Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

He's America's most popular politician. Why won't they listen?

Polls show Bernie Sanders is America's most popular politician, and he's out there wowing voters in Trump Country. Why can't national Democrats adopt his progressive vision for America?

The devil went down to Georgia, right? So why not send Bernie Sanders -- democratic socialist, avatar of far-left American politics -- down to West Virginia, the rust-bitten down-on-its-luck state that went absolutely ga-ga for Donald Trump in November's election?

Earlier this month --while the grand poobahs of a Democratic Party that Sanders has circled but never joined during his long unconventional life in America were back in Washington, still clucking about Hillary's loss, headless chickens in a topless organization -- the Vermont senator ventured into the belly of the political beast for a remarkable town hall that was broadcast that evening on MSNBC.

The setting was McDowell County, West Virginia -- a remote part of the Mountaineer State that's been particularly hard hit by the slow death of the American coal industry. It's a county with an iconoclastic tradition that - defying stereotypes about white Appalachia -- went for Barack Obama when he was elected the first black president in 2008. But in 2016, McDowell fell hard for Trump -- a bombastic billionaire xenophobe who promised to bring coal back by denying climate change. There are certainly a few similarities between the 45th president and the Vermonter -- rejection of trade deals, a pitch tailored to the "forgotten" men and women -- but their differences on most major issues are quite profound.

Yet by the end of the hour, Sanders had most of the audience in Trump Country eating out of his red democratic-socialist hands, and he did it not by pandering but by simply stating what he believes -- that all American citizens have a right to health care, to education and political and economic fairness.

The much-maligned Trumpcare/Ryancare legislation certainly gave Sanders an opening for political truth-telling. "At a time when we have a massive level of income and wealth inequality, this legislation would provide, over a 10-year period, $275 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent," Sanders told them. "So when people tell you we don't have enough money to invest in McDowell County or rebuild our infrastructure, nationally... don't believe them."

A retired miner thanked Sanders for supporting a bill to restore health care benefits for coal miners that Republicans would allow to lapse. "I never dreamt that I'd get to thank you personally for the bill that you are co-sponsoring," he said. "I'm one of those miners that will lose his health care at the end of April if they don't pass that law. I think it's kind of ironic that a senator from the Northeast takes care of my benefits better than someone like Mitch McConnell." Another woman hugged Sanders, because he supports fighting the big polluters in Coal Country.

Since November, we're heard so much angst from Democratic leaders wondering how the party can connect with its lost voters in the Rust Belt and in Appalachia and win back those states -- including Pennsylvania -- that gave Trump his narrow Electoral College victory. And we're going to hear so much more clueless angst from them between now and 2020 -- even as Bernie Sanders goes to blood-red places like McDowell County and Canton, Mississippi, and makes it look easy.

How easy? A poll taken the other day, even before all the shouting from five months ago has fully died down, made the case that Bernie Sanders is right now the most popular politician in the United States. Sanders -- who as a younger man was getting 2 percent of the vote as a 3rd-party candidate in a tiny rural state and sleeping on his friends' sofas -- now has a 61 percent national approval rating, according to the latest poll by (wait for it...) Fox News. He's more popular than Planned Parenthood (57 percent), Obamacare (50 percent), Donald Trump (48 percent, a lot better than the president has done in other recent surveys), and the lowly GOP (29 percent). Ho-ho-ho, but then Sanders is also nearly twice as popular as the Democratic Party (32 percent).

Remember, this dude is a kind of a socialist, and the word on the streets was that -- if Sanders had defeated Clinton for the Democratic nomination -- Karl Rove and company were going to destroy him with ads about all the hippy-dippy things Bernie said back in his more radical youth. In reality, the current meme is almost certainly right: Bernie would have won.

Remember the famous line about Trump that turned columnist Salena Zito into a CNN icon: That voters take Trump seriously but not literally? Correct, but the exact same thing was true about Sanders' epic if unsuccessful campaign. Voters understood that a vote for Bernie was no guarantee they'd actually get single-payer health care or free public tuition the day after inauguration, but that really wasn't the point. The point was that someone understood their problems with seeing a doctor, or getting their 21-year-old son out of the basement. Somebody listened...and understood.

The national Democratic Party -- most of them, anyway -- doesn't understand. They don't see how the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency gives them the chance of a lifetime to sell real alternatives for the middle class like single-payer health care or a massive infrastructure jobs program that could boost wages. They can't even get it together to fight the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, who doesn't even try to hide his judicial contempt for the little people who live in places like West Virginia or Mississippi. Sanders is America's most popular politician because he stands for something. The Democratic Party -- afraid that truly connecting with the party's base will alienate its millionaire donor class -- stands for nothing.

This weekend, Paul Heideman, writing for the far-left Jacobin, published what I thought was one of the best political essays of 2017, arguing that Democrats will never get anywhere without a coherent platform for the working class and by merely offering themselves as Not Trump. It starts with a stunning quote from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that, "We don't have a party orthodoxy — they [the Republicans] are ideological." Heideman argues that an orthodoxy is just what the Democrats need:

And despite the resulting disaster, this desire to have a politics without politics — this strategy to build a coalition bereft of any clear values or principles — has continued to animate liberals' opposition to Trump. Democrats really believe, it seems, that they can subdue the reactionary right without articulating any alternative political vision beyond prudent governance.

The irony here is twofold. First, in clinging to an obviously failing strategy, elite liberalism reveals itself to be an ideology every bit as impervious to contradictory evidence as the reactionary Republicans it defines itself against. And second, for all of the Democrats' paeans to pragmatism, they are just as committed to their own version of neoliberal capitalism as the Republicans, and just as unwilling to brook dissent with it. In fact, only a few days before declaring the Democrats free of orthodoxy, Pelosi responded to a student's question about socialism by effusing, "We're capitalists. That's just the way it is."

When attacking the Right, the Democrats are non-ideological and pragmatic. As soon as a challenge from the Left is sighted, however, the party suddenly stops being coy, and declares itself forthrightly in favor of capitalism. The result is an ever-rightward-moving political landscape that ends up abetting the very forces and figures that Democrats oppose — including Trump.

The author makes a strong case that leading Democrats and the progressive media -- what's left of that, anyway -- are so convinced that Trump can be destroyed over a scandal or hypocrisy, or over his frequent lies, or not releasing his income taxes, that they're shunning the hard work of pitching a real alternative vision to middle-class voters.

I could not agree with this critique more -- maybe because I lived through Watergate, the scandal that's back in vogue these days (including a joint appearance last night on CNN by Carl Bernstein AND John Dean, thrilling this one-time teenage Watergate geek.) And yes, Watergate took down Richard Nixon, and there's definitely a chance that Russiagate could be every bit as bad for Trump. But Watergate only briefly slowed the broader, backward forces of reaction that claimed victory, with destructive long-term effects, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. And will the factors that gave us Trumpism in McDowell County, Youngstown and Erie -- the working-class anger and the despair -- won't disappear even if Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn go to jail and Trump himself gets impeached.

And stop framing this as about 2020 -- that's light years away. My sense is that Bernie has barely thought about the next presidential election (when he'll be 79, if you're curious). He's out there listening to people and thinking about what can he do to sell people on a more progressive vision for America, right now. Today. If the national Democratic Party doesn't jump on this train, and quickly, they could be standing on the platform, dazed and dumbfounded, for a long, long time. The only thing that's worse than Trumpism is Trumpism without a real alternative.