Bernie’s Political Evolution

To effect change, Bernie Sanders should go back to his roots.

By Matthew Klein

Late last year I learned that Bernie Sanders and I are both alumni of Burton-Judson’s Chamberlin House. My vote was locked. But as the race matured, my vote shifted from locked to conditional. (If he Scavs for B-J, it’s back to being a sure thing.) I found myself preferring Hillary Clinton’s platform and record in certain cases, such as gun control. More fundamentally, I recognized the fragility of a campaign promise founded on a proposed monumental shift in Congress and the judiciary. Bernie’s so-called grassroots “revolution” began to ring hollow, especially when I compared the Bernie who lived in Chamberlin in the 1960s to the Bernie running for president in 2016.

Photos of Bernie during his time at UChicago have been surfacing recently, depicting scenes of him being arrested while protesting, speaking at a sit-in, and fighting for civil rights. These make me proud, but I’m skeptical of their use. Bernie’s supporters generally point to these photos to support the image of his campaign as grassroots, anti-establishment, and anti–super PAC. They contribute to the revolution discourse by drawing a direct link between Chamberlin’s activist Bernie and the presidential candidate. But I’ve come to realize that these two are not the same person: we see the former push for change at the grassroots level in black and white, while the latter, in color, pushes for the top-down changes of the commander-in-chief. Chamberlin Bernie would not describe the presidential candidate as a revolutionary. Yet.

Now, the Sanders campaign finance model is novel, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about campaign promises that can only be realized in a liberal Democratic Congress. In order for a President Sanders to finance his proposals, he would have to push legislation that is in direct opposition to conservative ideology. His promises to gain funds via increasingly progressive taxes, I’m afraid, cannot be kept without a Democratic congressional majority. In the setting of a Republican or moderate Congress, Bernie’s agenda would be doomed and Hillary Clinton would be the better president.  

This is where Bernie has the chance to actually revolutionize a presidential campaign, increase the chances that his promised policies pass through Congress, and once again lock up my vote. He has to support, and potentially campaign for, congressional Democrats, especially senators. He has to support Democrats at the local and state levels. He has to shift the revolution away from “us,” the voters and donors, and toward the hundreds of races being contested—but not discussed—across our country. He can be, but has not yet been, active in ensuring that the America he inherits is one in which his promises can possibly be kept. A real politically revolutionary campaign, one that actually embraces the grassroots, would start with local races and climb all the way to the chief executive. By encouraging voters to elect more congressional progressives, Bernie would be able to more believably pass legislation throughout his term.

In practice, campaigning for other liberals could take many forms and need not be at his own campaign’s expense. He should identify local politicians that he supports and publicize their merits. Local politicians, being more familiar with their constituents, could in turn disseminate a tailored version of Bernie’s platform and encourage voter turnout. Traveling across the country for the primaries presents the perfect opportunity for this type of support. At each campaign stop, he can briefly bring local and state politicians on stage to extol their records or promising futures, and he could even invite them to speak. Bernie should also publish a detailed outline of how he would support a continued effort to bring more progressives into Congress post-nomination.

This is not just a Bernie Sanders issue; the DNC should be thinking hard here, too. The party certainly wants to avoid a repeat of the 2008 and 2012 elections in which Republicans won at the local, state, and federal legislative levels. Subsequently, liberal policies from the executive failed to take root in practice. If the Democratic Party wants to advance its agenda, it needs a greater volume of wins this election cycle. And while quantity is important for the party overall, it’s an absolute necessity for Bernie. To gain credibility, he must tell us how he will contribute to the race to establish the context that the next president will work within.

Matthew Klein is an alumnus of the College (A.B. ’14).