The Miracle of Bernie’s Candidacy: The Holiday Story You Won’t Be Told

Bernie Sanders

© Shutterstock

January 26, 2016 17:35 EDT

The rise of Bernie Sanders in the US presidential polls feels like a holiday miracle.

Senator Bernie Sanders heads into New Hampshire more than 25 points ahead and into Iowa on the up, despite the array of forces aligned against a candidate who highlights the cost of our concentrated wealth. Sanders was virtually blacked out of the media and Democrat debates were severely limited. The Democratic presidential candidate doesn’t even have the foundational work of the “liberal class” to build on: Many “liberal” institutions have shied from effectively advancing progressive ideals that conflict with donor interests.

In a functional democracy, there might not be a “Bern” to feel. Sanders would be an ordinary politician whose consistent positions have been guided by the public interest. “One of 565,” we’d yawn, “and not even blessed with out-of-this-world looks or charisma.” The freshness and resonance of Bernie’s candidacy speaks powerfully to major failures of American democracy.

Hillary Clinton feels this widespread frustration in America. She has tried to frame herself as a breakthrough candidate, highlighting herself as potentially the first female US president. It’s evident that this is a far longer shot for someone looking to broadcast critical truths to advance progressive policies. One willing to dismantle boundaries set up by the Establishment is a potentially transformational figure and a far greater underdog.

Bernie’s honesty and commitment to “America” has brought results in the form of record-breaking crowds and donations.

Of course, Clinton has given Sanders the gift of her Establishment past. Surely she knew the fight to be elected president would be particularly challenging for a woman due, in part, to discrimination. Her calculated career moves—from first lady to senator to global philanthropist to secretary of state—should have made her an unassailable candidate, she must have thought. Yet today these positions represent greater liabilities than assets. The system has profoundly failed the American people. And Hillary’s failure to be an outspoken critic of key associates, like Walmart and bank executives, hurts her even more.

Perhaps Clinton’s error was one of philosophy: “Your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof,” says the Bhagavad Gita about goal orientation. The excellent unauthorized autobiography, Why Bernie Matters by Harry Jaffe, shows Sanders has mostly taken the opposite approach—doing good work, regardless of the political priorities of the power elite or where it will lead.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders © Shutterstock

Suzanna Walters, a professor at Northeastern University, was recently on Democracy Now. “Most of our major leaders, people who reach this level of political life, make all kinds of compromises, are deeply compromised people in their politics,” said the Clinton supporter. Bernie is not.

This article examines the forces aligned against Bernie Sanders and his agenda: the “Establishment,” which has been under so much debate recently; institutional obstacles to Bernie’s visibility and the policies he champions; and Hillary Clinton’s strategic failures.


Late January brings another compelling call to clarify basics (this time of “Establishment”) to the Clintons and their allies. (January first brought the need to inform them that either candidate could earn President Barack Obama’s endorsement given their position on guns, as per Vice President Joe Biden, then a clarification as to why single payer, universal health care wouldn’t leave people without medical service.)

The Establishment is largely a case of, “You know it when you see it.” But should the Clintons, who may have a better grasp on power structures nationally than anyone else, need more guidance, here’s some.

First, a British (and common) definition includes financiers, industrialists and government leaders who hold power and exercise authority. In 1955, British journalist Henry Fairlie wrote: “By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.”

If one is truly puzzled, they can read In the Light of What We Know, a compelling novel that spans Oxford University to London bankers to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and examines power and elitism.

The leadership of Planned Parenthood can be considered establishment. Yes, Planned Parenthood may serve a poor trans person in Detroit, but Cecile Richards is far from that poor trans person. There’s no contradiction. Sure, the organization has been unfairly attacked by Republicans and does much good work. But that doesn’t negate the fact that many leaders of this and other such organizations have access to powerful people within our society. And that those connections often influence decisions by both.

To argue this, you would have to assert that Democratic (and some Republican) politicians—who weakened transparency of campaign financing and allowed for the export of crude oil—hold very little power. Politicians who influence billions or trillions of spending make such decisions, not ordinary Americans.

Planned Parenthood’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton underlines this classification, as it is at odds with the voting preferences of a constituency of young women who strongly prefer Bernie Sanders’ platform, which helps them through a higher minimum wage, affordable health care and investment in schools.


The miraculous rise of Sanders has been in the context of an institutional blackout, which posed serious problems for his candidacy. Many of these institutions rely on funding by companies and the wealthy, who want to keep the gravy trail rolling despite its staggering cost to humanity and the Earth. So, Bernie has been kept out of the public eye.

