Bernie Sanders Opens New Progressive Path to the Presidency


The common refrain among political pundits, even liberal ones, is that Bernie Sanders cannot win the Democratic primary. This is a defensible position. The electoral math does not support a victory for Bernie Sanders, not when he is up against a candidate who is well known by even the lowest of low-information voters and certainly not when said candidate has the backing of Wall Street and its considerable wealth.

However, in the age of Donald Trump, anything and everything is possible. Sanders has outshone everyone’s predictions, including most progressives’. But, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, Bernie Sanders does not receive the nomination. It’s a loss for progressives, no doubt, but it does not have to be a long-term loss. There will be quite a lot to gain from Sanders’ run, whether he wins or not.

Sanders has shown that there is another path to the presidency, one that other Democratic candidates have not explored. Sanders has no use for corporate money. “I don’t want money from the billionaires,” he bluntly states on the campaign trail. What at first might seem like a bad fundraising move has turned out to be anything but. He has received massive amounts of small donations, a tactic President Obama relied upon in his first election before giving in to corporate money.

Also noteworthy is how much Sanders has been able to get his message out without spending large sums of cash. His rallies sometimes number in over ten thousand supporters thanks to both grassroots campaigning and a consistent, strong message that is not being delivered by any other candidate running for office. It’s a lot easier to ask for donations from the average American when you have a consistent set of issues you can point to and say, “This is what you’re getting.”

Sanders’ message and consistency makes him stand out. There are not a huge amount of difference between the other Democrats running in the primary such as Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley. If we flash back to the 2008 primary, it becomes clear that there are not a huge amount of differences among Clinton and Obama, either, although the former tends to be more hawkish (recall how often she had to try and both distance herself from and defend her vote for the Iraq War).

Sanders is different. He’s a democratic socialist and doesn’t hide from this. Republicans can call him an extreme liberal and his response will be: “Absolutely. So what?” This is a far cry from other Democrats who try and appear more conservative when they’re running for president. Remember Clinton going hunting for a photo op in 2008? Or how quickly Obama stopped regularly going to church once he became president?

The most influential reason Sanders’ campaign is a mold breaker is his appeal to working-class whites in Middle America. Democrats have had little luck in persuading working-class whites to vote for them thanks, mostly, to the conservative campaigns leading up to Reagan’s presidency that pushed racial discord under the guise of “states’ rights.” Those campaigns hinted, and sometimes outright stated, that the problems in the country came from non-whites and the liberals who enabled them with welfare. Thanks to this, America went through the “war on crime” and the “war on drugs,” both of which are aimed at keeping minorities in poverty and in prison (in the words of Terry Eagleton in “Why Marx Was Right”: “[The capitalist economy] has admittedly been responsible for some extravagant levels of unemployment, but the world’s leading capitalist nation has hit on an ingenious solution to this defect. In the United States today, over a million more people would be seeking work if they were not in prison.”

An easy way to keep working class whites poor was to tell them their enemy was a group that was in even worse conditions than them and had no power to fight back. Republicans were quite adept at manufacturing such a scenario, one which kept attention off corporate fat cats.

Sanders has found a way to break through this. He has been linking economic inequality and racism as being part of the same overall problem: the corporate elites are trying to hold average Americans back. “Class war” is not a phrase he’s afraid to utter and he’s making it clear that people in poverty, be they white or black or Hispanic or Asian, have a common problem: overcoming the rigid class structure in America.

Sanders’ no-nonsense, honest, and immediate form of politicking is bringing in voters that would normally shrug at the idea of a liberal presidency. Because of his habit of making the working class the priority, he’s attracting voters who don’t necessarily pay attention to economic issues. For instance, voters who are working class often hear about the following arguments from Republicans: gay marriage, abortion, welfare, and government handouts. These issues stoke some fires, but Sanders is doing something different; he’s saying that the problems in the country uniquely affect their economic class and they have to do something about it.

That last part is key. Sanders’ style of speaking is allowing him to sell democratic socialism, an idea that is supposedly poison, because he speaks with the assumption the audience is a) already on his side and b) aware that corporations and plutocrats are the source of their problems.

This is a much more evocative and tangible message than “gay marriage is scary!” or “too many people get welfare!” Liberal candidates have been afraid to touch progressive messages, however, for fear they’ll backfire. This means they have not had a message to sell to working class white Americans outside of vague promises.

The closest candidate in recent history to Sanders is John Edwards who was not afraid to talk about “two Americas,” one where people are rich and one where people are struggling. When it came down to actual policies, though, he was in step with the Democratic establishment.McCa Sanders is going all in on selling progressivism. He decided to see whether the fear of being too progressive a politician was well founded. Turns out it’s not. Even if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, he’s opening the door for future progressive candidates who can be honest about their leanings.

Donald McCarthy is a freelance writer. Email dmccarthy618@

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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