Weekend With Bernie

Bernie Sanders is the hottest presidential candidate right now, and the unlikeliest — a grouchy socialist from Vermont who has built his message around biting the hand that feeds the political system

Bernie Sanders, seen here stumping in early-voting New Hampshire, has been speaking to rapidly growing audiences. Credit: Jon Hill/Reux

The very first question at the very first Bernie 2016 Iowa town-hall meeting comes from a bearded young guy wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. He wants to know what the candidate plans to do, if elected president, when it comes to regulating online poker.

"Let me be very honest with you: That's not an issue I've given a lot of thought," Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old junior senator from Vermont, says bluntly. He pauses for a moment, then mutters, "I think one of my kids does play a lot of poker. If the issue is, should corporations rip off poker players, the answer is no. See, everybody? One of the things you learn as a U.S. senator is, everybody has an issue."

Sanders has distinctive white hair and a brusque manner of speaking, his delivery and thick Brooklyn accent uncannily reminiscent of Larry David. Or, even more specifically, of Larry David doing George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld. "More stuff has been written about my hair than my infrastructure program or my college-education program — no question about that," Sanders will complain to me later.

On this particular Thursday night in May, Sanders is speaking at St. Ambrose University, a small Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa. Coincidentally, Rick Santorum also happens to be in Davenport, launching his own 2016 Iowa campaign. According to The Des Moines Register, Santorum's talk drew about 80 people. Approximately 700 people have shown up for Sanders — the largest crowd for any single candidate in Iowa this campaign season.

The early-state surge by a candidate to the left of the front-runner has almost become ritual in Democratic primaries: Bill Bradley in 2000, Sanders' fellow Vermonter Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008. But Sanders stands to the left of all of those insurgents. His opponent in the primary, Hillary Clinton, would be the first woman president; Sanders would be the first avowed socialist. He points to Europe, particularly Scandinavia, for examples on how this might work in practical application: generous social programs providing a baseline standard of living for all, dispatched by a robust, activist government and funded by higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy and reduced spending in areas like, say, an unnecessary $2 trillion war in Iraq.

Sanders believes that such progressive ideas have a broad popularity, not just among a lefty fringe but across the working class, even in red states. And yet progressive movements in recent years have wound up marginalized in the face of establishment pushback (Dean, the Occupy Wall Street movement) or else, as in the case of support for Obama, left as promises unfulfilled. Sanders believes that by keeping his focus on economic populism, he has a shot — a long one, he admits — at beating the historical odds. "Once you get off of the social issues — abortion, gay rights, guns — and into the economic issues," he says, "there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand."

Indeed, in Davenport, Sanders manages to hold the crowd's attention for nearly two hours while focusing — relentlessly, indefatigably, at times in granular detail — on his policy agenda, a new New Deal by way of Oslo or Helsinki: a federal jobs program ($1 trillion of infrastructure spending over five years, creating 13 million jobs and rebuilding our airports, bridges, roads and railways); a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage; the breaking up of Wall Street banks that have become too big to fail; a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United; free tuition at all public universities; raising taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes exploited by corporations; taxing carbon to curb the use of fossil fuels and promoting alternative-energy sources; free universal pre-K; a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system; paid sick leave and a minimum of two weeks' paid vacation for all working Americans. 

There's more, but that's the crux of his pitch. As a speaker, Sanders is considerably rougher around the edges than his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren, the leftist economic populist to whom he's most often compared. But he's very good at taking the notion of income inequality, a phrase that's in danger of becoming as debased by overuse as "hope and change," and not only fleshing out the details but presenting its reality in starkly moral terms. How did the richest nation in the history of all nations come to allow the top one-tenth of one percent to own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? How has the prediction that a single American family (the Kochs, through a donor-backed political network they control) will spend more money than either the Democratic or Republican parties in the coming election cycle become not only entirely plausible but wholly unsurprising? And, even more existentially, must the endgame of capitalism be growth at all costs?

This might not sound like the stuff of viral Internet videos, but Sanders' hectoring anti-style has a way of casting a peculiar spell over a room. Sometimes, he will bring together his thumb and forefinger and gesticulate as if he's managed to pinch and brandish a tiny, invisible thing that happens to support the point he's making. When he's listening to a question, he purses his lips tightly and juts out his chin, unsmiling, occasionally turning red. While other candidates trip over themselves to prove their belief in American exceptionalism, Sanders doesn't hesitate to say things like, "In America right now, we're doing something so dumb it's hard to imagine — well, we're doing a lot of things that are dumb. . . ." Later, in Davenport, he says, "I have a word for my Republican colleagues," and then he pauses for a pregnant beat, and because it's Sanders, there's a sudden tension in the room — for a thrilling moment, we all half-expect him to blurt out something profane — and he knows it, expertly allowing the pause to linger. When he finally completes his thought, thundering, "I respectfully disagree," that ghost of a curse hangs in the air and the mock politeness of what he's actually said sounds more like, "Go fuck yourselves!" The crowd goes nuts.

