US Election 2016: How Bernie Sanders captured the hearts of America's idealists

How has a self-confessed socialist gathered so much support in a country where socialism is a dirty word? David Usborne reports from New Hampshire

David Usborne
New Hampshire
Friday 05 February 2016 22:57 GMT
Supporters of US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cheer on a street in Manchester, New Hampshire
Supporters of US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cheer on a street in Manchester, New Hampshire (AFP)

When Bernie Sanders was not battering Hillary Clinton at their latest debate for being a captive of Wall Street and falling short as a progressive, he was listing those things he would like to do as president, from free tuition for college students to free, guaranteed healthcare for all.

Then he had an admission. “For all these things to happen,” he said, “people have to rise up.”

This is the “political revolution” that is the rallying cry of Mr Sanders’ campaign for president and what he has been agitating for his entire political career, from before his election in 1981 as mayor of Vermont’s biggest city, Burlington, and his 25 years in Congress as an independent – he prefers democratic socialist – while aligning himself for voting purposes with the Democrats.

It is partly because of his reputation as an eccentric – a leftist dreamer – that Mr Sanders’ decision to run for president in 2016 was barely taken seriously at first. The Washington Post dismissed him as “an ex-hippie, septuagenarian socialist from the liberal reaches of Vermont who rails, in his thick Brooklyn accent, rumpled suit and frizzy pile of white hair, against the ‘billionaire class’.”

But suddenly, his moment – however big it turns out to be – is here. Polls predict a crushing victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday. He was barely pipped by Ms Clinton in the Iowa caucuses this week. Those who were there will not quickly forget Mr Sanders’ face when he greeted supporters in a Des Moines hotel ballroom after. He couldn’t speak for smiling and laughing.

Republican Ted Cruz compares himself to Bernie Sanders

If this was naked joy, who can blame him? Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents – his mother from New York and his father from Poland – Mr Sanders’ road has been a long one. His first campaign was at his school when he ran for class president on a promise to start a fund for orphans of the Korean War. He lost. Once settled in Vermont, he ran four times as candidate for the anti-war, counter-culture Liberty Union party – twice for governor and twice for the US Senate – suffering solid defeats each time.

Finally, in 1981, he ran as an independent for Burlington mayor and won. He did what mayors are meant to do: get the snow-ploughs out on time and fill in the potholes. But already his idealism was driving him to go further. He decided, for instance, to turn Burlington into a beacon of opposition to the foreign policy of the Reagan administration.

Burlington, population then about 30,000, having its own foreign policy seems as nutty now as it did to many then. Mayor Sanders, who had honeymooned with his first wife in the Soviet Union, travelled to Nicaragua to protest against American backing of the Contra rebels. He was greeted by the leader of the socialist Sandanista government, Daniel Ortega. It wasn’t long before his supporters in Vermont were being called “Sanderistas”. As mayor he also went to Cuba to visit President Fidel Castro.

There is nothing in the history books to suggest that Burlington did anything to alter the course of American foreign policy at the time. What the period does show, however, is a leader, albeit then of just a minor city, who rarely let the real world get in his way. Even before then he had been for gay marriage equality, long before the rest of America had even thought about it. His beliefs even as a student got him into trouble. He was arrested in Chicago for putting up leaflets protesting against school segregation.

Going against the grain in Congress has ensured his repeated re-election by Vermonters, first to the House of Representatives (1991-2007) and then the Senate. His approval rating in the state sticks at about 75 per cent. Over the years he has regularly separated himself from other Democrats: he opposed the welfare reforms introduced by former President Bill Clinton, has routinely decried the death penalty, voted against both the Iraq wars, and opposed the post-9/11 Patriot Act.

The Washington Post took Mr Sanders to task again this week. “Mr Sanders’s success so far does not show that the country is ready for a political revolution,” the paper opined. “It merely proves that many progressives like being told everything they want to hear.”

That, though, is the thing. A new Marist poll for the Wall Street Journal and NBC has Mr Sanders at 58 per cent versus Ms Clinton at 38 per cent in New Hampshire. Among men under 45 he is at 85 per cent. He is, more strikingly, 30 points ahead of Ms Clinton among women in the same age group. That “railing against the billionaire class” has touched a nerve, especially among younger voters who in Mrs Sanders’ long record see consistency and a sincerity they think Ms Clinton lacks.

But if he has his uprising, how long can he sustain it? Next in the nominating marathon come states more diverse than New Hampshire and Iowa and more liberal, certainly, than the former, such as South Carolina. When Mr Sanders calls for voters to rise up, he knows that if they don’t keep doing so, his candidacy will quickly fade. And that’s why if there is panic in Camp Clinton it is still muted.

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