Why Sanders?

Bernie_Sanders_Arrested_1963_Chicago_TribuneI’ve been wondering, why Sanders? How did a 74-year-old Jewish man born in Brooklyn, a self-described democratic socialist, and a longtime resident of the largely rural state of Vermont become the leader of a social movement that promises to reset the political center of the US much further to the left than anyone could have imagined a few months ago?

So far, one thought that’s come to mind is that he speaks with an earnestness that is largely an anomaly in retail politics and in the culture at large. We have all been ironic. Irony was central to postmodernism. The Simpsons could portray two young Generation X concert goers in this way: “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.” “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don’t even know any more.” (“Homerpalooza, 1996) The Simpsons itself is funny and so long running and influential because it is ironic, even as it often speaks to how confusing all this irony can be.

Somehow, the allure of irony seems to have passed by Sanders completely. He sounds so refreshing when he speaks about political reform or reigning in big banks or being against the TPP because he really seems to mean it. There’s no triangulation. There’s no focus groups shaping the language he uses. He seems hardly aware that he is wearing a tie, much less how it’s color might look on television. For Sanders, politics really seems to be about public service and debating serious issues in a substantive way. There doesn’t seem to be any of what Timothy Yu, quoting Benjamin, so aptly called in a FB post, “The aestheticization of politics.”

News analysts have made a lot of hay comparing Sander’s popularity to Trump’s (much less impressive) primary victories. They have, according to this line of reasoning, both become outlets for a populist revolt.

This comparison feels to me flawed. If anything, Trump is a familiar, if hideously exaggerated, political figure. He doesn’t speak for populist anger; he speaks for the elites. He speaks out of anger for the heyday of neoliberalism’s rise, the 1980s when he rose to fame with a bad haircut and bizarre tan to the rhythmic sounds of Robin Leach’s voice in “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” When he says he wants to make America great again, he is not talking about the 1950s, as some seem to assume, but the 1980s, when Reagan broke the backs of the air traffic controller’s union and greed was an unalloyed good. All of that gaudiness could only be enjoyed, or stomached, with a very heavy dose of irony.

If anything, Trump signals the end of an era. The end can be violent and destructive, but I believe (or maybe I just simply very much hope) it has come.

In 1992, Los Angeles erupted in violence after the police officers involved in the beating of the motorist Rodney King were acquitted. During the days before the second Iraq War, millions across the world marched in protest. Not long after, Tarir Square became the site of mass protests that inspired democratic movements across the Middle East. It also inspired the Occupy Movement in the US. Recently, #blacklivesmatter has led to direct and confrontational protests. Everywhere, it seems, there is popular desire for change. This desire keeps finding expression in one form and then another, apparently trying to find a way to give concrete shape to what this change can look like. No sustainable forms have yet emerged. The Sanders campaign seems to have contributed to this discussion by suggesting that there is an electoral means through which this mass desire can be channeled to remake governance.

The odds are long that Sanders’s gambit will led to anything more than symbolic gains. Indeed, I don’t really think he’s going to succeed in beating Clinton for the nomination (although given how unpredictable this electoral season has been, I wouldn’t completely rule it out either), but the fact that he has come this far feels to me miraculous. He seems to have done what was just recently unimaginable: convince voters to vote for what they want, and not what they think they can get.