Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Socialist in the Senate?

According to John Nichols of The Nation, it seems that Congressman Bernie Sanders (I) is poised to win Vermont's open Senate seat in 2006. Vermont's Senator Jim Jeffords will not run for reelection. Nichols writes:
Sanders is the clear front-runner to win one of the few US Senate seats next year where no incumbent is running. True, he will still have to deal with the multimillion-dollar GOP attack campaign that is certain to target him, but with top Republicans backing away from the race, Democrats getting in line behind his candidacy--sometimes grudgingly, sometimes not--and polls showing him running 2 to 1 ahead of likely foes, he seems well positioned to make those calls of "Senator Sanders" official.
One of more disheartening things about American politics is the monolithic control of government by the Republican and Democratic Parties, which the parties maintain due to the exclusion of independent voices in the presidential debates as well as the high cost of entry due to the shamefully spiraling costs of running an electoral campaign. Yet, despite this, Bernie not only competes but continues to win his seat in the House. How does he do it? Easy, he talks about the issues that matter to working people, both Republican and Democrat.
Sanders is not peddling easy fixes. What he has to teach is not a new scheme for organizing a campaign or raising money. There's no Bernie Sanders gimmick. Rather, Sanders offers confirmation of a fundamental reality that too many progressive pols have forgotten: An ideologically muscular message delivered in a manner that crosses lines of class, region and partisanship is still the best strategy. "Bernie earned people's trust over a long period of time by taking strong stands and sticking to them," says Peter Freyne, a columnist for Burlington's weekly newspaper, Seven Days. "There's a connection between what the politician says and what the politician does. And it's always there. The consistency of where he's coming from and who he's looking out for has been there since I started covering him in 1981."

There is nothing cautious about Sanders's politics: He opposes the war in Iraq, he is an outspoken critic of the Patriot Act, he condemns corporations and he maintains a lonely faith that government really can do a lot of things--like guarantee healthcare for all--better than the private sector. Nor is there anything smooth or prepackaged or focus-group tested about the way he communicates. After almost thirty-five years of close to constant campaigning, first as the gadfly candidate of the left-wing Liberty Union Party for senator and governor in the 1970s, then as the radical mayor of "The People's Republic of Burlington" in the 1980s and, since 1990, as the only independent in modern history to repeatedly win a US House seat, Sanders has forged relationships with generations of Vermont voters, many of whom echo the sentiments of Warren attorney Mark Grosby, who says, "I used to be a diehard Republican. Now, I'm a diehard for Bernie."

And, invariably, the connection was forged in a conversation about economics. To a greater extent, arguably, than any other progressive politician in the country, Sanders is identified with pocketbook issues. Spending a day with him in the small towns of Vermont is the equivalent of signing up for a walking seminar on the real-life struggles of working Americans--as played out on issues ranging from protecting Social Security, retirement plans and Medicare to expanding access to healthcare, lowering drug prices, raising the minimum wage, helping small businesses get started and keeping family farmers on the land. The conversations are a mix of personal anecdotes and broad-sweep policies, always pulled back by the Congressman to a discussion of the perils of corporate power and lobbying. To be sure, Sanders takes questions about the war in Iraq and other issues, but the breadth and depth of the discussions he gets into regarding the kitchen-table concerns of working Vermonters is remarkable.
I have always been frustrated that politicians, mostly of the species donkey, refuse to talk about the things that matter to working people because they're afraid of being labeled a "class warrior." Progressives need to reclaim economics as their focus and debate and campaign upon this wide issue as hard as the GOP baits average citizens to vote against their self-interest through prejudice and fear. Sanders understands this simple concept and he triumphs, mainly through grassroots efforts. As Nichols observes:
When the question of the moment is, What's the matter with Kansas? it's no surprise that Democrats want to know how Sanders wins tough races in an overwhelmingly rural state by drawing the enthusiastic support of precisely the sort of white working-class voters Democrats have had such a hard time hanging on to in recent elections.
Democrats take note, the Sanders' example is clear: If you lay yourself and your principles on the line, people will respond.

Oh yeah, did I mention he's a Socialist. Maybe the spirit of Eugene Debs isn't dead yet.