A few days ago, Bernie Sanders appeared for an hour on Charlie Rose. The Vermont Senator who has gained traction among potential Democratic primary voters, including many young people, calls himself a Socialist-Democrat. Regardless of labels his classic progressive views differ hardly at all from people like me. Indeed, what struck me in watching their conversation was just how compatible our positions. Bernie supports universal Medicare, free public university, infrastructure investment, public financing of political campaigns, reinstatement of Glass Steagall, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and aggressive action to combat climate change. So do I.
It isn’t only the gap between the 1% and everyone else that animates him, but also how the system — political and otherwise — is rigged to keep that disparity in place. Further enabled by Koch brothers (whom he repeatedly mentioned by name) and other billionaire money, that system is broken. Bernie Sanders is equally disturbed by the media’s focus on polls, gaffs of the day and the like rather than on the substantive issues that should and are not being covered. To him, the Rose interview, focused on real issues, was a refreshing exception. Again, I agree.
Bernie is clearly frustrated with the state of our democracy and its inequities. In that, he reflects an unease writ large. But Sanders’ anger, while certainly echoing this widespread frustration, is grounded in the positive idea that we can do better. He wants us to live up to our exceptionalism, not the kind that says we’re superior to others, but the one that reflects our special and innovative national character. Some think Bernie is the Democratic version of Trump and other “outsiders” seen on the Republican side. Nothing could be further than the truth. For one, he is a long sitting Senator. But more important, as I’ve written before, they voice the anger of constituents who feel disenfranchised from an assumed entitlement, a controlling place at the table. Theirs is a rejection of the “Other”. Some among them also perceive an existential challenge to their conservative Christian beliefs and ways. Bernie isn’t that. He may be angry but, if anything, it is against the very idea of exclusiveness. Bernie is inclusive. Unlike theirs, his quest has had a positive effect on both the discourse and country.
While struck by the commonality of our views, I nonetheless remain mindful that campaigning and governing are not the same. Perhaps that’s why, despite a powerful message and a passionate loyal following, he remains substantially behind in the measures that make for a nomination — polls, endorsements and, his unquestioned successes notwithstanding, money. Unless something still unforeseen presents itself, Hillary will likely prevail. Presidents, as Barack Obama has learned, have a significant role in setting the agenda and certainly in proposing, but ultimately it is the legislative branch that disposes. All the things that Sanders would like to accomplish take Congressional action. His laundry list is bold, and rightly so, but getting even a portion of it enacted (especially with a House that may remain in GOP hands) is a very tall order.
In the first debate, Secretary Clinton summed up the difference that probably accounts for her still commanding lead. She described herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done”. I may find myself more closely aligned with Sanders’ overall views, but know moving ahead will require pragmatic skills that may not be uppermost in his toolbox. What I do feel, more so than at the start, is that his candidacy and vigorous voice have had a major impact on the direction of both the campaign and his party. Hillary’s self-description as a “progressive” is in itself something new. More important, her current positions lend substance to that claim. Some may say she was forced to the left, but I like to believe that Bernie and others gave her license be there. Whatever the reason, there is a minimal difference between them on most key issues. She may be late, as he rightly points out, but that she has come to the present place makes me more hopeful.
This is going to be a critical election. The difference between the parties has never been greater. Bernie Sanders, along with colleagues like Elizabeth Warren, have helped change the narrative by clearly articulating the goals to which Democrats should aspire in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Those goals are catching up to what many of us have long thought they should be. He may not win the nomination, but he certainly deserves our great respect and thanks. Bernie has made a difference.