It had the vibe of a campaign event, even if it wasn’t one.
A few hundred of America’s highest-profile liberal politicians, academics and journalists, many of them old friends — a “progressive Bar Mitzvah,” as one friend jokingly put it — met on a crisp Thursday night in late November in Burlington, Vermont, at an event hosted by Jane Sanders.
The wife of the Vermont Senator shows an excitement, even ebullience, about the possibilities of politics that her relentlessly on-message husband often does not. Jane beamed as the likes of Cornel West and Danny Glover filed into a lakefront museum to kick off a three-day event hosted by her Sanders Institute, bearing the Game of Thrones-style title, “The Gathering.”
Simon Sinek, a British-American motivational speaker, was the first to address the crowd.
Sinek’s presence threw me a little. Ten years ago I could never have imagined a TED Talker and Bernie Sanders sharing the same stage. Frankly, having any planned introduction at all was sort of not-Bernie.
The way he announced for president the last time — impromptu, on a random strip of grass a dozen yards from the Capitol, after having a request for a bit of space in the dusty DNC headquarters rejected — was pure Sanders. This politician does not have a comfortable relationship with fanfare.
Sinek led off with a war metaphor. He asked the crowd why America lost in Vietnam, despite winning almost every battle and suffering a fraction of the casualties.
“Because the Americans were fighting to win,” Sinek said. “The Vietnamese were fighting for their lives.”
This line drew cheers. This turned into a theme of the conference, that in the age of Trump, with climate change just one of a dozen dire emergencies spiraling out of control, there’s no more “next time.”
“I have two kids, and they’re going to fucking die if we don’t fix all this. That’s how I look at it,” is how Heidi Harmon, the colorful mayor of San Luis Obispo, put it.
The core argument of progressives who recently elected the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib to Congress is that canonical modern-Democrat precepts like the Third Way, “transactional politics” and triangulation — which focus narrowly on the how of winning elections — no longer work, in addition to being wrong.
They instead believe they must win the battles and the war, on issues like global warming, health care and economic inequality, not later but now. For a hundred reasons, it has to be now.
The latest iteration of the progressive movement is young (data suggested last time around that more young people voted for Sanders in the primary than for Trump and Clinton combined), but its leader is not.
Right after the midterms, there were whispers that Sanders might announce anytime, perhaps even there in Vermont. Maybe even that night?
He was introduced by West.
“My love for this brother runs deep, even when I think he’s wrong,” West said, adding that Sanders was “still bearing witness to poor and working people.”
He motioned for Bernie to come onstage. The two embraced with the mother of all awkward Bern hugs, then Sanders faced the crowd. It was a Mrs. Robinson moment: look around and all you see are sympathetic eyes. Bernie paused, gathered himself, and said — exactly the same things he’s been saying, for as long as anyone here could remember.
He blasted the “corporate-owned Congress.” He took a shot at the media (he was doing this long before Trump) for ignoring “a word that is never heard on TV — It’s called poverty.”
My notes indicate he uttered to cheers the phrase, “handful of corrupt companies,” which could have come from any Sanders speech at any time in the last 30 years.
I exhaled in relief. The one thing you can never know about a politician is how they’ll respond to increased attention. Sanders as recently as 2015 was such an unknown that 76 percent of American voters had no opinion of him. He seemed comfortable in that role.
That number is down to 9 percent today. After seizing 43 percent of the Democratic vote in the 2016 primaries and winning high-profile battles against companies like Amazon and Disney to raise their workers’ minimum wages to $15 an hour, Sanders in some circles is something it would have been hard to imagine him being years ago: a celebrity.
But if Sanders himself has processed this, it’s not obvious. What’s both maddening and endearing about him as a politician is that he never changes. There are slight stylistic compromises he could probably make to sell himself a little better by traditional metrics, but he doesn’t do it. Which, frankly, is funny.
It’s also what makes him interesting, and a virtual lock to lead, as perhaps the last major act of his unusual career, a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party in 2020. The only question is, will he do it as a presidential candidate, or in some other capacity?
