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Bernie Sanders has been rising in the polls, with another boost from the Iowa caucuses. The idea that he could be America’s next president is gaining among political observers who had previously written him off. It seems that they may have underestimated how important authenticity is to the electorate at this moment — and to the activist and small-donor base that Sanders has built more than anyone else.
We got a preview of this dynamic in 2016. How did Bernie Sanders, a not very well-known US Senator, vastly outspent and outgunned, with an average contribution of $27 and relatively little attention from the major media, win 43 percent of the Democratic vote and build a formidable activist base with two million contributors and a million volunteers? He was able to accomplish this because people knew that he was real.
The most prominent news outlets have acknowledged that he has played a pre-eminent role in transforming the electoral debate: on Medicare for All (or as Sanders says, “health care as a human right”), free public college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, student debt relief, and Sanders’ standard stump speech about the urgency of undoing America’s crushing inequality of income and wealth.
Twenty years ago, when we were fighting a bipartisan false narrative that Social Security was going broke, Bernie saw right through it and led the charge to make sure that benefits would not be cut. He did the same in 2012 when there was another bipartisan effort to cut Social Security.
With other candidates having adopted many of Bernie’s positions, his decades-long, consistent track record, and incorruptible tenacity have become increasingly important to his popularity among voters.
Bernie’s record stands in sharp contrast to that of his main competitor, Joe Biden, who supported cuts to Social Security. Biden’s record also differs sharply from Bernie’s on crucial economic and political issues: Biden’s support for NAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China in 2000, which cost millions of manufacturing jobs and harmed US unions; his leadership role in promoting legislation and ideas that increased mass incarceration; his alliance with the banking industry in passing bankruptcy legislation that hurt poor and working people, as well as financial deregulation that harmed the whole economy.
On issues of war and peace, Bernie’s consistency also stands out. He was a leader in the fight against George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq War (which Biden played a major role in supporting). Bernie led the fight most recently to avoid another horrible war with Iran, and to get Congress to pass legislation ordering an end to US military participation in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen, which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives.
In these efforts, as well as others, Sanders has also demonstrated his ability to work with people of very different political views, to get things done. This has included Republicans as well as Democrats in the Senate.
America is approaching what could be the end of a long and unusual period in its economic history (since the late 1970s), in which a massive upward redistribution of income took place. These decades put an end to the prior period of widely shared economic growth, in which it was common for a family with even just one wage earner to be able to buy a home, raise children, and pay for their college education.
Maybe it took the Great Recession and more than 8 million Americans losing their homes to make so many people understand how the US economy had been so profoundly transformed. But most voters now want someone whom they can really trust to take this country down a different path; a path that most economists know is quite feasible. That could be why Bernie Sanders is gaining momentum.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy” (2015, Oxford University Press).