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What Ails this Country? Bernie Sanders Will Ask You

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a 2010 rally for single-payer health care in Vermont. (Photo: Jobs with Justice/cc/flickr)

“What is government if not a relationship with the people?”–resident of Concord, Massachusetts

“I think the amount of influence I have, or anyone has, as a member of the public basically comes from free discourse.” –resident of Concord, Massachusetts

Bernie Sanders’ 2012 campaign in Vermont for US Senate was not the celebrity affair of many campaigns that present a glossy image with short vacuous slogans. His campaign through rural Vermont was an exercise in democracy. What an anomaly in this cynical time. His approach is so rare and so respectful, I am not sure we will know what to do with it if he conducts the same kind of campaign for the presidency.

He would show up in a town of 6000 residents in northern Vermont, step into a high school meeting room and fully engage the community. Not through mesmerizing residents with modulated speech patterns, but through discussion. He would ask the group of 100 people or more, “Why can’t people get jobs? What is going on with the economy? How do we lower unemployment?” One woman answers, “Wall Street is the problem”, another says, “taxes hurt small business” and then others give their opinions. After listening and responding briefly to people’s comments, Bernie shares his opinions. Mixed into his answers are statistics, analyses, and his own take on the issue.


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He offers not only an avenue for democratic activity through open discussion, but an education on what ails this country. He is an educator in the best sense. Education that empowers with information and opportunities to critically approach a problem.

Economic inequality, climate change, health care are topics he raised. His words are distilled down, speaking to what most concerns people in that room, without embellishment, manipulation of language, or obfuscation. And he leaves behind abstractions. He traces the national and even international issues to the problems of folks in tiny Northfield, Vermont.

We have lost this sense of ordinary people interacting with elected officials to solve problems. People feel helpless and powerless in our corrupt and highly polarized political system. Attendees left Bernie’s meeting feeling empowered because they could share their concerns with other residents and with Bernie. They engaged in a substantive discussion of the issues and ultimately, this is what can change the world.

His open and equalizing approach to campaigning appeals, despite party affiliation. And his talk about jobs, social security, veterans’ services, elevating wages appeals to both sides. Just his campaign may draw closer together the many that can’t see the other side. And he can re-acquaint us with what it feels like to take part in democratic actions.

Elizabeth Oriel

Elizabeth Oriel is a conservation biologist, currently studying positive models of coexistence between humans and marine mammals. Previous research has been focused on animal welfare and climate change adaptation.

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