"We will not accept cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid," declared US Senator Bernie Sanders Monday night, at The Nation Institute dinner where the independent senator from Vermont was cheered for his absolute defense of programs that he argues must not be sacrificed to the austerity demands of those who would toss working American off the "fiscal cliff."
That Sanders is a hero to progressives, like those who gathered Monday night in New York for the annual event, is no secret.
But what is the Sanders secret?
How does an independent senator, who refuses to accept the false constructs of the Republican right and its media echo chamber, who calls out compromising Democrats, and who rejects the centrist fantasies of so many pundits, keep winning elections by overwhelming margins? And what can progressives learn from his political success -- and aggressive progressivism -- as they engage in the fiscal-cliff fight, prepare for the coming Congress and set the stage for the elections of 2014 and 2016?
To begin with, Sanders does not accept conventional wisdom, and he does not play by conventional political rules.
The narratives spun by political and media elites throughout the 2012 election campaign were all about money and television buys, polls and personalities. Both major parties focused on a narrow set of issues, and an even narrower set of appeals directed to a conventional wisdom that imagined Americans wanted only drab variations on the moderate themes sounded by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in their last debate. But in Vermont, the most refreshingly unconventional politician in America was coasting toward re-election with a campaign that broke all the rules.
Sanders ran no attack ads. In fact, he ran no TV commercials. He finished the campaign still speaking in full sentences, not soundbites; still inviting voters to ask complicated questions on controversial issues -- and still answering with big, bold proposals to address climate change, really reform healthcare with a single-payer "Medicare for All" program, steer money away from the Pentagon and toward domestic jobs initiatives, and counter the threat of plutocracy posed by Citizens United by amending the Constitution. Rejecting the empty partisanship of the pre-election frenzy, Sanders was ripping the austerity agenda of Romney and Paul Ryan, while warning that Obama and too many Democrats were inclining toward an austerity-lite "grand bargain" that would make debt reduction a greater priority than saving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Despite breaking all "the rules," Sanders, who was honored Monday night by The Nation Institute, won -- big. The senator took 71 percent of the vote versus just 25 percent for his closest rival, Republican John MacGovern, a businessman and four-term Massachusetts state legislator who promised to replace "the only admitted socialist in the US Senate." Sanders won among women and men, across income and education categories, and in every region -- even carrying the corners of the state that backed Romney.
"I go crazy with all these Democrats saying you have to go conservative to win, you have to go cautious to win. These damned consultants come in and say, 'This is how you have to run,' and it's always the same: raise money, spend it on television, don't say anything that will offend anyone. And the Democrats do it and then they end up in tight races, worried about whether they'll make it," says Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats but rarely takes advice from anyone in Washington. "For the life of me, I can't figure out why progressives listen to consultants. Building movements, making progress on progressive issues -- you have to talk to people, educate people, organize people."
So Sanders took the money he raised for his re-election campaign and put it into an energetic door-knocking project that began long before other candidates were running TV ads. The point wasn't to build name recognition; through 40 years of losing and then winning elections, Sanders has been to virtually every town in the state. At the roughly 20,000 doors knocked on by the legions of Sanders volunteers during this campaign, the "ask" was for a lot more than votes. Vermonters were urged to come out and spend a few hours -- yes, a few hours -- with Sanders at their town halls. "We've organized meetings in towns of 300, and more than 100 people show up. They stay into the evening, talking about saving post offices and getting people dental care and bringing troops home from Afghanistan."
Sanders bristles when pundits who don't know Vermont dismiss his approach to campaigning as a regional deviation that might work in what is often portrayed as a quirky liberal state that couldn't possibly have relevance for the rest of the country. "It wasn't that long ago that Vermont was one of the most Republican states in the country. Until two years ago, the governor was a Republican; the lieutenant governor is a Republican. This is a significantly rural state. This is a state with some very conservative regions."
Yet, Sanders won by wide margins even in areas where Democrats run poorly. Why? Because the senator does not waste money on TV commercials designed to scare or fool voters into backing him. Rather, he goes where voters live. Personal Democracy Media co-founder and editorial director Micah Sifry, who has followed Sanders and Vermont politics for years, recalls:
"Visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters] was one of the ways that Sanders managed to earn the trust of the predominantly conservative and working-class Northeast Kingdom section of Vermont, which regularly gives Sanders, a self-declared socialist, its hearty support."
If national Democrats did the same, Sanders suggests, there could be many more progressive Democrats representing rural states. He gets furious at the "swing-state strategies" that target a few competitive states and districts while neglecting the long-term work of building support in "What's the Matter With Kansas?" areas.
As the 2012 race took shape, there was plenty of discussion about the prospect that the Vermonter would become a target of Karl Rove and the right-wing money machine. After all, says the senator, "There's nobody Wall Street likes less." Former Republican Governor Jim Douglas weighed the race seriously before deciding not to run. "Why didn't they think they could come in and shout 'socialist' and 'radical' and take me out?" asks Sanders. "I think they realized they can't roll over someone who has built real connections with people, not with 30-second ads but by holding town meetings, by using newsletters to talk about economic issues, by taking their side when the big fights come."
That last piece of the equation is what worries Sanders most. He thought Obama and the Democrats ran far too cautious a campaign this fall. "Why, in God's name, in a tight race, did Barack Obama have a hard time saying six words: 'I will never cut Social Security'? Why won't these Democrats say: 'We will never cut Social Security'?" wonders Sanders. "If they can't say that, how are they ever going to go after Wall Street?"
The American people have answers to those questions, he says: "They think it has a lot to do with where campaign money comes from." Since the election, Sanders has been cheered by the fact that Obama and the Democrats have been firm in their defenses of Social Security during the initial "fiscal cliff" negotiations. But he still worries that the bargaining could threaten Medicare and Medicare. If Democrats compromise, Sanders says, a lot of voters will believe they were unduly influenced by the money power. In the Citizens United era, the senator thinks Democrats, even (perhaps especially) progressive Democrats, need to get better at winning elections without relying on big money and the cookie-cutter strategies of campaign consultants. It's a lesson they could learn from Bernie Sanders.
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