Mainstream media: Sanders had ten minutes of coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC evening news during January to November 2015. In total, he received about 1% of all presidential candidate airtime. This is despite his candidacy being, arguably, the most important and interesting political story of last year. Clinton’s coverage, including Benghazi, totaled 230 minutes.

Even now, with Sanders ahead in both early states, much of the coverage is devoted to where Clinton went wrong and how she can win, while downplaying the very real messaging that has led to Bernie’s unprecedented campaign success.

Debates and the Democratic National Committee: Maybe that would be okay with 26 debates during the primary season, like in 2008. Unfortunately, the Democratic National Committee, arbitrarily under Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, limited the debates to six, with several held during football games, holiday weekends or other inconvenient times. The one streamed by ABC left Internet viewers with repeated frozen screens during a significant portion of the event.

Funding: Another obstacle was self-imposed: no funding from super PACs or corporations. It was viewed as virtually impossible to raise money otherwise, but Sanders has managed to generate major funds, even surpassing Obama donations in 2012.

Politicians and institutions: Politicians have overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton for a variety of reasons, including to curry favor or in fear of retaliation. This is despite major weaknesses in past policies of wealth inequality, foreign policy, financial reforms, climate change and health care.


But the greatest barrier to Sanders may be the framing of issues. Many of the truths that Bernie speaks of have been advanced by fringe progressive groups and activists, but largely ignored through more established institutional structures. There has been a blackout of truths relating to liberal, progressive and humanist ideals among many institutions that would describe themselves in those terms. In fact, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges’ 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, highlights this phenomenon.

Democratic socialism: Sanders uses the term to separate himself from rapacious capitalism and (imaginary) incremental progressivism of today. He has come under fire by the media and public for such branding. But the word “capitalism” has been appropriated to emphasize the free market with little regulation or attempts to redistribute wealth, except upward. Sanders better relates to Martin Luther King Jr’s definition, “Call it democracy or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of its wealth for all God’s children,” mixing private and public ownership like we have now.

When America is ignorant about Bernie Sanders and his/our issues, Hillary Clinton looks progressive. In contrast Bernie, who seeks systemic change based on global realities relating to human dignity, seems larger-than-life.

Ironically, the overuse of “socialist” with reference to Obama and the identification of a large part of the Iowa electorate as socialist may well help Bernie’s candidacy.

Colleges: Colleges often shy away from research and investments to address top challenges. So too do they fail to properly educate future leaders about gender equity, the environment, wealth inequality, climate change and the failures of globalization. They throw roadblocks to divesting billions of dollars to promote sustainability and justice, even while boards are populated by corporate and financial heavyweights. Over 250 colleges and universities now have Koch money. We are told by alum and college leadership that they just want to cure cancer, even while they are a top national polluter and spend like a third, highly conservative political party.

This amounts to situations where many colleges participate on the margins of finding solutions to the great challenges of our time. Although an era of new student activism, including Bernie’s strong support, may herald change.

Think tanks: Think tanks in America often provide narrow framing of issues. They receive significant funding from members of corporate and government, with 40% of Brookings donations over $50,000 from corporations or foreign governments.

Thus, when you look through their events, they seem almost written to quell your excitement and passion. If it puts fire in your belly, commitment in your heart or inspires you with its list of speakers, you are probably not at a popular Washington, DC think tank. They have rarely held the wealthy or corporations accountable, even as our oligarchic system of government stymied progress after about 400 people met and planned to obstruct Obama’s presidency.

Call it censorship or something else, but it has been hard to find programs that seriously challenge America’s military industrial complex, war policy, Glass-Steagall repeal, wealth inequality and climate change goals versus a 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius limit, especially given the paramount importance of these issues over the last seven years.

Nothing Bernie says about our top challenges and solutions should be new. Thanks to a timid left-wing intelligentsia that has failed to discuss major policies in a way that will resonate.

Establishment” nonprofits: Many of these organizations do good work. Yet they too accept money from corporations and hedge fund and private equity managers, and often have accepted growth as the byword it is in the private sector. They seek to measure “impact” (not inherently a bad thing) and thus “narrow their focus” (often not good). They shy away from policy advocacy on issues related to their mission (“not enough resources”) or actually change their mission or constituency to create “shared value.”

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton © Shutterstock

Peter Buffett has described some philanthropists as “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left,” rather than focusing on systemic change. Precisely what Sanders is advocating should be reflected in think tank and nonprofit advocacy, as issues of social justice and sustainability are the largest levers on planetary success and happiness.

Arts: So too have progressive ideals been drummed out of the arts and museums, which have also become increasingly corporatized. It is rare to see plays and exhibits featuring questions about morality and humanity like those common in Washington, DC in past decades—something acknowledged by theaters that ask where the politically-themed work has gone.

