"It's a little-known fact, but we reporters could successfully sell Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or any other populist candidate as a serious contender for the White House if we wanted to. Hell, we told Americans it was okay to vote for George Bush, a man who moves his lips when he reads." -- Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone MagazineIn the spring of 1978, during my freshman year of college at the University of Vermont, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened an ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington. There was no Chunky Monkey in those days but the ice cream was incredible, and it wasn't long before Ben & Jerry's became a national sensation. Significantly, Ben & Jerry's not only made great ice cream, but they capitalized, so to speak, on their success to give back to the community and fund many charitable works.
In my senior year, Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, another progressive, socially conscious local phenomenon that has since gone national. In 1990, after four successful terms as mayor, Sanders -- a self-described Democratic-Socialist -- won election to the House of Representatives as an independent. In 2006, he was elected to the Senate and has been a passionate, eloquent -- often singular -- voice for the left ever since.
Bernie Sanders has been a tireless defender of social and economic justice since well before he or Vermont's finest ice cream became household names. He has relentlessly spoken out against growing inequality (“Our middle class is disappearing. We have more people living in poverty than almost any time in the history of America.”) But that's not all. He has pointed to the destructive force that Big Money is having on our electoral politics, has strenuously called for stringent environmental regulations to combat climate change -- including strong opposition to the Keystone XL, has been an ardent advocate for gay rights, has insisted on expansion of not restrictions on Social Security, and has pushed for more effective regulations on Wall Street.
His politics can be summed up with a question he asks on his website: “Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy?”
Bernie Sanders is prepared to take them on. He is running for President in order to do so. This is great news. Not because I think he can win. And not because I'm not ready for Hillary Clinton -- (please read Scared Shitless Into Pragmatism for my reasons for supporting Hillary). It is great news because it is critical for the Democrats to have a contested primary process that includes a candidate who will articulate populist, progressive ideas that might otherwise not make it into the national discourse. Such a process will also pull Hillary leftward (a direction she appears already to be leaning, I'm happy to say, with her important speech on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.)
As Robert Reich says, as "a strong voice to the left of Hillary Clinton, [Bernie Sanders will] give her room to be tougher on Wall Street and big corporations than she might otherwise be. More importantly, he’ll allow a national conversation about the savage inequalities that are destroying the fabric of American life, our economy, and our democracy – in contrast to the Republican clown car whose conversation for the next year and a half will be about the virtues of 'trickle-down economics' and the 'free market.'”
Beyond how Bernie will help Hillary, Matt Taibbi makes a great point when he notes that the failure of the media to take Bernie's candidacy seriously "should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn't have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring." Taibbi is right that the mainstream media's "lapdog mentality is deeply ingrained and most Beltway scribes prefer to wait for a signal from above before they agree to take anyone not sitting atop a mountain of cash seriously."
The great irony is that Bernie Sanders could only be a legitimate candidate for president if we already had in place a political system that was not corrupted by Big Money and Big Media -- a system for which he is so passionately fighting. Hopefully, his candidacy will help expose these flaws. Hopefully, the power of his message will also force the media to grapple with a wider range of issues and solutions. And hopefully, his ideas will help shape the Democratic platform.
In any event, Bernie's candidacy is going to make the election season a whole lot more entertaining.