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30 reasons to celebrate in 2009

Good news has been in short supply in 2008, so we offer reasons for excitement and optimism in the n

1 The US administration

There is a scene early in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, written when he was in his early thirties, in which he describes how as a boy he was taken by his mother, Ann, to live with her second husband, Lolo Soetoro, in Indonesia. There was something wrong in the marriage, and very soon Ann, suffering acutely from loneliness and fearing that she and her young son were a burden to her troubled husband, found a job teaching English at the American embassy in Jakarta. Many of the men employed at the embassy were, Obama writes, "caricatures of the ugly American".

The caricature of the ugly American: this would do as a description of George W Bush. No American president has done more to besmirch the international reputation of his great country than the man who, in January, will leave the White House, unmourned and unloved even by those who might once have counted themselves among his most loyal supporters.

The years of the Bush presidency have been a time of profound shame and disgrace for the United States. Bush was unfortunate that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 happened when he was commander-in-chief. His presidency has been defined by those attacks and will be remembered for the way in which he and his closest allies and advisers, the neoconservative cabal led by Dick Cheney, responded to them, not with largeness of vision and Wilsonian multilateralism, but with dogma, violence and war. He will end his second term with the US deep in recession, with the banking system on life support, with US troops still an occupying force in Iraq, with the Guantanamo Bay detention camp still open, and so it goes on. No one should ever allow Bush to forget the horrors of Abu Ghraib Prison, or his intransigence on climate change, or how his social and religious conservatism perverted policy at home and abroad on a range of issues from a woman's right to abortion to the use of stem cells in scientific research.

How different things will be under President Obama. We all know that Obama presents as the candidate of change, the hyperarticulate outsider who comes from the margins to win control of the very centre. In reality, he is an arch-politician, a pragmatist; he believes strongly in continuity, hence the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and the retention of the Republican Robert Gates as defence secretary. He is not the liberal idealist some of us would like him to be. But nor is he in any way the caricature of the ugly American.

In addition to the differences of tone and style from the Bush administration, the Obama presidency will be marked by significant policy shifts. For a start, he will lift the so-called global gag rule (more formally: the Mexico City Policy) that restricted US-funded organisations from promoting abortion in their aid work in the developing world. He will put a much greater emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation; in the Senate, one of his few accomplishments was a non-proliferation bill, with the Republican Dick Lugar (he has even spoken of "setting a goal of a world without nuclear weapons"). He will be multilateralist. Having appointed one of his most influential advisers, Susan Rice, to the role of ambassador to the United Nations, he is expected to take that institution more seriously than his predecessor, even if he has expressed scepticism about the limits of its effectiveness.

On climate change, he supports a cap-and-trade programme that would reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. On social policy, he is obviously a religious moralist, as any serious politician must be in America to make progress, but he is not a religious conservative. He has said that he will lift the ban on federal funding for research on new embryonic stem-cell lines, thus ideally increasing the chances of groundbreaking therapies.

Above all, by his very presence as a black man in the White House, with a black wife and children, Obama is and will continue to be a symbol of hope and possibility to people of colour not only in America but in the world.

Jason Cowley

2 The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

From October 2009, the British government will for the first time be committed to research unhampered by prejudice, which ultimately may help to deliver healthy lives for many, many people. In this country, 350,000 people live with Alzheimer's, one in every ten couples need fertility treatment and five children are born with cystic fibrosis each week. All of them could benefit from new research. There is no guarantee that research with stem cells and admixed embryos - containing human and animal material - will provide miracle cures, but with well-regulated experimentation we can test the boundaries. Science will progress, through either co-operation or competition, and humanity will benefit. We are indeed looking at a brave new world - and it's exciting.

Frank Furedi

3 The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Amazingly, 2009 will be the first year from which armies will face restrictions on the use of cluster bombs. A convention signed by 100 nations in December 2008 is due to be ratified in June 2009. It restricts the use, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons, and provides for clearing up unexploded munitions. The treaty is not a blanket ban, nor has every nation signed it; but it may still mark the beginning of the end for these cheap, vicious and inaccurate weapons.

