Bernie Sanders, the Red Mayor who wanted more

Harry Jaffe's new book sets out to discover how a “74-year-old Jewish guy from Brooklyn” ended up appealing to college students, farmers and factory hands as a potential president.

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“The concentration of power makes the average man feel irrelevant,” Bernie Sanders of the Liberty Union Party told the Burlington Free Press in 1971, on his first attempt at election to the US Senate. Sanders was campaigning in Vermont, America’s second-least populous state, interviewing factory workers about pay and conditions and contending that a handful of powerful men controlled entire industries. “As for my qualifications,” his pitch continued, “I am not a politician.” Liberty Union, founded in a farmhouse the previous year as a progressive alternative to the Democrats, hoped its message of economic justice and independence from the political mainstream (as well as its candidate’s call to legalise drugs and make it easier to pick up hitchhikers) would resonate with the urban dropouts and hippies taking refuge in the Green Mountains. In the January 1972 ballot, however, Sanders garnered only 2.2 per cent of the vote, failing to become America’s first socialist senator. He abandoned the party five years later.

It wasn’t until 2007 that he became a senator for Vermont, from which position he is now running to become the Democrats’ nominee for president. Having told Playboy magazine in October 2013 that he was “at least 99 per cent sure” he would not participate, Sanders is now the candidate of the 99 Per Cent, and finds himself sparring with Barack Obama’s anointed successor, the former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Since the Sanders campaign gained traction, his poll numbers grew steadily and his support base swelled as audiences reacted positively to his diatribes against income inequality and the “rigged” economy, and his calls for a “political revolution”. Whereas his rival has taken more campaign money from Wall Street than any other candidate from either major party who is still in the race, Sanders prides himself on receiving over a million individual donations that average $27 each.

In Why Bernie Sanders Matters, Harry Jaffe hopes to answer how a “74-year-old Jewish guy from Brooklyn with the unmistakable accent” (Sanders addresses crowds as “brothuhs and sistuhs”) finds himself appealing to 18-year-old college students, farmers, factory hands and retired workers. The author does a nice line in florid descriptions of his subject: Sanders “talks like a deli guy and sometimes looks like a rumpled old man ranting about rich people”. He has the “sartorial style of an economics professor . . . and the visage of your angriest uncle”. Before the reader is able to construct a clear mental image, other, casual observers are drafted in – a local politician describes Sanders as “the puppy that caught the car”, whereas his former press secretary likens him to “a parent you could never please”.

Jaffe is better able to paint a vivid portrait of Sanders’s early life in Brooklyn. His father, Eli, emigrated from Poland to America in 1921 and worked as a paint salesman in a borough full of Italians, Irish, Greeks and Jews, all “competing to scratch out a living”. Bernard, born in 1941, grew up in a beige-brick apartment building occupied almost entirely by Jewish families, and spent his days playing sports in the street. Neighbours describe him as a “lanky kid with a decent jump shot”.

Family experience was instrumental to Sanders’s political awakening. He has said that Jewishness “greatly influenced my intellectual and emotional development”, and recalls the impact of learning that his father’s family was virtually wiped out by the Nazis. His interest in economic inequality stemmed from his parents’ “constant pressure of never having enough money”. His elder brother, Larry (who moved to Britain in the late 1960s and stood in the last general election as a Green Party candidate, in a constituency not far from David Cameron’s), brought books into the house and introduced Bernie to poetry and Freud.

Sanders gained his first taste of activism collecting petition signatures for the Young Democrats and raising funds at high school for orphaned victims of the Korean War. On graduation, Sanders arrived at the University of Chicago (having been turned down by Harvard) just in time to witness the “first ripples of student unrest” in the 1960s. Taking inspiration from such diverse figures as the sexual utopian Wilhelm Reich, the former leader of the Socialist Party of America Eugene Debs (“his idol”), the community organiser Saul Alinsky and black desegregationists, he became politically energised, staging civil rights sit-ins (the closest he got to real danger was when a police officer made him late for a political science lecture on local government). He smoked marijuana, wore “ratty sweaters”, was “bummed out” by the war in Vietnam, and joined the Young People’s Socialist League.

Once the counterculture dissipated, many prominent soixante-huitards fell back on establishment connections, surging rightwards to make money in Silicon Valley start-ups or to shill for Republican wars, but some, like Sanders (an orphan in his early twenties), struggled to “keep food in the refrigerator and lights on in the house”. According to his friends, he was “always poor”, and to make ends meet he worked various jobs – as a carpenter in New York; at a state mental hospital in California; for the
United Meat Packers union; and registering people for food stamps at a non-profit.

