31 Aug 2015

Sanders time: why is America feeling the Bern?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders wipes his brow while speaking at a campaign stop in Conway

When describing Bernie Sanders, “surging” is not the first word that comes to mind.  But that’s what the vinegary senator from Vermont is doing in the polls.

He was met with only low expectations when he announced his intention to join the race for the Democratic nomination for next year’s presidential election  but he’s exceeded those, and then some. One poll in the key early voting state of New Hampshire had him leading Hillary Clinton herself – and at the weekend, we learned he’s within a whisker of the former Secretary of State in Iowa.

The 73-year-old free range senator is an abrasive reminder that the best-laid political plans can be put at risk by a plucky outsider, riding a wave of frustration with politics as usual.

In New Hampshire, we trailed Bernie Sanders campaigning before hundreds of potential primary supporters, many of them women, some curious teenagers, plenty of seniors, all nearly exclusively white.

There was the accordion player, the guy selling buttons with “Feel the Bern” emblazoned on them, and an excess of orthopaedic sports sandals.

But for the vast majority, this isn’t about style. It’s about substance. One lady with a neat grey bob laughingly denied she was a socialist, but suggested Sanders is the only candidate making sense to her. He speaks his mind. He’s trustworthy. He’s real.

Bernie Sanders is so real, he doesn’t even tell you how authentic he is. He talks about ‘professional politicians’ as though he isn’t one, despite serving in congress since 1990.

He has a status outside the dark arts of modern politics: triangulation, and focus groups. He voted against the Iraq War. He believes in the kinds of things British voters take for granted: wild-eyed socialist schemes like the right to healthcare and education and paid parental leave.

His advisers tell me he’s well aware who Jeremy Corbyn is, although he passes up the chance to answer the question I try to ask about his political doppelgänger across the pond.

If he’d listened, I would have liked to have known whether he thought this apparently simultaneous stampede to the left in the US and the UK is really about people embracing hitherto unpopular policy, or whether he and Jeremy are just the wrong men at the right time.

Wrong in the sense they haven’t fitted mainstream politics up until now, but in the moment when everyone is fed up with politics as usual, maybe unpopular politics can be transformative.

Mind you, not everyone is a fan. Black Lives Matter activists have disrupted Sanders’ campaign, who they criticize for failing to address the everyday crisis facing African-Americans (he has since responded by delivering a racial justice policy).

If he’s unable to wrest the African-American vote from candidate Clinton, it’s unlikely his success will travel far beyond the forests of New England.

And as for his economic policies, one uncertain voter explained to me that in New Hampshire, if you own a car and a house, you’re a millionaire. “Bernie needs to ease up,” he told me.

Among his followers, I’m met with a shrug and a pause as long as a Vermont winter when I ask whether they really think Bernie is bound for the White House.

One man, dressed in cycling gear, explains that even if he isn’t, Bernie (for that’s what they call him) is putting issues on the table that people care about, and that “other candidates” (which I take to mean Hillary Clinton) will have to talk about to win votes.

Senator Sanders is changing the game, the theory goes, with his talk of money in politics (the average Bernie donor gives just over $30), and the excesses of Wall Street and corporate America.

Would they vote for Hillary, if they couldn’t have Bernie? Well, yes, maybe begrudgingly.

While it’s the Republican race that has dominated this long American summer, and the rise and rise of Donald Trump, the Democratic storyline also has no shortage of drama.

The rise of Bernie Sanders; the failure of the Hillary campaign to ignite – bogged down in the persistent controversy over emails when she was Secretary of State – and now; every indication that vice president Joe Biden will add his name to the contest.

Forget the Republican debate, it’s all eyes left – and even further left – to see what happens next.

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