Why has the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history just announced that he will seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination? Simply put, because Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), so long and so famously neither Democrat or Republican, has understood that the presidential primaries (and caucuses) offer him his best option for taking a politics of the 99 percent to the voters of the 99 percent.
This decision may not go down easy with all of Sanders's potential supporters. There will be those who may have to swallow hard to follow him into the Democratic primaries. But Sanders obviously has not prefaced this decision by any trimming of his sails so far as decrying the failure of the leading figures of the Democratic Party to demonstrate that they're not merely the leaders of the country's second party subservient to big money interests. What he has done, however, is recognize that the primary process affords him opportunities to be heard that running as independent or third party presidential candidate simply would not.
While his choice may have been unexpected by some who may think that it somehow compromises his independence, it came as little surprise to those who have heard Sanders say that he was not going to put himself in the position to run a race like Ralph Nader's in 2000. Sanders is, in essence, simply acknowledging what we might call the "subtractive" aspect of the presidential election -- and most American elections -- the fact that if "third party" candidates don't win, your vote for them is subtracted from the total available to prevent the candidate you like the least from beating the candidate who might have been your second choice. And Sanders was not about to have the message he intends to take to voters nationwide be drowned out by the continual static of whether his candidacy might inadvertently put a Republican in the White House. After all, Sanders's problem with the Democrats has always been their failure to sufficiently distinguish themselves from the Republicans.
Sanders will mount a campaign whose like has not been seen since Jesse Jackson's second primary run in 1988. Jackson then, as Sanders now, recognized that as opposed to the simple plurality winner-take-all nature of the actual presidential election, the primaries embodied what we might, in contrast, call an "additive" aspect. Although it may not have happened for quite some time, the fact remains that the supporters of the most like-minded presidential candidates do have the potential of combining their support -- adding their votes together -- to create the absolute majority that a candidate needs to be nominated at a convention. Of course, it was also the case that Jackson actually had a type of civil rights movement support that largely overrode the need to engage in the fine points of the process.
One of the particular problems facing the Sanders campaign, on the other hand, is that many of the people it will appeal to are -- understandably -- alienated from the daily fare of politics as usually carried out on the highest levels of government. They are therefore -- also understandably -- often less connected with the workings of government and elections. And to be fair, it's not just Sanders's base that may not even be aware that there could ever be such a thing as a second ballot at a nominating convention -- a situation in which the supporters of different candidates might have occasion to add their votes together. After all, it hasn't happened since the nominations of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952. But it's not the history or civics lessons that are important here. What is important is that Sanders has opted for a path where voting for him comes with no risk of helping elect, say, a President Scott Walker.
Sanders's primary option does not come without drawbacks, of course. If you don't win the nomination you drop out of the picture many months before the actual election. But it does also come with other largely unremembered benefits. There has, for instance, yet to be a significant debate over a Democratic Party Platform at any convention of the twenty-first century. If Sanders wins a fair share of delegates, there will be.
And the even deeper significance of a Sanders campaign could be that it finally sets the forces who would wish to end the domination of our government by the overly rich and powerful back on a path of electoral relevance. One thing's for sure though -- it's going to be a lot of fun.
Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."