Back in the mid 1980s, when Bernie Sanders was running for reelection in Burlington VT – a time before easy answers from Google and when the major media showed no interest in a socialist mayor – I called the town’s city hall to find out the results. The operator asked me what office I wanted and when I said the mayor’s she told me, “It’s closed today. Can I help you?”
“I wanted to find out how Mayor Sanders did in the election.”
“Oh, Bernie won again,” she replied with unbridled enthusiasm. To this day I have never head an operator respond to a question with such cheer and it was a sign that Sanders was not your average politician.
So it didn’t totally surprise me when Sanders started beating the odds in the current presidential race. Still, what started as a fluke has already turned into something a lot more.
Looking for a modern precedent, I found myself again going back to the1980s, a time that can fairly be called the end of the First American Republic. In 1988, Jesse Jackson ran a remarkable campaign for president that was based in no small part on bringing together forces that the elite prefer to see at each others’ throats. As he had put it earlier, “When we change the race problem into a class fight between the haves and the have-nots, then we are going to have a new ball game.”
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Jackson campaign in part:
In early 1988, Jackson organized a rally at the former American Motors assembly plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, approximately two weeks after new owner Chrysler announced it would close the plant by the end of the year. In his speech, Jackson spoke out against Chrysler’s decision, stating “We have to put the focus on Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the place, here and now, where we draw the line to end economic violence!” and compared the workers’ fight to that of the 1965 Voting Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. As a result, the UAW Local 72 union voted to endorse his candidacy, even against the rules of the UAW.
Briefly, after he won 55% of the vote in the Michigan Democratic caucus, he was considered the frontrunner for the nomination, as he surpassed all the other candidates in total number of pledged delegates… .
At the conclusion of the Democratic primary season, Jackson had captured 6.9 million votes and won 11 contests; seven primaries (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia) and four caucuses (Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Vermont). Jackson also scored March victories in Alaska’s caucuses and Texas’s local conventions, despite losing the Texas primary.
This is the sort of thing the mass media would just as soon forget, in part because of an overwhelming tendency of America’s elite – whether southerners with their flags or northern liberals trying to prove how decent they are – to put race far ahead of class.
And this is not a few problem. Fifty years ago, in the precursor of the Progressive Review called The Idler, I wrote about the lack of “gutbucket liberals”:
In an attempt over the years to avoid the rage of reactionaries while at the same time keeping the liberals happy we have created an appalling conglomeration of confused, misused and unused programs.
We now have a situation in which all pressure groups – farmers, labor unions, the urban centers – have grabbed a piece of the cake. But the man at the bottom of each pressure group – the poor farmer, the unemployed laborer, the slum dweller-has hardly been allowed a bite. Thus we have created the super-structure of a welfare state without providing its supposed benefits to the people who need it most.
If we continue to legislate on the basis of appeasing powerful interest groups (the interests of whose members are not nearly as homogenous as the organizations claim) then surely we will create what we fear: a massive, irrational federal giant. If, on the other hand, we direct our money and our efforts on the basis of real need, we can avoid both the drab prospect of overextended federal control and the unconscionable continued neglect of serious problems.
We do not have to fear a federal government whose agencies are engaged in purposeful endeavors to improve the nation and the lot of those who live in it. But we should worry about a federal government that grows primarily to satisfy the accumulated greed of interest groups that have lost, in the enjoyment of their own power, the memory of their reason for growth.
There is an old spiritual that Ethel Waters used to sing which goes, in part: “His eye is on that little sparrow… And I know He watches over me.”
Much of our problem stems from the fact that we have lost sight of the sparrow. We have a massive pile of programs to watch over the interests of the AFL-CIO, the NAM, General Dynamics Corporation, the American Legion, Everett Dirksen, and every other well-established organization and individual. We have neglected the sparrow. It is the liberal’s job to help us turn our eyes back toward him.
This is the cause that Bernie Sanders has brought back to life. And the enthusiasm has shown that he is saying something Americans wanted to hear.
Of course, one of the hazards of living on the left is that sometimes its standards have more the quality of an evangelical church than of a pragmatic political movement. So when some folks started a Greens for Bernie Facebook page, they got flack from their colleagues for not staying faithful to Jill Stein, who – worthy as she is – has not made a dent on the political scene. Some of the socialist left doesn’t think Sanders is radical enough and the liberal Daily Beast went after him for supporting Vermont’s lax gun laws, which seem to work rather well. Sanders doesn’t have to look any further than nearby Maine to see the price of behaving the way liberals want. They put an anti-bear hunting referendum on the ballot last time which helped in no small way to bring out angry hunters who also reelected the incompetent and nasty Paul LePage as governor.
What too many have forgotten is that politics is not about proving your own virtue but working with others – including many with whom one disagrees on some issues – to better our land in general. Bernie Sanders is a wonderful example of not only how this works but that it can work.
We have more than a year before the final candidates are chosen at their conventions. One need have no illusions about Sanders being the ultimate choice to recognize the difference he has already made in our country and how much more he can continue to make before we have to choose, say, between Bill Clinton’s wife and George Bush’s brother. We have a whole year in which to make things really different and better. It’s Bernie time. Enjoy it.