Guest Column

Bernie Sanders: America's 'other radical'

2017-09-01 08:00
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters after a meeting with President Barack Obama. (Evan Vucci, AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters after a meeting with President Barack Obama. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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Rozanne Els

For the New York launch of his book, Guide to Political Revolution, on Monday, US Senator Bernie Sanders stands in a pulpit in Riverside Church. 

Like great orators such as Dr Martin Luther King, President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu before him, the longest serving independent member of the United States Congress’ voice echoes against the walls and roof of the highest church in America as he rallies to rouse young Americans to free themselves of a “corrupt political system.”

Sanders elicits the fiercest applause when, in his booming voice and Brooklyn accent, he waxes “radical.”

To wit, he touts ideals and ideas with moral entanglements and a responsibility to the working class; ideals and ideas that encompass a redistribution of power and wealth from the few to the many: A decent living wage instead of a “starvation wage,” for instance. Health care for all. Immigration reform that includes a path toward citizenship.

Arguably, nothing Sanders says to a thundering applause in this church on the edge of Harlem in New York could be conceived of as radical – and yet, it is with the notion of radicalism that political pundits equate his leftist ideologies, as well as discredit him.

But his ideas, his challenging statements and the rhetorical questions asked with a crooked finger and an air of incredulous annoyance, are not new.

Their foundations are in the United States Constitution, in speeches by prominent figures like Dr King and past presidents, in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Sanders repeatedly interrupts himself to remind the audience that what he’s about to say isn’t radical at all, but rather reasonable, and in some instances, a moral obligation. “The simplest question I can ask: Is healthcare a human right?” He answers himself, even though the audience reply in a thunderous affirmative. “It is,” he says. “It is. It is.”

His demeanor and crooked finger seem to suggest that the fact that Republicans in Congress have to be convinced of this, is actually the radical idea.

“Please understand that the United States is the only major industrialised country on earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a right.”

Sanders has the look of a friendly grandfather, but it belies his political stature. What are three things people should know about Sanders? “He’s old, he’s Jewish, he’s left,” answers a supporter.

He is also the first Jewish politician to win a presidential primary – the New Hampshire primary against Hillary Clinton last year.

What’s more – he is part of a long list of candidates, only seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, that have started campaigning for votes in the 2020 elections. His book, and Monday’s speech that attracted more than 2 000 people, most of them young adults, are part and parcel of that campaign. In the preface of Guide to Political Revolution, Sanders writes about its raison d’être.

The political revolution isn’t Bernie, rather the generation he describes as “the most progressive,” and the book provides guidance to turn this generation’s “idealism and generosity of spirit into political activity”.

Political revolution is an imperative, Sanders says, to change the country economically, politically and socially.

“The hardest part of politics, and something that Dr King Jr certainly knew, has to do with courage, has to do with imagination, has to do with the need to think big and not small. It has to do with the need to escape the limitations and constraints of the status quo.”

“It has to do with the need to reject as ‘normal’ what we see every day around us, it has to do with the need to maintain a deep sense of outrage at what we see around us in this country and in the world.”

“It has to do with the need to understand that the emperor, in fact, has no clothes.”

Courage. Outrage. These two words evoke an immediate and passionate response from the audience.

Their fervour, however, lessens when he resists blaming President Donald Trump for the myriad of issues that divide their nation, though he does not hesitate to criticise his “temperament, his incompetence and his racism.”

Issues such as the “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality” have existed long before, the difference being, he proclaims, that it has now become a moral issue they cannot shy away from any longer.

It is clear from this speech, as he announces his plan to introduce a Medicare-For-All Health Bill in Congress within the next two weeks, that he considers the level of income and wealth inequality as a precursor to issues like health care, mass incarceration, poverty and starvation wages, and the provision of decent education, thus requiring the most urgent action.

“This is the year 2017. Is it really appropriate, is it really okay for so few to have so much while so many have so little,” he asks – a question that resonates in South Africa and the rest of the world.

“Over the last few decades there has been a massive redistribution of wealth, but in the wrong direction. America’s middle class was once the envy of the world,” he says. “It wasn’t that Trump won the election. It was that the Democratic Party lost the election.”

The crowd roars once more. Sanders’ socialist-democratic stance sticks its landing. And yet, to many even Sanders isn’t left enough to dethrone the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, that is in dire straits.

The economic despair of the middle and working class is what Trump spoke to, and without the working class, the Democrats will not and cannot win.

- Rozanne Els is a freelance journalist living in New York. 

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