The Bernie Sanders Moment
THE white-haired politician stands before 10,000 cheering supporters in Madison, Wis., and calls for “political revolution,” denouncing a “rigged economy” that produces “a grotesque level of inequality,” returning to a theme that ’60s radicals have long been trumpeting.
It may have seemed, only a few years ago, that the ’60s radical moment was consigned to documentaries on Woodstock, pushed out of the spotlight for Occupy Wall Street and a new generation of activists to enter stage left. But here it is again. And it is perfectly timed to crusade against what Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, calls an “oligarchy.”
In Mr. Sanders’s run — and in the absence of a White House bid from Senator Elizabeth Warren — progressives have found a candidate they can support wholeheartedly. To understand the moment that the 73-year-old Mr. Sanders is enjoying, we have to see how he got here, waiting for national politics to catch up.
The road he took out of the 1960s student movement was not the most conspicuous one, but it was the widest. And Senator Sanders now represents a culmination of one of the primary currents of the left in the past half century.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the headlines about the New Left went to the tiny minority who planted bombs and burned down R.O.T.C. buildings to stop the Vietnam War and usher in a phantasmagorical “revolution.” Far more numerous, however, though less photogenic, were the activists who resolved, in the words of a Students for a Democratic Society document written in 1965, to convert the antiwar movement “from protest to radical politics,” by which they meant to develop “independent and mass constituencies” out of “the immediate aspirations of the poor, welfare recipients, trade-unionists, students, and others.”
One co-author of that proposal, Lee Webb, moved to Vermont in 1970 and, like many other immigrants to what had been a rock-ribbed Republican state, threw himself into antiwar organizing there. Mr. Webb was a veteran of the student movement (he was national secretary of S.D.S. the same year I was president, 1963-64). In Vermont, he ran into another immigrant, originally from Brooklyn, a civil rights activist at the University of Chicago who had bought some land and moved there several years before. The man, who carried his young son on his shoulder, was Bernie Sanders. “Bernie didn’t own a car,” Mr. Webb remembers. When he did, it was often out of commission.
Vermont welcomed not only hippie communards but also veterans of the antiwar and feminist movements, looking for a continuation of radical politics by other means and smaller-scale lives. Mr. Sanders got involved with the tiny Liberty Union Party.
“Bernie,” Mr. Webb told Mr. Sanders, “you’re never gonna get anywhere in politics if you don’t join the Democratic Party.”
The Brooklyn transplant didn’t listen. He preferred his politics neat, independent of major parties, and started running for statewide offices on the Liberty Union ticket, but never got more than 6 percent of the vote in four runs for senator and governor. Then, in 1981, he ran for mayor of Burlington (1980 population: 37,721), and narrowly defeated the Democratic incumbent. Then he won three more two-year terms, and went on to win Vermont’s single congressional seat.
He won by making good on promises. One example: A few years after Mr. Sanders left Burlington’s city hall, the mayor’s office was occupied by a Republican, who cut back the budget for snowplowing, then ran afoul of a heavy winter snowfall. In the next election, remembers the University of Vermont sociologist Thomas Streeter, a bumper sticker read: “At least the hippies plowed the streets.”
That is the secret of Mr. Sanders’s style of politics, once called “municipal socialism.” It’s the ’60s reformist impulse without countercultural baggage. It’s the kind of square that needed time to become hip. It’s a moralistic politics that takes seriously the democratic proposition that elected officials must deliver results.
“The fact that he wins elections says there’s an alternative to Clinton-style politics,” says Mr. Streeter, referring to the reliance in the 1990s on conservative budget-balancing. It was precisely that sort of alternative Lee Webb and others promoted in the 1970s, with the Vietnam War over and the former New Left at sea.
At the same time, to stake out what the writer and activist Michael Harrington called “the left wing of the possible,” many ’60s student veterans and others went to work in inclusive “progressive” politics, eventually to triumph in many cities, including Bill de Blasio in New York.
Not that the call of electability always arouses the left. The onerous work of endless meetings, self-sacrificing coalitions and power struggles in local Democratic parties turns off many single-issue activists of the post-’60s. Because deliverable results are so hard to come by, progressives of various ages have often gone for electoral politics of the proudly, defiantly independent sort.
In 1980, the environmentalist Barry Commoner ran a campaign for president as the standard-bearer of a rudimentary Citizens Party. He won fewer than 250,000 votes. The interior of the Democratic Party itself was much more fertile territory for the right kind of candidate. In 1984, Jesse L. Jackson won roughly three million primary votes; in 1988 he won more than double that number.
After the disappointments of the Clinton presidency — spiking inequality even as median income grew — Ralph Nader’s supporters thought their time as outsiders had come around. Years of effort in mainstream party operations and primaries were too compromised for them. (Mr. Sanders solved this problem in Vermont by staying outside the Democratic Party but creating an alternative apparatus that proved it could govern.) So Mr. Nader ran as a Green against Al Gore, and the rest is history. Since 2000, to put it mildly, third-party politics has not been popular on the left.
With the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, the weak recovery and the flash point of Occupy Wall Street, the theme of income inequality was an undeniable part of our economic reality and it went mainstream. To many progressives, America began to look like Bernie Sanders country writ large.
Is he a generational candidate, then, seizing the spotlight to vindicate fellow ’60s-era radicals who may have felt their moment was gone? Yes and no. His enthusiasts cut across age lines. Tim Ashe, a Vermont state senator who got his political start working for Mr. Sanders, is 38. He has met 20-somethings and 40-somethings who say they moved to Vermont because of Mr. Sanders’s appeal — not in order to vote for him, but to live in a place that would elect him. The Howard Dean of 2004, a far more moderate Vermont immigrant, was for some a first hurrah in national politics. Now Mr. Sanders is the purer vintage.
So once again, we are not done with the ’60s. Bernie Sanders is saying, “Think big.” Hillary Clinton is, at least for now, campaigning like the college senior who embraced high expectations in her Wellesley commencement address of 1969, the woman who went on to work for Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment and for the Children’s Defense Fund.
However unpromising his prospects for electoral victory, Mr. Sanders’s campaign is already a force. His supporters may not be happy with the Democratic candidate they will probably get, but their influence will persist.
© 2015 Todd Gitlin