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Can an unabashedly progressive presidential campaign actually win this November?

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Reprinted from Hightower Lowdown

The Bernie Sanders Phenomenon

When I crossed paths with a Democratic Party campaign consultant in Austin last March, I suggested he come out to the local IBEW hall Tuesday night to hear Bernie Sanders, adding that the Vermont senator was pondering a run for the presidency. "You gotta be kiddin' me," the political pro snorted. "Bernie Sanders? Let me tell ya, his chances are slim and none, and Slim don't live in Bernie's precinct. First of all, no one south of Greenwich Village ever heard of him. Second, who's gonna vote for some old senator from a tiny state of Birkenstock-wearers damn near in Canada? And for chrissake, Hightower, he's Jewish. Plus, he's some sort of socialist, isn't he?"

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So that scoffer was a no-show, but we really didn't have room for him anyway.

We had expected about 200 people, which is how many the hall would seat -- but nearly 500 Texans showed up that night to hear the undiluted, populist message of this senator "no one ever heard of."

Austin was one of the stops on a cross-country trip that Bernie was taking to assess whether an unabashedly progressive, movement-building presidential campaign could rally any substantial support. If he ran, he intended to go right at the moneyed elites who've thoroughly corrupted our politics and rigged our economy to squeeze the life out of the middle class. But, would anyone follow? Were people really ready to do this, and could a 70-something-year-old, notoriously brusque Vermonter with a conspicuous Brooklyn accent be the one to spark such a modern-day American revolt? He wasn't sure, and even if it might work, he assumed it would be a slow build.

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I was to introduce Bernie at the Austin event, and as we worked our way from the parking lot into the union hall, waving to an ebullient overflow group gathered outside, shaking hands with people standing all along the hallway and up the stairwell, and then squeezing through the jam-packed crowd in the auditorium, I said to him, "Something is happening here." He nodded and said in an astonished whisper, "Something is happening."

This was a precursor to what would soon become the "Sanders Sensation," a spontaneous, unusually vibrant grassroots uprising that has already shattered the Democratic Party Establishment's holy myth that corporate centrism and SuperPAC money are the only means to victory. Stupendous crowds are streaming into arenas all around the country to hear Bernie's fact-studded speeches (which are more like ardent tutorials on democracy than rah-rah stump speeches). Not only are people signing up for his populist call to action, but more than a million enthusiasts have also pitched in small donations (averaging around $20-$30 each) to self-finance a viable, multimillion-dollar campaign that can go the distance.

For me, though, the great difference in this Bernie-for-President effort is that grassroots people themselves are taking charge -- not leaving all the campaign details to establishment office holders and party operatives who would do the same old thing. From rallies of up to 30,000 people (as Trump would say, these events are truly "Huuuuge!") to the local campaign committees that have sprung up across the country like hardy spring wildflowers, most of the faces are new, fresh, and excited.

Sure, many progressive old-timers are drawn to his maverick run, as is a cadre of experienced organizers, but the driving force of "Bernie for President" is coming from two encouraging sources:

(1) An emerging rainbow of young people dismayed and disgusted by the greed and pettiness of today's "leaders" who are restructuring America into a plutocracy that sweeps the crying needs of the middle class, the poor, the planet, and the common good under the rug of laissez-faire Kochism; and

(2) a potentially game-changing group of working-class mad-as-hellers who had disengaged from a governing system that has deliberately ignored the needs of working stiffs, and worse, cynically used them as political pawns to be demonized and disempowered.

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Pondering the phenomenon

Sanders' populist surge naturally intrigues a wide range of free-thinking, truth-seeking voters, but most don't know him, and many aren't sure what to make of his run. These voters are being warned by the Democratic hierarchy that the only way to ward off the Halloween horror of a Trump-Cruz presidency is to set aside their populist idealism this year and stick with Obama-style, don't-rock-the-corporate-boat liberalism that offers only band-aid reforms. That's not exactly a turn-on for the majority of people fed up with business-as-usual politics, but still, many understandably want answers to a few basic questions before they hitch their populist hopes to Sanders' people-powered choo-choo that could.

Question 1: Who is this Bernie character, and where does he come from, politically?

Sanders happily calls himself a "democratic socialist," a loaded term that initially spooks many people. But as Vermonters (who keep electing him -- last time with 70-plus percent of the vote) have come to know from his actions and policies, and as the hundreds of thousands of people turning out to hear him are learning, the phrase essentially means being a feisty FDR populist, willing to take on the economic royalists (and welcoming "their hatred," as Roosevelt put it) in order to (in Bernie's words) "revitalize American democracy so that government works for all of us, not just the large campaign contributors."

For him, the key word in democratic socialism is "democratic" -- rallying and organizing workaday people to reject the plutocratic corporate order and build "a society in which all people have a decent standard of living, not a society in which a few people have incredible wealth while 47 million live in poverty." Sanders comes straight out of America's historic continuum of progressive boat-rockers: the pamphleteers, abolitionists, suffragists, Populists, unionists, Progressives, New Dealers, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protesters, along with marchers for women's equality, the environment, gay rights ... and on into today's struggles over inequality, oppression, and corporate hegemony.

Raised in a low-income Brooklyn family, he was a student activist and civil rights protestor at the University of Chicago in the '60s, after which he moved to Vermont. He worked there first as a carpenter, filmmaker, and writer, but his real occupation was grassroots political agitator, constantly exposing and challenging the wrongdoings of the money boys who ran Burlington for their own fun and profit. But suddenly, in 1980, he went from agitator to mayor! He stunned the Democratic old guard at city hall by running as an independent progressive and winning (by a 10-vote "landslide"). As a three-term mayor, then a member of Congress, and now a US senator, Sanders has not merely held office, but put each office to work, creating mechanisms and pushing ideas to help ordinary people and the whole community.

One more useful thing to know about the guy is that he has never abandoned his working-class roots, remaining unusually free of the peacocking strut that afflicts too many in high office. For example, he's not "Senator Sanders," but just "Bernie" -- everyone calls him that. He lives modestly, flies coach class, and considers $25 a major campaign donation. It's also worth noting that he has not used his official positions to get rich. While most people in Congress today are millionaires or more, Sanders' net financial worth is in six figures -- one of the lowest of any senator.

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.


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