Senator Bernie Sanders, the radical who won’t go away, gave a talk at George Washington University Tuesday evening. Given that the midterm election season was over, given that they were charging US$15-$40 for tickets, a modest turnout was expected. Maybe 300-400.
Try 1,500. The cranky old socialist, 77, packed the hall with students six decades younger buzzing with enthusiasm. The cheers were raucous. Not one dissenting voice was heard. Afterward they jammed the stage area so that, as Mr. Sanders reached down, they could touch his hand.
This wasn’t a one-off deal. It’s been happening all over, including at an event in South Carolina last month. In the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, he couldn’t draw flies in that state. This time Mr. Sanders was greeted by a packed house of supporters waving “Medicare for Y’all” placards.
After his loss to Ms. Clinton, during which he did yeoman work in advancing working-class causes, Mr. Sanders was supposed to fade away. Americans had heard enough of his leftist rants.
It didn’t happen. Instead he moved into higher gear. First he brokered with Ms. Clinton a campaign platform that had far more progressive elements than in her primary campaign. Mr. Sanders then started a movement called Our Revolution to promote his New Deal revivalist beliefs. It now has some 600 local chapters covering almost every state in the union.
Both in terms of party platform and organizational muscle, the senator from Vermont has become the go-to force for the Democrats.
His national base includes the co-ordinates of millions of supporters from his fiery 2016 run, including two million people who made campaign contributions. Though it gives him a head start over all others in the primaries, which begin 14 months from now, odds are he’ll likely fall short again. Odds are the party will want someone new.
But for Mr. Sanders there will be no tragedy if he doesn’t make it. As a catalyst of change, he’s already scored. He’s put the party’s focus – he sounds like a Canadian New Democrat or a Jean Chrétien Liberal – on issues considered too radical before his candidacy. Issues like a US$15 minimum wage, like a single-payer medicare for all plan, like free university tuition, like marijuana legalization.
Now the fringe stuff flies. In the midterms, his organization helped elect many strong left candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For the 2020 nomination, would-be candidates like senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand have fallen in behind many of his causes. They’re Bernies come lately.
At George Washington University, you could see how he’s caught up in the adrenalin rush that power and popularity bestow. He lauded his own work, describing how he’d taken on a party that had become top-down, too tied to corporate interests and was now turning it away from corporate political action committee money and establishment control.
After his talk, his organizers screened the questions. There was nothing tough. He wasn’t asked whether his staying so long in the race against Ms. Clinton divided the party thus helping Donald Trump win. Most questions were on climate change and the millennials roared their approval at his responses. How absurd, said Mr. Sanders, that the issue barely rated a mention in the 2016 campaign. And how absurd, he continued on other issues, that, in the wealthiest country in the world, 40 million Americans live in poverty and the life expectancy rate is going down.
In the 2016 campaign, Mr. Sanders sometimes sounded like an ingrate because the Democrats had the White House. But with Mr. Trump in power and anger on the left rising, the Sanders radicalism is gaining a much wider currency. He’s got a raft of material, a Republican Party which he charges is overrun by the fossil fuel lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the gun lobby, the military lobby.
Mr. Sanders is old but so are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who wish they had the claim on youth support that he does. He’s in a unique position. He staked out his radical turf beginning in 1981 when he won election on a socialist platform to become mayor of Burlington, Vt. He has stayed true to his script ever since and finally there’s a sizable tide moving toward him.
If it isn’t enough, if one of the new faces takes the prize, he can take solace in knowing that he changed the landscape. If the middle is disappearing in American politics, Bernie Sanders is a prime cause.