American Eye: What Makes Bernie Run? by Stephen Minot was featured in issue 274.4.
In the December 1989 issue of North American Review, Stephen Minot began his profile of Bernie Sanders with the following:
“The political career of Bernard Sanders is a succession of impossible events. How does an outspoken socialist from Brooklyn become mayor of Burlington, Vermont? How does he manage to get reelected three times, gaining support with each election? How on earth can he run for Vermont's only Congressional seat in conservative 1988 and come within three percentage points of winning?”
What follows is the first few chapters of a narrative that has become quite familiar this political season. Minot was prescient in choosing to profile Sanders, who, at that moment, was still a relatively obscure national figure. Frankly, until about a year ago, he was still relatively obscure outside of Vermont and the pages of The Nation and Mother Jones. Yet Minot recognized something in Sanders, an intensity, a strength of conviction, that hinted, despite the electoral loss that preceded the article (a near miss in his first congressional bid), that this was someone to keep an eye on.
Nearly twenty-seven years later, the piece is striking, largely because the Sanders profiled then is pretty much the Sanders we know now: similar policy positions, commitment to reform, unabashed socialism. And in that lies much of Sanders’s appeal. There is a fundamental paradox in American politics where citizens revere both responsiveness to constituent wishes but simultaneously, steadfastness in one’s principles. In a time where many candidates appear to stand for little beyond their own ambitions, everything from the consistency of positions to the frumpy look signals a kind of authenticity that stands in marked contrast to the norm.
Minot’s profile wraps with an important question about the future, and one that won’t be answered for a while:
“Is this an interesting but not entirely new story of a highly energetic, dedicated individual who has by his own charisma managed to violate the basic rules of politics and still come close to winning? Or are there significances here far larger than the man himself? Is he right in claiming that the two-party system is in disarray, that most politicians are misreading the public, and that the voters are hungry for a dynamic change?”
And this, in many ways, is the question we are facing today. Sanders’s one major shift is from opposing to grudgingly embracing two-party politics. In a way, this fits with a tension that has been with Sanders from the beginning. He is an outsider who ultimately learns to work within the system rather than outside, and seems to be quite effective at it. While many Americans are disappointed in the two-party system, there is a savvy realization here that third parties generally don’t work in the American system (in fact, third parties generally don’t work anywhere with single member districts and first past the post plurality winners). What Sanders is attempting this year is to become an insider within the Democratic party in an attempt to reform it in line with his own vision, not unlike moving from protestor to mayor to senator.
It remains to be seen if the moment is right. Sanders has touched a nerve in a way that few (myself included) would have predicted a year ago. We will see soon enough if he ends up a footnote in presidential politics, or ultimately reshaping the party as we know it.
Justin Holmes earned his PhD at the University of Minnesota and is an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. He teaches classes in American Politics, particularly focusing on public opinion, voter behavior, political communication and political psychology. His research focuses on questions of how media, communication, and technology shape citizens' perceptions of the political world. His recent work, with Ramona McNeal, has explored the connection between social media and political polarization, as well as factors influencing support and opposition for government surveillance of electronic communication.