Feel the Bern: Will the rest of America get Bernie Sanders?
ADDISON COUNTY — Across the United States, voters are beginning to take notice of the straight-talking presidential candidate with wispy gray hair and a thick Brooklyn accent. They are gathering in smaller liberal bastions of the Midwest at record-breaking numbers. They are “feeling the Bern,” and swept up in waves of “Bernie-mentum.”
And as the national spotlight turns to Sen. Bernie Sanders, major news outlets have begun to present dichotomous interpretations of the Vermont senator’s presidential run. Sanders has been described as both a long-shot candidate and one who is quickly and unexpectedly gaining ground on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Yet while Americans from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Bay Area of California begin to rally behind Sanders and political pundits grapple with his campaign, there is a sense here, in his home state, that the rest of the country is just now beginning to learn what Vermonters have already long understood.
It remains to be seen if what has made Sanders a popular and successful politician in the Green Mountain State will translate to voters in other parts of the United States.
With considerable statewide popularity, Sen. Sanders has now spent more than 30 years serving Vermonters in elected office. Originally elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, Bernie, as he is commonly known, went on to spend 16 years as Vermont’s sole congressman in the House of Representatives (in 1990 he was the first Independent elected to the House in 40 years) before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
His long record of public service has not been lost on his constituents.
“We know him. We know what Burlington is, and we can remember what Burlington was like before Bernie,” said David Brynn, a conservation forester and Bristol resident. “Bernie has been Bernie for as long as I’ve known him, which is a long, long time.”
Comments such as these are typical amongst local Sanders supporters. Many Vermonters can cite at least one instance of a personal interaction with the presidential candidate, and the light blue Bernie ’16 bumper stickers that have begun to amass on rows of Subarus are typically plastered next to similar showings of support for his previous campaigns.
“Bernie has always known who he serves,” said Shyla Nelson, a native Vermonter living in Burlington who is part of an online community of activists for the Sanders campaign. “When he was mayor, he truly took care of the people of Burlington. He was on call 24/7 to be a responsive, present, active member of the community.”
As his presidential campaign transforms Sanders into a nationally recognized figure, there is an unmistakable sense of pride amongst local supporters that his longstanding ideology, particularly surrounding class-based issues, has gained attention on a larger scale.
“I think people are waking up to the reality that we are in a critical time, that top-down policies and an unengaged electorate just aren’t going to do it, and that we need to make significant changes,” said Brynn, who organized a pro-Sanders float in Bristol’s Fourth of July parade.
“We’re at a crisis point with regard to income inequality and the extent to which our political process has been co-opted by the corporatization of our country,” said Nelson. “Bernie has been worried about this for decades.”
Middlebury College political science professor emeritus Eric Davis, an expert on Vermont and national politics, cited Sanders’ ideological consistency as part of his appeal to local voters.
“(Sanders) has been campaigning for a long time in Vermont. If you listen to him today, he’s talking about the exact same sort of things he talked about when he ran for governor and Congress back in the 1980s,” said Davis. “It’s not a focus group tested thing, it’s what he really believes.”
Beyond Sanders’ credibility, which appears to be steeped in his longtime public service, Davis also said that the senator’s leftist ideology, though by no means unanimously accepted by the Vermont electorate, still appeals to many Vermonters. And despite some ideological variety within the state, Vermont has transformed into a liberal stronghold in federal elections over the past 50 years.
“It’s a combination of economic issues, social issues and foreign policy issues that I think defines Democratic liberalism or progressivism in Vermont,” said Davis. “It’s a more redistributionist economic policy, a non-interventionist foreign policy, a strong concern with environmental issues, and an opposition to government restrictions on behavior.”
Yet as the Sanders campaign takes on a national platform, the question then becomes if and how this Vermont version of Democratic liberalism will translate to a more diverse and politically varied constituency.
Middlebury College professor of political science Matthew Dickinson said that Sanders will most likely receive support from the more left-leaning sectors of the American electorate.
“There is that built-in constituency in the Democratic Party that is very progressive,” he said. “They’re the ones who are rallying. They are the core of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and they love Bernie because of what he stands for.”
Yet both Dickinson and Davis pointed to the relative limitations of running on such a liberal platform, particularly with a more moderate candidate such as Hillary Clinton in the race.
“Bernie makes no apologies for being a democratic socialist, but the democratic socialist tradition is just not very strong in the United States,” said Davis. “I think Bernie is to the left of where the majority of Democratic primary voters are, and he’s certainly to the left of where the majority of the American electorate as a whole are.”
“We are a very moderate country in the sense that our politics plays out on a very narrow ideological band,” said Dickinson. “We have two relatively centrist parties that are big tent parties in the sense that they encompass many different views.”
Sanders is neither the first political candidate running left-of-center to make waves in the race for the Democratic nomination, nor the first from Vermont. As his campaign gains ground, voters and political experts alike have drawn comparisons between Sanders and former Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Yet Dickinson said that there are important differences between the two candidates.
“If you knew Howard Dean when he was governor, he was not a progressive. When he decided to run for national office, he sort of had to reconfigure himself as a liberal,” Dickinson said. “Their political history is diametrically different, but in terms of portraying themselves within the Democratic Party coalition, and who they were looking to for support, there are a lot of similarities. He faced a lot of the same problems: can a relatively obscure candidate from a small state run nationally?”
Yet beyond the constraints of his ideological appeal to a national constituency, both Dickinson and Davis pointed to practical impediments to Sanders’ winning the Democratic nomination.
“When you’re looking for candidate viability, you really want to look at three things: where do they stand in the polls, how much money are they raising, and what are they doing in terms of endorsements,” said Dickinson. “Bernie is raising a good amount of money, but not as much as Hillary. He’s polling very well, but not as well as Hillary. And the endorsements so far — our Vermont delegation, almost uniformly, has endorsed Hillary.”
Vermont’s two leading Democratic officeholders — senior U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Gov. Peter Shumlin — have both expressed support for Clinton.
“Every poll I’ve seen shows that Bernie Sanders is not making inroads with African-American and Latino voters. In part, that’s because of the historical ties of Hillary and the Clintons,” said Davis. “Bernie does not have much experience dealing with a diverse electorate. Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country, and there are very few diverse voters in this state.”
Dickinson said Sanders’ ability to capture the nomination extends beyond just building a racially diverse coalition.
“Hillary has better name recognition. She’s starting out with a higher level of support,” said Dickinson. “The question is whether some of Bernie’s issues can eat into some of that support.”
Still, local supporters of Sen. Sanders remain optimistic.
“I think he’s gonna win,” said Brynn. “I think he has that capacity and I think that the more people understand Bernie Sanders, and the more they understand that he’s not a demagogue by any stretch of the imagination, they are going to warm up to his message and they’re going to turn out, just like they’re starting to turn out now.”
Nelson of Burlington is also optimistic.
“I think Bernie represents an entire shift in the psychology of the political process in the United States,” she said. “He is not just an individual man, as he says, he is the lightning rod of an entire political movement, which I think has been fomenting beneath the surface of the American psyche for decades. I think we’re going to see an extraordinary uprising of populist support for the ideals that Bernie has embodied for his entire career.”
THE BERNIE SANDERS for President campaign has inspired offbeat shows of support, including this band of kazoo players who marched in Bristol’s Fourth of July parade.
Independent file photo/Trent Campbell