There is something inherently admirable about Bernie. Senator Sanders’s character, integrity, and fluency and emphasis on the issues has earned him the respect, admiration, and support of a large share of Democratic voters. Unlike the destructive influence of his populist counterparts on the right, Senator Sanders has shown leadership and the same steady sense of integrity that has permeated his long career as a public servant by making clear from the start that he will not be engaging in the sorts of personal attacks that are the currency of the Republican field. He gives voice to an increasingly assertive and growing liberal left wing of the Democratic Party and, in the eyes of many, provides a refreshingly candid and capable alternative in a seemingly lifeless, predetermined field.
And his message strikes and spurs the left’s imagination. He portrays a United States in the throes of big banks, corporations, and the millionaire and billionaire class, the wealthiest nation in the world failing in its duty to protect its most vulnerable, the promise of the American dream lost to trade and greed. We face “more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression,” said the Senator in his announcement speech on May 26th, and the status quo is ill equipped to deal with them. If the American people do not transcend traditional political differences and unite over their shared economic interests in support of Bernie’s “political revolution to transform our country,” then the United States will be mired in the muck of its stagnant political order. It is the kind of fiery, principled, and deeply informed rhetoric that the socialist gadfly from Vermont has honed for decades, but that is only now resonating with an increasingly frustrated electorate thirsting for authenticity.
Bernie’s appeal for transformative change, ironically, is nothing new. Barack Obama, when announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 2007 in Springfield, Illinois, called for transformational change of the “ways of Washington,” and later called for “fundamentally transforming” the country, to much castigation on the right. Unlike Bernie, however, Obama established the change he sought as part of a historic pattern in which each successive American generation redefines and subsequently closes the gap between our imperfect reality and a more perfect union. It is a vision of steady progress in which America’s freedoms and social fabric are expanded and improved upon slowly, deliberately, but surely. America must change if only to fulfill the duties equal to its status as an exceptional nation.
Bernie wastes little time on such sweeping rhetoric. Far from engaging in the typical poetry of campaigning, he is invested heavily in the prose of governance, specifically domestic policy. But in underestimating the value of such poetry, the Senator demonstrates a fatal character flaw and commits a grave error. Bernie has no unifying narrative or historical vision for the nation. He does not talk at any length about where the nation has been or where it is going other than to denounce its current form as broken and unjust. In his speech at Liberty University on September 14th, Bernie said, “It would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society.” There is no hope. There is but to “fight.” What for is anyone’s best guess.
Every successful president and presidential candidate since FDR has carried the solemn and difficult responsibility of weaving his or her platform, policies, and vision into the unfinished, living tapestry of American history. Bernie seems to ignore any such responsibility. The fundamentally negative outlook that Bernie presents for the country is balanced by no optimism or narrative of uplift. There is the vague promise of a country in which all of his policy prescriptions have passed, but no conception of what that would look like or where his presidency would fit in the scope of history. Bernie needs to provide a better answer for why he specifically is running for president and how a Sanders presidency would fit in the American narrative. Otherwise, his candidacy will never develop beyond the liberal Democratic base of support on which he will remain marooned.