As Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has gained momentum, Sanders has come under attack from Democrats and Republicans. Some mock Bernie's identification as a "Democratic Socialist," while others lament his supposed policy deficiencies. The critics miss the point. Sanders is running to call attention to a national emergency: the influence of money on politics, and economic inequality in general.
In the last 20 years, Democratic presidential candidates have run on the basis of their policies ("bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq," "implement national healthcare"). In contrast, Republicans have run on the basis of personality. (In 1992, George W Bush won because he was more likable than Al Gore.)
In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency because of his charismatic personality, his slogan "change we can believe in," and enough detail on major policies to keep his critics at bay. In 2016, Hillary Clinton is running a similar-style campaign based upon a slogan, "Hillary for America," and detailed policy positions. In contrast, Bernie Sanders is focusing on a single issue, money in politics. At the conclusion of the January 17th Democratic Presidential debate, Sanders explained:
Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American... what we have got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy, which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process. To say loudly and clearly that the government of the United States of America belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.
As Sanders has closed in on the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, she and her surrogates have attacked his policy positions. During the January 17th debate, Clinton attacked Sanders' healthcare proposal saying, "There are things we can do to improve [Obamacare]. But to tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate I think is the wrong direction." Her attack was supported by Paul Krugman who noted, "the virtual impossibility of achieving single-payer,"
Sanders' proposal must be taken in context. In his opening remarks, Sanders said:
Our campaign is about... thinking big. It is understanding that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we should have health care for every man, woman, and child as a right. That we should raise the minimum wage to at least 15 dollars an hour, that we have got to create millions of decent paying jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. So what my first days [in office will be] about is bringing American together to end the decline of the middle class, to tell the wealthiest people in this country that yes they are gonna start paying their fair share of taxes, and that we are going to have a government that works for all of us and not just big campaign contributors.
Recall that when Barack Obama took office, he was confronted by a financial crisis - the Great Recession of 2008. Obama had run on a different set of issues -- withdrawing troops from Iraq, universal healthcare, energy independence... -- but shifted focus in response to a national emergency. Bernie Sanders regards money in politics/economic inequality as a comparable national emergency.
Sanders is not alone in this assessment. Early this year, Paul Krugman wrote about Twin Peaks Planet: "It is now obvious that income and wealth are more concentrated at the very top than they have been since the Gilded Age." University of California Economics Professor Robert Reich concurred:
Surely 2016 is a critical year. But, as the reformers of the Progressive Era understood more than a century ago, no single president or any other politician can accomplish what's needed because a system caught in the spiral of wealth and power cannot be reformed from within. It can be changed only by a mass movement of citizens pushing from the outside.
Bernie Sanders is not running a campaign based upon personality or a list of policy positions. He is running for president because he believes the US has a national emergency;
Let's be truthful. Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy... we have got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy, which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process. To say loudly and clearly that the government of the United States of America belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.
Sanders is right. We are facing a national political crisis because of economic inequality. We must address this before we address a laundry list of other important issues. That's why we need "a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy."
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com