Is Bernie Sanders The Most Important Candidate?

In Midtown Manhattan Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders continued his attack on corporate malfeasance and the big banks, galvanizing an invitation-only crowd with a barn burner of a speech on financial issues. As usual, Sanders wasted no words: “The reality is that Congress does not regulate Wall Street,” he said. The lively audience finished his sentence, shouting over him: “Wall Street regulates Congress!”

“You got it,” the senator replied. “As president, [I’m] going to end that reality.”

Over the course of the fiery 50-minute address, the senator exhorted the banking system to join “the productive economy” by making loans to small businesses rather than speculating with “risky financial instruments.” “Greed is not good,” the senator said, in a reference to the avaricious Gordon Gekko character from the popular film Wall Street. “In fact, the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the very fabric of our nation.”

Sanders took the fight to Hillary Clinton, with some of his most pointed criticism of the Democratic frontrunner yet. “My opponent says that, as a senator, she told bankers to ‘cut it out’ and end their destructive behavior,” Sanders said. “But, in my view, establishment politicians are the ones who need to cut it out.” He reminded the crowd of the donations and speaking fees that are showered on Wall Street supporters, a reference to the almost $3 million Clinton has received from the financial sector over her years in office. Sanders implied Clinton was too cozy with the financial sector, saying “Secretary Clinton says we just need to impose a few more fees and regulations on the financial industry. I disagree.” Sanders’ words resonated with the crowd, just as his message of Wall Street accountability has been embraced on the campaign trail.

Of course, like all modern political campaigns, Sanders’ presidential run has been viewed largely through the lens of the corporate media. Whether due to bias, laziness or the oversimplifications of soundbite journalism, much of the mainstream news would have you dismiss Sanders as a socialist ideologue, out of step with the political times. In reality, the senator is just the latest in a long line of American leaders to fight for workers and stand up to private wealth. Easily the most well-known example, FDR was elected on a progressive platform during the depths of the Depression, and led the US out of its economic doldrums and through World War 2. But the list of American progressive leaders is long: Eugene Debs, Louis Brandeis, Cesar Chavez, Margaret Sanger and scores of others have helped move our nation forward by championing the rights and needs of workers.

Sanders is also part of a rich political tradition that has helped to shape the America we live in today. You guessed it: I’m talking about liberalism. Liberalism has been rendered poisonous by decades of pro-free market rhetoric; issuing from think tanks, editorial pages, PR flacks and corporate newsrooms, decades of negative associations and false equivalences with socialism would make the term “liberal” déclassé in political circles by the late 80’s. The ascendance of Ronald Reagan’s get-off-my-lawn conservatism ushered in the free market as the sine qua non of economic development, and by the time Fox News had launched at the start of 1996, liberal seemed to have become a dirty word.

But the roots of liberalism in this country go deep, and they are intricately entwined with those of the American body politic. The US was transformed by liberalism in the 20th Century, and most of the gains made by American workers during this period were the hard-fought victories of liberal political leaders. The most basic of our workforce protections, including such conventions as the 40-hour work week, are the fruits of social liberalism. Ditto the Social Security Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, the America we live in today would be virtually unrecognizable without these reforms.

And how do real Americans feel about liberal principles today? If you avoid the hot-button terms “liberal” and “conservative” and simply ask them where they stand on the issues, they are more liberal than you might suspect. According to a Gallup poll from mid-2015, 63 percent of Americans now consider gay or lesbian relations “morally acceptable,” up a full 23 points since 2001. 68 percent now consider sex outside of marriage acceptable, up 15 points. On the other hand, when asked in the same poll if they consider themselves to be socially liberal, the number was a less impressive 31 percent (the same number that self-identifies as conservative, the first time libs have caught up in the US). It would seem that some voters who hold clearly liberal views fail to identify as “liberals,” presumably because of the term’s maligned reputation.

Bernie Sanders’ liberal views have changed little after 30 years in government, but his political star has never shown brighter than it does today. That’s no coincidence: At the beginning of 2016, income inequality in America stands at an all-time high; real wages are stagnating, and 75% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Free market excesses, corruption and lax regulation are widely viewed as the culprits; if there was ever a time for a reform-minded, populist candidate, it’s now. From that standpoint, Senator Sanders noisy arrival on the national campaign trail was preordained; if it hadn’t been Bernie, it would have been someone else who shared his convictions.

Hillary Clinton taps into this same vein of dissatisfaction, but she comes at it from a different direction. Like her husband, Hillary considers herself a centrist, and she shares the former president’s close ties with Wall Street. She says the right things about regulation and reining in the banks, but her criticisms of market excesses don’t always ring true. A reliable hawk, Hillary exudes the privileged air of an establishment politician. When she first entered the race, Clinton took her time elucidating a platform, prompting Senator Sanders to remark that she shouldn’t be allowed to run on her name only. It was arguably a fair criticism; at the time, she had little to offer but campaign-button platitudes, and seemed ready to coast into office on a two-tiered platform: I’ll be the first woman president, and I’m a Clinton.

That has changed considerably, partly due to Sanders’ presence in the race. Though he has hesitated to attack Hillary head on, his uncompromising views on Wall Street corruption, income inequality and reforming the financial sector have exerted an inexorable pull on her campaign. Hillary is leading decisively in the polls, but the inroads Sanders has made in Iowa, Connecticut and his home state of Vermont have clearly gotten her attention. True, Hillary has come up short of Sanders’ plan to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act (Bill Clinton has written that his repeal of the law was a mistake, and many argue it could have prevented the 2008 financial meltdown). But for someone with such close ties to Wall Street and the big banks, Hillary has begun talking an awful lot about curbing corporate excesses. She has also been moving left on other issues, the Keystone pipeline, Black Lives Matter and electoral reform among them. And Bernie Sanders isn’t the only thing pulling Clinton to the left. The Democratic party itself has been moving in that direction on a host of issues: global warming, gay marriage, gun control and universal health care have all become key issues for Democrats.

As we move into 2016, the American public has inherited a political system that has grown comfortable and too obeisant to corporate wealth. Many Americans are angry, and have lost their sense of hope for a better future. Once again, voters are looking for someone to fight for them in Washington and help them to restore that hope. Bernie Sanders may not be the one to lead that fight in the end, but his presence in the race has reinvigorated the Democratic party and forced a substantive debate over its priorities. The debate will continue into the general election, helping to insure this election cycle revolves around real issues, rather than soundbites and attack ads.

Regardless of who you support for president, we should all be grateful for that. Thank you, Senator Sanders.