Paul Wood

How far can Bernie Sanders go?

It seems extraordinary, but the socialist senator of Vermont could be on track to win the Democratic nomination

How far can Bernie Sanders go?
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A woman’s voice carried through a lull in several conversations around the table at a smart East Coast dinner. ‘But he’s not even a fucking Democrat…’ She was one of the party’s stars and was talking about Senator Bernie Sanders. He is inducing as much red-faced apoplexy in the Democratic party’s great and good as Donald Trump is causing among the Republican establishment: outsiders both, each upsetting the smooth coronation of the party leadership’s candidate for president.

‘Bernie’ — as he’s often called — shared a stage with Hillary Clinton last week at the first Democratic primary debate. It has been an incredible journey for a man who has spent most of his life fighting against the party as a socialist and a self-described radical. Even after Hillary Clinton’s confident debate performance, they are level in the polls in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary election.

Earlier this month, I went to a Sanders rally in Boston to see the candidate and meet the voters inflicting such humiliation on the Democrats’ heir apparent. A cavernous hall echoed to chants of ‘BER-NIE. BER-NIE. BER-NIE’. Twenty thousand people had come to see him, according to his campaign, a record for a Massachusetts primary event at this stage of the race, beating even Barack Obama’s turnout in 2007.

Bernie Sanders, a stooped 74-year-old, worked his way along a rope line, plunging into a sea of eager, outstretched hands. Fans wore T-shirts showing only his distinctive fringe of white hair and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. I watched this scene with Jeff Santos, host of a ‘left-to-centre, progressive’ radio show. Jeff said Bernie was filling halls because people were sick of poll-driven, focus-group-tested candidates who might say anything to get elected, i.e. Hillary. They wanted authenticity.

‘This is a guy who has been consistent for years,’ Jeff told me. ‘He’s taken the country by storm simply because people look at a guy who’s in his seventies, he’s not out there because he’s good-looking, he’s not out there because he’s wealthy, he’s not out there to be an entertainment star like Donald Trump. He’s real to the American people, who are sick of the BS. There’s no BS with BS. It’s as simple as that.’

Senator Sanders ascended to the podium and spoke in the nasal Brooklyn twang he’s retained despite more than 40 years in his adopted home of Vermont. It was a 90-minute finger-jabbing harangue, delivered without autocue and, from what I could see, without a written text at all. It was not the scripted, on-message performance that a political consultant, or even a professional campaign, might have crafted. It went round in circles, the same topics coming up again and again. Government-funded ‘single--payer’ health care (‘Health care is a right and not a privilege’). A $15 minimum wage (‘Wages in this country are just too damn low’). Free college tuition. Climate change. Curbing Wall Street’s ‘greed and criminality’.

But ‘The Bern’ — as his supporters sometimes call him — has charisma. He held the crowd: very few people drifted away, though everyone had been standing for two hours by the end. The message was pure populism, One family, the Waltons, who own Walmart, had as much wealth as the bottom 40 per cent of Americans. Another family, the Koch brothers, could try to buy an election with a billion-dollar fund. There was a word for this — finger jab — ‘Oligarchy’ — finger jab. ‘I do not represent the agenda’ — finger jab — ‘of the billionaire class’ — finger jab — ‘or corporate America’ — finger jab — ‘and I don’t want their vote’ — finger jab. ‘We are running a people’s campaign.’

I left the press pen to talk to some of ‘the people’. There was a grey-haired woman in dungarees with a handwritten sign saying: ‘Thank you for voting against the Iraq war.’ A man in hiking shoes wore a T-shirt depicting global temperatures going up and up. A nice retired lady was telling me she hadn’t been to a political rally since Kennedy — a sign of how the Sanders message is enthusing people alienated by politics-as-usual — when a staffer barged into the conversation.

‘You can’t be here,’ said a young man with a bumfluff moustache.

‘I just want to ask people why they’re at the rally.’

‘You have to stand over there,’ he said, pointing to where the photographers were corralled.

‘I’m written press. I can’t ask people questions from over there.’

‘Those are my instructions.’

The senator himself is famously contemptuous of the media, or the ‘corporate media’ as he usually calls them. There was no press Q&A in Boston. He often tries to avoid such encounters, fearing trivial questions about ‘process’ rather than substance.

He seems to be doing OK without the media in the race for votes and for money. In the last quarter he had more than a million individual donations to his campaign, raking in a total of $26 million, only just behind Hillary’s $28 million. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever donated to a political campaign,’ said Peggy Cohan, a 63-year-old registered nurse. ‘I’m tired of the Bushes. I’m tired of the Clintons. I really did want a woman for president, but I’m tired of Hillary Clinton.’

Could he really be a national candidate? Jeff Santos, the radio host, thinks so: ‘People underestimate him. They’ve underestimated Bernie from day one.’ Joe Biden would get into the race soon, he said, and the establishment vote would be split in the primary. Then, he said, Bernie’s ability to reach out to labour as well as to progressives — a coalition of hardhats and hipsters — would deliver the general election.

It seemed to me that a socialist winning the US presidency, or even the Democratic nomination, was pure fantasy. But it is entirely plausible that Bernie might win in New Hampshire. If you see Hillary on TV with that purse-lipped expression she sometimes has — the one where she’s sucking a slice of lemon — this is why.