The phenomenon of Bernie Sanders

As the rest of the nation gets acquainted with the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders, the press from out of state is asking one persistent question: How has Sanders maintained popularity in Vermont, not just with the Ben & Jerry’s crowd of liberals in Burlington, but with Vermonters across the political spectrum, including conservatives?

Sanders is not universally admired in Vermont. The business community has always viewed his hostility to business as narrow and destructive. Businesses have their own agenda, their own self-interest, and Sanders’ brand of government activism sometimes gets in their way. The wealthy who wish above all to keep the government’s hands off their private fortunes tend not to like Sanders at all.

But what of the working man with his tools in the back of his pickup and not enough money in his pocket? Over the years, Sanders has maintained his popularity in the Northeast Kingdom and other rural regions of Vermont, even in towns where in years past "Take Back Vermont" signs were frequently seen evidence of a conservative backlash. Hostility to liberals in Montpelier has not always extended to Sanders, even if his views on issues such as gay marriage are as liberal as those of anyone else. How has he done it?

Sanders has always spoken up on behalf of those who are getting the short end of the stick. That would include people who are cheated by banks through predatory credit card charges. It would include people who have lost jobs because of international competition or heartless corporations. It would include anyone who senses that a failing health care system is partly the fault of billionaires unwilling to cough up the tax revenue to fix it. It would include anyone sick of political corruption and big money in politics. In other words, it includes a lot of people across the political spectrum.

Sanders is ideological in his rhetoric, but the consistent theme that rings constantly throughout his speeches is the sense that it’s not fair. What’s not fair? The entire system. Conservatives and liberals can agree on that.

Sanders has thrived in Vermont partly because of the absence of two social phenomena that drive politics in many parts of the country. One is race. White working class people often view politics through the lens of race. They see government efforts to help low-income people as welfare for black people, and they don’t like it. Thus, for some Americans, health care reform is a way of giving free health care to blacks – even if it also serves the interests of millions of whites.

Because of the absence of a large black population or a history of slavery, race has played a relatively minor role in Vermont politics, apart from Vermont’s historic role as a supporter of abolition and civil rights.

The other absent social phenomenon is evangelical Christianity. In other regions, conservative Christians have made issues such as abortion and gay marriage touchstones of their politics, forcing politics in a conservative direction. Because evangelical Christianity plays a relatively minor role in Vermont, working people have less reason to be scared away from a politician such as Sanders.

On the national stage, Sanders has been forced to address issues of race in ways that he has not had to do in Vermont. His language tends to describe the world in terms of economic class, and he has always thought that economic injustice subsumes issues of racial injustice. In talking about the former he is also talking about the latter. But lately, African-American activists have forced him to address specifically issues of racial injustice, particularly the violence against blacks that engendered the Black Lives Matter movement.

Appealing to the electorate of Vermont is one thing. Grass-roots politicking here can overcome many traditional barriers, as Sanders has shown. It remains to be seen how successful Sanders will be in stitching together a coalition from the broad sweep of the American electorate.

The Times Argus (Vt.)