Declarations of intent to run for the US presidency have a special kind of cartography. Everything is oriented toward Washington, as it was toward Jerusalem in the old maps. But the optics should place the candidate at a spiritual distance from the capital: in a boyhood home in Kansas (Dwight Eisenhower), in a snowstorm in Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), or in one’s own tower in New York City (Donald Trump). Yet on April 30, 2015, an improbable candidate for the Democratic nomination made his announcement from an open patch of ground just a few dozen yards from the Capitol building, whose imposing classical portico partly framed the TV footage of his press conference. The patch is actually known as the Senate Swamp or, as the official press gallery website has it, the Swamp Site. It gives a local habitation and a name to the Washington swamp that, in the rhetoric Trump adapted from Ronald Reagan, must be drained. It is surely the last place an outsider hoping to lead an insurgency against the establishment would choose to begin his revolution. But it is where Bernie Sanders, in a moment that continues to resonate in American politics, first affirmed his ambitions. Those ambitions now seem unlikely ever to be fulfilled, but in pursuing them Sanders has radically altered the meaning of inside and outside.
According to Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in planning his announcement Sanders had sought to identify himself even more emphatically as a Beltway insider. He considered having the launch inside the Capitol itself and, when told that this was not permitted, tried to get (but was refused) a room in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee—an especially cheeky request, coming as it did from a man who, asked at that press conference if he were now a Democrat, replied, “No, I’m an Independent.”
These are minor details, but they do tell us two important things about Sanders. One is that, unlike almost any other viable candidate for the US presidency in recent decades, he has no need to perform outsiderness. His 1997 political memoir is called Outsider in the House, a title rather optimistically updated for a new edition in 2019 to Outsider in the White House. For once, the claim is not phony. In 1991, after Sanders had become the first member of the House of Representatives in more than forty years not affiliated with either major party, the powerful Massachusetts Democrat Joe Moakley told the Associated Press that “he is out there wailing on his own. He screams and hollers, but he is all alone.” Bill Richardson, another influential Democratic congressman, said that Sanders’s status as an independent made him “kind of a homeless waif.” The wailing waif does not need to convince anyone that he is not a cozy member of the Washington elite.
If anything, he needs to prove the opposite. The other message of the choice of location for that momentous announcement of his presidential run in 2015 is that Sanders is on the inside, that for all his talk of revolution and resistance, he is not alien to the American political system. It’s not just that Sanders is immensely interested in power—how to get it and how to use it. It is that he understands that in order to achieve power at the highest level, he must be seen to belong. Sanders’s political odyssey is a very long and gradual attempt to convince the American people that he and his ideas are not outlandish. In the late 1970s—when he was at a low ebb, having divorced his college sweetheart, been crushed in four successive elections, and been evicted from his home in Burlington, Vermont—he shared a room with a fellow activist, Richard Sugarman. Sugarman told Tim Murphy of Mother Jones in 2015, “I’d say, ‘Bernard, maybe the first thing you should say is “Good morning” or something.’ But he’d say, ‘We’re. Not. Crazy.’”
Sanders has never, as Ronald Reagan did in his famous ads in 1984, said a cheery good morning to America. He has been saying, over and over, We’re. Not. Crazy. Or, as he puts it more flatly in Outsider in the White House, “The ideas I was espousing were not ‘far out’ or ‘fringe.’ Frankly, they were ‘mainstream.’” In an era when “mainstream” is a favored term of political abuse, Sanders may be the last major politician to want—indeed to need—to embrace it. Even assuming that Sanders will not get to put his mainstream credentials to the ultimate test in November, the fate of the Trump presidency may still depend on how “far out” Sanders’s supporters feel by then.
If Sanders were not a self-described socialist, this task would be easy enough. For the paradox of this self-styled revolutionary is that he is also a shining exemplar of that great paragon of American conservatism, the self-made man. Sanders, not Trump, is the outstanding political entrepreneur of our time. Unlike Trump, he was not born to great wealth and he did not have the advantage of national TV celebrity as a launching pad for a thrust toward the presidency. Sanders likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr.: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” But he himself is the epitome of rugged individualism in the political sphere. If votes were banknotes, Sanders could be the hero of a Horatio Alger story, the poor boy living in obscurity whose hard work, determination, and dauntlessness in the face of setbacks transforms his rags to riches.
