What Would Bernie Do?

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What Would Bernie Do?

Senator Sanders provocatively proposes two key questions for people to consider: Who are the Democrats, anyway? What does the party actually stand for? (Photo: AP/Jessica Hill)

Whether or not Senator Bernie Sanders decides to run for president in 2016, we can count on him to serve as creative provocateur. The political gremlins hired to manage candidates and campaigns set out to limit the content of public debate so as not to inconvenience their clients with awkward questions. The media cooperate in this process by taking their cues from the pols and polls. Unsanctioned ideas that people care about are safely ignored.

Bernie Sanders, you might say, is Senator Inconvenience. He caucuses with Senate Democrats and generally votes with them, but he has built his career on raising issues and reform ideas that party regulars avoid. Vermont voters seem to like his style, since they keep electing him. He operates in Congress with considerable shrewdness, carefully picking fights that can resonate with a broad base of popular needs and desires and even draw bipartisan endorsements.

The current inertia of the Democratic party is part fear, part resignation. The marching order for 2014 is “don’t rock the boat.” Hillary Clinton’s agents say they already have it locked up for 2016, so don’t make problems for her. Democrats decided to lay off heavy stuff (like big ideas) in the interest of short-term survival. They are counting on those goofy-scary right-wing Republicans to preserve the Senate majority for Democrats.

Senator Sanders provocatively proposes a different question to consider. Who are the Democrats, anyway? What does the party actually stand for? The senator doesn’t put it that bluntly, but he slyly invites Democrats to ponder their own answers. If the elections results next month are razor-thin close and additional independent senators are elected, should Sanders continue to caucus with the Democrats or perhaps explore some other arrangement? The question gives Sanders a platform for describing what he wants in a political party. Here is his answer:

I intend to caucus with that party that will most likely support a major federal jobs program putting millions of Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, supports overturning the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, supports raising the minimum wage to a living wage, supports pay equity for women workers, supports a single-payer national health care program, ends our disastrous trade policies, addresses the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality, and is prepared to aggressively address the international crisis of global warming.

His response is a bit of a tease, as the senator coyly acknowledged. “I could be wrong,” Sanders added, “but my guess is that will not be the Republican party.”

Nor does it sound like the Democratic party we have known for many years. Senator Sanders has given us an excellent litmus test for choosing a presidential nominee in 2016 but also for imposing fundamental changes on the risk-averse Democratic party. We are told to be “ready for Hillary,” but is Hillary ready for us? People should start asking her how she reacts to Bernie’s list. He succinctly describes many of the missing parts of what a genuinely progressive agenda will require. For the time being, call it “Bernie’s Party” and find out who will sign up.

William Greider

William Greider is national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He is author of "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country" and, most recently, "Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country."

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