Bernie Sanders did something unusual last Monday. The most liberal candidate in the 2016 presidential race, he nonetheless took his message to Liberty University, a deeply conservative college founded by prominent evangelical Jerry Falwell. Unlike most politicians, he didn’t pander to his audience. He made no attempt to paper over his social liberalism, but he did try finding common ground around our nation’s ugly economic inequalities. While he may not have won over his listeners, he proved he’s willing to engage with every element of the electorate — a rarity in American politics today.
Bernie is a unique candidate in many respects. He rejects the charade that passes for politics nowadays. He relies on individual contributions and refuses to accept super PAC money. He neglects the niceties most candidates cultivate. His hair is unruly; his shirts are ruffled. His speeches, prolix and filled with specifics, are largely self-written. If he considers a reporter’s question ridiculously superficial, he says so. He isn’t one of those slickly dressed, focus group-tested candidates.
Departing from the mealy mouthed vacillation of establishment politicians, he calls things like he sees them. He defended gay rights in 1972, far before LGBTQ rights were mainstream. He opposed invading Iraq when most Democrats jumped on the bandwagon. He gave an epic, eight-hour filibuster in response to the Democratic Party leadership’s choice to extend the Bush-era tax cuts. He has always worn the label “socialist,” long considered electoral suicide, with pride.
His fundamental message — that our society’s inequalities are immoral, that billionaires and large corporations threaten our democracy and that ordinary people must become politically empowered to defeat the economic royalists — hasn’t changed since he entered politics. Bernie is, in a word, authentic.
His proposals are substantive and progressive, united by a desire for social justice. To battle inequality, he would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, raise taxes on the rich and force corporate tax evaders to pay their fair share. To ensure that all Americans live a good life, he would increase Social Security benefits; institute universal healthcare; guarantee sick leave, family leave and paid vacation time for all workers; and adopt pro-unionization policies. To loosen Wall Street’s chokehold on our democracy, Bernie would bring back the Glass-Steagall Act and enact strong campaign finance laws. Although Bernie’s agenda is sweeping, his policies are financially sound. These policies would pay for themselves through massive savings reaped from overhauling our inefficient healthcare and higher education systems.
Bernie speaks for our generation. His policies address our concerns and align with our views. He cares about global warming, LGBTQ rights and gender equality. He wants to lower student debt and totally eliminate tuition fees at public universities. To fight climate change, he favors a carbon tax and investment in green infrastructure. He is pro-choice and champions pay equity. According to a recent News poll of the freshman class, Bernie is leading at Yale with 38 percent of the vote. His closest rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, garnered only 23 percent — and this was before her email scandal deepened.
Despite Bernie’s stirring vision, he has faced four main criticisms. The first is that he’s too “populist” or “extremist.” This lazy attack line leans heavily on his self-description as a socialist. But anyone who actually examines his policies finds they’re quite reasonable, and Bernie is no xenophobe.
The second criticism is that Bernie doesn’t focus enough on racism. At first, this was true. But Bernie has been very responsive to Black Lives Matter and has the most thorough plan to combat structural racism. He denounces institutional racism, police brutality and mass incarceration. He wants to end our absurd War on Drugs and abolish privatized prisons.
The third attack is that Bernie’s foreign policy isn’t very strong. Admittedly, Bernie hasn’t discussed foreign policy much. But he wants to reduce profligate military spending and believes war is a last resort, in refreshing contrast to the trigger-happy hawks that advise the more “responsible” candidates in either party.
The final criticism is that Bernie is “unelectable.” I hear this often from disillusioned adults. The past 45 years have taught them helplessness. They say they like Bernie, but he has no chance of victory. Maybe so, but fatalism has always been the enemy of reform. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To defeat the oligarchs, we must believe again. Bernie is tapping into a groundswell of popular discontent. Americans are tired of the status quo, of a politics of cynical division and small thinking. It won’t be easy, but organized people can defeat organized money. If Bernie wins the Democratic nomination, he can build a movement that will transform America. The first step of the political revolution is for you to join him.
Scott Remer is a senior in Pierson College and a member of the executive committee of Yale Students for Bernie Sanders. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .