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Sanding It Clean
Bernie Sanders is not afraid to wear his political conscience on his sleeve. The 74-year-old Vermont Senator, a self-declared democratic socialist, has been a crusader against the rising wealth gap in the US for decades. Yet, Sanders has so far remained mostly on the fringes of American politics, despite being a seven-time Congressman and two-term Senator. So what explains his sudden rise to the national political stage in the US where talks of his winnability for the Democrat presidential nomination poses a serious challenge to an established act like Hillary Clinton?
By all accounts, Sanders does not come across as the most attractive candidate for White House. Unlike most politicians, he does not have a personal story that people can relate to. His website says he was into carpentry and documentary filmmaking before joining politics, besides giving the curt details of his wife’s name and the number of children. At 74, he is even older than Ronald Reagan, who at age 70 had become US president. Nor does he have the best oratory skills or an appearance to attract most people. He is gruff, didactic and speaks in a thick Brooklyn accent, more like a professor in a lecture room than an engaging politician. He is also totally indifferent to his appearance (most of his profiles suggest he hates shopping and did not own a suit till he was 39) and always looks endearingly dishevelled. He hates small talk and rarely engages with his supporters after he has delivered his speech, making an exception only to spar with those who may have disagreed with him.
“Bernie is the last person you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with. Two weeks of lectures on health care, and you’d look for a shark and dive in,” Garrison Nelson, a close friend,said to the New Yorker. But Nelson has consistently voted for Sanders. And he has good reasons. This is, after all, the only politician who has raised 2.5 million dollars in individual donations in the history of American elections.
Despite being a recluse, a large number of white- and blue-collar Americans have been thronging to his rallies. The younger voters are among his ardent supporters, he is authentic—a term they are reluctant to use for Hillary. Recently the hashtag #feelthebern began to make its rounds on Facebook and Twitter—always a solid sign of solid online fan following.
And yet what works for him is the ancient and universal issue of inequality: the wealth gap between a “few rich people” and large numbers of “poor Americans” as he has been highlighting at his rallies. Unsurprising, then, that his avowed leftist stand is a point of attraction in this post-Occupy movement era. Recent surveys show that a majority of the under-30 voters have a more favourable view of socialism than those in the same age group did in the last generation. With awareness of social-democratic governments in Scandinavia, Canada and other countries where the government extols control over corporations and provide meaningful social security benefits, Sander’s diatribe against the big American corporations and billionaires and Wall Street hit home with unerring precision.
Sander’s attraction to socialism began in his days at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s when he joined the civil rights movement and the campaign for desegregation of university-owned boarding rooms. It kind of makes sense that he is the only politician in American history to have honeymooned in the Soviet Union (not that anyone could ever call it a haven for social justice)
“Trust me. It was a very strange honeymoon,” he writes in his book referring to the May 1988 visit he went on after marrying his current wife, Jane. The trip, an official one, which Sanders led as mayor of Burlington, was to cement sister-city relationship with Yaroslavl, near Moscow.
That opponents have raised it now to imply his hidden “commie sympathies” does not seem to faze him. He had also visited Nicaragua and Cuba—two countries that the US declared enemies in the Reagan years of the 1980s. He also openly engaged with the Sandinistas in Managua and Fidel Castro’s officials.“Burlington (Vt.) had a foreign policy because, as progressives, we understand that we all live in one world,” he proudly writes.
And though an avowed leftist, Sanders is also a big admirer of Pope Francis, who also keeps highlighting the rising wealth gap. “My God, he came at the right time, we needed him,” he commented on the Pope.
Born in 1941 to a Polish Jew family, Sanders grew up in Brooklyn. He only came to Vermont after finishing his graduation, with his first wife, Deborah Shiling. In 1969 he had a son with Susan Campbell Mott, a partner. He met his current wife, Jane, much later, at a political rally.
His entry into electoral politics was mostly by chance. Invited by a friend to attend the left-wing Liberty Union Party meeting in Vermont, Sanders became its candidate for the Senate, since there were very few volunteers. Predictably, he lost the election by a huge margin as well as other subsequent elections for the governor and also for the senate. But then he won the Burlington mayoral election in 1980 by 10 votes. As a mayor he was quite successful, turning Burlington into a “hipper” place. And then we see a blip: his entry into the senate in 2006 was with the support of the National Rifle Association. That’s not the only problem area either: his inability to reach out to Black Americans is one of his main weakness against Hillary Clinton. Though he has been trying his best to highlight the Black Life Matters campaign, being a socialist first, he sees economic disparity and class inequality as the main issues, inadvertently erasing issues like racism. Similarly, though he also supports rights for migrant workers, he sees the demand for workers from outside as a ploy by the rich to get cheap labour in.
So what holds for Sanders in the coming days?
Most surveys indicate that in the New Hampshire Democrat caucus he is much ahead of Hillary Clinton. But even if he manages to win it, he will be seriously challenged in South Carolina and in most of the other states. If Sanders finally wins the Democrat party presidential nomination and becomes the next US President, it will be perhaps the biggest upset and surprise in America’s political history given the only time he attended a Democrat Convention, he was slapped in the face by a woman from the audience. But even if he loses out to Hillary, there is no doubt that his efforts have finally achieved a real, radical alternative in American electoral politics.