For all the focus on the sensationalism of the attention-seeking Donald Trump -- he fell short of expectations in Iowa -- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has a message that resonates with many voters. It is a message that has been largely ignored by a mainstream media focused on horserace politics: polls, who's up and who's down, who said what and how that would affect their support (and yes, I've engaged in this kind of commentary myself in columns).
Sanders' message is speaking to those who feel left behind by the 21st century economy. He's highlighted issues of crushing student debts, a tough job market, inequality, and Wall Street abuse which led to the 2008 recession. Sanders has also highlighted the appalling state of healthcare in the United States, it is unfortunate that the United States is the only Western country without a universal and public system of healthcare.
From the 1980s onwards the rise of neo-conservatism has led many to expect less, with rising tuitions, minimum wage not keeping up in purchasing power, the rise of temporary and contract jobs, and a squeezed Millennial generation where many are having a hard time establishing themselves in careers.
For all the trade deals and economic growth, many Americans have not seen the benefits.
Meanwhile America's political system is mired in quagmire, where it is hard to get initiatives through a fragmented Congress, where lobbyists and special interests buy off politicians. This political system is out of tune with the realities and concerns of Americans (as is much political reporting focused on horse race politics rather than substantive issues).
Sanders is speaking to this frustration and his message is resonating as seen with the results in Iowa where he achieved a virtual tie with the well-backed Hillary Clinton. There is no doubt as well that social media has changed campaigns, voters do not just get what is pre-packaged from the mainstream media. Through likes and shares on Facebook, issues that resonate with voters -- but that may not be talked about by politicians =- can get airtime. A candidate like Sanders who voters see as sincere and principled, who has a message that speaks to voter's concerns and frustration with their government, can resonate.
For many voters too, a candidate with strong convictions and ideals - who has a reputation for being honest and straightforward - is appealing even if they do not agree with all the views of that particular candidate. The fact that Sanders relies largely on smaller individual donations, and does not have Wall Street financial backing the way other candidates have, also appeals to supporters and shows a campaign that is a genuine movement.
Even if Bernie Sanders does not win the Democratic nomination - Hillary Clinton is still the favourite especially given her strong support in early primary states South Carolina and Nevada - he has significantly changed the conversation. Sanders has expanded the scope of debate, where universal public healthcare seemed off the table of mainstream political discourse, he has made it front and centre. His presence in the race and support has no doubt led Hillary Clinton to address issues of inequality and the causes behind it more, and has contributed to a substantive policy discussion in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
There are some shortcomings of Sanders that are worth noting though. In many ways he is a lonely warrior having few endorsements from Congress, with even prominent current and former elected officials in his state of Vermont -- including former Governor Howard Dean, current Governor Peter Shumlin, and current Senator Patrick Leahy -- backing Hillary Clinton. Former Democratic Vermont Governor Madeline Kunin penned a Boston Globe column endorsing Hillary Clinton that was harshly critical of Sanders (he had run against her for Governor as an independent candidate).
In terms of achieving substantive legislative initiatives, in building up the needed alliances and coalitions, a president Sanders could face serious obstacles. Where Obama had to struggle with a Democratic majority Congress to achieve even limited healthcare reform, Sanders' proposals for universal public healthcare would be more difficult to achieve (especially with a Republican-majority House of Representatives).
Maybe Sanders could speak over the heads to Congress to the general public, get them to put pressure on their elected representatives, but even that is an uncertain proposition.
Of course this could be seen as less an indictment of Bernie Sanders' impracticality and more an indictment of the ineffectiveness of America's legislative system. Nonetheless, it is a challenge a Sanders presidency would have to face.
A few words on Hillary Clinton. She is someone with strong Wall Street backing (which can raise doubts about her taking on these institutions) and she has a vote for the 2003 Iraq War which she cannot escape, and which speaks to a hawkishness that warrants serious scrutiny. However, it is hard to say she is not progressive. As a law student she traveled to the southern United States to investigate segregation practices, and she fought for healthcare reform in the 1990s when she was First Lady. She is no doubt politically very ambitious (probably most people who run for elected office are) but she does seem someone with a strong sense of public service as well.
She is also someone who has strong relationships in Congress, who could work with Congress to get substantive initiatives passed. For President Lyndon Johnson, his substantive accomplishments in Medicare for seniors and civil rights were in part because he was an expert at working with Congress.
A few words on Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley who dropped out of the Democratic nomination race after barely registering in Iowa, he is someone who was strong on policy and especially strong on urban policy which other presidential candidates were not talking about. He is a candidate who no doubt could have done well in another election year.
Overall, the Democratic field is much better than the disgraceful circus on the Republican side, where scientific facts like climate change are up for debate, where the bigotry and sensationalism of Trump has resonance, and where other leading candidates have failed to condemn Trump's bigotry.
There is no doubt that Sanders has changed the conversation and sent a strong message about concerns facing Americans. The 2016 election could herald a stronger progressive push in the United States, Sanders' support does speak to a wariness (at least among progressive voters) of incrementalist reforms that have to go through the labyrinth of Congress. The Democratic primary has shaped up to be an interesting one, one where substantive policy has been debated. Hopefully in the long-run this will have a real impact on the policy direction of the United States.
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