4 Fourth-generation biofuels

At the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in February 2008, the geneticist Craig Venter told an audience including Al Gore and Larry Page, founder of Google, his modest ambition: "replacing the whole petrochemical industry". How did he plan to do it? By genetically re-engineering simple organisms to feed on CO2 and produce octane-based fuels as waste; he expected to be producing these fourth-generation biofuels "in about 18 months". Venter, who has made Time's list of the 100 most influential people two years running, is not someone whose predictions should be taken lightly. If he achieves this latest goal, energy will enter a new era in 2009.

5 The indictment of Omar el-Bashir

Early in 2009, the International Criminal Court is expected to issue an arrest warrant against Omar el-Bashir (below) for his role in the crimes committed by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur. It will be the ICC's first indictment of a head of state, and its first for genocide, sending a powerful message to leaders around the world.

6 The economy

Economically speaking, it is extraordinarily difficult to be optimistic about anything in 2009: even the buoyant Chinese economy looks to be suffering, with riots as factories close. However, new Labour has moved rapidly to try to ease the pain for pensioners and low-income families. We can be grateful that this is not the 1930s, that there is a strong welfare state in place and that, although we may yet see pictures of soup kitchens, they will be unreal and unnecessary distortions.

More people will find themselves out of work but the intellectual and commercial life of the nation goes on. Britain is still a highly innovative place, as two recent blockbuster drug breakthroughs illustrate: Crestor, from AstraZeneca, will keep the nation's hearts healthier; and Ceravix, the cervical cancer vaccination from GlaxoSmithKline, will provide protection for millions of young women. And ethical drug breakthroughs such as these will continue: GSK has one of the best late-stage testing pipelines for new medicines in the world.

With several banks under government control after 16 months of the credit crunch (which began in August 2007), mortgages and finance should begin to become available again. The really good news for people with tracker and variable-rate mortgages is that in 2009 we should see the lowest interest rates in modern times, with the bank rate falling as low as 1 per cent by the spring. The weaker pound should also be good for exporters over the longer haul - and all the strongest recoveries in the British economy in the post-Second World War era have followed substantial declines for the pound.

Alex Brummer

7 Antiretrovirals

I am looking forward to the outcome of something a bit off the wall: the first trials of pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV infection, which will investigate whether uninfected people can take antiretroviral medicines, then screw around without condoms and stay uninfected. If the trial results are "positive", they will raise interesting scientific possibilities and challenges, as well as a huge moral dilemma - and a potential political maelstrom.

Elizabeth Pisani

8 Mammoth cloning

Bringing back mammoths might not be the most obvious focus for human endeavour in 2009, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. The prospect of cloning long-extinct species reared its head thanks to two scientific discoveries in November. At the beginning of the month, Japanese scientists announced they had created clones of mice that had been frozen for 16 years; a couple of weeks later, an American-Russian research team announced it had pieced together most of the woolly mammoth genome, the essential building block for bringing the animals back from the dead.

As seismic as these discoveries are, the real-life Jurassic Park is a long way off. Science has plenty of questions to answer before that can happen, ranging from the vagaries of producing artificial chromosomes, to how to gestate a fertilised mammoth egg. Still, in 2009, it is likely there will be plenty of research into cloning, and perhaps also discoveries in more practical areas, such as the cloning of tissue from healthy organs for surgery. Who knows - an explanation may even be found for our fascination with the prospect of re-creating prehistoric animals.

