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Sen. Bernie Sanders during a town hall event on CNN earlier this week. "As his rivals offer dazzling arrays of policy proposals, some with deep merit while others boilerplate technocratic, Sanders is often criticized for his lack of policy minutiae," writes Adams. "This is wrong-headed to say the least." (Photo: CNN)

Bernie Sanders and the Song of America

Unlike any other politician in modern U.S. history, Sanders has revived a language of social and democratic rights

Thomas J. Adams

The anti-Bernie impulses of the nation’s leading keepers of political orthodoxy were not having a good couple of weeks.

On April 15 Bernie Sanders became the first candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination not named Joe Biden to lead in a national poll.  His campaign later released internal polling showing him trouncing Donald Trump in the integral states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The countless outlets from left to right inclined to deride his candidacy and ideas were forced to admit that his performance at a Fox News town hall—doing the unimaginable thing of actually talking to voters who normally don’t vote for Democrats (or maybe that’s who don’t vote for normal Democrats)—was impressive, effective, and a sign of electability.  For the icing on the cake, an array of wealthy donors, financiers, defense industry contractors, a wannabe reality star son of Bank of America’s former chairman, and leading party figures were exposed for meeting in secret over canapes to organize a stop Bernie campaign “sooner, rather than later.”  The fund-raising email wrote itself. The explicit confirmation that his campaign was threatening to people whose interests might not be exactly the same as most Americans was priceless.  

"Unlike any other candidate in the Democratic Primary field and any other candidate in modern American history, Sanders talks in terms of expanding the inalienable rights of every citizen."

And then, at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H. Bernie made “the first big misstep of the 2020 Democratic primary season.”  Responding to an audience question, Sanders made the statement that he supports voting rights for felons.  Even the Boston Marathon bomber or sex offenders. 

You could almost hear the milquetoast punditry’s exhalations from their think tank cubicles and Georgetown condos.  Finally, Bernie’s gone too far. There’s no way Security Mom and NASCAR Dad will put up with this.  Say goodbye to suburban professionals in Philadelphia Bernie, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  Finally, we can get back to Pete Buttigieg’s innovative proposals to help the homeless bathe and Amy Klobuchar’s preaching of the hard truths of American life.

Pundits and the American political establishment are beside themselves with glee. 

And once again, they fail to grasp the quality of Bernie that is at the heart of his unique appeal.  Unlike any other candidate in the Democratic Primary field and any other candidate in modern American history, Sanders talks in terms of expanding the inalienable rights of every citizen.

A large majority of Americans agree that healthcare should be a right, regardless of ability to pay.  Up until recently, most Democratic candidates talked about health savings accounts, increasing “access” and “affordability.”  Sanders on the other hand has always talked about healthcare as a right for all Americans.

Most Americans think that if you put in a full week’s work, regardless of what you do and where you do it, you should earn enough to have at least a modicum of economic security, decent housing, enough food to eat, some time to enjoy life, and the ability to raise a family.  Democrats talk about job training programs and tax credits. Sanders has always intoned about—borrowing from crazy Franklin Roosevelt—the right to a “freedom from want.”

Most Americans think that regardless of who your parents are, you should have the right to quality higher education.  To this day, most Democratic politicians disagree, offering more tax credits, low-interest loans, and the occasional wave at community colleges. Their political icons intone that “there’s not anything free in America.” Besides, an elite college is okay for their daughters and sons, but not all Americans need or even want that opportunity—let alone deserve it. Sanders has always argued that quality higher education should be a right, not just for those whose parents have buildings named after them or can doctor a water polo picture.

Do most American agree with Bernie Sanders that convicted felons should maintain their voting rights while in prison?  As of today, probably not. Yet, I suspect when it’s put to regular Americans in the commonsensical and deeply American rhetoric of rights, many more agree than your average Democratic politician imagines.  By regular people I do not mean the future American elite made up of at least 1/3 legacy admissions who jeered Bernie at Harvard on Monday.  More than any single person alive, Sanders has revived a language of social and democratic rights. The right to health care, living wages, a job, and higher education were not on the table of conceivable choices in American politics until four years ago. It’s fitting Bernie Sanders should add to that smorgasbord the rights of the largest number of legally disenfranchised American citizens.

The funny thing about Sanders’ political strength and his candidacy—in opposition to most political commentators and politicians in both major parties—is that it is deeply built on the language of Americanism.  The story we tell ourselves about is that we are a country of universal rights. Our progress as a nation, in narratives from both the left and the right, is about living up to these ideals. Whether one sympathizes with this American exceptionalist framework or not, it has always been, to invert Walt Whitman, our democratic chant, our acceptance of “nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

As his rivals offer dazzling arrays of policy proposals, some with deep merit while others use boilerplate technocratic jargon, Sanders is often criticized for his lack of policy minutiae.  This is wrong-headed to say the least. America’s most sacred policy documents and its most popular policies throughout its history are not innovative new ways to train software engineers, tax credit proposals, or health care subsidies.  They are the Bill of Rights, the 13th and 14th Amendments, the right to age gracefully and elderly health care, and of course the right to vote. When lived up to these are rights that all Americans enjoy regardless of race, gender, religion, and ability or lack thereof to pay. They are intended to be universal for all Americans and the heart of the way virtually all of us understand what is good about America.

The rumpled old crazy-haired kooky Jewish socialist with a funny Brooklyn accent did not become the most popular politician in America by suggesting that some rights should be means tested or that health care should be “affordable.”  The right to vote is, to use Sanders’ words, “inherent in a democracy.” One would be hard-pressed to suggest that most Americans disagree with him on that point. Whether pundits and the Democratic Party have noticed it or not—and judging by their rhetoric, they haven’t—Bernie Sanders does quite well when he gets to be the one talking about the rights we should all get by virtue of being Americans.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Thomas J. Adams

Thomas J. Adams is Fellow of the Institute for Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History at Humboldt University, Berlin and Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at the University of Sydney.  His book forthcoming book, with Matt Sakakeeny, is Remaking New Orleans (Duke University Press).

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