When, after a second unsuccessful run for the Vermont governorship in 1976, Sanders decided to retire from politics and leave the small Liberty Union Party on whose ticket he had run, he set up his own micro-company, what he calls in Outsider in the White House a reasonably successful “small business in educational filmstrips” that he wrote, produced, and personally sold to colleges. If there were a movie of this period in Sanders’s life, it might be called Birth of a Salesman—one can imagine him going from college to college, trying to persuade busy administrators by force of charm and conviction that they really needed to buy his homemade film on the life of the great American socialist Eugene Debs.
Bernie the small businessman is not an image that comes easily to mind, but it fits well with his history as a doughty self-starter. And while Sanders promises a major expansion of federal spending, he has always identified with the small business owner’s desire to be miserly with money. “Bernie,” writes his longtime campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, in How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That’s Taking Back Our Country—and Where We Go from Here, “is a frugal manager by nature. He is always convinced that the work being done by any ten people could really be done by five.” In his own memoir, Sanders boasts of this frugality during his eight years as mayor of Burlington: “It was absolutely necessary to show that we could run a tightfisted, cost-effective administration.”
Likewise, and perhaps because he is seventy-eight years old, it is hard to think of Sanders through that other great American trope, self-invention. His primary mode is repetition, not variation. Weaver recalls being on the road with Sanders in 1986 and hearing the same speech again and again, word for word: “By the end of the campaign, I’d tease him by reciting the speech by heart as we drove down the road to the next stop.” His former rival for the Democratic nomination Pete Buttigieg stuck the label “inflexible” on Sanders’s forehead, and it astutely reinforces a reasonable perception of dogmatic fixity. Yet if we think about how Bernard Sanders (as he called himself when he started to run for office in Vermont) became the more relatable and commonplace Bernie, we can see that Bernie is in fact quite a complex creation. Sanders has managed to slough off or downplay two previous identities.
The first of these is the Brooklyn Jew. Brooklyn remains embedded in his accent, and he does not deny his Jewishness. But neither does he emphasize either background. It is striking how little he says in his memoir about his family, his childhood, his youth, or his Jewishness. His birthplace is mentioned by way of contrast to rural Vermont: “I was born in Brooklyn, and did not know one end of a cow from the other when I arrived in Vermont twenty-seven years later.” In his more recent book, Where We Go from Here: Two Years in the Resistance (2018), Sanders does briefly evoke his parents, Eli Sanders and Dorothy Glassberg, but in an oddly distanced manner. He quotes his brother, Larry, nominating him on behalf of Democrats Abroad, at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016: “They did not have easy lives and they died young…. They loved the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and would be especially proud that Bernard is renewing that vision.” That ellipsis is in the text of the book. It elides two sentences in Larry’s speech: “They would be immensely proud of their son and his accomplishments. They loved him.” Sanders, in his recounting of Larry’s words, plays down the emotional and personal weight of the moment, and all the familial and ethnic history behind it, and makes it almost purely ideological—the parents’ pride in and love for their son is folded directly into a conjuring of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Later in the same book, Sanders quotes one of his own Senate speeches on immigration: “I am a first-generation American, the son of an immigrant who came to this country at the age of seventeen without a nickel in his pocket, a high school dropout who knew no English and had no particular trade.” Here too there is a kind of elision. In that speech, Sanders also spoke of “my wife’s family who came from Ireland.” Thus Jane O’Meara Sanders’s family came from, but his came to. What’s unsaid is where his own father, then called Eliasz Gitman, actually came from in 1921: the small Jewish community in the village of Słopnice in what is now southern Poland. (His mother was born in New York to Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland.) This community was later wiped out by the Nazis.
