Early on in his new book, Sen. Bernie Sanders describes the 2014 midterm election as a “disaster” for establishment Democrats who failed to generate grass-roots enthusiasm. “The election of 2014 was a wakeup call for the Democratic Party,” he writes. “I wondered if they heard it.”
The sound of last week’s Krakatoan explosion is still reverberating. Sanders finalized his account of his 2016 presidential campaign weeks before Donald Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8, but given what’s just occurred the book is inevitably, satisfyingly prescient.
It’s hard to escape the idea that the reason Sanders decided to enter the race against Clinton — “The Clinton approach was to try to merge the interests of Wall Street and corporate America with the needs of the American middle class — an impossible task,” he writes — was perhaps her biggest vulnerability against Donald Trump.
Over nearly 450 pages, Sanders argues that the strength of his campaign against Clinton’s brand of centrist Democratic politics shows that there is a hunger for the kind of ambitious policy proposals and grass-roots advocacy that fueled his run. “The great crisis that we face as a nation is not just the objective problems that we face,” Sanders writes. “The more serious crisis is the limitation of our imaginations.”
It’s not just Clinton. Sanders argues that “establishment Democratic politicians often have very few roots in their communities,” pointing to poor turnout at college campus events for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s 2014 midterm campaign. Weeks earlier, he saw Iowa Senate candidate Bruce Braley speak in Iowa, and writes that his “remarks, which consisted of tepid Democratic centrist rhetoric, were just not resonating with people in the room.” Braley went on to lose to Joni Ernst.
Sanders’s own rhetoric, in contrast, was precisely keyed to the mood of the swaths of the electorate that decided the general election. Trump’s closing argument — the rigged system, the corruption and self-dealing of the coastal corporate elites — sounds as if were borrowed directly from the Vermont senator.
In a long section on Wall Street reform, Sanders creates his own capacious basket of deplorables: Democrats and Republicans who he says pushed policies that helped to create the Great Recession; Robert Rubin, President Bill Clinton’s former treasury secretary and “the poster child for the revolving door that exists between Wall Street and Washington” who “spearheaded financial deregulation”; Hank Paulson, treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, who defended the deregulation of Wall Street; Tim Geithner, President Barack Obama’s treasury secretary; and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about whom Sanders writes, “future textbooks will refer to Greenspan as an example of how not to run a central bank.”
Had Clinton won, the chapter would have served as a reminder that liberals planned to pressure Clinton not to name a treasury secretary with a Wall Street background. Instead, President-elect Trump’s transition team has recommended former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin for the job.
The other enormous — and closely intertwined — factor in Clinton’s loss was the enthusiasm gap. Sanders emphasizes his own reliance on small donors over super PACs, the enthusiasm his campaign generated in the form of large crowds, and his willingness to engage in bold ideas. Sanders describes a few moments when he was surprised to find that long lines of people near his rally sites were there to see him. Those crowds were full of people who “were tired of status quo politics and status quo economics,” he writes. The most memorable compliment he received during the campaign, he writes, came from a man who said, “‘Thank you, Bernie. You treat us as if we were intelligent human beings.’”
Sanders writes that his political worldview was shaped by his childhood among the white working class of Brooklyn, which he delves into more than he did on the trail. In past speeches, Sanders has said that growing up in a small rent-controlled apartment taught him about how financial problems can shape a family. In the book, he writes about the day his mother shouted at him for paying too much for groceries, when she took him to a dozen stores to find the best price for the leather jacket he wanted. Later, at the University of Chicago, he describes feeling “out of place” and “lonely” around his classmates from middle- and upper middle-class families.
Following Trump’s win, Sanders has argued that Democrats are failing to reach those voters. “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from,” Sanders said Monday on CBS.
Sanders’s book shows a path — one that moves briskly to the left — for connecting with the white working class. But there’s little discussion of how to reach the elderly and black voters who weren’t enthusiastic about his primary campaign.
He writes that he did poorly with seniors because they “remember the Clinton years fondly,” have “negative impressions of the word ‘socialism,’” and don’t use social media, a key part of how the campaign connected with supporters. He acknowledges that, as a senator from a majority white state, he had to become familiar with issues facing black and brown communities, but writes that he lost black voters because “Clinton was far better known.”
With the exception of Michigan, Sanders consistently lost primaries in large diverse states, which his book blames on voting laws and the media. He writes that “antiquated and reactionary” voting laws disenfranchised many of his supporters in New York and that the decision by The Associated Press to call the primary for Clinton, based on interviews with super delegates, the day before the California primary “had a negative impact on voter turnout and hurt us.”
The policy roadmap he proposes is much like the one he described during the campaign: a single-payer health-care system and tuition-free public college for all. He calls for an executive order mandating a $15-an-hour minimum wage for federal contractors, extensive reforms on Wall Street including a new Glass-Steagall Act, and $1 trillion in infrastructure spending. He devotes several pages to climate change, the role the “corporate media” plays in democracy, and free trade policies that have been “unrelentingly bad” for workers.
Sanders said this week that he believed there was a chance Trump could win the presidency, but focuses on offering a liberal alternative to both Clinton’s policies and her approach to politics. Sanders rarely mentions Trump, except to point out his “bigotry and racism.” Now the landscape looks very different.
In post-election interviews, Sanders has challenged Trump to do what, he argues, the Democratic Party has been unable to do. “Trump ran his campaign talking about he was going to be a champion of the working class,” Sanders told NPR on Monday. “He was going to stand up to the establishment. Well, let me tell you, we are gonna hold him accountable to that.”