I remember when I first realized I didn’t really like Bernie Sanders, which felt different from when I first realized that I didn’t always like his politics. It was that viral moment from a campaign event in early 2016 when a small bird landed on his podium: he laughed as if it meant something, the crowd laughed as if it meant something, and it became a whole thing. I thought: Sanders is annoying and the response to him is kind of annoying. Still, I wanted him to be president because he was the only candidate saying everyone should have healthcare without exception and that billionaires are bad for democracy. I wanted to maybe afford a family one day and for my mom to be able to retire, not a new friend.
And now Sanders is running for president again, with a vision for his 2020 campaign that looks remarkably similar to his 2016 presidential platform. That 2016 platform also looked similar to a lot of what he supported for more than 40 years as a member of the House and Senate, which looked similar to his tenure as the mayor of Burlington, which looked similar to the activism of his youth. This is because Sanders is a progressive who has, over many years and in different capacities, used the power given to him to champion left policies and ideas.
This doesn’t make him a perfect politician or even an ideal candidate, it just makes him consistent on the terms he’s set out for himself: European-style social democracy, New Deal-era job and wage programs, and redistributive policies that empower the poor and working class.
In an email announcing his candidacy on Tuesday morning, Sanders returned to these same themes:
Our campaign is about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.
Our campaign is about taking on the powerful special interests that dominate our economic and political life. I’m talking about Wall Street, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the private prison industry and the large multinational corporations that exert such an enormous influence over our lives.
Our campaign is about redoubling our efforts to end racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry and all forms of discrimination.
If you support things like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, campaigns funded by small donors rather than wealthy interests, an end to mass incarceration, and reducing a truly staggering level of wealth inequality, then Sanders is a candidate who has fought for those things, often consistently throughout his career, often when no one cared that he was doing it. More importantly, the response to his 2016 campaign also helped galvanize a bottom-up national movement that has—through committed organizing, movement wins, and a new wave of national progressive politicians—remade Democratic politics in the span of just a few years. None of that means Sanders doesn’t need to be pushed left or that you have to find him charming. You don’t have to actually like Bernie Sanders to like what he represents.
It’s actually pretty easy to not like him. He fucks up a lot when talking about race and racial justice and often has a similarly stunted old man vocabulary when it comes to talking about gender. (It’s not actually an age thing, though: his radical contemporaries do not share this struggle.) Like every candidate in the current Democratic primary, he has a voting record, like on the sweeping and dangerous FOSTA/SESTA, that he needs to answer for. He tends to speak like that guy at a lecture who has more of a “comment than a question.” If you spend any time organizing in a union or a left movement, you have probably met a Bernie Sanders and think he sucks.
He has a strong voting record on abortion rights and reproductive justice, but has never been very good at articulating why those things are intrinsically tied to economic justice. And because he often doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of analysis, he says things that are minimizing, as he did in 2017 after endorsing a mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion voting record from his time in the state Senate. That candidate, Heath Mello, had already committed to supporting pro-choice policies if elected as mayor, and the entire news cycle felt like a bad faith re-litigation of the 2016 primary. Even so, when asked about the endorsement, Sanders came out sounding weak on the importance of abortion rights as Democrats fought to take back local power:
If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.
He is also bad at apologizing, or telegraphing that he’s sorry, when he is wrong or should take responsibility for something that is wrong, like earlier this year when women who had worked on his 2016 campaign said they reported harassment only to be ignored by senior staffers. In an early response to those allegations, Sanders said that he was not aware of the harassment because “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
The comment felt profoundly dismissive: a man with a political reputation staked on workers so easily brushing off his responsibility to the women who worked for him. He eventually came around, striking a more contrite tone and, at the request of the women who had come forward, held a meeting to address the issue and discuss steps the campaign had taken to increase transparency and accountability in the midterms and heading into 2020.
This is how things should work in politics but rarely do. When you understand that your candidacy is entirely dependent on popular support and ideological consistency, you have to be responsive to the base of that support.
The Sanders campaign’s racial justice platform, which was released in the summer of 2015 after repeat confrontations from protesters with the Movement for Black Lives, felt like another example of exactly this: Sanders’s campaign, belatedly and often clumsily, adapting in response to pressure from the left and learning from the movements leading the work. It was only a first step, but was the kind of responsive politics that can only really exist for a progressive candidate. When a person sees their campaign as more of a triangulation based on support from major donors and not scaring off Republicans or centrists too badly, the calculus on responding to good faith critique shifts. This is also why, in the current Democratic primary field, it’s worth looking at who and what is funding each campaign.
Sanders, who continues to struggle with white guy political myopia and sounding like an asshole, still has one of the most aggressively progressive platforms of any presidential candidate running right now. Elizabeth Warren, who is also running a strong progressive campaign, takes a different approach to the project than Sanders: whereas Warren’s proposals are often reformist, Sanders’s approach to markets and institutions that reproduce inequality is often wholesale blowing shit up. He is also deeply committed to current popular platforms, like universal healthcare, in a way that other Democratic candidates who are just now moving left on some issues may not be. (Figuring this stuff out is exactly what primaries are for.) While almost every major Democratic contender has endorsed or signed onto Sanders’s bill supporting Medicare for All and has paid lip service to the Green New Deal in concept, they have also waffled when it comes to pinning down actual policy commitments. It is fair, then, to wonder—and press them on—how they would govern to turn these ideas into actual policy.
It’s fair to ask the same thing of Sanders, too. Even while recognizing how long he’s been in the fight, how far he has left to go, and thinking he is kind of a dick. This isn’t really about him anyway.