9 Justice for the Gurkhas

In September 2008, the high court ruled that the immigration policy preventing from settling in the UK Gurkhas who had served in the British army, but retired before 1997, was unlawful. More than that, the judge, Mr Justice Blake, declared the policy "irrational". The case for a fairer ruling has been made even more compelling by a petition, presented to the government by Joanna Lumley in November, containing more than 200,000 signatures in support of the Gurkhas' cause. Gordon Brown has pledged to publish guidance in "the near future". The outcome of the Gurkhas' campaign is still uncertain, but 2009 will, at the very least, provide further publicity for their cause - and, with any luck, a ruling in their favour.

10 Paul Dirac's reputation

In January 2009 comes the publication of The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo's biography of Paul Dirac (below). Barely remembered outside the scientific world, Dirac was one of Britain's greatest theoretical physicists, a figure of heroic international stature - and, as the book's title indicates, a very peculiar person. Farmelo has unearthed a great deal of new material. I hope this biography will not only make people think and talk about Dirac as the important 20th-century figure that he is, but also raise new questions about that curious phenomenon we know as genius.

Brian Cathcart

11 Climate change

The next 12 months will be critical in the battle against the biggest threat the planet faces: climate change. But there are many reasons to be optimistic about the progress that can be made both at home and abroad.

Here in the UK, the Climate Change Act has firmly established an important commitment dramatically to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 80 per cent from 1990 levels by the middle of this century. It's a challenging target, but the nation's efforts should be aided by the scrutiny of the new, independent Committee on Climate Change. Already it has made a significant impact: its first report, at the beginning of December, recommended the intermediate "carbon budgets" that will be presented for the next 15 years.

With targets now set, we need to take the vital steps that will make our economy less dependent on fossil fuels, and begin investing in more low-carbon technologies and sectors. The approval of the Gwynt y Môr project, one of the world's largest offshore windfarms, off the Welsh coast, and the government's proposal to develop the technology and infrastructure to make electric and low-carbon cars a practical reality, are steps in the right direction.

In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor presented a "green stimulus" package, which, by including measures to improve the energy efficiency of households, has made some advances towards a low-carbon future. However, the 2009 Budget, which will probably be the last major chance for a concerted fiscal response to the present economic crisis, should provide an even stronger impetus.

Along with the other members of the European Union, the UK should in 2009 reach agreement about how to realise its commitment to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020, and to increase the share of energy consumption met from renewable sources to 20 per cent. In November, the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen will look to establish an ambitious global agreement to come into effect from 2012, when the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol expires. And the success of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a price on carbon and caps emissions, should put the EU in a position to negotiate new international targets.

Barack Obama's positive statements on the need for domestic action and international co-operation to tackle climate change have opened up the possibility of re-establishing a sense of common purpose among the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emerging economic powers with rapidly rising emissions, such as China, are also showing increased recognition of the need for all countries to participate in an equitable plan to make reductions worldwide.

Around the world, governments and businesses need to seize the clear opportunity that is offered by the current economic crisis to increase demand for low-carbon growth in a way that lays the foundations for the future. So let us hope that 2009 is a watershed year in the battle against climate change.

Nicholas Stern

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics

12 Balkan states heading for EU membership

If all goes well, most of the states of south-eastern Europe will be heading irrevocably towards EU membership by the end of 2009. Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia have been granted candidate status; the rest of the western Balkan countries have the EU's commitment to eventual membership. After more than a century and a half of violence, the ground is being prepared for an end to major conflict in this troubled region.

13 A neutral view of race

There is a real possibility that, by the middle of 2009, commentators around the world will no longer feel the need to describe Barack Obama as "the first black president of the United States". Certainly the election of a candidate with his racial characteristics was a cause for rejoicing. But we need to move on. In the 2009 which I hope to inhabit, Obama will be, or will become, a president who happens to be black, and none of us will regard that as being more worthy of comment than his status as the first president who has edited the Harvard Law Review. Commentators can begin the process by identifying other traits of Obama's that are as obvious as his colour. And that will allow them to make judgements. Race is, or ought to be, a neutral description.

Roy Hattersley

14 More safe water

In 2009, more people worldwide will gain access to safe water and sanitation, and take their first steps out of poverty.

