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Could Bernie Sanders Represent Real Change in American Politics?

05/04/2015 12:50 EDT | Updated 05/04/2016 05:12 EDT
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to the media about his agenda in running for president, Thursday, April 30, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In a recent article for Rolling Stone Matt Taibbi discusses Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator from Vermont who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Taibbi refers to Sanders as "the rarest of Washington animals, a completely honest person." A further anomaly cited in Taibbi's article, Sanders is the "one who cares." A post from the New Yorker features the title, "Integrity disqualifies Sanders for Whitehouse."

A politician who genuinely cares, believes in what they say -- who speaks from conviction rather than what focus groups tells them to say -- seems an anomaly. Sanders' disheveled hair, his visible frustration and anger at inequality and a dysfunctional political system, also seems an anomaly where American politicians are sanitized for the 24-hour news cycle.

Sanders is a declared "democratic socialist" in a country where "socialism" is a dirty word. He's a non-Christian (Sanders is Jewish by birth) in a country where politicians are often tested on belief.

Sanders can seem a curiosity, a novelty, but one cannot dismiss him. He is a fighter, a politician of conviction who is not afraid to defy convention. Could an honest guy shake up the system? Is there a place for a politician who genuinely cares?

Whether or not one agrees with everything Sanders says, it is exciting to see someone who genuinely believes in what they say enter the presidential race, a politician who has made it his life work to help the poor and vulnerable and take on the rich and powerful.

Barack Obama is likely to be remembered as a great president. The financial stimulus probably prevented the Great Recession from turning into a Great Depression. Obama's financial aid package prevented a collapse of the automobile industry. Obama succeeded where Bill Clinton failed in enacting substantial healthcare reform.

In the closing stretch of his presidency, Obama has shown a new boldness in thawing relations with Cuba, supporting a diplomatic approach to Iran, and -- at the White House correspondent's dinner -- openly calling out the absurdity of those who deny climate change despite the realities of increasingly erratic weather (a reality recognized by governments in New York City and Washington state, which have climate change adaptation policies).

However, Obama's early refrain of "working across the aisle" now seems naïve given the entrenched opposition of the Republican Party in Congress. He had to deal with a divided system of government and a preponderance of will-financed interests from Wall Street to the military-industrial complex. Health-care reform, while substantial, falls short of a universal public system found in most western democracies.

The accomplishments of the Obama administration, while substantial, do not quite seem to meet up to the promise of his 2008 refrain of "hope" and "change." Hillary Clinton, while experienced and capable, is seen (along with her husband) as too tied to Wall Street. She is subject to a system where presidential elections are staggeringly expensive and wealthy donors are needed.

Enter Bernie Sanders. He unapologetically takes on the mega-rich, calls out the role of big money in America's political system. He advocates for genuine change, including a universal public system of healthcare. He raises concern about the eroding middle-class in America, the plight of low income earners, and the increased divergence between the very rich and the rest. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, from 1979 to 2007, the after-tax income of the top one per cent grew 275 per cent while it was 65 per cent and 40 per cent for the next 19 and 60 per cent respectively. For the bottom group, income grew a mere 18 per cent. The post-2008 story has not been much different, with the earnings of those in the top income bracket continuing to grow disproportionately.

Sanders' "democratic socialism" is basically the Western European model, a strong market economy with checks on big business and a strong social safety net to help the poor and middle-class. This is what British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband would refer to as "responsible capitalism."

Could Sanders' candidacy bring much needed change to American politics by exposing gross inequalities and abuses? Could he force Hillary Clinton (who is almost certain to win the nomination) to take more progressive positions? One thing is for sure, he has made the Democratic nomination, which was shaping up as a bland coronation of Hillary Clinton, a more interesting race.

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