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Bring on the Class War: Bernie Sanders Dreams of a Revolution in 2016

The Vermont Senator is furious about the overwhelming influence of money on politics. Now he's running for president so you get angry about it too.

by Grace Wyler
08 May 2015, 5:00am

Photo by AFGE via Flickr

After a few frenetic weeks of campaigning, the UK elections are being held today—which should serve as a reminder of just how bloated and drawn-out America's presidential races have become. Even the most ardent political junkies might blanche at the numbing loop of focus groups, fundraisers, and cable news spin that will be stretched out over the next 18 months. Compounded with the apparent inevitability of Hillary Clinton's coronation as the Democratic nominee—and the prospect of another Clinton vs. Bush—it's hardly surprising that most Americans have been bored out of any interest in the national electoral process.

Bernie Sanders wants you to know that it doesn't have to be this way. The Vermont senator's nascent presidential campaign, announced last week, is based around the idea that electoral politics can work when it is driven by voters—in fact, he thinks that this "political revolution," as Sanders calls it, is the only antidote to the overwhelming influence of money and corporate interests on politics.

"I get very frightened about the future of American democracy when this becomes a battle between billionaires," Sanders said in an interview Sunday with ABC's This Week, one of his first after announcing his White House bid. "We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough,'" Sanders argued. "I want to help lead that effort."

Sanders has been talking about this revolution for months. In the lead up to his announcement, the Vermont Independent was on a grassroots tour of various lefty watering holes—community arts centers, student unions, garden parties, SEIU halls, Progressive Democrats of America conventions—warning voters about the myriad threats facing the working class and the need to mobilize a grassroots movement that will somehow be strong enough to take on what he calls "the billionaire class."

At these events, as in most things he does, Sanders is outraged, and usually didactic, spouting his wisdom about the working class. He warns about corporate interests, the Koch brothers, and myriad other forces working to game the economy and gum up the democratic system. He demands audiences answer questions about college tuition, Social Security, the cost of childcare in Denmark.

"How many countries are there—major countries, wealthy countries—that do not guarantee health care? Give me an answer," he demanded of an audience in Keene, New Hampshire, last fall, one of dozens like it that Sanders addressed as he explored the idea of running for president. "Young lady, in the pink sweatshirt, you. How many countries? No? How about you, Keene State red sweatshirt. You don't know?

"If there is one thing that bothers me—I'm going to be very hard on you here—it is that many young people do not know very much about what goes on in the world."

If any of the college students are upset by this interrogation, Sanders doesn't seem to notice or care. Badgering college sophomores is just part of waking people up. This idea—that Americans are ignorant or disinterested in the political system, feudal vassals of a crony capitalist government—is the driving force behind Sanders's political project. He points out that just under 54 percent of Americans voted in the 2012 presidential election, a number that is consistent with most recent presidential years, but that trails turnout rates in other developed countries.

Despite widespread contempt for the political system—Congress' approval rating is just 22 percent, and political parties aren't faring much better—the anger doesn't seem to have translated into political action. A new poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics found that just 21 percent of young voters consider themselves "politically engaged." Other surveys have found similar lack of political engagement levels among the general electorate.

In the meantime, rich people are very active in politics. A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University looked into the political habits of the 1 percent, and found that the super wealthy reported a stunning 99 percent turnout rate in the 2008 election. The researchers concluded that "by several measures, wealthy Americans participate politically at two or three times the rate of members of the general public as a whole."

According to Sanders, the wealthy and powerful have a vested interest in keeping things this way. In his view, the electoral system is set up to deter those outside the political process from getting involved, insulating those inside the process from any inconvenient consequences of democracy.

"How do you change political consciousness? Well that requires really a revolution in every sense of the word," Sanders told me in an interview last fall. "You are taking on a society that spends a huge amount of money, in a variety of ways, trying to convince people that politics is irrelevant to their lives, that to the degree it is relevant, it has to do with candidates' personalities or characteristics that have absolutely nothing to do with the real issues."

