‘Not me, us:’ Despite odd criticisms, Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign gains momentum

Just a few years ago most of the left internationally would have laughed at the thought that a Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. or a Bernie Sanders in the United States could become the leaders of these important countries, it now appears that such victories are almost within reach.

1649
SOURCENationofChange
Image Credit: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

Starting early this month, there was a new attempt by some in the media to gin up controversy over 2020 candidate Senator Bernie Sanders’ tax returns. Part of the point of the exercise seems to have been to draw a comparison between the Vermont Senator and the current President, who has famously refused for well over two years to do the same. Donald Trump is likely avoiding the issue for different reasons: seeing his tax returns could very possibly reveal that the U.S. President is less of a success at business than he would like everyone to think, or even point to tax dodging or other financial shenanigans.

The problem for Sanders, at least as far as some in the press put it, was the opposite: his very recently becoming a millionaire in his 70s, through books he wrote after the 2016 campaign, makes him a hypocrite. CNN’s Erin Burnett, even called him this on air. While much of this criticism has come from more right-leaning media, outlets like Think Progress, which claims to be an independent arm of the supposedly progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, got into the act early.

In a rare public rebuke of what, despite its name, is a neoliberal think tank and associated media organization, Sanders took them to task in a public letter on April 13th,  defending other candidates similarly maligned by Think Progress, saying, “Center for American Progress leader Neera Tanden repeatedly calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas… I and other Democratic candidates are running campaigns based on principles and ideas and not engaging in mudslinging or personal attacks on each other. Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress is using its resources to smear Senator Booker, Senator Warren, and myself, among others. This is hardly the way to build unity, or to win the general election.”

While the initial Think Progress piece on the Senator’s financial status remains online, it was edited after the fact to take out criticisms of Sanders’ appearance, silly attacks that say a lot more about the people making them than they do about the long serving politician.

This past Monday, when he released 10 years of tax returns, which can be found on his campaign website, American voters were able to see that in 2018 the Senator earned $561,293, much of it from continuing book sales.  It may be that Senator Sanders is the only American in history to be widely castigated for being successful without there being criminality at the base of his wealth.

Regardless, it’s doubtful Vermont’s Junior Senator, who has described growing up in a household living paycheck to paycheck, would call himself working class over his time in the U.S. Senate, where he has been making a salary of $171,000 a year. The fact that he earns more than most of his fellow citizens hasn’t stopped him from tirelessly advocating for a living wage for all Americans, engaging in public battles with powerful corporations like Amazon when few others would. 

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t seem like his supporters are buying this new line of attack, with one, Stephanie Hobach, 34, who said that she supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, attended a Sanders rally in Pittsburgh last Sunday, telling AP, “I work two jobs. I feel like the minimum wage needs to be higher. We all struggle and you know Bernie’s for those type of people.”

The same day Sanders released his tax returns he appeared on a Fox News town hall. In the lead up to it he was roundly criticized by many centrists in the Democratic Party and media in part because the Democratic National Committee had already said that it will not participate in a debate on the right wing network later in the primary season.

Not engaging with Fox News viewers would be a mistake for any candidate on the Democratic side regardless of their politics, and the result of Sanders’ appearance, as reported by the Daily Beast, speaks for itself, “According to early Nielsen data, more than 2.5 million viewers tuned in to hear Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” make his case on Fox News during the 6:30pm hour, prior to prime time. That total viewership bested CNN’s Bernie Sanders town-hall event from back in February; and it doubled MSNBC’s during the same time period on Monday evening, and nearly tripled CNN’s.”

At the end of the town hall, held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in which the Senator seemed to both win over the audience and easily answer the criticisms of his interlocutors, he closed his case in a way that drew enthusiastic responses from the crowd, which, considering the network, we have to assume was at least mixed in terms of its political leanings, “Should we raise the minimum wage to a living wage?” he asked rhetorically, answering himself, “Yes.”

“Should we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure?”

“Yes,” some in the crowd responded.

“Should we ensure that our veterans get the healthcare that they earned?”

“Yes!” replied more and louder voices in the crowd.

“Should we make sure that we do not cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid?”

“Yes!”

“Should we give huge tax breaks to billionaires?”

“No!”

“You know that’s how most people feel,” he said turning with a sly smile to look at his hosts.

This moment, which might have surprised the Senator himself, showed how his policy ideas and no nonsense style could make him a difficult match for the current U.S. President, who plays at being a populist but who has been a gift to billionaires and big business with his massive tax cuts and frenzied deregulation.

More importantly for Americans who identify as progressives, is that this new campaign corrects some of the flaws that became visible in his 2016 effort as it wore on. At the time he entered the race it seemed that the Senator was running, at least at first, to push the eventual nominee, expected to be Hillary Clinton from the very beginning, to the left by addressing the issue of widespread income inequality popularized by Occupy Wall Street five years earlier and promoting universal programs like Medicare for All and free college at public universities as ways to address it.

The nature of this type of narrowly focused campaign is that it inevitably led to other social ills being less well addressed as the Senator hammered home his message. At the time, much was made about the perceived failure of the campaign to really address the traditionally marginalized communities that form an important parts of the Democratic Party’s base, especially African Americans.

A rare politician who doesn’t seem to want to talk too much about himself, Sanders didn’t speak about his time at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, where he was a leader of an NAACP affiliated group called the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). One of the issues the Senator and his group were engaged with was a fight to end segregated housing on the university’s campus. During these efforts he was arrested alongside other activists, including an African American woman he was chained to in a mutual act of civil disobedience.

“We feel it is an intolerable situation, when Negro and white students of the university cannot live together in university owned apartments,” the then 20 year old Sanders told those with him on the morning of his arrest.

While we can’t know the mind of another person, it does seem like Sanders not talking about the part he played in the civil rights struggle is what we might strive for in our own activism, trying to be good allies in the struggles of different communities for equality rather than making it about ourselves. When he stood aside and let Black Lives Matter activists take the microphone at a rally during the 2016 campaign, many in the media saw it as weakness but, judging from his history, it was more likely an admission that as a politician from a small and homogeneous state, it was important for him to listen to them.

That this and other issues, including highlighting climate change and making a stronger critique of U.S. foreign policy and militarism, have been addressed by a mostly new campaign staff was on display the day before the Fox News appearance at the rally in Pittsburgh where some 4500 people gathered to hear him speak.

After other speakers, including San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz and former Ohio state Senator and current national co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, Nina Turner, roused the crowd, with the latter being a particularly revelatory speaker, Senator Sanders gave a long speech laying out the many issues he hopes to address if he becomes the American president. The candidate talked about the themes that were central to his last campaign but added new themes that were less addressed by him in 2016. He drew especially loud cheers for calling out the prison and military industrial complexes in no uncertain terms. 

With his campaign hitting all the right notes for progressives, whose policy ideas are often more popular with a majority of Americans than one would think by the way they’re covered in the mainstream corporate press, Sanders was recently declared the clear front runner in the primary, sitting at 29% in a recent national poll in a crowded field. Just a few years ago most of the left internationally would have laughed at the thought that a Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. or a Bernie Sanders in the United States could become the leaders of these important countries, it now appears that such victories are almost within reach.

COMMENTS