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.”
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.
At a picnic on the village green in Rochester, a central Vermont community of 1,200, 84-year-old Ethel Kingsbury, whose family has owned the same farm since 1794, responds to a question about whether she likes Sanders by narrowing her eyes and exclaiming, “Like him? I love him! I’m worried about these prescription prices. This drug bit is just out of control. Bernie’s the only one on our side in this whole mess.” That sense that “Bernie’s on our side” on the economic issues has provided the Congressman with a following even among Vermonters not so comfortable with his opposition to the war or his ardent support of reproductive freedom and gay rights.
“Democrats are not as engaged as they should be on the economic issues that face tens and tens of millions of people,” says Sanders. “That’s what the Republicans have been playing off. The Republicans jump in and say, ‘OK, look. Democrats are not talking about your economic issues. We’re not either, but at least we’re telling you about the Ten Commandments, we’re telling you about abortion, we’re telling you about gay rights.’ The biggest mistake Democrats make is to take economics off the table.”
Sanders keeps issues of economics and corporate power on the table by using his Congressional franking privileges to send out newsletters that, rather than featuring self-serving photos and pronouncements, offer easily accessible tutorials on the damage done to workers, farmers and the environment by free-trade policies, the threat to democracy posed by media consolidation and the workings of a single-payer healthcare system. Every year, Sanders holds single-issue town hall meetings in some of the smallest communities in the state, where he brings in experts on poverty, healthcare reform and other issues for discussions that can run deep into the evening. The crowds are big, often packing the halls. People get to complain. But they also get something else–an alternative view on how the economy of the country and the world might be organized to favor their interests. This long-term, intensive education process is the closest thing to the “secret” of Sanders’s success. Vermonters associate their Congressman with serious discussions about complicated issues, and they understand where he’s coming from–and that allows Sanders to go places most politicians fear to tread.
Indeed, it is when Sanders edges toward the middle that he feels the most heat. When Sanders backed President Clinton’s decision to order the bombing of the former Yugoslavia, antiwar activists occupied the Congressman’s Burlington office, and one of his aides resigned. Most of those tensions died down a few years later, when Sanders emerged as one of the House’s most outspoken critics of the Bush Administration’s rush to war in Iraq. But there is still some complaining on this score from his old Liberty Union Party allies, just as some social liberals quietly grumble that Sanders maintains too rigid a focus on economic issues. “Sometimes, Bernie’s biggest critics are on the left,” explains Liz Blum, an activist with the Vermont Progressive Party and a former member of the Select Board of the town of Norwich. “Some people are uncomfortable when they see a yard where there are signs for the Republicans and for Bernie, but I see that as evidence that he has figured out how to talk to people that the Democrats just have not been able to reach.”
At his best, Sanders succeeds in separating policy from politics and getting to those deeper discussions about the role government can and should play in solving real-life problems– discussions that are usually obscured by partisan maneuvering. That’s the genius of Sanders’s independent status. But it is also a source of frustration. While Sanders backers formed the Vermont Progressive Party, a third-party grouping that holds six seats in the State Legislature, he has never joined the party and has sometimes been slow to embrace its statewide campaigns. While the sense that Sanders is a genuinely free agent serves him well, it raises questions about whether Sanders will ever create not just an alternative candidacy but an alternative politics in his state. “He will not leave a party behind him. So what will be his legacy?” asks Freyne of Seven Days. “I don’t see a next Bernie on the horizon. I don’t see what comes after him. There’s a lot wrapped up in one man, and I don’t know where that gets you in the long run.”
But Sanders makes no apologies for refusing to be a party man. Yes, of course, he’d like the Democratic Party to be more progressive and for third parties to develop the capacity to pull the political process to the left. But Sanders is not going to wait for the right political moment to arrive. What he’s done is create a model for how an individual candidate can push beyond the narrow boundaries of contemporary politics and connect with voters in the same sense that Progressives and Populists of a century ago–operating within the shells of the Democratic and Republican parties and sometimes outside them–did so successfully.