What music is on Sanders' iPad? Watch him extoll his love of Willie Nelson:

If you watch Sanders speak for long enough, you'll begin to notice a handful of favorite phrases, warning the attentive listener of incoming blunt truths: "in my view," "unbelievably," "can you imagine?" "let me be very honest with you," "if you can believe it," "let me be very clear," "now, why is that?" There is something exhilarating about Sanders' deeply informed contempt, and the fact that he makes so little effort to disguise it.

"My wife always reminds me that I depress everybody," Sanders says. He's joking, but also not. His crankiness grants him a certain authenticity: Articles have noted his surprising popularity on social media, and the elusive millennial voter seems to respond to his grandfatherly impatience with the world as it is. Perhaps because Sanders is the opposite of a BuzzFeed headline, he is the perfect BuzzFeed headline. ('Plutocrats Took Over the Legislative Body He Revered. What He Did Next Was Awesome.') There's a jarring, almost surreal aspect to his abrasive delivery and open disdain for the conventions of modern campaigning — all of which has the effect of highlighting the fatuousness and artificiality of the other actors' performances, and the terribleness of the script they're reading from.

"Think about why the Koch brothers are going to spend $1 billion in this campaign. If they think politics are that important, you should too."

What Sanders studiously avoids is painting a gauzy portrait of himself as change agent. Or, really, talking about himself at all. If you're the type of candidate who sees presidential politics as theater, you will likely shape your personal narrative in such a way as to ensure you're the protagonist of the drama. To appeal to a mass audience, there must be tales of struggle and redemption, a hero or heroine who is at once as relatable as your own sibling and yet as exceptional as, well, America herself, my fellow patriots!

At the five Sanders 2016 events I attend in Iowa and New Hampshire, he basically does none of these things. The part of his Davenport speech where he says, "My friends, let me just tell you a little bit about myself," is followed by exactly three sentences, in which Sanders reveals that, before serving in the Senate, he was a congressman and a mayor; that his father was an immigrant who worked as a paint salesman; and that growing up, he learned "what money — or lack of money — means to a family . . . [when] every nickel being spent was being argued about." (Bowing to clear domestic self-interest, he also points out his wife, Jane, in the audience and notes that it is their 27th wedding anniversary.) 

Midway through the course of two interviews — when we've already discussed the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the destructiveness of international trade agreements and the co-opting of the Democratic party by corporate interests — talk shifts to Sanders' initial race for mayor of Burlington, and I ask what brought the native Brooklynite to Vermont in the first place.

"So this story is mostly gonna be about me personally, as opposed to what I'm trying to do?" he asks testily.

When Sanders officially announced in April that he would be challenging Clinton in the Democratic primary, he was quickly dismissed as a fringe candidate. As detailed by the Columbia Journalism Review, his announcement got 18 seconds on ABC Evening News (five of those seconds devoted to a welcome-to-the-race tweet from Clinton), a single sentence on CBS Evening News, and a 700-word story on page A21 of The New York Times. By contrast, the announcement of fellow senator Ted Cruz — apparently far less of a "fringe" figure than Sanders, despite his open sympathizing with conspiracy theorists who are convinced President Obama is staging military exercises in Texas as part of a plot to impose martial law on the state — ran on the front page of the Times, above the fold, at more than double the length of the Sanders story.

But after Sanders began drawing serious crowds in Iowa, the coverage exploded — not because the press suddenly believed he had a serious shot at upsetting Clinton, but because of their addiction to the very horse race he decries. Sanders, though, insists that he isn't simply running to make a point, or to exert a Tea Party-like pull on Clinton from the left.

"I wasn't interested in an educational campaign and neither was he, you know?" Sanders' wife, Jane, tells me at a backyard event in West Branch, just outside Iowa City. "I was recalcitrant — I was the one saying why not to do it. I just raised every single con I could think of, including 'Can we win?' Yes, we want to change the conversation. But the point about changing the conversation is to mobilize the people. And if they hear real facts, they will vote differently." She points out that when Sanders ran for Senate in 2006, his opponent, Richard Tarrant, one of the wealthiest men in Vermont, spent $7 million of his own money on the contest — and still lost to Sanders by 33 points. "If the measure of being a serious contender was money," she says, "he would never have even been elected mayor!"

