Hillary Clinton’s loss gave his efforts a new urgency. The electoral map, with its imposing swaths of red, pointed to a crisis confronting American liberalism. Donald Trump may have lost the popular vote, but, as he likes to point out, he won 2,626 counties to Clinton’s four hundred and eighty-seven. Many of these counties are in states that Sanders won last year, campaigning on a platform of economic populism—Medicare for all, tuition-free college, and a fifteen-dollar minimum wage. Sanders told me that Trump was smart enough to understand that the Democratic Party had turned its back on millions of people: “He said, ‘Hey, I hear you. I’m going to do something for you.’ And he lied.” Sanders, who is seventy-five, may be too old to run again in 2020, but his barnstorming has a purpose—to deepen the connection to progressive ideas in rural America, to develop an attachment that might outlast him. At recent events, one of his biggest applause lines was that the “Republicans did not win the election so much as Democrats lost it.” Progressives do not have much of a foothold in this country. What they have is Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, who has represented Vermont in the Senate for the past decade, and served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007, has always had a complicated relationship with the Democrats. He caucuses with them and ran for their Presidential nomination, but he is an Independent. His insistence on separation from the Party may be partly temperamental—though born in Brooklyn, Sanders has the demeanor of a prickly Yankee—but it also reflects his underlying commitments. The word “oligarchy” is important to Sanders, and it gives his statements a messianic tone. Sanders told me, “The message has got to be that we can’t move along towards an oligarchy. We’ve got to revitalize American democracy.”
For decades, Sanders has argued for a single-payer health-care system, and he is getting ready to introduce a “Medicare for All” bill in the Senate. This summer, however, he assigned himself the task of leading the campaign against efforts, by Republicans in the House and the Senate, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On the Sunday after the Fourth of July, as Senate Republicans prepared to release their bill, Sanders took a charter flight from Burlington to West Virginia and Kentucky, for a pair of hastily arranged rallies. He and his staff had chosen states whose Republican senators were pivotal in the health-care debate. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, was shepherding the bill toward a vote without any public hearings. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, and Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, were indicating that they might vote against it.
Sanders talked about the Senate bill’s likely effects in McConnell’s home state. “How do you throw two hundred and thirty thousand people off the health care they have without hesitation?” he asked. “It happens because the Democratic Party is incredibly weak in states like Kentucky. And so he doesn’t have to face the wrath of the voters.” But it wasn’t just the Democrats who were absent in Kentucky, he said; it was also a balanced press. “In many of these conservative states, you get a media that is all right wing.” One purpose of his visit, he said, was to generate local coverage, so that he could explain to ordinary people “what’s in the bloody legislation.”
Sanders’s first stop was in Morgantown, West Virginia; he had been in the state just two weeks earlier. He remembered a tattoo artist who had spoken then, a man who’d had to fight for emergency insurance after he developed testicular cancer, and had become an advocate for single-payer health care. Now an aide asked Sanders backstage if he wanted to speak with Reggie. “Rusty,” Sanders said, correcting the aide. Rusty Williams approached, and Sanders asked him how he was doing. Williams said that he was working less but that the cancer was in remission. Sanders put his hands on Williams’s shoulders and gave him a pep talk: “At least you are healthy. That’s something.”
Morgantown, the home of West Virginia’s largest state university, is a progressive enclave. But classes were not in session, and the room where Sanders’s event was being held, at a Marriott, was small. Before he spoke, Sanders kept asking aides for the crowd count, and how many people were watching the live stream.
Sanders is not a storyteller. His speeches, blunt and workmanlike, depend upon dramatizing social statistics. Before an audience of more than seven hundred people, Sanders said that, if the Republican bill passed, a hundred and twenty-two thousand West Virginians would lose their Medicaid coverage, insurance premiums would double, and seven thousand senior citizens would be unable to pay for their care facilities. “How many seniors now in nursing homes will get thrown out on the street or be forced to live in their children’s basement?” Sanders said. What would happen to the tens of thousands of West Virginians who lost health insurance if they were to get sick? “The horrible and unspeakable answer is that, if this legislation were to pass, many thousands of our fellow-Americans will die.”
Death and despair have been Sanders’s themes since he launched his Presidential campaign. From West Virginia, he headed to Covington, Kentucky, in an area where the opioid epidemic has been particularly devastating. What had gone so badly in people’s lives that they were turning to heroin and opioids? “There is something going on in West Virginia and Kentucky which is unbelievable, which is what sociologists call the illnesses of despair,” Sanders told me. He had been to parts of West Virginia where there were very few jobs, “fewer that pay a living wage,” and there was a steep psychic cost. “There is a lot of pain. And we’ve got to understand that reality. And then tell these people that their problems are not caused by some Mexican making eight dollars an hour picking strawberries.”