Nonosoa is from Soavina Antokofana Ambohitrano, a remote Madagascan village that last year suffered outbreaks of bubonic plague. Her life has been transformed by a simple handpump. "I often used to get sick," she explains. "Everyone is healthy now. In future life will be better and health will keep improving."

Currently one in eight people lives without safe water and 2.5 billion have no safe, clean place to go to the toilet. About 5,000 children die every day from easily preventable water-related diseases. But progress is being made. Water and sanitation are now on the G8 agenda, in part thanks to WaterAid's advocacy work. "Water is life - let us act like we mean it," said the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at the recent UN High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals.

This year, WaterAid and its partners reached more than one million of the world's poorest and most marginalised people with safe water and brought sanitation to more than three million. Next year, we're aiming to reach millions more. For them, and for people like Nonosoa, 2009 marks the beginning of a brighter future.

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid

15 Political Parties and Elections Bill

In the wake of the Oleg Deripaska affair, this bill, which is going through parliament, should give the Electoral Commission greater powers to regulate and investigate donations to political parties and close loopholes, bringing into line the letter and the spirit of the law on donations. The chances that dodgy handouts will be entirely prevented are pretty slim - but at least the new legislation might save George Osborne from a repeat of one of the embarrassments he was afflicted by this year.

16 Broadband for East Africa

Towards the end of summer 2009, three huge new fibre-optic cables will bring broadband internet to East Africa, with particular benefits for Kenya and Tanzania. The cables will link Asia, South Africa and East Africa, and the benefits will be enormous and immediate. The internet will be cheaper, quicker and much more accessible for millions of Africans, with all the benefits that entails - not least encouraging foreign companies to outsource business to the region.

17 The Bristol Festival of Ideas book prize

For months, the judges of this major new book prize have been working their way through piles of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. "There are numerous book prizes, yet none specifically celebrates one of the best things non-fiction books give us: ideas," points out Julian Baggini, one of the judges. The winner will be announced in March - and awarded with £10,000 for his or her efforts.

18 The new face of opera

Skin Deep is a thoroughly modern opera: a satire on society's obsession with beauty, youth and wealth, sung in English, with a libretto by Armando Iannucci. Opening at Opera North in January, and playing in Salford, London and Newcastle later in the year, the darkly comic tale of Doktor Needlemeier, an overzealous plastic surgeon, will be a vicious sideswipe at celebrity culture and a rejuvenating shot in the arm for opera.

19 75 years of Liberty

At this exciting moment in world history, I believe that there is a real prospect of renewed commitment to human rights on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. The year 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties), the domestic rights and freedoms campaign in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth. In recent months, in preparation for the new US presidency, we have been deepening our special relationship with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and we will support its mission to end torture as a tool of US security policy. Closer to home, now that the successful Charge or Release campaign against 42-day pre-charge detention is behind us, we look forward to broadening the consensus around fundamental rights and freedoms. We plan to lay waste to the myths around the Human Rights Act, nail down the coffin of ID cards and promote the values that bind democratic people together: dignity, equality and fairness.

Shami Chakrabarti

20 Football 2010

I'm looking forward to England confirming their place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I couldn't bear to go through all that again: pretending it didn't matter, pretending we could always support the foreign players in the Prem because, really, they are one of us. If England don't make it this time, that's it, I'm taking up fretwork.

Hunter Davies

21 Hu Jia, Chinese activist

By awarding Hu Jia, one of China's leading activists, its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament has sent out a strong message of disapproval to the Chinese government. Hu's campaigns have tackled China's civil rights record, its treatment of HIV sufferers, and its environmental concerns - with the result that, in April, he was convicted for inciting subversion and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. China has reacted angrily to European "interference", but Hans-Gert Pöttering, the parliament's president, has been unrepentant: "The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."

Hu himself has said that he expects "big changes in the next five years" in China. Continued attention from the EU in 2009 can only help.

