Politics & Policy

Bernie Sanders Has an Inconvenient Message for the Democratic Party

Sanders campaigns in Clinton, Iowa. (Win McNamee/Getty)

Currently, there is a 2016 presidential candidate barnstorming his way across the country to hyped-up, adoring crowds while caterwauling about the establishment failures of the ruling political class, claiming to be the candidate of the people and the only one in the running that cannot be bought by Washington special interests. His blustery non-conformities are reverberating throughout the fringe base of the party and captivating the media’s attention.

I am of course referring to (*ahem* Democratic) socialist Bernie Sanders, who one day out of the blue seemingly just decided to get up and run for president after giving up on the New York Times crossword and Sudoku. Sanders was never meant to be anything more than a disgruntled tomato can on the path to the coronation of Queen BAE Hillary, a useful sparring partner whose job was to jab her just enough without hurting her in preparation for the actual main event. The only problem for Hillary and the DNC is that Sanders’s special brand of Grampa Simpson relativism is catching on, and Hillary hasn’t been too great at dodging punches.

Sanders is that guy you’ve gone out of your way to avoid a hundred times stepping off a city bus, who looks like he’s desperately on the verge of spilling the contents of the loose-leaf folders under his arms while sweating through the same bedraggled blazer he’s been wearing for 25 years. He’s the kind of politician that needs a person playing a tuba following him wherever he goes. We all know someone like him. He’s the guy who runs for HOA president because he’s tired of getting those damn mailers from Domino’s Pizza in his mailbox that are addressed to his neighbors, and he will stop at nothing to fix it (Comrade! The Garlic Knots coupons must be spread equally amongst the people). He’s the Larry David of Washington, unable to turn the other cheek to a pig parker or someone in line ahead of him at Pinkberry taking her sweet time sampling every flavor.

He’s just common enough for people to ignore his status as a congressional insider for the past thirty years.

And that’s exactly what makes him so politically dangerous. It’s why his legions of Internet fans on Facebook and Reddit are willing to overlook his underreported kooky theories on why women fantasize about being sexually assaulted and the causes of cervical cancer (lack of orgasms — science!). Sanders is echoing the populist, anti-corporatist sentiment that has made Chief Elizabeth Warren, a senator for barely two years, a kingmaker of her party. Sanders’s socialist diatribes have pushed even the limits of what Barack Obama knew he could get away with in 2008. But this isn’t 2008 anymore and our ears have grown accustomed to populist theatrics masquerading as policy solutions to a middle class who sees their income shrinking.

How is it allowed to go unnoticed that Sanders suggests that economic growth was better under Richard Nixon than under Barack Obama?

But the biggest mystery seems to be how Sanders is able to get away with it after seven years of a president whom he ideologically agrees with almost point for point. If a “political revolution,” which Sanders often likes to declare is the goal of his candidacy, depends on the working poor or unemployed, then by definition it needs as many of those people as possible to carry it out. The key to this kind of messaging is mobilization, and in particular the mobilization of the angry and disenfranchised (See Black Lives Matter and the Occupy movement). Saul Alinksy once referred to this dynamic as receiving power in reaction to a threat. If your goal is to get elected on the backs of the young, angry, poor, and unemployed, then the means to your end is not to create less of those kinds of voters, it’s to create more and keep them angry. Beyond this, Sanders’s hyper-populist message is dependent on the media reporting on how popular it seems. At Bernie campaign rallies, media almost always report crowd sizes like they’re reporting on a U2 concert, but the second he opens his mouth the tweets and the stenographing magically stop.

There is little to no curiosity among our media elite about how a Democratic candidate for president is able to campaign on a shrinking middle class, record highs of unemployment, record lows of workforce participation, record wage stagnation, and record entitlement dependency, while a Democratic president simultaneously travels around the country touting his economic success on all counts. How is it allowed to go unnoticed that this candidate suggests that economic growth was better under Richard Nixon than under Barack Obama?

Last week, Obama administration officials took victory laps on social media and cable news over a new low in unemployment of 5.1 percent (a lower rate, they claim, than at any point during Reagan’s presidency). Meanwhile, Sanders, as a routine part of his campaign stump speech was lamenting that the real unemployment level is 10.3 percent, and that youth unemployment, including African-American youth unemployment, is hovering around 50 percent. How can both be true? It’s simply which rates the administration chooses to report, and more important, which rates the media choose to cover — or in Sanders’s case, not to cover. 

It seems newsworthy that in the run-up to a pivotal election, a presidential candidate is not only actively campaigning against the record of a sitting president of the same party, but gathering auspiciously large crowds by doing so. Of course, if the media were to report on the fiery John Reed–inspired rhetoric Sanders is blasting out to his zombie hordes at sold-out arenas, the carefully crafted Hollywood script of Barack Obama’s successful presidency would come tumbling down.

When questioned about whether Sanders brought up the 10.3 percent unemployment figure at an event in Portland, Ore., embedded Buzzfeed reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro, who was all too happy to photograph the crowd size, hesitantly confirmed that he did, then directed me to go find Sanders’s remarks on YouTube. Thanks, reporter guy! When I asked MSNBC campaign reporter Alex Seitz-Wald about similar claims in Sanders’s speech, he told me quotes from his speech aren’t reported because “He gives the same speech every time.” So, of course, why report it at all? This is not a phenomenon unique to these two reporters charged with informing the public at large. Contrast this approach to that of media covering Hillary, whose carefully scripted appearances are transcribed almost word for word.

Sanders needs to sell a hopeless dystopian future. But the threat, of course, cannot be the economically devastating policies of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or the Democratic party in the deteriorating inner cities of Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York, D.C., Chicago, Oakland, and well, all of California. Rather it’s some corporate bogeyman against which the people must rise up: The faceless evil of Walmart, Wall Street, and any other wall Sanders finds himself yelling at. That’s a much more convenient narrative for media to sell the millions of crestfallen baristas wondering what happened to their Hope and Change.

Sanders may not necessarily be the perfect post-Obama messenger, but anyone who doesn’t think he can carry that message past Grandma and to the Democrat nomination hasn’t been paying attention to what that party has become over the past seven years.

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