Three weeks earlier, a man named James Hodgkinson, who had volunteered on Sanders’s Presidential campaign in Iowa, had tried to assassinate Republican members of Congress as they practiced for an annual baseball game. Sanders, who was in his Senate office that morning, rushed to the floor to condemn the shooting. He believed that it had something to do with what he had been seeing in his travels. “I think there is an enormous amount of anger out there,” he told me in Kentucky. “I think there is an enormous amount of despair. We have got to address that issue, and if we don’t I worry about the future of this country.”
Since the election, the Democratic Party has tried to move closer to Sanders’s views. Last week, in a small town in northern Virginia, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, announced the Party’s platform for 2018, “A Better Deal,” which is aimed at winning back working-class voters. The platform includes a fifteen-dollar minimum wage and a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure, plans that Sanders has long promoted, often with little support. Many people in the Democratic Party believe that, when it comes to policy, Sanders has prevailed. Sanders does not see it that way. He told me, “Do not underestimate the resistance of the Democratic establishment.”
When the Democratic Party fractured, in the primaries, it was like a bone cracking—the Clintonites on one side, the Sanders faction on the other, with no obvious way to repair the break. Sanders’s supporters deeply resented the Party’s obvious preference for Clinton; Clinton’s backers accused them of sexism. Last July, at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, the Sanders faithful shouted down podium speakers, marched out of the hall and occupied a media tent, and covered their mouths with tape, on which some of them had written the word “Silenced.” The two camps clashed again this winter, in the contest for the Democratic Party chair. Tom Perez, who was President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, narrowly defeated Representative Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and an ally of Sanders. The insurgents had come up short again.
Sanders asked Perez to join him for a series of rallies around the country in April. The events had been planned as shows of support for Obamacare, but, after some conversations, they were billed as a Unity Tour, to demonstrate that the Party had healed. But the Party had not healed. In Maine, Sanders supporters booed Perez. Sanders contributed to the discord. State parties wanted access to his e-mail list, but his staff refused to share it, telling officials to collect contact information at events.
In Louisville, Perez and Sanders sat for a joint interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, two bald, bespectacled men, shoulder to shoulder, neither of them smiling. On camera, Sanders commenced a silent, exasperated gymnastics involving his tongue and lower lip. Hayes asked Sanders if he considered himself a Democrat. “No, I’m an Independent,” Sanders said. Then he gave a brief lecture about the Party’s liabilities. Democrats would continue to lose elections “unless we have the guts to point the finger at the ruling class of this country.” Hayes asked Perez if he shared that view, and Perez wearily issued a talking point: “When we put hope on the ballot, we win.” Clinton, Hayes pointed out, had put hope on the ballot. She had not won. Whereas Perez offers the liberal abstraction of inequality, Sanders insists on naming an enemy, the billionaire class.
Sanders’s great political gift is his relentlessness. In 1968, when Sanders was twenty-six, he moved from New York City, where he had grown up, to an especially poor and conservative part of Vermont, called the Northeast Kingdom. He spent a year in the town of Stannard, which even now has unpaved roads and a population of only two hundred; Sanders recalled seeing the “rotting teeth” of the children.
As early as the nineteen-thirties, the historian Dona Brown writes in “Back to the Land,” leaving the city for Vermont was a political statement. Journalists were building blacksmith forges and reporting on their success; there were experiments in making artisanal Cheddar cheese. The appeal of the place lay, to some extent, in its opposition to centralized power: Vermont rejected parts of the New Deal, and it is one of a handful of states where local citizens conduct government business in town meetings. The wave of counterculture migration, of which Sanders was part, helped to secularize the state. Vermont has many churches, but not so much religion.
In 1969, Sanders moved to Burlington, where he wrote freelance articles, installed flooring, and produced documentary films. During the seventies, as a member of the antiwar Liberty Union Party, he ran for the U.S. Senate once and for Vermont governor twice, never earning more than six per cent of the vote. Friends recall that he would arrive in their towns for campaign events and then crash on their couches.
Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington as an Independent in 1981. Local Republicans were so comfortable with the Democratic incumbent that they didn’t bother to field their own candidate. Sanders, who had spent years building connections among activist groups, won the election by ten votes. The Democrats, who controlled the city council, refused to allocate money for Sanders to hire a secretary. Paul Heintz, the political editor of Seven Days, a Vermont weekly, told me, “The story of Bernie Sanders is a story of exclusion.”
