In book, Bernie Sanders blames Democrats’ lack of vision for loss to Trump

Our Revolution says grass-roots alarm bells were ringing in 2014 and party’s inaction paved way for Republican’s upset win

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 1:02pm

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In

by Bernie Sanders

Thomas Dunne Books

3.5 stars

Early on in his new book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, US Senator Bernie Sanders describes the 2014 midterm elections as a “disaster” for establishment Democrats who failed to generate grassroots enthusiasm. “The election of 2014 was a wake-up call for the Democratic Party,” he writes. “I wondered if they heard it.”

And now, the sound of this month’s Krakatoan explosion is still reverberating. Sanders, 75, finalised his account of his 2016 presidential campaign weeks before Donald Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton on November 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 Trump.

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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 grassroots advocacy that fuelled 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.”

Sanders’ 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, who, Sanders writes, “future textbooks will refer to ... 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.

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The other enormous – and closely intertwined – factor in Clinton’s loss was the enthusiasm gap. Sanders emphasises 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, and the “shopping trip from hell”, 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. 

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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 last week on US TV.

Sanders’ 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 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 superdelegates, the day before the California primary “had a negative impact on voter turnout and hurt us.”

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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 US$15 (HK$116) minimum hourly wage for federal contractors, extensive reforms on Wall Street including a new Glass-Steagall Act, and US$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.

Our Revolution 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 said on US radio last week. “He was going to stand up to the establishment. Well, let me tell you, we are gonna hold him accountable to that.”

Our Revolution describes one of the possible paths forward for the Democratic Party – but it’s vastly longer than it appeared to be on November 8.