the fear that it is in the process of doing just that. He easily surpassed the combined Trump and Clinton under-30 primary vote.
The second part of the book provides a useful platform for anyone seeking public office, and its thoroughgoing review of economics, health care, trade policy, climate change, criminal justice, immigration, corporate media, and social welfare will likely provide any reader with greater depth in at least one area. In my case, it was higher education. I was surprised to learn that student debt has tripled since 2004 and that it is now larger than combined credit card and auto loan debt and is growing fastest among those nearing retirement. Nor did I know that tuition at public universities has nearly quadrupled since 1970 and is up 60 percent in the last decade — this with more than three-quarters of college students now attending public colleges. A country that once led the world in percentage of college graduates is running about 15th now.
There is one serious omission in this book. The second part of Our Revolution contains no section on foreign policy. And in this it is consistent with the campaign. While Sanders was the only major candidate to even challenge our continual compulsion to intervention, this has never been the center of his interests.
On the home front, that Swiss journalist seems to have had it entirely right: the Sanders campaign has introduced the United States to social democratic politics. When he spoke at a Vatican conference on income inequality, The Washington Post noted, “Sanders slipped comfortably into the lexicon of European and South American socialist and leftist politics, including the socialist government models of Scandinavia.”
Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco who served as a delegate to the Bernie Sanders campaign. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex.