Magazine article The Christian Century

Liberal Messiah: If Sanders Became President, What Would Change?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Liberal Messiah: If Sanders Became President, What Would Change?

Article excerpt

THE CAMPAIGN for the Democratic nomination for president began in earnest on July 1, when Vermont senator Bernie Sanders addressed a crowd of 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin. Sanders had already drawn impressive crowds in Denver, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. But the Madison rally was the biggest event yet for any candidate in the 2016 field. The sheer size of the crowd made journalists covering the previously dreary Democratic primary contest sit up and take notice.

"Politics in a democratic society should not be complicated," the candidate told the roaring crowd. "Politics is not a soap opera," but rather "people coming together to make life better for our people." A populist both in rhetoric and in his unassuming, somewhat shambolic self-presentation, Sanders showed why he has managed to pull ahead of Hillary Clinton in polls of early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, and why he has filled arenas in urban centers and progressive strongholds around the country.

Sanders is running uphill against the neglect of major media and the hostility of the party's officeholding and check-writing elite. But he has tapped into the latent enthusiasm of the progressive part--so far, the overwhelmingly white, college-educated progressive part--of the party's base. His campaign's unvarnished emphasis on economic inequality is no doubt part of his appeal. So are his ardently progressive positions on jobs, the minimum wage, and campaign finance.

But the crowd in Madison saved its heartiest approval for the moments when Sanders reached beyond a liberal wish list to herald a more dramatic transformation in American politics. "All of these guys," Sanders said of Wall Street and corporate America, "have so much power that no president can defeat them unless there is an organized grassroots movement making them an offer they can't refuse." The Republican Party and too many Democrats, Sanders went on, "are owned by big money interests." The answer is "a political revolution in America."

It is an appeal with a familiar ring. Wisconsin, after all, launched George McGovern--once an obscure senator, then a grassroots hero--to the Democratic nomination in 1972. The state gave Barack Obama one of his biggest margins in the 2008 primaries. Sanders follows their path of presenting a presidential campaign as a mass movement that can circumvent congressional wrangling and overawe entrenched interests to rewrite the rules of politics.

Many liberal voters think these rules need rewriting, and understandably so. As the Democrats enter the 2016 election season, they find themselves in a vexing, even paradoxical position.

The party's candidates have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Obama won an outright majority of the popular vote in both 2008 and 2012--only the second president to do so twice since Eisenhower, an international hero who could have won the presidency on either party's ticket. The Democratic nominee will start with built-in advantages from demographics and the electoral map. In 2012 Obama won the national popular vote by 4 percentage points. Some of the states he won were closer than that--but he would have been reelected even if he'd lost those states.

Yet Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives for all but four of the last 22 years. Their current margin is so large that their majority will likely hold until after 2020. The Senate is closer, but the road to a Democratic majority in 2016 is hard and will be harder in 2018. At the state level the situation is more dire still. In 2010 and 2014, states that vote reliably for Democratic presidential candidates elected very conservative Republican governors. Many of these governors enjoy GOP legislative majorities in one or both houses.

The result of all this has been a frustrating deadlock. When federal policy does get made, it often happens through high-stakes negotiations between the Democratic president and the Republican Speaker of the House. …

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