How far can Bernie Sanders go?

It seems extraordinary, but the socialist senator of Vermont could be on track to win the Democratic nomination

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM


A woman’s voice carried through a lull in several conversations around the table at a smart East Coast dinner. ‘But he’s not even a fucking Democrat…’ She was one of the party’s stars and was talking about Senator Bernie Sanders. He is inducing as much red-faced apoplexy in the Democratic party’s great and good as Donald Trump is causing among the Republican establishment: outsiders both, each upsetting the smooth coronation of the party leadership’s candidate for president.

‘Bernie’ — as he’s often called — shared a stage with Hillary Clinton last week at the first Democratic primary debate. It has been an incredible journey for a man who has spent most of his life fighting against the party as a socialist and a self-described radical. Even after Hillary Clinton’s confident debate performance, they are level in the polls in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary election.

Earlier this month, I went to a Sanders rally in Boston to see the candidate and meet the voters inflicting such humiliation on the Democrats’ heir apparent. A cavernous hall echoed to chants of ‘BER-NIE. BER-NIE. BER-NIE’. Twenty thousand people had come to see him, according to his campaign, a record for a Massachusetts primary event at this stage of the race, beating even Barack Obama’s turnout in 2007.

Bernie Sanders, a stooped 74-year-old, worked his way along a rope line, plunging into a sea of eager, outstretched hands. Fans wore T-shirts showing only his distinctive fringe of white hair and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. I watched this scene with Jeff Santos, host of a ‘left-to-centre, progressive’ radio show. Jeff said Bernie was filling halls because people were sick of poll-driven, focus-group-tested candidates who might say anything to get elected, i.e. Hillary. They wanted authenticity.

‘This is a guy who has been consistent for years,’ Jeff told me. ‘He’s taken the country by storm simply because people look at a guy who’s in his seventies, he’s not out there because he’s good-looking, he’s not out there because he’s wealthy, he’s not out there to be an entertainment star like Donald Trump. He’s real to the American people, who are sick of the BS. There’s no BS with BS. It’s as simple as that.’

Senator Sanders ascended to the podium and spoke in the nasal Brooklyn twang he’s retained despite more than 40 years in his adopted home of Vermont. It was a 90-minute finger-jabbing harangue, delivered without autocue and, from what I could see, without a written text at all. It was not the scripted, on-message performance that a political consultant, or even a professional campaign, might have crafted. It went round in circles, the same topics coming up again and again. Government-funded ‘single–payer’ health care (‘Health care is a right and not a privilege’). A $15 minimum wage (‘Wages in this country are just too damn low’). Free college tuition. Climate change. Curbing Wall Street’s ‘greed and criminality’.

But ‘The Bern’ — as his supporters sometimes call him — has charisma. He held the crowd: very few people drifted away, though everyone had been standing for two hours by the end. The message was pure populism, One family, the Waltons, who own Walmart, had as much wealth as the bottom 40 per cent of Americans. Another family, the Koch brothers, could try to buy an election with a billion-dollar fund. There was a word for this — finger jab — ‘Oligarchy’ — finger jab. ‘I do not represent the agenda’ — finger jab — ‘of the billionaire class’ — finger jab — ‘or corporate America’ — finger jab — ‘and I don’t want their vote’ — finger jab. ‘We are running a people’s campaign.’

I left the press pen to talk to some of ‘the people’. There was a grey-haired woman in dungarees with a handwritten sign saying: ‘Thank you for voting against the Iraq war.’ A man in hiking shoes wore a T-shirt depicting global temperatures going up and up. A nice retired lady was telling me she hadn’t been to a political rally since Kennedy — a sign of how the Sanders message is enthusing people alienated by politics-as-usual — when a staffer barged into the conversation.

‘You can’t be here,’ said a young man with a bumfluff moustache.

‘I just want to ask people why they’re at the rally.’

‘You have to stand over there,’ he said, pointing to where the photographers were corralled.

‘I’m written press. I can’t ask people questions from over there.’

‘Those are my instructions.’

The senator himself is famously contemptuous of the media, or the ‘corporate media’ as he usually calls them. There was no press Q&A in Boston. He often tries to avoid such encounters, fearing trivial questions about ‘process’ rather than substance.

He seems to be doing OK without the media in the race for votes and for money. In the last quarter he had more than a million individual donations to his campaign, raking in a total of $26 million, only just behind Hillary’s $28 million. ‘This is the first time I’ve ever donated to a political campaign,’ said Peggy Cohan, a 63-year-old registered nurse. ‘I’m tired of the Bushes. I’m tired of the Clintons. I really did want a woman for president, but I’m tired of Hillary Clinton.’

Could he really be a national candidate? Jeff Santos, the radio host, thinks so: ‘People underestimate him. They’ve underestimated Bernie from day one.’ Joe Biden would get into the race soon, he said, and the establishment vote would be split in the primary. Then, he said, Bernie’s ability to reach out to labour as well as to progressives — a coalition of hardhats and hipsters — would deliver the general election.

It seemed to me that a socialist winning the US presidency, or even the Democratic nomination, was pure fantasy. But it is entirely plausible that Bernie might win in New Hampshire. If you see Hillary on TV with that purse-lipped expression she sometimes has — the one where she’s sucking a slice of lemon — this is why.