Watch: Bernie Sanders thinks personality isn't the most important factor

A week after Davenport, when Sanders bursts into the conference room of his Washington, D.C., office, he seems more harried and intense than usual. He's scrambling to catch a plane to Burlington, though first he must vote against a defense-spending bill. Speed-walking and talking like a character from an Aaron Sorkin vehicle, Sanders makes his way to the underground monorail connecting the Senate offices with the Capitol. A young elevator operator calls out, "Good luck, Senator!"

Exiting the tram, which looks like a miniature subway car, Sanders marches into the Senate chamber and re-emerges almost immediately, having registered his vote with the clerk. "That's democracy," Sanders says wryly, before barrelling out a side door meant only for senators. "I have staffers with me," he tells the guard, who seems confused but lets us pass. Outside, a car awaits. Sanders is anxious about missing his flight, and as we talk, he glances at his watch and occasionally micromanages the driver.

In many ways, the most boring question about Sanders' candidacy is the horse-race question. What are his odds of defeating an extraordinarily smart and driven opponent with 100 percent name recognition, more White House experience than arguably anyone who has ever run for the office and access to obscene amounts of money (Clinton's campaign has vowed to raise $2 billion) — plus, of course, the thrilling possibility of offering voters the chance to make history once again and elect the first female president? I'd say pretty slim!

Sanders, though, believes these odds only hold true if the existing electoral reality remains unchanged — which is to say, extremely low voter turnout, a focus on personality rather than issues, and the rank corruption of outside campaign spending. So the far more interesting question becomes: Does Sanders have a shot at changing what have come to be accepted as the fundamentals of modern presidential campaigning? If you are willing to risk sounding naive or unsophisticated and entertain the notion, as Sanders does, that it's possible to upend the system entirely if you mobilize enough grassroots support, well, then, who knows? Seven years ago, Barack Obama broke all previous records when it came to small-donor fundraising and African-American voter turnout. Sanders looks to the way activism by fast-food workers agitating for a $15 minimum wage, a demand taken seriously by very few members of the elite early on, has entirely changed the national debate on what a living wage should be (and has actually become law in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle).

To that end, Sanders, as much as possible, wants to disassociate his own ego from this most egocentric of public exercises and exploit the platform given presidential candidates in order to tantalize voters with a heretofore unoffered possibility of true radical change. "The evolution of American politics has resulted in a major, multibillion-dollar effort to tell the American people the government can't do anything for you, and you should pin all of your hope and faith on corporate America and Wall Street," Sanders tells me. "I often say, 'You should think about why the Koch brothers are going to spend a billion dollars in this campaign. If they think politics is pretty important, maybe you should as well.' " 

Sanders grew up in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, a working-class ethnic neighborhood (Italians, Jews, Irish) where his father, Eli, a Polish immigrant, and his mother, Dorothy, the American-born daughter of Polish Jews, settled with their two sons. Though Sanders won't say much about his childhood, it couldn't have been easy: His father had lost much of his family in the Holocaust, and his mother died when Sanders was only 19.

He attended James Madison High School (where he was captain of the track team) at the same time as the singer Carole King. In 1964, Sanders, who says he'd always loved the country, and his first wife, whom he'd met in college, bought some land (85 acres for $2,500) in a Vermont town called Middlesex, and by 1968, he'd settled in the state permanently. Rural Vermont was becoming such a magnet for young back-to-the-landers that by 1971, Gov. Deane Davis felt obliged to issue a press release regarding "the so-called hippie influx," assuring concerned citizens that "like most people, the bulk of the young transients go about their business in a self-sufficient, peaceful manner, although their habits and appearance may not be to our taste."

Sanders had long hair, and his politics certainly aligned with that of the counterculture, but friends have said he was no hippie. He worked odd jobs as a carpenter and made a documentary about the socialist union organizer (and five-time presidential candidate) Eugene V. Debs. (Sanders also helped narrate the film: "If you are the average American who watches television 40 hours a week," he intones, "you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman. . . . Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you much about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.")

After his marriage split up in the late Sixties, he ran unsuccessfully for both the Senate and governor on a socialist ticket. His close friend and roommate Richard Sugarman convinced him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1981. "Ronald Reagan had just been elected, and I said, 'Bernard, look, in a country where Reagan can become president, surely you can be elected mayor of Burlington!' " says Sugarman, now a tenured professor at the University of Vermont specializing in the Jewish existentialist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (whom he describes as "like Martin Buber made complicated").

Sanders was a complete unknown, running as an independent against a six-term incumbent Democrat, and he had no chance of winning. Except he did win, by 10 votes. "It was one of the great upsets in Vermont political history, and our state is over 200 years old," Sanders tells me in a rare moment of almost bragging.