In 1988, Sanders married Burlington’s youth-services director, Jane O’Meara Driscoll, a social worker who had grown up in Brooklyn. They had met during Sanders’s first mayoral campaign, when she helped to organize an event. He planned to talk about health insurance, and she, a single mother, had none. The year they married, Sanders ran for an open seat in the House of Representatives, and lost by nine thousand votes. In 1990, he ran again and won, after the National Rifle Association declined to endorse the Republican incumbent, who had co-sponsored an assault-rifle ban. Bill Lofy, a longtime Democratic operative in Vermont, told me that Sanders’s base included the Burlington and Brattleboro hippies, but also another, unexpected type: “working-class, fuck-all New England ornery, from the Northeast Kingdom,” who usually vote Republican.
Sanders never joined the Democratic Party. When allies and former staffers launched the Vermont Progressive Party, in 1999, he didn’t join them, either. In 2005, after Senator Jim Jeffords announced his retirement and Sanders decided to run for his seat, the Democrats needed Sanders more than he needed them. Chuck Schumer, who was at that time the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, promised that they would not run a candidate against him.
Lofy oversaw the Democratic Party’s campaign for Sanders. In their first meeting, Sanders asked Lofy whether the Party would work to turn out his supporters in the Northeast Kingdom, who were likely to vote for him in the Senate race but for Republicans in others. Sanders started calling Lofy almost daily. “I’d be out on the road, and I’d look down at my cell phone, and it’s Bernie fucking Sanders calling about the count again,” Lofy said.
Sanders won the race easily, with more than sixty-five per cent of the vote. When he says that he understands how progressives can win in rural areas, he is talking about his popularity among conservatives in Vermont. John McClaughry, a longtime Republican state senator, recalled that, about a decade ago, Sanders held a press conference with members of a V.F.W. auxiliary, where he was “thundering on about how the veterans were being neglected in the hinterlands without decent health care and without sufficient pension benefits.” In Congress, Sanders has championed veterans’ services and community health centers.
In the decades since Sanders was elected to Congress, he has been hosting spaghetti dinners in small towns across the state. Sometimes he’ll have as many as four of these on a single Sunday. Volunteers cook pasta, and Sanders gives talks on the topics that have preoccupied him since he first took office: the importance of health care and the inequities of a capitalist economy. They are something like sermons, and Sanders has always liked delivering them in churches. “He wanted it to be a little like going to church,” his longtime state director, Phil Fiermonte, told me.
If there is an essential image of Sanders’s Presidential campaign, it is a minute-long ad, released just before the New Hampshire primary. As the Simon and Garfunkel song “America” plays, the ad offers a dreamy vision of small-town life: a couple dances in the grass, a farmer tosses a bale of hay, a boy picks up a calf. The power of the ad comes from its portrayal of Sanders, long identified as outside the political mainstream, as a representative of the heartland.
An early version included narration by Sanders, but, when Jane Sanders saw it, she insisted on removing the voice-over. She thought the politics interrupted the direct emotional connection with voters. Jane has long been involved in her husband’s campaign commercials, and, when she met Paul Simon, she asked for his permission to use the song.
I drove up to Burlington to meet Jane Sanders in early July. She told me that she was initially opposed to her husband’s Presidential run; she recalled his early Senate races, and the feeling “in the pit of my stomach” when she picked up the newspaper during those campaigns. Early in the primaries, before Sanders was given Secret Service protection, he received multiple threats. She grew fearful, and when she joined her husband onstage she found herself scanning the crowd, concerned that someone would jump up with a weapon. But, as the enthusiasm for Sanders’s campaign grew, her perspective changed. He had been saying the same things for years, but now he was drawing tens of thousands of people, all across the country. During the primary campaign, he received more than six million individual donations. Sanders was being treated, Jane noted, “as a moral authority.” She told me, “I’m a secular person, but during the campaign every night I would pray—just ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”
The Sanderses believed they had little support outside their own movement. When I asked Sanders whether his campaign had revealed gaps in the progressive infrastructure, he was incredulous. “Gaps?” he said. “Gaps would be an understatement.” Last August, Sanders and his allies founded a new political organization, Our Revolution, to support progressive candidates around the country, in state legislative and city-council races where a few thousand dollars might make a difference. This June, Jane Sanders set up the Sanders Institute, a small think tank based in Burlington, whose first class of fellows includes Ben Jealous, the former N.A.A.C.P. president, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, who was an early supporter of Sanders’s Presidential bid. Jane told me that the institute was looking for thinkers who “understand that conventional wisdom is often, often, often wrong.”
