The 2016 United States presidential election has drawn international attention. Who is Donald Trump? Does he have a chance to be elected? Will Hillary Clinton be the first woman President? Will Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush be part of continuing dynasties? Will Vice-President Joseph Biden enter the race? These questions appear in headlines around the world, and justifiably so. But there are less spectacular questions as well.
Among those is the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old senator from Vermont. Who is this man? How can a declared socialist and transplanted New Yorker with a heavy Brooklyn accent – I must admit I am sympathetic to people with New York accents, including Trump, but only because of his accent – be drawing such crowds? Sanders drew 15,000 in Seattle, 27,000 in Los Angeles, and 28,000 in Portland. His audience at the Iowa state fair was bigger than Trump’s.
Sanders has called for a “political revolution” to fix America’s broken systems. His appeal is to the young and old who are disillusioned with the current crop of politicians. The average contribution to his campaign is $31. He is indignant about economic inequality, calling for a tax on Wall Street speculation. He wants Medicare “for all.” He proposes spending $1 trillion on repairing and expanding the nation’s transportation infrastructure. He is the darling of the political left wing post-Elizabeth Warren.
Is any of this familiar? There are certainly some refrains similar to the 2004 presidential campaign of the former Vermont governor Howard Dean. While Dean had some moments in the sun, his bubble burst fairly early in the primary season. Bernie seems to have more staying power. No, in watching Sanders’ campaign, I am more reminded of the 1968 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. At least, comparisons are revealing.
Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the Democratic race in late 1967. His major position was to end the Vietnam War and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. He appealed to young people dissatisfied with the government and establishment. What made McCarthy’s campaign so audacious was that he was challenging the sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had become president after John Kennedy’s assassination and whom everyone assumed would run for a second term. Following McCarthy’s excellent showing in the early primary of New Hampshire, Senator Robert Kennedy entered the race and eventually President Johnson withdrew.
McCarthy challenged an incumbent president. Sanders is challenging the established candidate, Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president. While McCarthy campaigned on a foreign policy issue, Sanders is campaigning on domestic policy, but both found/find strength among those opposed to politics as usual. McCarthy was more a poet than a politician. When I organized for him in Harlem, it was evident he was uncomfortable with the local leaders, telling me, “Kid, get me out of here as soon as possible.” Sanders has been described as dressing “like Willy Loman,” very different from the perfectly groomed competition. His direct, frank personality is in marked contrast to the polished, scripted performances of his opponents.
Finally, the slogans of McCarthy and Sanders are excellent symbols for their times. “Get clean for Gene” spoke to his followers who needed to shave, wear clean clothes and look presentable when campaigning. McCarthy’s volunteers were encouraged to change their look to appeal to voters. Bernie’s campaign, on the other hand, needs no intermediaries. “Feel the Bern” is an emotional appeal directly to voters. Sanders does not have to energize those knocking on doors because there are no doors to open. The Guardian notes that Sanders boasts a larger social media following – on Facebook and Twitter – than Clinton and Jeb Bush combined. Despite his 73 years, Bernie is a man of his times media-wise.
Sanders’s early success, like Donald Trump’s, shows that American voters are hungry for more than traditional, staged performances. In their very different populist ways, Sanders and Trump are fresh air in a stale room. Being direct, personally and through the media, seems to be the message of the day. But questions remain when it comes to voting: How many who cleaned for Gene will truly feel for Bernie? What effect Sanders, like Trump, will have on the final election? While McCarthy was a candidate of interest who captured a specific mood and following in the 1960s, much like H. Ross Perot on the right in the 1992 presidential campaign, American voters usually follow a centrist path in their final decision. While we may feel the Bern, or trump for The Donald, on November 8, 2016, the majority of Americans will cast their ballots for centrist candidates, as they always have.