This willingness to play with whatever political cards he is dealt has made Sanders an unexpectedly effective Congressman. In June he successfully forged a left-right coalition in the House to deal the Bush Administration a significant setback–attaching an amendment to a Justice Department appropriations bill that zeroed out funding for the use of the Patriot Act to spy on library and bookstore records. The vote, which saw most Democrats and dozens of conservative Republicans break with the White House, inspired a rare threat by George W. Bush to veto the entire appropriations bill. A few weeks later, when the House voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, rules committee Republicans blocked a Sanders amendment on the issue from coming to a vote–knowing that it would pass–but a bipartisan group of senators may yet attach it to the act.
It is not only on civil liberties that Sanders is a master at forging unlikely coalitions. Right-wingers like North Carolina Republican Walter Jones are regular Sanders allies on issues as diverse as trade policy, foreign investment and, recently, setting a timetable for getting US troops out of Iraq. “I suppose some people think it’s strange that I work so well with a liberal,” Jones said on a recent afternoon, wrapping his arm around Sanders’s shoulders as the two men shared a seat on the underground train that connects the Rayburn Office Building with the Capitol. (Informed that Sanders identifies himself as a “socialist,” Jones smiled. “I know. I was trying to be polite.”) “You can disagree with someone 98 percent of the time, but if you can find the 2 percent where you agree and get together, that’s what matters,” Jones explained. “Bernie understands that better than some of the Democrats do.”
Sanders says that if he makes it to the Senate he’ll continue building unlikely alliances. “In the sense that we are trying to develop left-right coalitions, we are also trying to redefine American politics,” Sanders declares. “You have the trade issue, which is very, very important to people who are worried about losing their jobs. You have healthcare issues, which are very important. You have war and peace issues, economic priority issues, which are very important when we talk about how this country is going to pay for all our domestic needs. And on those issues you can bring together coalitions that redefine the ‘normal’ paradigm that a lot of the corporate media create when they talk about liberal and conservative.”
The extent to which Sanders has redefined the paradigm in Vermont has emerged as a fundamental factor in the Senate race. Democrats have essentially backed off the race; Sanders’s old nemesis, former Governor Howard Dean, now the Democratic National Committee chair, says, “A victory for Bernie Sanders is a win for Democrats,” while most of the party’s prominent players in the state have endorsed him. The party line on the November 2006 ballot is unlikely to be filled by anyone but a nuisance candidate and might even go blank. Republicans have been struggling to identify a top-tier candidate since Governor Jim Douglas, a moderate who was courted by the White House, stood down. They’ll have a nominee, however, perhaps conservative Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie or millionaire businessman Richard Tarrant, and the Republican candidate will have all the money he needs to mount a serious challenge to Sanders.
That campaign will be nasty and personal; already Republicans have tried, without much success, to stir up a controversy about the fact that Sanders’s House re-election committee paid the candidate’s wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, a veteran activist and political consultant, to help run his campaigns. At least, Sanders notes, his status as the country’s best-known “out” socialist means “it’ll be hard to redbait me.” To counter the GOP attacks that do come, Sanders expects he’ll have to raise $5 million–after years in which “the most money I have ever raised in an election is $800,000 or $900,000.” Sanders says most of that money will be used not for television ads but for grassroots organizing.
Sanders will offer no gimmicks, no easy answers or quick fixes–just an unyielding faith that people want to talk about the issues that matter in their lives. “Maybe that’s the lesson of Bernie,” says Margrete Strand, who saw Sanders in action years ago. “He doesn’t worry so much about winning one election. He’s in it for the long haul, because that’s how you build the awareness and the trust that allows you to get beyond the spin and talk to people about the real issues in their lives. I don’t know if the Democrats have the patience to do that. But if they want to get through to the people they need to reach, they should be paying attention.”