Being Like Bernie
American flags had been hung from the white colonial houses that line the main drag of tiny Warren, Vermont, and the color guard, the marching units and the floats that would participate in the community's fifty-seventh annual Fourth of July parade had lined up just beyond the covered bridge. At the appointed hour, the local fife and drum corps played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an ancient cannon was fired and the parade stepped off--fire trucks sounding their sirens and children in bib overalls dancing with hoes. In the thick of it, behind the World War II jeep and ahead of the Rotarians, was a white-haired, 63-year-old native New Yorker who is the most prominent democratic socialist in America. Dressed in khaki pants and a button-down shirt, Bernie Sanders, now in his eighth term in Congress, marched without a cadre of aides handing out literature, without any signs to draw attention his way, without so much as a campaign pin or a bumper sticker identifying him as a candidate for the state's open Senate seat in 2006. The "minority of one" member of Congress who sits in the House as neither a Democrat nor a Republican did not require any introduction. As he came into view, waving his arm and calling out hellos, spontaneous and sustained applause erupted from Vermonters, who shouted, "Give 'em hell, Bernie!" and, again and again, "Senator Sanders!"
"It's mind-boggling how popular Bernie is. And it's not just progressives. People who tell you they have no interest in politics, who tell you they don't trust any politicians, are the ones who love Bernie the most," says Margrete Strand, who several years ago watched Sanders up close while she was running a campaign for a Democratic Senate candidate who lost (Sanders won his House seat by a landslide). Polls consistently identify Sanders as the most popular politician in the state, and election results confirm the survey research: He was re-elected in 2004 with more than two-thirds of the vote against a well-funded Republican challenger, sweeping not just his traditional base in Burlington but the vast majority of the state's 251 rural towns. Now, with the decision of Republican-turned-independent Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords to step down, 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.
Even if he were not a socialist, and even if he were not an independent who eschews most of the trappings of contemporary partisan politics--including those of a Democratic Party he sees as dramatically too centrist, too cautious and too unfocused to counter the country's drift to the right--the enthusiasm Sanders inspires would be remarkable. That he attracts the support he does with what are generally portrayed as career-crushing liabilities in American politics has made his Senate campaign the subject of a good deal of fascination among progressives looking for a successful model in an era when too many Democrats seem to think the only way to win is by trimming their sails. 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.
Unfortunately, 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."