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More so than in his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders is now attempting to identify his own personal story with the American Dream. It is the dream that sees our country as a land of opportunity, as one that has welcomed immigrants and diversity, and emphasized that you can come from poor beginnings and still be successful. It is the dream expressed on a plaque of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Bernie Sanders American Dream

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Sanders began his 2020 campaign in Brooklyn telling his audience:

As we launch this campaign for president, you deserve to know where I come from – because family history heavily influences the values that we adopt as adults.

I was born and raised a few miles away from here, in a three-and-a-half room rent-controlled apartment. My father was a paint salesman who worked hard his entire life, but never made much money. My mother raised my brother and me.

I learned a great deal about immigration as a child because my father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket. He came to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. And, it was a good thing that he left Poland when he did because virtually his entire family there was wiped out by Nazi barbarism.

I am not going to tell you that I grew up in a home of desperate poverty. That would not be true. But what I will tell you is that coming from a lower middle class family I will never forget how money – or really lack of money – was always a point of stress in our home. My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we were still living in that rent-controlled apartment.

My experience as a kid, living in a family that struggled economically, powerfully influenced my life and my values. Unlike Donald Trump, who shut down the government and left 800,000 federal employees without income to pay the bills, I know what it’s like to be in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck.

Sanders then went on effectively to contrast his upbringing with that of Trump: his 25 cents per week allowance with Trump’s “$200,000 allowance every year beginning at the age of 3”; his poorer family that “knew all too well the frightening power employers can have over everyday workers” versus Trump’s “family of privilege” that prepared him to “entertain people on television by telling workers: “You’re fired”; his poorer family that “paid their taxes and understood the important role that government plays in a democracy” versus Trump’s “politically connected family whose multinational corporation got special tax breaks and subsidies”; his poorer family that sent him and his brother to “high quality public schools” versus Trump’s family that sent him to “to an elite boarding school”; and, finally, his “I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination. I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation, and attended Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for jobs and freedom.”

After considering such a speech, how many Americans would identify with Sanders? With Trump?

As March 2019 marched on, Sanders continued to interweave his own story with that of many Americans, especially toward potential Democratic voters. In Chicago he again mentioned that he came from a working-class family and identified that city as the place where he and other students had protested housing and educational discrimination and even spent a night in jail until “bailed out the next morning by the NAACP.” He also indicated that it was from Chicago that he and other students had ridden a bus to Washington, D.C. and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.—“one of the great leaders in American history”—deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech. This was all in the early 1960s when he was a student at the University of Chicago. His years in Chicago gave him “the opportunity to became involved in the civil rights movement, in the labor movement, in the peace movement and in electoral politics—experiences that significantly shaped” his life.

Whether it is the struggle against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or corporate greed, or environmental devastation, or war and militarism or religious bigotry—real change never takes place from the top on down.

As he did in Brooklyn, so in Chicago he applied these lessons to the present: “The reason I tell you all of this is because my activities here in Chicago taught me a very important lesson. And that is that whether it is the struggle against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or corporate greed, or environmental devastation, or war and militarism or religious bigotry—real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up when people, at the grassroots level, stand up and fight back. That's a lesson I learned in Chicago, and a lesson I've never forgotten.”

Again, as in Brooklyn, he was attempting to stir up the memories and emotions of his listeners—if not all Americans, at least those who look proudly back at what King and his sympathizers accomplished. Although many in our land may still not honor him—and remember he fought against poverty, militarism, imperialism, and extreme materialism, as well as racism—enough Americans have come around to recognizing his greatness so that today we celebrate his birthday as a federal holiday.

Still in March in Iowa, Sanders recalled his campaign there four years earlier, how when he first came there in 2015 nobody took his “campaign seriously,” how he was “at 3 percent in the polls,” and how “establishment politicians and mainstream media” considered his ideas too "radical" and "extreme." He then ticked them off:

Raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Too radical. Guaranteeing health care to all as a right, not a privilege. Too radical. Creating up to 15 million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure with a one trillion dollar investment. Too radical. Aggressively combatting climate change. Too radical. Reforming our broken criminal justice and immigration systems. Too radical. Not taking money from super PACs and the rich. Too radical. Ending the power of super delegates at the Democratic Convention. Too radical.

Yet, as Sanders related, “on Caucus Night we didn't win 3% of the vote, we won 50% of the vote and half of the pledged delegates. And that great start in Iowa led us to win victories in 22 states around the country . . . and more votes from young people—black, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American—than Trump and Clinton combined.”