The work that Sanders most enjoyed was as a freelance “provocative essayist”. He ­developed a passion for proselytising about the sexual revolution in his old student newspaper. He would ask readers, “How much guilt, nervousness have you imbued in your daughter with regard to sex?” and argue that “cancer may be caused by emotional distress”. Jaffe enjoys highlighting Sanders’s youthful indiscretions and quotes some of his cornier expositions:

The Revolution is coming, and it is a very beautiful revolution . . . this revolution will require no guns . . . The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other, when a father refuses to send his child to school because schools destroy children, when a commune is started . . . when young people . . . take control of their own lives . . . We shall win!

Out of work and caring for a small child from a past relationship, Sanders moved to Vermont. The state had been a Republican stronghold since the civil war, but Vermonters have a preference for iconoclasts. “Nowhere else”, Jaffe writes, “could a relative newcomer, with a baby on his lap, Orgone Boxes on his mind, and no prior political experience” be taken seriously as a candidate.

After his dalliance with Liberty Union, Sanders stood as an independent, and four times, with the support of the unions and the poor, was elected mayor of Burlington, the largest city in Vermont. Between 1981 and 1989, against a national backdrop of renewed Christian moralism and Cold War paranoia, he staged gay pride demos, founded a baseball team called the Vermont Reds, welcomed visitors from Allen Ginsberg to the Leningrad Youth Choir, and went on sorties to Nicaragua and the Soviet Union. Yet the “red mayor in the Green Mountains” was always looking for a larger audience.

In 1991 Sanders become the first avowed leftist elected to Congress in the post-McCarthyite era, and only the fourth in the whole 20th century. As a sole independent in a legislature run on “collegiality, compromise and camaraderie”, he needed to build his own brand in order to be heard. He made appearances alongside the television comedians Michael Moore and Bill Maher (years before Obama’s chinwags with Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld). Picking fights with colleagues over the minimum wage and corporate bonuses, he made enemies, including Barney Frank, the progressive poster boy, who dismissed Sanders’s “holier-than-thou attitude, saying in a very loud voice he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else”. (Sanders replied that he “did not come here to be . . . elected the most pleasant member of Congress”.)

As Jaffe brings readers up to date on the bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he deftly switches from biographer to advocate. Even though the subject “did not make himself available for this book”, we find ourselves accompanying him on the campaign trail, paying visits to community college gyms or NGOs in corner offices of strip malls. Jaffe gives us audience figures for rallies, republishes text from stump speeches, and offers blow-by-blow accounts of candidate debates. In fact, Sanders’s campaign has only recently become a “story”, and could just as quickly cease to be one. Political biographies in this vein are desperate to be topical but are stymied by publishing schedules. Jaffe settles for tracking down “Sanderistas” such as the 68-year-old Iowan
soybean farmer who ploughed BERNIE in 60-foot-high letters into a quarter-acre of his land. (“I was on my tractor one day and thought, ‘Well, I’ll just try this.’”)

The author goes to great lengths to demonstrate “why Bernie Sanders matters”. He is “running a different type of campaign”, we are told, though this is not strictly true. His methods are tried and tested, and his central message – that an elite class “is controlling American politics; the middle class is getting screwed; and it will take a political revolution led by millions of ordinary Americans to change the nation’s course” – has been adopted by every other candidate in the race, Democrat or Republican. Sanders may have brought back the language of class politics to the world’s oldest two-party system (he claims he coined the term “the 1 Per Cent”) but it continues to be dominated by top-down party machinery, and has the highest proportion of millionaires of any democracy in the world.

Hillary Clinton makes an unconvincing spokeswoman for the 99 Per Cent, struggling to cobble together a coalition around identities and arguing that breaking up the big banks would do little to diminish discrimination against women and minorities. The Democrats can barely claim to be the voice of working people. In 2008, when Obama gained the presidency, he won more support from the country’s top-earning 5 per cent than his Republican rival, John McCain, who scooped a majority of votes from white Americans on less than $50,000. Even on Sanders’s insurgent campaign, converts from within the political class have been manoeuvred into critical roles, including both the social media firm that powered Obama’s 2008 drive and the Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who hopes finally to involve himself in a successful presidential run, having worked on failed attempts by Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

Bernie Sanders’s backstory, his unwillingness to abandon his principles and the scant importance he places on presentation are all of note. Yet the “unsmiling man in a gray rumpled suit” who has given the same speech “in one form or another since 1981” will only matter, truly, if he ends up making it to the White House.

Why Bernie Sanders Matters by Harry Jaffe is published by Regan Arts (272pp, $10.99)

This article appears in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis