Could a Socialist Win the Democratic Nomination?

Nick Clyde, JHU:

With the recent announcement of Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s candidacy for president, 2016 is already on the minds of many. Senator Cruz, who is the first major candidate to announce, is already being identified as too extreme to win the Republican nomination, though his Tea Party antics will most certainly swing the discourse of the Republican race far to the right. The field of potential Republican candidates, which includes the likes of Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio, is so wide that each candidate will likely have an opportunity to influence the discourse of the debates. By comparison, the pickings are slim for the Democratic Party. Of course, Hillary Clinton is by far the favorite candidate, with one CNN poll showing her as the first choice for 62% of Democrats. Only a few other candidates have expressed interest in running, including Vice President Joe Biden and former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley. But there’s one Senator from Vermont who could be an important force in the Democratic primary election: Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has been a Senator for Vermont since 2007; before that, he was the state’s sole Representative for 16 years. He is one of the few Independents in Congress; in fact, he is the longest-serving independent in US Congressional history. At the age of 73, he is hardly the fresh face that President Obama was when he won the Democratic nomination back in 2008. But there is something fresh about Senator Sanders: he is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Now, don’t get too worried if you depend on your trust fund to pay the bills; he isn’t exactly running around decrying the bourgeoisie and seeking to abolish private property. Next to communist thinkers like Karl Marx, he’s quite moderate; but in the US political climate, anything even remotely left of center is condemned as radical (case in point: Obama being called a socialist for passing the Affordable Care Act). But Sanders has been building up quite the fanbase for his unapologetic criticisms of growing income inequality and his consistent support of higher education. His bold attacks against Republicans in the Senate, including putting forward amendments to the GOP’s recently proposed budget that called for increasing the minimum wage and implementing a ‘war tax’ on millionaires to fund expensive military operations, have also bolstered support for him. He has been a vocal critic of the media, most recently criticizing news stations for failing to cover the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed treaty which he claims could be “the largest trade agreement in the history of the United States of America” and will be “a new, easy way for corporations to shut down in America to send jobs abroad.” But his most interesting position is his violent opposition to the torrent of money that was unleashed into political campaigns by the Citizens United decision: “The Koch brothers say, ‘Oh, you want to run for the Senate? Okay, here’s your hundred million dollars. Here’s your speech … You’re not an elected official, you’re an employee.’ … Does their greed know any bounds?” With the Koch brothers pledging to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 election and the New York Times claiming the election is “on track to be the most expensive in history,” Sanders may be the only candidate with the courage to force campaign finance to be a real issue in the election.

With so much reluctance to take campaign donations that have strings attached, commentators have been wondering whether he will be able to fund a meaningful campaign that could make him a real contender with the likes of Hillary Clinton, who has no such qualms. Sanders would likely have to amass a fortune of $50 million in order to wage a successful campaign; but grassroots funding for a presidential campaign is hardly unheard of. President Obama managed to raise $700 million online in the last campaign. With nearly a million likes on his Facebook page, it’s not beyond the imagination that Sanders could attract a similar amount of donations if he were to get the nomination. The Senator is no stranger to campaigning, either, with fourteen terms under his belt as the mayor of Burlington, Representative, and Senator. He won his most recent Senate Race with 71% of the vote.

Some have scoffed at the idea that someone who calls himself a socialist can possibly win the Democratic nomination in 2016. Others are concerned that as he won’t be able to be nominated unless he registers as a Democrat, though this is technically not true. But with 78% of the US population agreeing that rising income inequality is a serious problem, Sanders is likely to be the only voice in the race with the ability to move the discussion on income inequality to the left. And as Mark Plotkin of The Hill points out, “the primary and caucus electorate in the Democratic nominating race is decidedly to the left and small in size. Sanders could catch fire.”

The scars of the 2008 financial crisis run deep. Many believed that Obama could bring meaningful change to a system which clearly favored the rich, but he’s only given us more of the same. Bernie is much more interested in fairness for all; in fact, it’s his primary message. Bernie Sanders wants to rebuild our infrastructure, address climate change, implement universal health care, make college affordable, raise the minimum wage, and most importantly, take on Wall Street and break up the big banks. The other candidates will not take positions as strong as Sanders on these issues. If these issues matter enough to the voters, he could have a real chance at winning the nomination.



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