“We will not accept cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid,” declared US Senator Bernie Sanders Monday night, at The Nation Institute dinner where the independent senator from Vermont was cheered for his absolute defense of programs that he argues must not be sacrificed to the austerity demands of those who would toss working American off the “fiscal cliff.”
That Sanders is a hero to progressives, like those who gathered Monday night in New York for the annual event, is no secret.
But what is the Sanders secret?
How does an independent senator, who refuses to accept the false constructs of the Republican right and its media echo chamber, who calls out compromising Democrats, and who rejects the centrist fantasies of so many pundits, keep winning elections by overwhelming margins? And what can progressives learn from his political success—and aggressive progressivism—as they engage in the fiscal-cliff fight, prepare for the coming Congress and set the stage for the elections of 2014 and 2016?
To begin with, Sanders does not accept conventional wisdom, and he does not play by conventional political rules.
The narratives spun by political and media elites throughout the 2012 election campaign were all about money and television buys, polls and personalities. Both major parties focused on a narrow set of issues, and an even narrower set of appeals directed to a conventional wisdom that imagined Americans wanted only drab variations on the moderate themes sounded by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their last debate. But in Vermont, the most refreshingly unconventional politician in America was coasting toward re-election with a campaign that broke all the rules.
Sanders ran no attack ads. In fact, he ran no TV commercials. He finished the campaign still speaking in full sentences, not soundbites; still inviting voters to ask complicated questions on controversial issues—and still answering with big, bold proposals to address climate change, really reform healthcare with a single-payer “Medicare for All” program, steer money away from the Pentagon and toward domestic jobs initiatives, and counter the threat of plutocracy posed by Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Rejecting the empty partisanship of the pre-election frenzy, Sanders was ripping the austerity agenda of Romney and Paul Ryan, while warning that Obama and too many Democrats were inclining toward an austerity-lite “grand bargain” that would make debt reduction a greater priority than saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite breaking all “the rules, Sanders, who was honored Monday night by The Nation Institute, won—big. The senator took 71 percent of the vote versus just 25 percent for his closest rival, Republican John MacGovern, a businessman and four-term Massachusetts state legislator who promised to replace “the only admitted socialist in the US Senate.” Sanders won among women and men, across income and education categories, and in every region—even carrying the corners of the state that backed Romney. “I go crazy with all these Democrats saying you have to go conservative to win, you have to go cautious to win. These damned consultants come in and say, ‘This is how you have to run,’ and it’s always the same: raise money, spend it on television, don’t say anything that will offend anyone. And the Democrats do it and then they end up in tight races, worried about whether they’ll make it,” says Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats but rarely takes advice from anyone in Washington. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why progressives listen to consultants. Building movements, making progress on progressive issues— you have to talk to people, educate people, organize people.”