Activist in Chief
In February, Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in his native Brooklyn. Within a week, Sanders raised over $10 million from more than 360,000 individual donors, and in the first quarter he raised over $18 million from nearly 900,000 donations. His progressive platform has immediately earned him endorsements from progressive congressman Ro Khanna of California and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner as well as the Democratic Socialists of America. In recent weeks, Sanders has been amongst the most visible candidates, ranking second in the polls with former Vice-President, Joe Biden, who has not announced a bid yet, polling ahead of him in a theoretical race.
The rally of 13,000 supporters at Brooklyn College, where Sanders began university before transferring to the University of Chicago, began with a speech from his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders. Jane, a key adviser to the Sander’s campaign, spoke at length about the significance of the space. Brooklyn is where both she and her husband were born and raised, and the place where they developed the values that are central to the Sanders campaign. These early formative years were central to the speeches by those that followed Mrs. Sanders. Once on the stage, Bernie emphasized the constant stress and anxiety that money placed on his parents. This, in addition to the loss of most of his extended family during the holocaust, and, by the age of 21, his parents as well, critically shaped his ideology as a future politician.
During his political career, Bernie has been quiet about his personal life and history, making this moment feel like a turning point in the campaign. There was the usual railing against the “millionaires and billionaires,” but the focus was on demonstrating why Bernie is the only candidate that can be trusted to take on the corporate interests. The intention was to separate Bernie from the pack; to show that he is fighting for economic and social justice because it is the moral thing to do, not because it is politically expedient. Shaun King’s speech in particular emphasized the importance of Bernie’s activism during the Civil Rights movement as evidence of this. King spoke about Bernie’s activism at the University of Chicago and his participation in the famous March on Washington in 1963. As the President of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago, Bernie led a thirteen day occupation of the office of the university’s president to demand the end of segregated campus housing. After years of protests, the university decided to end this policy, in large part as a result of the efforts of Sanders and his classmates. In another instance , Sanders’s efforts to end segregation within the Chicago public school system led to his arrest by the Chicago police. This history undercuts Sanders’s critics who have argued that he is weak on issues of race.
Sanders’s 2016 campaign is evidence of his commitment to social justice and his powerful influence on the current state Democratic politics. Medicare for All, in particular, was a key pillar of Sanders’s 2016 platform. While Sanders framed health care as a human right, his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, mocked his single-payer proposal as a fantasy that would “never, ever happen,” and most mainstream Democrats were in agreement with the eventual nominee. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour – a position that Clinton again did not support – was another pillar of Bernie’s 2016 campaign. Today, the $15 minimum wage has been adopted across a number of U.S. cities with several more planning or debating it. Moreover, Sanders’s 2016 climate platform called for the establishment of “a nation-wide environmental and justice plan,” which is not far off from the increasingly popular “Green New Deal.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, Sanders has been the leading voice on healthcare and labor rights on the left. During this short period, Sanders has aggressively targeted large corporations, like Amazon and Disney, in order to secure significant concessions for their workers. In one outstanding accomplishment, he and other advocates brought a $15 wage to hundreds of thousands of workers. On several other occasions, including most recently during a teachers’ strike in Oakland, Sanders provided significant public support for labor activists. In September 2017, Sanders introduced a Medicare for All bill in the Senate, and a House version, sponsored by over 100 representatives, followed this past February. Relatively unknown before 2016, Sanders has become one of the most popular and powerful politicians in the nation.
Partly due to the success of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, nearly every 2020 candidate is adopting a “progressive” platform. Ideas which were considered far-fetched and unrealistic in 2016, like Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage, have become litmus tests for the Democratic field. Even now, there remain substantial differences between Sanders and the other candidates. He remains the only self-proclaimed socialist in the field, which is particularly significant at a time when young people now have a more positive view of socialism than they do of capitalism. The rise of other socialists, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, could provide additional dividends for Sanders. Bernie’s commitment to Medicare for All and the elimination of private insurance further sets him apart from other candidates who have endorsed reforms but would leave private elements in the American healthcare system.
For many voters, these differences may not seem significant on the surface, but for a voting base so disillusioned with the standard Washington politician, consistency and believability are qualities more crucial than ever. Bernie Sanders greatest strength lies in his decades of experience and reliability in fighting for labor rights, healthcare, and racial equality. At 77, Bernie will not be the face of the Democratic party for decades to come. However, the “political revolution” that he began in 2016, which has only grown in prominence since, might just carry him to victory in 2020.