The Eye-Opening Potential of the Sanders Candidacy

The Senate’s lone socialist could shift working class vote


Conventional wisdom says that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination April 30, will keep the center of gravity to the left in the Democratic race, forcing frontrunner Hillary Clinton to cater to the progressive wing. That may be true, but the real importance of Sanders, a self-identified socialist, could be his impact on non-Democrats.

As an articulate voice for the concerns of ordinary working people, Sanders will be a puzzling phenomenon to the Tea Party crowd that so often denounces socialism. The year ahead promises to be one of cognitive dissonance for many Tea Party sympathizers, as the populist Sanders impresses blue collar voters by pummeling institutional power from the left.

The Tea Party appeals to many working class voters because they feel that the system is rigged against them. They feel powerless and see government as too big. What Sanders realizes is that many of these concerns are not so crazy. (And as voters will learn, it’s no contradiction for a socialist like Sanders to criticize government power while also saying government should do more for regular people.)

Sanders, like no other Democrat, will tap the frustration of blue collar voters, even those of the Tea Party. Your concerns are legitimate, he tells them, while he politely points out that Tea Party solutions—dismantling government—will not solve any problems but will instead only further empower corporate interests that already exert far too much influence. The great hope of the next year is that Sanders will enlighten Americans about the nature of institutional power, both governmental and corporate, and how it has hijacked the democracy. “Many people have the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street,” Sanders has said. “The real truth is that Wall Street regulates Congress.” One thing for certain: the 2016 primary season will not be a sleeper.

Washington is a city that is filled with lawyers and lobbyists, almost all of whom work for the interests of corporations and industries. No wonder many average Americans see shutting down the system as the best solution. The Sanders message empathizes with such sentiments but connects the dots back to reality: “I don’t believe there is a red state in America where people believe you should cut Medicare, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits rather than doing away with corporate tax loopholes.”

And though it will seem counterintuitive to many, the socialist Sanders nevertheless opposes big government as much as any conservative, at least to the extent that the federal budget is a cash cow of corporate contracting and subsidies. His is a populism that points in the direction of rational, human-centered public policy.

If progressives are often puzzled that ordinary working people are so often willing to vote against their own interests, Sanders is the antidote. With the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren, nobody clarifies the real issues better. The success of the Sanders candidacy shouldn’t be measured by whether he is taking the oath of office in January 2017, but by whether a seismic shift occurs among working class voters, as they increasingly realize that a strong progressive agenda is the real key to future prosperity.

David Niose is legal director and former president of the American Humanist Association.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2015

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