In a volatile and anxious time when people’s lives are being upended, cautious middle-of-the-roaders fail to inspire while those who propose big alternative visions get heard. That’s why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump touched a nerve in the last election when they promised to shake up the world. Those two men had totally divergent worldviews, but they both dealt with fundamental questions that weren’t being discussed.
Sanders got massive support from young people facing a future of precariously low-paying jobs, high student debt and climate change. He offered Scandinavian social democracy and FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights. Trump gave hope to many older, more culturally conservative people who have a modest stake in the American dream and are afraid of losing it. He offered them a ride in a time machine back to the 1950s, when we had rising incomes and a brighter future.
While Trump has become the most unpopular president in at least four decades, Sanders has become the most popular politician in the nation by a wide margin, according to a new Fox News poll. This is not unusual. Sanders has become more popular as more people find out about him. When he started running for president, few people knew him and the mainstream media ignored him until his huge crowds compelled them to notice. But Trump got unlimited and uninterrupted free coverage (with little commentary) of his rallies and tweets from the beginning.
Right after the election, Sanders became the chair of “outreach” for Senate Democrats. After all, he did win almost two dozen states during the primaries. However, he hasn’t changed any since becoming a party leader. He has said that “Trump’s victory was not a victory for Trump or his ideology. It was a gross political failure of the Democratic Party.”
Sanders said Trump is a “pathological liar” who has no ideology and who convinced a lot of desperate people that their lives would become better if he was elected. He said, “If you think everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist or a sexist or a homophobe, you would be dead wrong.”
Sanders had a lot of support in “Trump Country” which was demonstrated in a recent town hall meeting hosted by Sanders in McDowell County, West Virginia, on March 13 on MSNBC’s All in With Chris Hayes. Trump won the county and the state in the general election. However, Sanders won in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties in the Democratic primary. In the 2008 general election, Obama won McDowell County by more than 10 percent.
This was an emotional event with some standing ovations for Sanders. He denounced Trumpcare and advocated Medicare for all. A retired miner in the audience thanked Sanders for co-sponsoring a bill protecting coal miners’ health care.
What should the Democratic Party stand for? There is a growing fight between the centrist liberals and the progressives. In mid-January, there was a sneaky late-night vote by 13 Democrats (joining the Republicans) that might not have been noticed in years past. The vote was against an amendment by Sanders to direct a Senate committee to write legislation to allow the re-importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
The 13 Democrats included Colorado’s Michael Bennet but the most prominent figure was Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had just given passionate testimony the day before against Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general nominee.
The Beltway crowd was surprised by a big backlash from grassroots progressives. Booker, who may run for president in 2020, really felt the heat. He later ended up at a press conference with Sanders to announce his support for a drug re-importation bill Sanders was introducing.
Berniecrats are running for positions in the Democratic Party all over the country. On Feb. 22, a Wall Street Journal story declared that “Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time.”
Tensions amped up during the recent race for chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) between Sanders ally Congressman Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Ellison was smeared as an anti-Semite and establishment Dems like Obama, Biden and Bill Clinton pushed hard for Perez. But Perez narrowly won in a second vote after neither secured a first-round majority. In his victory speech, Perez named Ellison as his deputy chair.
In the long term, social change is primarily driven by bottom-up citizen activism of popular social movements. However, elections really matter. In order for movements to win, you need allies in public office.
In the short term, Democrats should have impressive victories in the future given Trump’s huge unpopularity. A big danger is that many people will be so disgusted by politics that they just won’t vote. Democrats need to fight back hard but also offer a strong hopeful progressive message.
The revolution rolls on, both at the voting booth and in the streets, workplaces and neighborhoods.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.