The Democratic political establishment has made its views on this subject very clear. The Washington Post last year basically ran an article calling Sanders the Kremlin candidate. Other op-eds in major outlets keep warning that a repeat Sanders run would somehow drive the Democratic Party into an unelectability ditch at the exact moment it needs to be unified to oust Donald Trump.
Even someone I know and like, Hamilton Nolan at Splinter, recently ran a BERNIE DON’T RUN article. Nolan noted Sanders was “old as hell” and could shave off enough progressive votes to push the Democrats toward a “nightmare candidate” like Mike Bloomberg or Mark Cuban if he ran.
I disagree. We’ve been so trained to think about how other people might vote down the line that we forget: Our long-term thinking about elections is often wrong. Even Sanders himself didn’t see the last election coming.
IN BURLINGTON, where Sanders has become a larger than life figure – both revered and much groused about, like a State Dad – almost everyone seems to know him. A shockingly high percentage of people you meet can do expert Sanders impersonations. I met a kid who did a whole routine imagining Bernie gesticulating his way through a complex order at an Arby’s drive-thru.
Many Vermonters are personally familiar with the Bern Stare, that disapproving look you get when you ask Bernie a question he considers frivolous. In off years, the presidential question summons the Stare faster than any other. He’s spent the past two years going full Belichick on any reporter who even hinted about 2020.
He still hasn’t said anything concrete, not even, seemingly, to those close to him. Although the New York Times reported last week that he and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren met and both are “probably” running, there’s been no announcement.
As Rolling Stone reported, a draft movement led by 2016 campaign staffers has been set up, but Sanders himself hasn’t acknowledged it.
Still, Sanders almost has to decide soon. Neither he nor his wife (the Gathering “was a launch for Jane, too,” is how one attendee put it) can escape the fact that they’ve become not only synonymous with a larger movement, but one that likely preceded them.
When Sanders launched his longshot “send-a-message” campaign in 2015, he and his skeleton staff were stunned in early visits to places like Denver, Madison and Portland, Maine, to be met by overflowing crowds, in some cases so big they had to quickly rebook bigger arenas.
They had to adjust on the fly to the realization that something significant was going on with voters across the political spectrum. The self-proclaimed socialist from a tiny dairy state who railed against corporate excess and money in politics in relative obscurity for decades was about to be carried to national prominence by a surprise wave of outrage and impatience.
Sanders was benefiting from the same electoral shifts that prompted the Great Punditry Miss of the last election. High priests of conventional wisdom spent much of 2015 prepping for another Bush-Clinton general election, blowing off — to catastrophic effect — clear evidence of voter revolts in both parties.
The oversights were more graphic on the Republican side. Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com swore Donald Trump would play in the NBA finals before winning the nomination. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post similarly promised to (and later did) physically eat his own column if Trump became the nominee.
What they missed was that the electorate in America had transformed in a fundamental way. By 2016, the worst thing to be in the eyes of a huge plurality of voters was a representative of the political establishment, meaning especially the two major parties, corporate donors and the national media.
Being on the wrong side of those groups, which Sanders was, was suddenly an electoral plus.
The phenomenon was tied to decades of voter frustration over everything from war to trade to health care to the role of money in politics, and remains poorly understood by politicians, business leaders and editorialists at major daily newspapers, who have never been able to come to terms with the roots of their own unpopularity.
It’s possible the Democratic brand has been rehabilitated in the public’s eyes since 2016, and a combination of a new candidate, better tactics and voter experience of two years of a Trump presidency would spell victory for any Democrat in 2020.
It’s also possible this is not the case, however, and the absence of someone like Sanders in the race would mean surrendering all that populist anger out there into Trump’s cynical hands, again.
Campaign reporters constantly make the mistake of thinking politicians are causes, not effects. They’ve been trained to think of candidates as consumer creations that succeed or fail on the strength of concept (and if not the concept, the execution).
Bill Clinton is the sui generis of Third-Way-ism, a southerner who offered a mix of aw-shucks stump charisma, fiscal conservatism and a whiff of post-Sixties social liberalism. His 1992 run perfectly executed the plan for victory that folks in the Democratic Leadership Council dreamed might work, after the catastrophe of Walter Mondale in 1984. Offer voters the right political product, they thought, and they will buy.