Bernie Busts Uncle Joe

Sen. Bernie Sanders wades through a crowd during a presidential campaign stop at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Koreatown. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In Iowa, which has many rural areas and small towns, he reminded his listeners that he “represents Vermont, one of the most rural states in the country,” and he added, “In Iowa, in Vermont and all over this country, we have seen more and more young people leave the small towns they grew up in and love, not because they don't want to stay, but because there are fewer and fewer jobs that pay a living wage.”

Having established his credentials as someone who understands the problems of rural and small-town voters, he went on to speak of family farmers going out of business as “large agri-business corporations and factory farming take over agriculture”; of “schools, churches and community centers shut down, and once vibrant Main Streets become boarded up and deserted”; of “rural hospitals and nursing homes shut down, and not enough doctors to provide the quality health care that rural American deserves”; and of “despair and depression—and a terrible increase in suicide and opioid addiction.”

As in his opening speech in Brooklyn, he contrasted his approach to that of our current president, whom most Iowans (and most rural and small-town Americans) supported in 2016. Unlike Trump who claimed that climate change is a hoax, Sanders proclaimed it “an existential threat to our country and the entire planet” and insisted that we “have a moral responsibility to make certain that the planet we leave to our children and grandchildren is healthy and habitable.” He also stated that “Trump wants to divide us up by the color of our skin, our country of origin, our gender, our religion and our sexual orientation,” but that he (Sanders) is “going to do exactly the opposite. We are going to bring our people together—black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, young and old, men and women, native born and immigrant.” Preaching unity, not divisiveness, he urged all diverse Americans to “stand together as rural and urban—north, south, east and west.”

Later in March, Sanders campaigned in California. Following a white nationalist’s mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques, he spoke at the Islamic Center of Southern California, where he was joined by religious leaders including imams, rabbis, and pastors. He began his speech by mentioning he was going to do something that he had often been criticized for not doing in the past—speaking about himself. He then related, as he had in his initial Brooklyn speech (see above), how he had grown up in economic struggling family, but he also spoke of his Jewish heritage and how he cried as a boy as he read and looked at Holocaust picture books. Why, he thought, “would people do such terrible and horrible things to people.”

Then, as he has tried to do in earlier speeches, he connected his own story with the larger American story. Not only have Jewish people had horrible things happen to them, but here in America so have Native Americans and African Americans; and Irish, Italian, and especially Asian immigrants were discriminated against. Such prejudice is especially unfortunate, he believes, because the United States should delight in its diversity. We can learn from each other and be an example to the rest of the world on how people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds can get along harmoniously.

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In a recent essay I indicated a quote from an 1869 speech of Frederick Douglass where he held out the hope that the USA could become a “composite nation,” where a “a citizenry [could be] made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.” The quote was taken from historian Jill Lepore’s essay “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story.” She also contrasts Douglass’s vision with that of those who call immigrants ‘animals’ and other states ‘shithole countries.’ Douglass’s view is that of Sanders (and Lepore); the more negative one that of Trump.

In my essay I also quoted futurist Tom Lombardo, who believes that the personal narratives we tell ourselves “give order, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” He also writes that “the most powerful way to generate change is to change the personal narrative. . . . Similarly, to change a society, its grand narrative needs to be changed” to one that will help provide “society a sense of integrity, distinctiveness, and overall purpose.”

I ended that essay by indicating that “as various Democratic presidential contenders vie for the 2020 nomination, we need at least one of them to provide a unifying vision,” and that he or she needs to relate their own story to the larger American story or dream.

Sanders is now attempting to do just that. But, one might object, “Is he not a self-proclaimed socialist?” How can such an individual symbolize the American dream? How can a socialist provide a unifying vision, one that will unite U. S. citizens? Has not “socialist” and “socialism” been hurled at political opponents and programs disapproved of by more conservative politicians. Were such labels not flung at Social Security and Medicare? Is not Trump kicking “off his re-election campaign by making socialism into 2020's dirty word?”

Partly because of Sanders’s socialist identification, even some who admire and formerly supported him now hope that some other Democratic candidate wins the nomination and challenges Trump in 2020. One such individual is Eric Alterman, who recently presented his arguments in the progressive weekly The Nation, which in January 2016 supported Sanders for president. Alterman concludes that “calling yourself a ‘socialist’ is, according to recent polls, a losing proposition—74 percent of independent voters disapprove of it, with just 9 percent approving,” and “Sanders, of all the major Democratic contenders, is the one who will make Donald Trump’s reelection most likely.” The author also notes that nationwide Sanders’s favorability ratings have declined (see also here). “And this is before the Trump/Fox News/Breitbart/Facebook/Twitter/YouTube right-wing noise machine turns its poisonous attention to him—to say nothing of Wall Street and all the other industries that will no doubt strenuously oppose him.”