Barack Obama: At his last State of the Union, President Obama said that if he was a more skilled orator—in the manner of a Lincoln or Roosevelt—perhaps he could have brought the parties together. But he dodged an important truth: the president largely abandoned the bully pulpit for much of his two terms. We stopped hearing of the bankruptcies and problems with health care post-Obamacare; his measured advocacy on climate failed to be scientifically framed or close to what is needed; and he has failed to address the military-industrial complex, as just three examples.

Pope Francis’ address to Capitol Hill reminded us how a speech grounded in moral authority can inspire. It also highlighted Obama’s very real failure to diligently advance the progressive movement for much of his presidency. Yes, it would have involved alienating those corporations and the wealthy who do not prioritize the public interest. But they gave up on him and America first.

Media: A heavily war- and violence-oriented media, coupled with falsehoods of conservative stations, do not fill in these gaps of knowledge. Do people know that wealth concentration provides the cornerstone of Bernie’s speech—“the top one-tenth of 1% has as much wealth as the bottom 90%”—or dozens of other related facts, like the richest 62 individuals own as much as the bottom 3.5 billion globally? Do they understand the 2 degree Celsius limit recognized in 2009 in Copenhagen, recently at the G7 and reaffirmed (with focus on 1.5 degrees) in Paris versus a 4 degree path well within the realm of possibility that would be disastrous? That all 50 states could rely solely on renewable energy by 2050? Do they know the number of health care-related bankruptcies in America, and medical costs in other nations?

Surely they should understand the risk to the planet and people posed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), including energy and food lawsuits that have resulted from such trade agreements. Sanders has had to educate people about key issues and solutions.

Indeed, some organizations have been consistently strong advocates. Some nonprofits industries have sharpened their message and focus. And growing grassroots movements like Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter have advanced progress causes. But in many ways, we are living through an era of largely dismantled institutions that pose enormous obstacles to a humanist candidate, and to humanity.


When America is ignorant about Bernie Sanders and his/our issues, Hillary Clinton looks progressive. In contrast Bernie, who seeks systemic change based on global realities relating to human dignity, seems larger-than-life.

Hillary’s strategy has been poor but understandable, as she tries to deflect attacks on her positions and record. She has been mostly running against herself.

1) Be herself: This is what she was hoping to do throughout the entire election: run as a corporatist Democrat who was better than the Republicans. Yet against someone who is speaking Martin Luther King Jr’s “unarmed truths” from “unconditional love,” her tepid platform has left Democratic voters uninspired.

2) Adopt Bernie’s positions: Clinton has often seized upon Sanders’ positions and wording to deflect criticism, even changing her positions on TPP and Keystone a month before the first debate. Ultimately, this doesn’t pay off because they are at odds with decades of past experience, and wealthy and corporate funding.

3) Side with the president: Clinton pulls out her tight working relationship and false narratives with Obama when she’s in trouble. She cited what sounded like a landmark climate deal in Copenhagen after a joint adventure (first debate); stood up for Obama whose Wall Street ties Sanders was supposedly really criticizing when he described Clinton’s links to Wall Street (sixth debate); and advertised “I’m with him” after the president gave a successful anti-gun violence speech. Unfortunately, Clinton’s record in the Obama administration is too hawkish and unsuccessful to use heavily.

4) Go on the Attack: Many attacks misrepresent the truth and have been unsuccessful. Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea Clinton, launched an irrational attack on Sanders on health care, and Hillary’s gun attacks often are non-sequitur statements with weak ties to reality. At times she makes misleading statements, implying she is more electable against Republicans (contradicted by polls) or has greater support from independents. Worst of all, these hugely anger Sanders supporters, who could provide key support in November.

Ultimately it would be nice to see a woman committed to equal pay and other priorities in the White House. But for women—who struggle with financial insecurity, corporate predation and recovering from the economic crash—and for others, it would be far better to have someone who can take on the central truths and challenges of their times.

It will be “tough sledding” for Bernie Sanders to win in South Carolina, said Vice President Biden. Fortunately it’s snowing there.

Supporters understand the overwhelming forces aligned against Sanders and celebrate his improbable successes. Generation X sings David Bowie’s Under Pressure to celebrate his recent great debate performance and his rebuttals. Millennials (among whom Bernie leads by 11 points) are presumably changing to Tinder taglines like, “Let’s break up the big banks!” Or, as Bowie said, which is reflective of a nation that has stood up for Sanders’ progressive movement. “We can be heroes, just for one day.”

Millennials and all believers in a better life for all, including Bernie, must be our heroes every day as we create a world of justice and sustainability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Juli Hansen / Joseph Sohm /

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