Sanders has always belied the easy caricaturing leftists are often subjected to, by taking a pragmatic approach to governing. In Burlington, he beefed up the city's snow-removal operation, developed local parks and the waterfront, fixed potholes and negotiated lower cable bills for consumers (though he did also travel to Nicaragua to meet with socialist president Daniel Ortega, declaring Puerto Cabezas and Burlington "sister cities"). In the House, he became a procedural master, passing more roll-call amendments than any other representative in the decade beginning in 1995 and using his status as an independent to work with members of both parties. (Sanders' facility for bipartisan outreach remains to this day: The ultraconservative climate-change-denying senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma recently described Sanders as his "best friend" in the Senate.) 

His legislative history is actually far to the right of Hillary Clinton's when it comes to guns. Vermont is a pro-gun state, and Sanders, in his 1997 book Outsider in the House, lamented unnecessarily losing the votes of "many working-class men" early in his career because "we handled the gun issue badly." Sanders actually owes the start of his congressional career, in part, to the National Rifle Association, which targeted his opponent, an incumbent, pro-gun-control Republican, with television-ad buys during their 1990 House race. "If you passed the strongest gun-control legislation tomorrow," he told the Vermont weekly Seven Days in 2013, just months after the Sandy Hook massacre, "I don't think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen."

"I know he'd been thinking about running for president for quite a long time," says Sugarman. "I thought that it would place a tremendous burden upon him, and I think it has. You have to be very restrained when you run for president. But he became more and more convinced that somebody had to do it. Do I believe that he wanted someone else to? I pretty much do. Elizabeth Warren, at least early on, he'd probably have preferred her to run. But he stepped up."

At the same time, Sugarman acknowledges that there's some part of his friend that thrives on the public side of public service. "He loves driving around and visiting every single small town in Vermont," Sugarman says. "I said to him once, 'Bernard, why don't you leave the people alone for a while?' He said, 'No, they want me to come and hear what's on their minds.' I said, 'Maybe what's on their minds is they'd like a day off!' "

Per Sugarman's point, two days after my Washington visit, I catch up with Sanders again, in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he's marching in an annual parade called the Strolling of the Heifers. It's pretty much exactly what it sounds like: 4-H kids marching down the city's main drag alongside their prize cows. Sanders has competed in the milking contest in the past, but today he limits himself to saying a few words in the city park.

After the parade, Sanders heads to New Hampshire for another town hall, stopping first at a pizzeria, where he sips a hot tea and copies some notes from a tablet onto a yellow legal pad. His policy adviser has e-mailed more statistics about youth unemployment. "It's off the goddamn charts," Sanders mutters, shaking his head. His son Levi sits beside him, eating an eggplant-parm sandwich. "What is that?" Sanders asks, then reaches over and takes a massive bite.

The bigger question facing Sanders, whatever you think about the merits of his ideas, is how he would ever possibly implement them, assuming he's not elected along with a Democratic sweep of both houses of Congress. Sanders, on the stump, praises President Obama for running a brilliant campaign in 2008. But then he goes on to say that the president's biggest mistake ("and I had the opportunity to tell him this — I'm not sure how happy he was to hear it, but that's what I do!") was to demobilize his millions of passionate supporters after Election Day: "Politics in Washington is not about a president sitting down with Mitch McConnell or John Boehner and having a drink [and] trying to work it out — that's just media nonsense. You guys want free tuition at public colleges and universities? You bring a million of your friends to march on Washington, D.C.!"

Sanders insists that the nation is less polarized than it is portrayed in the mainstream media. Through the Obama years, the Democratic Party's strategy has been to specifically target the so-called coalition of the ascendant — young people, minorities, college-educated women — by heightening contradictions with the GOP on issues like immigration, LGBT rights, overpolicing and abortion. Sanders rarely mentions these issues, except when questioned by audience members at town halls.

"A lot of Beltway pundits say, 'This country is so divided. . . .' And in many ways, it is. But if you ask people, 'Should we raise the minimum wage?' Overwhelmingly, yes. 'Pay equity for women, create jobs by building infrastructure?' Overwhelmingly, yes. 'Do you like a campaign structure that allows billionaires to buy elections?' Absolutely not. So my campaign will be about uniting people around those issues. I am 100 percent pro-choice, one of the strongest defenders of gay rights. Not everyone in Vermont agrees with me on those issues. But they support me because they know I'm fighting for their kids."

Yet might Sanders be overestimating the American appetite for political revolution? Even if millions of Sanders' supporters were to march on Washington, won't equal numbers of Tea Partiers also show up to fight him?

"Excellent question," Sanders says (another favorite phrase of his). "It would be very, very difficult. And maybe it can't happen. No one has ever heard me say that this would be easy."