22 Better chances for cancer sufferers

More cancer patients are surviving for longer and that is sure to continue in 2009. As a result of recent announcements by the Health Secretary and Nice, almost all cancer patients will have access to effective new drugs. Improved radiotherapy, targeted to the individual patient, will be more accessible and we will be opening our Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at Oxford University to develop even better techniques.

In 2009 we will see legislation to ensure that all tobacco is sold in plain packaging and to make it illegal for under-18s to use sunbeds. Cancer Research UK will also be leading a joint initiative with the national cancer director to make symptom awareness and early diagnosis top priorities in the fight against cancer.

So although 2009 will be difficult economically, it will be more important than ever for people to continue supporting Cancer Research UK. Further improvements in cancer survival depend on the public's generosity.

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK

23 The closure of Guantanamo Bay

Soon after 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will begin to close Guantanamo Bay. It will be a grand day for justice, for the prisoners held there, and for the reputation of the United States. At present, roughly 250 prisoners are held at Guantanamo. Of these, as many as 40 will be brought to the US for a trial of sorts; 160 will be sent home with expedition.

Yet the joy with which we bid farewell to this unpleasant legacy of George W Bush's administration must be tempered by the reality of what he has bequeathed us. The remaining 50 stateless refugees will need to be resettled, and we must hope that countries which resisted helping Bush out of his self-painted corner will offer asylum when Obama comes calling.

Despite its secretive qualities, Guantanamo is the public face of the Bush "secret prisons" programme. The men there constitute less than 1 per cent of 27,000 ghost prisoners - many in Iraq, others in Afghanistan, and in far-flung prisons in Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kosovo, as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco - held by the US under worse conditions than their Guantanamo counterparts. What will become of this secret renditions programme? First, will anyone even admit it happened? There is already pressure on Obama not to dredge up all the terrible things that happened under the Bush administration. Yet until the truth is exposed, it is unlikely that we will learn the lessons necessary to avoid a repetition of this dark period in US history.

The second, self-interested motivation for silence comes from the perpetrators of these wrongs. The CIA is unlikely to lead the charge for revelations, given that its agents are those most likely to face indictment for the patent illegalities they committed. And there is a third reason to think that this process of rendition may not simply melt away with Bush. He was not its progenitor. That distinction went to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton also joined the party. Obama will inherit plenty of US-sponsored violence around the world, with prisoners taken every day. What is happening to them? What will be done in the future?

Presidential policies are only as well formed as the facts that a president receives. Obama's information about those we deem "terrorist captives" will come from those who capture them - the Pentagon and the CIA, which have a vested interest in portraying them as dangerous jihadists, no matter what the true facts may be.

So hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners will remain divorced from their legal rights. As Guantanamo Bay closes, a swell of goodwill towards the new president will release the pressure to resolve this darker legacy. As economic stimulus packages monopolise the front pages, let us hope that in 2009 these prisoners are not wholly forgotten.

Clive Stafford Smith

Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, visit, or contact: Reprieve, PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640

24 UK Supreme Court

On 1 October 2009, the UK Supreme Court in Parliament Square will open its doors for the first time. It will take over from the House of Lords as the final court of appeal, and play a part in the development of UK law. Lisa Harker, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, commended the move: "It's a further step towards the separation of powers in the UK, with the House of Lords no longer the highest court in the land."

25 Picasso exhibition

From February 2009, the National Gallery will host the first major British exhibition of Picasso's work since 2002 - with the unusual aim of undermining its star's reputation. "Picasso: Challenging the Past" looks at some of the artist's most famous work in relation to the artists who came before him, including El Greco, Delacroix and Manet. Nicholas Penny, the gallery's director, has described Picasso as "a very great artist, but a very much more uneven one than many people realise". Works seldom seen in this country will be on show; and the debate about whether one of art's biggest names deserves his reputation for innovation and brilliance should be enjoyably contentious.