At a conference of the liberal Jewish organization J Street, in April 2018, Sanders referred to himself as “someone who as a young man lived in Israel for a number of months and is very proud of his Jewish heritage.” Yet his books say nothing about his Yiddish-speaking childhood, his Hebrew schooling, or why he went to Israel. His experience working on a kibbutz is framed as a lesson in socialism, not in ethnic solidarity. It is only in the past few years that Sanders has spoken publicly of his family’s relationship to the Holocaust. He visited Słopnice for the first time in 2013. Weaver, in his campaign memoir, recounts an event at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in October 2015: a Muslim student asked Sanders
about growing Islamophobia in the United States. Bernie was moved by her question. He brought her on stage and embraced her. And then he described his commitment to fighting racism, invoking the killing of his own family members at the hands of the Nazi regime. That kind of personal response was rare from Bernie. He hates to talk about himself. It’s only about the issues.
What’s striking here is that Weaver, who had been at Sanders’s side in many campaigns over a period of almost thirty years, was clearly taken aback by this eruption of the memory of the Holocaust into his boss’s public persona. In an interview with Yahoo News in September 2019, Sanders said, “I think the thing that impacted me most was the Holocaust and…what it did to my father’s family and to 6 million people.”
But this is not something voters would have known about him for most of his long political career. Becoming, in the public eye, Mr. Vermont allowed Sanders to partake in the great American feast of self-invention. As Weaver puts it, “Despite his public persona, Bernie is in many ways private and reserved. Born in Brooklyn, he has nonetheless internalized a Yankee ethos.” His distinctive accent meant that Sanders could never entirely pass as a Yankee, but he chose not to be identified with his own heritage. That is of course an entirely valid choice, and it chimes with Sanders’s insistence on social class, rather than ethnicity, as the essential point of difference in America. But it surely took a great effort of will to carry it off for so long—and it points to the deeply self-conscious creation of a public character that belies any notion of Sanders as “inflexible.”
Nor is Jewishness the only identity that Sanders managed to muffle. After he spent four years at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a BA in political science in 1964, Sanders joined the influx of hippies to Vermont, seeking an alternative lifestyle. He wasn’t all that much of a hippie. He didn’t live in a commune. He didn’t do drugs, except for marijuana. During his second campaign, in the gubernatorial election of 1972, he recorded an encounter with a delegate to the Vermont Labor Council: “‘Where is your beard? I thought you had a beard.’ I’ve never had a beard in my life but I guess radicals are supposed to.”
He may have lacked the beard, but intellectually Sanders was very much a child of the 1960s counterculture, marked above all by the belief that psychosexual repression is the root of all evil. In the runup to the 2016 primaries, there was an awkward moment for Sanders when Mother Jones uncovered an essay he had written in the Vermont Freeman in February 1972 that begins:
A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused. A woman enjoys intercourse with her man—as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously. The man and woman get dressed up on Sunday—and go to Church, or maybe to their “revolutionary” political meeting.
The essay is in fact an awkward but well-meant attempt to dramatize the psychologically distorting effects of gender stereotypes. Much more outrageous—because less knowingly provocative—is another essay from the same source. Writing in the Vermont Freeman in December 1969, Sanders tried to show that women who got breast and cervical cancer did so because they were sexually repressed. He quoted extensively from Wilhelm Reich’s 1948 book, The Cancer Biopathy, which was, he wrote, “very definite about the link between emotional and sexual health, and cancer.” Sanders wrote approvingly of Reich’s bogus link between the disease and “disturbances in the discharge of sexual energy…. Experienced gynecologists are well aware that such a connection exists.”
In his own voice, Sanders then went on to warn his readers:
It means, very bluntly, that the manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develop breast cancer, among other things.
In the same article, and for the same reasons, Sanders implied that compulsory education should be abolished because it represses children’s natural urges. (The pioneer of nonrepressive child-rearing, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was then running for president, campaigned with Sanders in Vermont in 1972.)
One reason to regret how unlikely a contest between Trump and Sanders now seems is that we will not get to savor the irony that it would be the Republican candidate, enthusiastically supported by white evangelical Christians, who still embodies this let-it-all-hang-out doctrine of the need to discharge sexual energy without restraint. Trump’s rampaging id is the grotesque zombie afterlife of the countercultural creed that Sanders once believed in so passionately. But the point is that Sanders stopped believing in it, or at least Bernie the aspirant officeholder did. He created, indeed, its precise opposite: a political persona that eschewed the personal altogether and that made a virtue of disciplined Yankee tightfistedness. The enemy of repression in all its forms successfully repressed himself.