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Show comments
  • Shut Up

    He’s not a socialist; he’s a democratic socialist, which is much the same as being a democratic capitalist. The key word – which the Spectator would do well to heed – is “democratic”. Absolutely. Every. Policy. That. Bernie. Sanders. Stands. For. Is. Supported. By. An. Overwhelming. Majority. Of. The. American. People. Get that through your thick skulls, so we don’t have to read any more of this uninformed drivel.

    • Charlie R.

      Ah, so just like the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea then?

    • King Zog

      “Absolutely. Every. Policy. That. Bernie. Sanders. Stands. For. Is.
      Supported. By. An. Overwhelming. Majority. Of. The. American. People.”

      None of that makes those policies right, though.

      “Get that through your thick skulls, so we don’t have to read any more of this uninformed drivel.”

      The article actually seems very fair (and balanced?), and not even critical in any real sense. Recent articles in the Spectator on Trump have been far more critical.

    • Ivan Ewan

      Can you replace the words “The. American.” with “Stupid.”?

      Only stupid people would vote for a policy that guarantees large-scale unemployment, the collapse of small businesses and the victory of corporatism, like a $15 minimum wage would.

      • DyaniNC

        You really should read something that’s not written by Ayn Rand, or someone who works for a right wing think tank.

        • Ivan Ewan

          It’s simple mathematics, but since it’s not a snide sneery slogan I’m not sure you could handle it.

        • Terry Field

          Hard not to; the media is saturated with left-wing crap and fundamental untruths. Has been like that for many decades.

  • Marcus77

    IF corporate Media will stop bad mouthing him . he could win big time

    If Americans do not choose this man Bernie Sanders as their president than they have no right to complain about their predicament of constantly squeezed and send to wars to fight all over the World, and difficult future for their children will face, it is time to choose the right man for the first time since Kennedy, they took him away from us at least you can do stand by this man who is in your side,, as we all know Republicans are Anti-American and the democratic Obama? who keep saying “CHANGE? Yes WE Can? BS and than changed nothing but more add ons, it is not his fault tho , the way we choose our president in this country is very comical, thanks to supreme court (republicans under Daddy and retarted Bushes) ruling on CITIZEN UNITED, now we let them(Billionares) out right purchase our president and almost all of our congress and lets not forget foreign lobbyist like AIPAC who is Agenda Israel can do no wrong and no matter we give them billions in aid and veto every UN resolution for them to be more war criminals without impunity , it is time to buy your own president, donate some dollar to Bernie Sanders campaign, every $100 you give he gets matching campaign donation of $500 so you are actually helping him with $600, if you want to give more make sure each is under $200 per name, bcz anything over. matching funds disappear to be less, let buy our own president for a change , we have more money combined than they ever dream of, if we all pitch in he will be elected and change this comedy with camping reform and do not forget to vote every Republican out of office and long term KING senators been in office over 20 to 30 years,vote them out and give Bernie a fresh young intelligent Americans who loves their country all the energetic man to work with ,

    • DyaniNC

      It would be nice if the corporate media stops its anti-Bernie chant, but its very rewarding to know that he won, despite their best efforts.

  • Trajan

    I don’t know if its hilarious or tragic that there is now the serious prospect of a Trump vs Sanders presidential election. Oh whatever happened America?

    • Terry Field

      This is a trumped up election.

  • Kasperlos

    Given Bernie Sanders’ warm feelings for collectivist socialism and cultural Marxism, let’s hope he stays put in Vermont.

    • Terry Field

      People are – in large numbers – unintelligent, and many are venal, lazy and greedy. He is their man.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Is that his official poster? It looks like an advert for prison.

    • DyaniNC

      It’s interesting that you say that, since Bernie want’s to shut down the entire prison indutsrial complex ! 😛

      • Ivan Ewan

        Why would you need prisons when you have a good shot at turning the entire country into one?

    • Bertie

      With such thought crimes Mr Ewan that is precisely where you’ll be heading if Bernie is in charge! Socialists abhor democracy as we all know. Freedom of speech only exists if our opinions are shared by those in charge! Go counter to the political ideology of the day under such people and it’s off to the iso cubes for some re-education!

      • colchar

        He is a democratic socialist, but nice try.

        • Bertie

          There’s nothing democratic about him whatsoever.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      Looks more like the Banzai boy to me.

  • DyaniNC

    Poor Paul Wood couldn’t stop Jeremy Corbyn from winning in the UK. He thinks that he has another chance with Bernie.

  • Roger Hudson

    Vermont must be a nice place if it elected Sanders, sanity personified.

  • Roger Hudson

    Vermont must be a nice place if it elected Sanders, sanity personified.

  • Terry Field

    He is a potent danger to the vital creativity of the USA; as is the increasingly mainstream socialist Democratic Party.

    • colchar


      • Terry Field

        Socialism is poison.
        It is a danger to the economic health of the USA; the danger is the US becomes as degenerate and deranged as Britain and Europe.

  • Patrick Roy

    Dear God, he can’t get out of the house in the morning on his own. If that’s what the Democronazis have to offer that’s pretty amazing. I heard they were trying to dig up Jerry Brown. Literally, Christ Almighty.

  • Velo

    Hillary is well ahead in Iowa already and enjoyed a great week on the hustings. With Biden gone, she only has to deal with Bernie now.

    • Terry Field

      Nobody can rule Bernie Madoff out. He is a potent force.