26 Stricter licences for lap-dancing clubs

Peter Stringfellow might scoff, but almost everyone else has reason to applaud the government's decision to license lap-dancing clubs as "sex encounter establishments". In 2009, it will be easier for councils to close clubs down - just one of the benefits, as Katherine Rake, director of the women's rights group the Fawcett Society, points out: "Local communities will have more say about what happens around them - and, hopefully, a bigger debate over the sexualisation of our society will be opened up."

27 Advances in nanomedicine

Nanomedicine - a suite of medical tools that measure or manipulate extremely tiny interactions - will be on the cusp of making it big in 2009. Interest in the technology has been building for some years, and a few simple tools are already in use. Now society seems ready for the more powerful possibilities.

Cancer patients will benefit hugely. Miniature capsules that deliver drugs exclusively to diseased cells enable patients to take toxic medicines that would otherwise be lethal, and make existing therapies far less unpleasant.

Nanotechnology also opens up the potential for new methods of diagnosis. The most dangerous cancer cells are much squishier than healthy cells; researchers have discovered that they can measure how rigid the cells' membranes are by using tiny cantilevers, rather like diving boards with a point on the end, to prod individual cells. This technique can pick out cancer cells that are otherwise undetectable. And molecule-sized cantilevers have also helped scientists at University College London to work out how some bacteria have become resistant to vancomycin, a common antibiotic.

Nanomedicine will have many more applications a little further down the road. Membranes with clever molecular architectures should improve dialysis, while "nanosuspensions" will allow for more soluble compounds. BioSante Pharmaceuticals, an American company, is investigating the possibility of producing insulin that diabetics can take as a pill.

Researchers at Tsinghua University in China say they have developed a nanomedical scaffold that delicately guides young bone cells to where they are needed, then gradually disintegrates as bones heal. This useful development should cut the cost of treatment, especially in developing countries, speeding recovery and reducing the need for repeat visits to hospital. That innovation probably won't be ready in 2009; but nanomedicine at large is poised to make its name outside the scientific world.

Anna Petherick

28 Change for Iraq

Finally, British troops are planning to quit Iraq in 2009, after a deployment lasting longer than the Second World War. The end in sight is not a precipitous pull-out but a sense of how stability may return to the country. The city of Basra provides a vision of that future.

Controlled for months by Iranian-backed Shia death squads that fought the British and terrorised the people, Basra is transformed. Friends just back say it is a place at last free from bomb blasts and intimidation.

But it took the arrival of US troops finally to make that change - helping the Iraqi army in April 2008 to overturn an "accommodation" by the British with the death squads. British soldiers ultimately joined the battle, but not quickly enough to erase the humiliation of being "bailed out", as history seems to require, by the Yanks.

The result is not a democracy. The city is ruled by the Iraqi army. Yet if martial law works and saves lives, we should celebrate and go.

In 2009, Basra may at last see "mission accomplished" - though not quite the mission the neoconservatives intended.

Stephen Grey

29 The voice of a real European electorate

In 2009, EU leaders are likely to ask Ireland to vote again on a new EU constitution, which cannot help but reopen the debate. There is - understandably - a lot of anger and resentment about the constitution, but I'm hopeful that people will find ways to come together and hold politicians to account both nationally and across borders, to begin to constitute a genuinely European public.

Dolan Cummings, Institute of Ideas

30 The Ashes

Australia return to these islands in the summer as England attempt to win back the Ashes over a five-Test series, starting in July. The 2005 series - one of those rare national occasions when nearly everyone you met, man or woman, seemed to be talking about the cricket - was the greatest contest of its kind in the modern era. It was a thrilling series, which England, having lost the first Test at Lord's, eventually won 2-1 against an Australian side then considered to be one of the best in the game ever.

England lost the return series in Australia 5-0. Now, they have a chance to regain the Ashes against an Australian team diminished by retirements.

A sporting contest not to be missed.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror