How Bernie Sanders uses rhetoric to make Americans support left-wing ideas

The Democratic candidate has deftly moved the debate to the left.

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One major achievement of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US has been to build support for left-wing policies that only months ago would have seemed beyond the pale.

In a relatively conservative country like America, still bound by the legacy of the Cold War and a deep hostility to “big government”, shifting the Overton Window to make room for socialised healthcare, free higher education and “breaking up the banks” is quite a feat. Already the terms of debate can be seen to have shifted, from the speeches of Hillary Clinton to televised call-in programmes, to the letters page of the New York Times.

Key to Sanders's success has been his use of language to make social democratic ideas attractive to a mass audience. Speaking in clear prose of the kind advocated by Orwell in Politics and the English Language, Sanders argues from first principles, choosing simple imagery and real-world examples over the more poetic, (but less specific), style of Barack Obama.

This technique has been very effective for conservatives, from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron, who use terms like “balanced books” and “wealth-creators” to present free market ideas as the purest common sense. (The most enduring example is probably Thatcher’s likening government finances to the budget of a family or household.)

Sanders, by contrast, employs this method to turn the political consensus on its head. Instead of taking for granted that social provisions are too expensive, he reminds listeners that America is the “wealthiest country in the world” and asks why “every major industrialised nation” manages to provide a sturdier safety net for its citizens. Even the most patriotic American is unlikely to feel proud about this kind of “exceptionalism”.

In one of his more brilliant flourishes, Sanders argues that a “transfer of wealth” or redistribution has in fact already taken place, only with money moving from the middle and working-class to “the top one per cent”. Sticking with this dialectical style, he asserts that bankers on Wall Street, having been bailed out by the public after the financial crash, should return the favour in the form of a tax on speculation.

Much of his style of argument involves this appeal to justice, resembling a sort of Jewish barterer, mid-haggle, who turns to onlookers at the market and asks, “Isn't that a fair offer?”, “Doesn’t this seem reasonable?”. Whereas a demagogue like Donald Trump promises to appoint “smart people” to get a “better deal”, Sanders lays out his arguments in public view, so voters are already in on the negotiations. This neatly reflects the fundamentally elitist approach of the one as compared with the democratic instincts of the other.

Sanders honed his ability to offer policy in a quick and memorable way over years of running as a long-shot candidate, (as described in his 1997 memoir Outsider in the House, republished for this election), when pith and “message discipline” were crucial. This also accounts for his occasional trips into hyperbole.

But his use of tight expressions like “rigged economy”, “crumbling infrastructure” and “broken criminal justice system” bring to mind huge social problems in seconds, as well as implying what to do about them: If something is “crumbling”, you rebuild it. If something is “broken”, you fix it, and so on.

This “dirty fingernails” rhetoric not only evokes America’s once powerful labour movement and the collective spirit of the New Deal, but draws a direct line from ordinary citizens to the workings of government, and empowers them, (not in the empty feel-good sense, but in a concrete way), by suggesting they can exert control over the forces which govern their lives.

The clarity with which Sanders speaks perfectly complements his natural decency and honesty, which might be the essence of his appeal. Similarly, his dry and ironic use of humour implies a respect for the intelligence of his audience – a novel trait in a politician. 

Finally, in repeatedly telling the story of his campaign, from “fringe candidate” to winning primaries and caucuses funded only by small donations, he identifies his supporters with his own underdog struggle against the powerful.

This idea of a long difficult journey points to a secret harmony in the Dictionary of Bernspeak. Sanders is able to tap into the rhetorical tradition of the civil rights movement, a saccharine version of which most Americans – especially the young, who form a large part of his support – have been taught from infancy.  It was this equalitarian movement which inspired Sanders as a student activist in the 1960s, and from which, as a lay preacher of the gospel of social justice, his candidacy draws its rhetorical strength.

At the very least, the Sanders campaign proves you can get people’s attention without shouting about Mexicans and walls.

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