This is crucial to the creation of Bernie the politician. In the extracts from his campaign diary, published in December 1972 after he got one percent of the vote in the Vermont gubernatorial election, we can glimpse Sanders watching himself with a self-critical eye:
Spoke to the students of St Anthony’s high school in Bennington—and did terribly…. Spoke right off the top of my head, didn’t put two coherent sentences together, and made very little allowance for the fact that I was speaking before 17 year olds…. It bothered me very much that I was unable to convey my feelings to them…. Appeared on “You Can Quote Me” and did horrendously. It was just one of those times that I never got started and I was on the defensive throughout. I was kind of in a trance and never really woke up. I can’t figure out why and it was probably the most important half hour of the campaign…. I felt disgusted with myself when we left the studio—I didn’t handle myself well at all.
On the other hand, watching himself on a prerecorded TV debate, “I was surprised to see how much more effective I was when I talked slowly.”
In a rare recent glance back at the ineptitude of his early attempts at becoming a politician, Sanders recalls, in Outsider in the White House, a scene during his first campaign, a special Senate election when he made his debut on radio:
I was so nervous that my knees shook, literally bouncing uncontrollably against the table. The sound engineer frantically waved his arms at me through the glass partition between the studio and the control room. The sound of the shaking table was being picked up by the microphone. A strange thumping noise traversed the airwaves as the Liberty Union candidate for the US Senate began his political career. And the few calls that came in expressed no doubt that this career was to be short-lived. “Who is this guy?” one of the listeners asked.
That question has persisted over the subsequent decades, but so has the strange thumping noise made by the hearts of those who realized belatedly that they had underestimated Sanders. Because he seemed politically wild, it was easy to miss his rigorous self-control and how potent it could prove to be. In What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 presidential campaign, she sums up both the bewilderment this guy provoked and the transformation of the incompetent amateur into a formidable political force:
I admit I didn’t expect Bernie to catch on as much as he did. Nothing in my experience in American politics suggested a Socialist from Vermont could mount a credible campaign for the White House. But Bernie proved to be a disciplined and effective politician.
Sanders has disciplined himself into a position of national credibility, working relentlessly through the levels of government from mayor to congressman to senator to a realistic shot at the presidency. His long march from the margins has moved slowly and steadily in one direction only: toward the center of power. So of course he announced his intention to run for president from the precincts of the Capitol—he wanted to show how far toward the center he had already penetrated. He wanted voters to see him already up to his waist in the mainstream.
At the same time, he needed to shift the mainstream toward his own thematic positions. One side of this double shift is evidenced in Where We Go from Here, by a conspicuous absence: Sanders mentions “socialism” just twice—once in relation to “socialist Jeremy Corbyn” and once in name-checking “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.” When writing of himself, he now refers instead to “a growing progressive movement” and a “progressive agenda.” This is not a disavowal of socialism, but it does reflect the reality that Sanders’s imagined model for a future America is not Cuba. It is staidly social democratic Denmark. However subtly, Sanders has been engaged in a final act of self-reinvention: making himself the heir less of Eugene Debs than of the Roosevelts.
The other side of this endeavor is that, while Trump has expanded the limits of personal behavior in high office, Sanders has reset the boundaries between the sensible and the crazy in public policy. He has made the outlandish respectable. Some form of free college tuition—a signature Sanders policy—is now almost a consensus position among Democrats. The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll on attitudes to health care policy shows that about half (52 percent) of the general public now favor another central part of Sanders’s platform, a Medicare for All system in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government-run plan. It would be wrong to credit Sanders with changing attitudes from scratch: in 2008–2009 46 percent of the public already supported Medicare for All. But Sanders normalized the idea within mainstream political discourse in his 2016 campaign and in turn gave it a greater purchase on public opinion.
His ambition, however, is not simply to shift opinion. It is to destroy his own status as an outsider by taking first the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. That final project seems to have foundered on the difficulty of finding answers to three large questions.