Shortly after I returned from Burlington, a controversy that had surrounded Jane Sanders in Vermont drew notice in the Washington press. From 2004 until 2011, she had been the president of Burlington College, a liberal-arts institution, which had about a hundred and forty students and held classes in what had once been a supermarket building. In 2010, she launched an ambitious campaign to expand the college and relocate it to a large property, owned by the Roman Catholic Church, on the waterfront of Lake Champlain. To help secure a $6.7-million bank loan to buy the property, Burlington College declared that it had $2.6 million in confirmed pledges. In 2011, Jane Sanders left the college. The bulk of the donations never materialized. In 2016, Burlington College closed.
Early last year, just before the primaries began, a Republican lawyer in Vermont, Brady Toensing, filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s office, asking for an investigation into whether Jane Sanders had committed federal loan fraud. Sometimes pledges simply don’t come through, and so one essential question is whether the college, and Sanders, knowingly inflated the promises. In July, the Washington Post reported that federal prosecutors had obtained some of Burlington College’s records, and, citing a grand-jury investigation, issued subpoenas.
Toensing had also suggested that the Senator’s office had intervened to pressure the bank to issue the loan, but he has not offered compelling evidence for the allegation. That overreach, together with Toensing’s prominence in Republican politics, suggested that the controversy might never have become public had Sanders not run for President. “I find it incredibly sexist that basically he’s going after my husband by destroying my reputation,” Jane Sanders told the Boston Globe. Toensing told me that the episode would have been a scandal much earlier had Sanders been from any state but Vermont. “For a progressive, Vermont is like the Galápagos,” Toensing said. “You get to evolve without predators.”
In early June, Sanders flew to Britain, to promote his book about his Presidential campaign, “Our Revolution.” The general election in the United Kingdom was less than a week away, and the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn—another cranky leftist with a fringe of white hair, beloved by the grass roots and at war with his party—was unexpectedly surging. Later, after Labour kept the Conservative Party from winning an outright majority, Sanders called Corbyn and asked him where he had got the ideas for his campaign. In an interview, Corbyn recalled that he replied, “Well, you, actually.”
Staid venues now accommodate populists. At the Sheldonian Theatre, a seventeenth-century hall at Oxford, beneath a fresco of blue sky and pink cherubs, Sanders was introduced as “an inspiration to us all.” Later that day, he received a rare standing ovation from the members of the Oxford Union. Sanders promised that most Americans do not share Donald Trump’s beliefs about climate change, or international isolation, or the relative virtues of the rich and the poor. He questioned U.S. support for the hereditary monarchy of Saudi Arabia, and insisted that many Americans were alarmed by Trump’s attachment to Vladimir Putin. To his usual statistics about wealth in the United States he added a global figure: eight individuals in the world were as wealthy as 3.6 billion people, about half of humanity. “They have the money, we have the people,” Sanders declared at the Sheldonian. When his speech ended, the crowd let out a happy roar.
Sanders is an old man who often finds himself speaking to young audiences. They are not necessarily looking for encouragement. “My wife tells me my speeches are so bleak that they have to pass out tranquillizers at the door,” he said at an event that evening at Brixton Academy, a music venue in South London. Sanders does not ask his supporters to place their trust in meritocracy, or capitalism, or even their own country, and this is part of what gives his movement its special intensity. Sanders’s optimism about politics is not complicated by an optimism about much of anything else.
For Sanders this year, there is always another stop on the tour. The week after he returned from West Virginia and Kentucky, he spoke at the annual convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, in Chicago, and addressed a group of progressive activists in Iowa. On July 13th, in Silver Spring, Maryland, he offered an endorsement of his close political ally Ben Jealous, the former N.A.A.C.P. president, who has announced his candidacy for the governorship of the state.
In Washington, Sanders has been trying to build support for his single-payer bill. His recent progress may be the clearest measure of his influence on the Democratic Party. In the House, a majority of Democrats now support a version of Sanders’s bill, the Medicare for All Act (which Representative John Conyers, of Michigan, has proposed each year since 2003). Several prominent senators have expressed their support, including Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. Warren has said she believes that “now is the time for the next step—and the next step is single-payer.”
Sanders, like Warren, has ideas about progress that are utterly at odds with those of the Republican-controlled Senate. At the end of July, the Republicans made what appeared to be a final effort to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. There had not been a single hearing on the latest bill. Sanders appeared on CNN, said that “this whole process has been totally bananas,” and argued for a new bipartisan effort at health-care reform. Finally, at around 1:30 A.M. on Friday, July 28th, Senator John McCain signalled, with a thumbs-down, that he would cast a decisive vote against the bill, joining two of his Republican colleagues, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and all forty-eight members of the Democratic caucus. In the convention halls of Middle America, Bernie Sanders is the leader of an improbable progressive movement. On the Senate floor that night, he was a Democrat.
Author: Benjamin Wallace-Wells