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The Progressive Hope for a Sanders’ Presidency

On the promises and challenges ahead for Bernie's 2020 campaign

Thousands of people gather to hear Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a campaign rally at the Prince William County Fairground, Sept. 14, 2015 in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders has announced he is running again for President – though this time with considerably more fanfare. Unlike the last time he is no longer an afterthought or a spoiler. He is now a frontrunner who must be taken seriously as a legitimate threat to win both the nomination and the general election. For this reason, he has raised new hopes for fundamental progressive change to US politics both at home and abroad.

Regardless of what ultimately happens, Sanders to a certain extent has already won. His last run for the nation’s highest office dramatically changed the country’s political landscape. It revealed a thirst for a leftwing alternative that could effectively take on the power of oligarchs and return it to the people. At the very least, he helped break through the once thought impenetrable walls of the free market "Washington consensus" that have infested both parties. 

"More than any other of the nominees he comes to these positions out of a deep principle and not from following the prevailing political winds."

That raises a serious question: why should Sanders run for a second time when almost every other Democratic candidate is embracing his progressive policies and worldview. Even former dyed in the wool "centrists" such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) now support previously "radical" ideas such as a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and ending the war on drugs. Further, Sanders' most direct competitor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has gone even farther to the left of him with calls for not just for raising taxes for the rich but a comprehensive wealth tax.

Sanders does have though good reason to enter the race. It is the hope for real progressive change—one that does not simply accommodate the Left or seek to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism—but legitimately and fundamentally transforms the country and the world into a freer, more equitable, and just place. More than any other of the nominees he comes to these positions out of a deep principle and not from following the prevailing political winds. As such, he has the ability to best articulate them and ensure that they become a reality rather than a mere "dream."

This represents a fundamental difference between Sanders and others currently running. He represents not so much himself but a movement for genuine change. His success is based not on his personal story or charisma. Instead it is rooted in a growing progressive struggle for economic, civic, and political rights. It is precisely, this base of support that if he were to win, would ensure that his policies go beyond mere rhetoric or political posturing. Legislative victories begin in the streets before they are signed in the halls of power.

Just as significantly his vision goes far beyond the borders of the United States. There is a troubling tendency within Democratic "progressive" circles to advocate for justice domestically while embracing continued American militarism and imperialism abroad. Sanders, by contrast, has taken huge steps to begin articulating a cohesive foreign policy agenda based on values of solidarity, democracy, and shared development. He is preaching a global alternative to the corporate globalization so responsible for harming people all over the world.

The immediate critique, of course, is that he may only appeal to progressive voters—essentially handing Trump his re-election. These criticisms ignore just how overwhelmingly popular Sanders remains among voters across demographics, particularly younger voters and independents. It also represents his ability to articulate a progressive message that inspires people beyond traditional Democratic coastal strongholds. Not beholden to either corporate backers or Democratic Party elites, he can start building a truly national campaign for systematic change. He has the ability to attract new voters to the polls while winning over "centrists" to more progressive positions, if only out of a pragmatic desire to defeat Trump.

There is a less often heard but potentially just as important fear about Sanders. It is that he dilutes the meaning of socialism to reflect social democratic values precisely at a time when those on the Left should be working toward building a revolutionary movement. To this end, Sanders represents for some the liberal limits of acceptable change—ones that while welcome stop short of the necessary systematic shifts in values and polices that are necessary for truly addressing climate change, systematic racism, and class rule. The question though is whether we view Sanders' candidacy as a beginning or an end, an end goal or a foundational moment in the historical struggle for radical progress.

For this reason, Sanders represents the best hope for progressives and progress. To fulfill this mission, he must do more than rail against oligarchs. He must positively reveal what a different and more liberated society would and could look like. He must directly link current struggles ranging from the teachers strikes to Black Lives Matters to feminist resistance movements to those rejecting the corporate takeover of economic development by companies like Amazon into a popular front that simultaneously takes on elite power while point the way to a more democratic, secure, and emancipated future for all. 

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Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization and Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits released in November 2016.

 

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