The first is whether being “not crazy” is enough. To take health care as an example, Sanders has indeed done a great deal to make Medicare for All a not-crazy idea. But there is a huge gap between getting people to accept an idea in the abstract and convincing them that it will actually function in their own lives. The same polls that show Medicare for All becoming a mainstream notion also show that 67 percent of people who support it think (wrongly) that they would be able to keep their current health insurance coverage if it were implemented.
Indeed, precisely as an idea like his becomes more normal, it acquires the awkward complexity of reality. There is, as Cole Porter reminds us, a strange change from major to minor, from the macroeconomics of a radically new health system to the microeconomics of a family’s perception of its own immediate welfare. Sanders has won on the major but is highly vulnerable in the minor keys. It is easier for him to take on health insurance companies that propagandize about “socialized medicine” than it is to explain to firefighters in New York or catering workers in Nevada why they need not fear the loss of their existing and hard-won health care plans. Sanders, and whoever may be his political heirs, still have a long way to go in filling this gap.
The second question his movement must face is whether populism can work without paranoia. Sanders is in many ways an heir to the American populist tradition of agitation by farmers and laborers against the perceived descent of the republic into an oligarchy of corporate and banking interests. (It’s worth recalling that Sanders won statewide office in Vermont in part by casting himself as the champion of the state’s family-scale dairy farmers—he grafted agrarian protest onto his urban radicalism.) But Trump has rechanneled that energy—rhetorically though certainly not in reality—and given it the toxic potency of paranoia. He has fused, for his supporters, anti-elitism with rage against immigrants. If he had been able to face Trump in a general election, Sanders would have been offering a version of anti-elitism shorn of nativist rage.
It is notable that, on his journey toward the mainstream, one of the things Sanders has had to ditch is his own former skepticism about immigration. He opposed the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill of 2007 and consistently suggested that the motivation behind guest worker programs was essentially to “replace American workers with cheap labor from abroad” in order to boost corporate profits. Whether this is right or wrong, it chimed with a larger protectionist story that Sanders could tell. But he can’t tell that story anymore. On the one hand, as his movement has become more diverse, Sanders could not offer anything that looks like hostility to immigration. On the other, Trump has stolen those clothes and made them much more gaudily offensive.
Finally, there is the “lesser of two evils” question. In his diary of the 1972 campaign, Sanders wrote of the difficulty of “telling people that they should vote for what they believed in and not for what they considered to be the lesser of two evils.” As a candidate from outside the two-party system, Sanders had to persuade progressives and left-wingers that it was more important to vote for a genuine radical like himself than it was to prioritize the defeat of the Republican candidate and vote for an “electable” Democrat. To his dismay, he found that most such voters “liked what I was saying but…wouldn’t vote for me because they ‘didn’t want to waste their vote’ and they wanted to beat [the Republican Luther] Hackett.” Delete “Hackett” and insert “Trump” and the same dilemma exists in 2020: many progressives would vote for Joe Biden if they felt he offered a stronger guarantee of Trump’s eviction from the White House.
And if we take the career of Bernie Sanders as a guide for those perplexed by this often excruciating calculation, what does it tell us? Only that there is no straight answer. Sanders’s entire career rests on his ability to establish in the minds of enough people that a “vote for what they believed in” was not a wasted vote. If he had not been able to generate the faith that he could in fact win, and would not merely be the spoiler who delivered power to Republicans, he would not have become mayor of Burlington, let alone a viable candidate for the presidency.
Yet at decisive times Sanders himself has voted for “the lesser of two evils.” He spent much of his career railing against the Democrats as captives of the oligarchy—but since his election to Congress, he has supported the Democratic nominees in presidential elections. In 1996 Bill Clinton was running for reelection. Sanders disliked him and was strongly hostile to his politics of ideological triangulation. Sanders was asked to endorse the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, whom he considered “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive.” He and Nader agreed on almost everything. But Sanders didn’t endorse Nader. Albeit “without enthusiasm,” he made public his intention to vote for Bill Clinton instead. He did it for the most obvious reason: Clinton could beat the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, and Nader couldn’t. Sanders cares about winning and knows as well as anyone that, when the cost of defeat is so high, the choices about how best to avoid it must be made ruthlessly.
—March 12, 2020