The above reaction was that of a New Hampshire resident quoted by Nigel Parry in his profile of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders who has been dropping hints that he might seek the Democratic nomination for president. It may be a quixotic quest but those of us who dread an election that pits Hillary Clinton against any of the Republicans, need someone to raise the flag for progressive issues during the campaign and he certainly fits the bill.
Beginning in 1981, when he was first elected as the democratic-socialist mayor of Burlington, a.k.a. “the People’s Republic of Burlington,” the only U.S. city then maintaining a pro–Nicaragua-Sandinista foreign policy, Bernie, as he is universally known there, often railed against “the ruling class.” These days, with the condition-red Republican hegemony hard upon the land, the 73-year-old U.S. senator has upped the ante, going with “the billionaire class.” Likewise, well-worn jeremiads against the Rockefellers, big oil, and the Bush neocon cabal have been replaced by broadsides decrying corporate media and the moneybag Koch brothers, Chuck and Dave, wielders of the Citizens United truncheon.
Like a rabbinical Man in Black, a lone truth teller, Bernie fired the rat-a-tat of bone-chilling bullet points: how nearly 46 million Americans are now in poverty, “more than at any time in the history of our country”; how, “despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act,” some 40 million citizens still will likely have no health insurance. Did you know that the top 25 hedge-fund managers in the country make enough to pay the salaries of more than 425,000 public-school teachers? No? Well, it’s true, Sanders said. Is anything likely to change? Not really. As Bernie explained, “60 percent of the people don’t vote; 75 percent of low-income people don’t vote; 80 percent of people between 18 and 21 don’t vote.”
If he is president, how would he deal with the fact that Congress is pretty much bought and sold by the wealthy and the lobbyists for big business?
The question gives the senator pause. It isn’t part of the speech, not yet at least. But then it comes to him in a great, stirring flash.
“This is how it is going to be,” Bernie says, as if he were still in his $200 car, back in the Liberty Union days. “Suppose you want to raise the minimum wage to a fair level and know that change is not going to come from inside Washington. Not in this climate. So, as president, I’d invite millions of low-income workers to come to the capitol. Like a bonus march. I’d do the same thing about making college affordable. Put out the call, invite a million students. Make sure they’re all registered to vote. Then when these congressmen come by the White House and they’re beholden to the Koch brothers, the super-PACs, or the oil companies, I will say, ‘Do what you want, but first do one thing for me: Look out the window.’ ”
“Look out the window,” Bernie repeats, liking the sound of it, the call to arms, just the sort of phrase that might get the attention of a downtrodden, detached electorate and prompt them to raise a fist in the air.
“Look out the window. Because all those people are out there. They’re demanding their fair share and they’re not leaving until they get it.”
I am not so sanguine about the power of mass demonstrations, at least in the US. One of the curious things about US politics is how little public protests affect policy nowadays. In other countries, mass demonstrations can affect policies and even bring down governments. But in the US, politicians just ignore them and they peter out. The civil rights movement may have been the last effective use of mass public protests. While there were mass protests against the Vietnam war, its collapse was more likely due to it being seen as unwinnable and a drain on the economy. However, it might be different if politicians begin to actively advocate and use them as Sanders suggests.
Of course, Sanders is not a Communist. He calls himself a socialist but is what at one time would have been called a populist. But the politics of the US have become so right-wing that anything to the left of the narrow spectrum between right wing and extreme right wing is now seen as positively Leninesque.