Unfortunately for Sanders, at this point many Democrats agree that he is not the best candidate to defeat Trump. According to one poll, 59 percent of Democrats think someone else would have a better chance.

The question then for progressives is, “Can Sanders be perceived as someone who exemplifies the American Dream and can defeat Trump and help unite the country or does his socialist identification make this unlikely?”

The answer to the question hinges partly on our nation’s attitude toward socialism.

A summer 2018 Gallup Poll indicated that “Americans aged 18 to 29” view socialism more positively than capitalism (51 to 45 percent). This represents a 23-point decline in young people’s positive views of capitalism since 2010. Nevertheless, a majority of Americans across the age spectrum still prefer capitalism by a 56 to 37 margin. So Sanders still has some tough selling to do if he is going to convince enough Americans to support him in 2020. (Although he has more than a dozen competitors for the Democratic nomination, the party as a whole is moving left, and by 57 to 47 percent margin Democrats look more favorably upon socialism than capitalism.)

To be successful, I think, Sanders needs to do two things:

  • convince a majority of voters that the moderate democratic socialism he has supported is not evil and might best serve their interests, and
  • that he has evolved toward a more pragmatic politician, that he is not an ideologue, but someone who will always work with anyone who is truly devoted to improving the common good.

To accomplish the first goal, Sanders needs to remind Americans, as Lawrence Wittner has done, of “What Democratic Socialism Is and Is Not.” And Bernie could also point out, as Wittner has done, that socialism was looked upon favorably by many citizens during the Progressive era. “The Socialist Party of America, between 1904 and 1920, elected socialists to office in 353 towns and cities, and governed major urban centers such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis.”

Regarding the second goal, The Nation essay mentioned above indicates that Sanders has evolved away from some off the more radical socialism of his earlier days and become a “typical New Deal–style liberal or European social democrat.” Having so evolved, he could compare himself to the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, who went from being a socialist to a Democrat because the Democratic Party evolved. Commenting on the Democratic platform adopted at the 1960 convention, Sandburg said, “That’s a very good imitation of the national Socialist Party platform adopted in Chicago in 1908,” which he supported.

Sandburg went form supporting his friend the Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs in 1912 and 1920 to supporting Franklin Roosevelt and subsequent Democrats, including another friend (Adlai Stevenson). In 1953, at a seventy-fifth birthday celebration for Sandburg, Stevenson said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” If it was possible for a former socialist like Sandburg to be considered the epitome of the American dream, then perhaps it is also possible for Sanders.

As with Sandburg’s era, so with the Democratic Party in recent years, it has moved leftward. And Bernie is correct in claiming that some of the ideas he advocated in 2016 that were considered too radical are embraced by more Democrats today.

Sanders might also emphasize that one can adhere to progressive principles and still be an effective compromiser who gets things done to further the common good. Another Democratic leader, Senator Ted Kennedy, proved this possible, and, as Walter Isaacson has indicated, our forefathers who wrote the Constitution demonstrated that they were great compromisers. Also, for Benjamin Franklin “compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it. . . . Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.”

In the public eye, Sanders is generally not perceived as especially gifted at working with other politicians to get things done for the common good. But he did say in 2016 that “if Trump is prepared to work with me and others on rebuilding our infrastructure and creating millions of jobs, on raising the minimum wage, on passing Glass-Steagall, on changing our trade policies—yes, I think it would be counterproductive on issues that working-class Americans supported and depend upon if we did not go forward.”

It is not Bernie’s fault that Trump has displayed little such bipartisan spirit, but the senator needs to work harder to convince Americans that he can and will work harder, and effectively, in that spirit to create a better nation.

walter moss

Walter Moss

Whether Sanders can accomplish what he needs to do before the 2020 Democratic convention and presidential election is difficult to predict. There is still almost a year before Super Tuesday primaries greatly influence the Democratic race. Much can change between now and then. But a question many progressives might need to ask in 2020 is, “Should I support a candidate who shares most of my political ideas or one who I conclude has the best chance of defeating Trump?

Walter G. Moss