But in the real world, these things can work backwards. The 2016 electorate was so profoundly dissatisfied with the usual choices that when Donald Trump slipped in the polls briefly in late October and early November of 2015, the immediate beneficiaries were two other non-politicians, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
Pundits had been predicting that a Pat Buchanan-style protest curiosity like Trump would sooner or later fade, and he did. But he didn’t stay “faded,” among other things because 2016 Republican voters could not and would not consider any establishment alternative, not even fringy, mean ones like Ted Cruz.
Sometimes voters go through drastic changes of mind before parties even have a chance to offer them choices. After years of not embracing big shifts, they may suddenly decide they want universal health care, free college tuition, a slashed defense budget, a national minimum wage, and other sweeping ideas.
Other younger politicians may end up offering those same things, which would be great. But with Sanders, voters burned by past broken promises have probably guessed by now he’s constitutionally incapable of deviating from his platform. I don’t even think Sanders would know how to betray his own ideas for political gain.
About that: He was roundly mocked in 2016 for describing his campaign as a revolution, but as the policy discussions at the Gathering showed, his platform is actually revolutionary, in a specific way.
UMass-Amherst economist Robert Pollin appeared to unveil a massive plan to cost out the Medicare-for-All proposal Sanders is likely to spend the next years stumping.
Pollin’s plan is to reduce medical costs in America from 18 percent of GDP to between 9-11 percent, using a single-payer plan that mainly targets the waste in the system (read: corporate profits). He addressed the “biggest insurance companies in America,” saying half-wryly, half sternly: “We’re going to put you out of business.”
Sanders is no Lenin or Trotsky. He doesn’t want to overthrow free enterprise or establish a national ice cream. But the movement he and his wife are leading has goals that are genuinely threatening to the traditional funders of presidential campaigns of both parties in America: banks, defense contractors, pharmaceutical and energy companies, etc.
Sanders and co. hope to plow the proceeds of these conquests into an FDR-scaled “Green New Deal,” aimed at a fundamental transformation of the country’s transportation, housing, energy and agricultural systems.
It’s ambitious and drastically different from what Democratic voters have been offered by any viable candidate for a while. If voters aren’t behind such a program, that’s what primary seasons are for, finding that out. If they are, however, it would be a huge error not to have someone in the running backing it.
IN THE mid-2000s, then-congressman Sanders invited me to tag along to work in the House for nearly a month. He explained he wanted national audiences to know how money-dominated and dysfunctional our national legislature could be.
I found him odd at first. Sanders almost never asked to go off the record, and he seemed so indifferent to how some of his more blunt observations about his workplace might play in print that I wondered at first if there might be something wrong with him.
It took a while to realize that Sanders simply is who he appears to be. There’s no second-level calculation there, no chilled-out off-duty version who stops babbling about public heating oil programs or VA coverage once you turn off the recorder.
This makes him odd, and an abject fail according to the “candidate you want to have a beer with” standard, but it doesn’t make him dishonest, a fact voters picked up on four years ago. It’s one of the reasons why the septuagenarian did well with young people, and why he currently polls better with nonwhite voters than white ones, despite legends to the contrary.
This is why cynics always respond negatively to Sanders. In their world he doesn’t compute at all, so they keep inventing angles to explain him: he’s an “egomaniac,” or in it for personal gain somehow (“He has three houses!”), or a delusional bumbler out to poison the electorate with irresponsible and unrealistic expectations.
As to that last point: Sanders in 2015-2016 went from harmless, terminally ignored fringe-left curiosity to despised, possibly Russian-backed Hillary Spoiler virtually overnight. He’s probably second only to Trump as a target of press and social media invective, which paints him as a racist, socialist serpent in the fallen Eden of the should-have been Clinton presidency.
Some of this negativity is predictable, given that the Sanders platform would massively disenfranchise the traditional financial backers of the modern Democratic Party: Wall Street, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, Silicon Valley, lobbyists and corporate law firms, etc.
Whether it’s now or later, whoever takes on those interests is going to take a hell of a beating. That Sanders seems willing to be that person seems reason enough to embrace another run. Someone has to take up those fights eventually. It might be a while before anyone else volunteers for the job.