MADISON — Anyone on the Left who says Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders isn’t a real independent or socialist missed the speech he gave in Madison last night, when he called on 10,000 supporters to help build a mass social movement powerful enough to redistribute the wealth from the rich to the poor.
Forget about Bernie’s catchphrases about the “billionaire class,” the “oligarchy” and how no president can fight them and win without an “organized grassroots movement” strong enough to make a “political revolution.” Those powerful words are all well and good, and they are having a real impact on the public debate.
So are Bernie’s calls to implement an agenda that reads like a progressive wish list: bust up big banks, overturn Citizens United, raise the minimum wage, paid medical/family and vacation leave, equal pay for women, more taxes on the super-rich and big corporations, tuition-free university education, Medicare-For-All, single-payer health care, public campaign financing, an end to climate change, yadda yadda yadda, you get the idea. The Madison crowd collectively swooned upon hearing such ideas.
But when was the last time you actually heard a presidential candidate openly call for “wealth redistribution”? Forget descriptions of “income inequality” — he wants wealth redistribution.
Okay, so Bernie’s call didn’t exactly include bold proposals for nationalization of the economy or collectivizing agriculture. Still, the kind of boldly progressive rhetoric Bernie was using last night showed just how incredibly honest and unapologetically to the left he is. Sanders is quickly becoming the vessel for mass social movements that the “Yes We Can” Obama campaign never truly was.
That’s what’s so interesting about the #FeelTheBern phenomenon, and why, for now, Sanders is clearly punching above his weight. When The Nation editor and native Wisconsinite John Nichols said during his introductory remarks, “Bernie Sanders didn’t build anything, he is a product of a movement.” Anybody who has spent more than five minutes in a room with Bernie Sanders knows he truly is a movement man; he is popular precisely because he can talk to everyday Americans about their lives in a way that makes sense to them, free of jargon and bullshit.
Bernie invoked the civil rights, gay marriage and women’s suffrage movements as powerful accomplishments for everyday people and grassroots organizing during his Madison speech. But he also argued to bring class struggle back to the forefront of American politics.
“There is one struggle where we have not gained ground, but lost it, and that is the fundamental struggle for economic justice,” Sanders said. “A hundred years have come and gone and we have lost ground. … What I would like to ask of you is, please, think big, not small. Our job is to bring people together around the progressive agenda. Our job is to redistribute wealth back into the hands of working families.”
Sanders’s mass rally in Madison largely lived up to its hype as the “largest political rally of the 2016 campaign season” and was a successful show of strength for Bernie’s surging campaign. Sanders now has the wind of momentum at his back as he sails into Iowa for a 4th of July barnstorming tour, where he will walk in county parades and address small town audiences across the state.
Although his Madison audience was largely middle-class students and baby boomers, with a few dozen blue-collar union workers and young people of color mixed in, his Iowa audience the next three days will be decidedly more rural and working class, if still largely white and nonunion. If there’s one question his Madison rally didn’t clearly answer, it’s how well he’s doing with the influential labor and African-American wings of the Democratic Party.
The only other apparent drawback or shortcoming to Sanders’ campaign may actually be a criticism of the state of the American Left itself. In many ways, Bernie Sanders is an extension, and amplification of, the economic populist movement sweeping the country. At its root are labor unions and community organizations who fought Wall Street before and after the 2008 economic crash, as well as recent upsurges like Occupy Wall Street and the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011. The messaging and platforms from those struggles are now being incorporated into a mainstream, viable presidential candidate.
But a few throwaway lines by Bernie about minority unemployment, police violence against Black people, voter suppression and mass incarceration felt a little too much like token lip service than deeply held conviction. Most of Bernie’s policy proposals cannot be paid for solely by raising taxes on the rich alone; he said nothing about cuts to Pentagon spending. Banners were draped over the seats at the Alliant Energy Coliseum that read “Healthcare Not Warfare” — you couldn’t ask for a more receptive audience. Sanders talked about trade agreements that offshore American jobs, but he never mentioned the war machine dropping bombs in the Middle East.
He also talked about marriage equality but skipped transgender rights; preached wealth redistribution for the hardworking middle-class but never really went after capitalism or said much about the very poor. And he never so much as uttered the words “Charleston,” “racism,” “white supremacy” or “Black Lives Matter.”
Still, despite these limitations, the vibrancy of the Sanders campaign is truly exciting. His continued success on the stump is indicative of the overall strength of an unabashed progressive platform.
“What’s going on is, people are strung out just trying to make a living,” said Dale Stelter, a resident of Madison who attended the rally. “In my mind, Bernie is one of the few people in this country who is saying what needs to be said.”
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