Sanders believes, perhaps quixotically, that most of those voters would support his positions—higher taxes on the wealthy, more infrastructure investment, expanding Social Security, raising the minimum wage—if only they could be persuaded to vote. Most politicians avoid advancing any narratives carrying even a whiff of "class warfare," but Sanders isn't shy about his vision for an uprising of trade unionists, fast-food workers, indebted students, and traditionally Republican voting blocs like old people, white working-class voters, rural farmers—mobilizing against the entrenched corporate interests keeping them down.

That all these groups will suddenly embrace Sanders's beloved vision of Scandinavian socialism is dubious and almost endearingly naive. The senator's focus on class and inequality seems to ignore the fact that people often don't vote in their own economic interests, and Americans almost never back self-described socialists. And though Sanders is incredibly popular in Vermont—he cruised to reelection with 70 percent of the vote in 2012—he doesn't seem to have quite worked out the details of creating a national movement.

"In one way or another, in a thousand different ways—and this is what I mean by a political revolution—we've got to educate, we've got to organize, we've got to make people understand that what happens in the state house, what happens in Washington, happens in their lives," he said. "What I can guarantee you is that if we don't do that, this country will move pretty rapidly toward an oligarchy."

For all of his "let the ruling class tremble" rhetoric, Sanders's socialism is decidedly unsexy. But neither is Sanders sexy, unless you go for septuagenarian ex-hippies who talk like Brooklyn deli countermen. He doesn't have Barack Obama's gift for ringing oratory or Bill Clinton's talent for flirtatious charisma. Most often described as "curmudgeonly" and "rumpled," Sanders is perpetually outraged, and obsessively focused on even the most mundane fights against inequality. He is, as Matt Taibbi described in a Rolling Stone piece praising Sanders' presidential bid, "the kind of person who goes to bed thinking about how to increase the heating-oil program for the poor."

Sanders' commitment to both political ideology—he calls himself as a "socialist democrat"—and to the more mundane aspects of governance has been the hallmark of his unlikely political career. He first won elected office in 1981, when he became the mayor of Burlington, where he became known for establishing diplomatic ties to Marxist governments and for his impressive dedication to snow removal. It's made him a revered, if not beloved, political institution in Vermont, where he's known simply as "Bernie."

"We always joke that he has ten brains," a Sanders staffer told me when I asked about the Senator's constituent services. "I'm not sure he ever sleeps. He's always thinking about the big picture, but then he also has a hundred ideas about things we can do to help, to get the government to work better for people."

Sanders's political success has been built around his ability to prove that the government can work for voters—a task that is possible in a small state like Vermont, but hardly feasible in a presidential race . And for all his talk of revolution, it's unclear how many voters will get behind his plan for class war.

Still, Sanders seems to have struck a chord, particularly among liberal voters looking for someone to challenge Clinton on the left. His campaign raised $3 million in four days following his announcement, and claims that 185,000 supporters have signed up on the Bernie Sanders for President website. To the Anyone-but-Clinton crowd, Sanders is an excellent foil: authentic, untethered, with a shamelessly liberal agenda. Clinton, by contrast, is seen as scripted and stage-managed—and between the Clinton Foundation's fundraising, and her own efforts to woo corporate campaign donors, she's clearly not afraid of mixing money and politics.

Although Sanders has almost zero chance of beating Clinton for the nomination, his candidacy could push her into taking more specific policy positions, particularly on issues like trade, increased government spending, and higher taxes on the wealthy—key liberal tenants that Establishment Democrats have tended to dance around in order to avoid being attacked as wealth redistributionists. Already, Sanders and other progressives like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have pressured Clinton into softening her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and Sanders isn't letting up.

"I have voted against every disastrous trade agreement coming down the pike and [am] helping to lead the effort against this Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would mean the outsourcing of more good paying jobs to low-wage countries," Sanders said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday. "People have got to look at Secretary Clinton's record."

Of course, Sanders knows he's not going to win, that the revolution he's trying to launch may never materialize, at least not in 2016. Still, he insists that he's running a serious campaign, that he's "running to win." And while it might be tempting to dismiss all this as the romantic ravings of another doomed progressive from Vermont, there is something simple, and powerful, about the idea that American democracy can still respond to popular action, that rather than disengaging from the electoral system, voters can make it work for them. In an election that is expected to cost upward of $2 billion, and where the outcome seems predetermined, it even sounds a little revolutionary.

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.

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