Bernie Sanders’ surge in recent national polls, and hints he might win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, have brought inevitable comparisons to an insurgent candidate whose enthusiastic young supporters took Hillary Clinton by surprise eight years ago. But Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is not the right comparison. Sanders’s campaign is a very different kind, with deeper potential and a different measure of success.
Sanders is running on ideas and policies. Deep, institutionalized inequality is the country’s biggest problem in his view—from gaps in wealth and income to racialized policing and incarceration. The responses are policies that buttress and expand the middle class, protect workers from insecurity and exploitation, and open learning and training to everyone. Sanders argues that economic power and political power are closely linked, and that both need to be widely shared for democracy to work. This means, he argues, a redistribution of effective citizenship from organized money to organized people.
Sanders calls this socialism. It’s extraordinary to older heads that a majority of Democrats and young people now report a positive attitude toward this idea, but maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. For most of the last 100-plus years in much of the developed world, the parties of democratic socialism have stood for economic security, the dignity of work, and the need to understand the link between economic power and political power. They have offered the most robust and convincing definition of citizenship in a complex economy. In the United States, the word was anathema mainly because it was associated with the Soviets’ undemocratic, unequal and frequently brutal regime, and the copies that the Russians imposed on their communist empire. In Western Europe, though, democratic socialism remained a great tradition. As Cold War memories fade and economic inequality grows, it isn’t so strange that the United States should catch up with the rest of the North Atlantic. Anyway, as anyone who listens to Sanders knows, much of his “socialism” is updated New Deal and Great Society liberalism—a comfortably American tradition that has been under attack for four decades and badly needs a full-throated revival.
The Sanders campaign, if it succeeds, will build both a movement and a cohort—a political generation—around the ideas and policies of this new American socialism. The voters, the networks and above all, the ideas that the campaign is cultivating will remain for other candidates to tap and develop, at all levels of government, from city councils and state legislatures to presidential elections.
This is very different from anything Barack Obama did. The first Obama campaign was an instant mass movement. In Durham, North Carolina, to take one example, there was an active local Obama group, canvassing and registering voters, well before the official campaign showed up. Anyone who participated in the 2008 campaign can remember the heartfelt sense of being part of something, of moving history a little.
But the Obama campaigns were ultimately about the candidate: his intelligence, charisma, integrity, and almost preternatural rhetorical gifts. After the long darkness of the Bush years, he brought alive the wish for progress, solidarity, and unity around a better version of the country. Nothing he said was unfamiliar; it was just that he said it—embodied it—so well.
Those campaigns gave a generation knowledge of how a movement feels, but not what a movement is. Viewed hopefully, the Sanders campaign is the next stage of maturation in a rebirth of American progressivism. This time, people understand that no personality, however compelling, can ever change a country. Youthful progressive politics is growing up.
This is why the efforts to identify “Bernie’s charisma”—plain talk! half-remembered Jewish grandfathers!—is thankfully misplaced. It’s not that he entirely lacks charisma, but that—unlike in 2008—charisma is not the key to the campaign.
Better points of comparison are the ideas-based campaigns of the New Right. Barry Goldwater lost badly to LBJ in 1964, but sixteen years later his anti-government program had taken over much of the Republican party, and Ronald Reagan rode Goldwater’s ideas to power in 1980. For real analogues on the left, you have to go back to earlier in the twentieth century, when Progressive reformers worked in cities, statehouses, unions, courtrooms, and universities to build an alternative to the concentrated economic power and laissez-faire political cant of the first Gilded Age. These ideas finally rode into Washington, and then back out into the countryside, with the New Deal, which drew on generations of intellectual work, policy experiment, and movement building.
Sanders supporters are often accused, like Trump’s, of being irascible and self-indulgent—flocking to the guy who shouts the loudest. This is just wrong. The parallelism confuses the emotions of some of their supporters—indignation at institutions they regard as rigged—with the substance of their politics. Returning the focus to substance is what it means to run a campaign of ideas. The fact that some critics can’t see this is a reminder of how driven our recent politics has been by image, personality, and sentiment. So-called sophisticated commentary is lagging behind reality in this respect, looking for the branding angle or the social-psychology hot take when the issue is back where it’s always belonged: in the substance of policies.
Equally absurd is sticking Sanders with “an idea that died in 1989,” as Thomas Friedman recently did. The ignorance of political thought, history, and movements that can even pretend in public that the Sanders campaign is a program of authoritarian state ownership, rather than the standard and mild social democracy that it straightforwardly is, is another symptom of politics without substance—a chronically recurring disorder of the neoliberal 1990s, when Friedman became an authority on a political-economy consensus that no longer exists.
This campaign doesn’t end in Iowa, South Carolina, or even on Inauguration Day, because it isn’t foremost about “the Bern” at all. It’s about rebuilding a progressive politics in which ideas matter, and people mobilize year in and year out for a more just and inclusive future, though candidates come and go. Mobilized people are learning to take the candidate as their vehicle, not the other way around. That is what democracy looks like, when it is worth fighting to build.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).