Recently, my son, an environmentalist who wants to believe another world is possible, asked me if I had yet drunk the Kool-Aid for Bernie Sanders, leading up to the March 1 Minnesota DFL Caucus.
Like me, he has heard and read that it would be better for liberal Democrats to win the presidential race with the more centrist Hillary Clinton than to lose with Sanders, however preferable his platform.
“Not yet, but I’m ready,” I said.
“How will you know when it’s time?”
That is the question, isn’t it?
Sanders wants to improve the lives and prospects of the ordinary people who dominate the electorate, and he can do that without financial ties to the powers that be.
Still, Sanders has heavy weights to lift. Above all, there is the overwhelming support for Clinton by the white Democratic establishment. As a self-described socialist, 75 years old next September, and neither a TV star nor glamorous, he’d start a general election campaign with a roster of challenges. Oratorically, he’s no Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Nor has he figured out how to respond to Hillary Clinton without interrupting her. He has not learned how to win over en masse those hurting from imposed borders of race and gender, as well as the gaps of income, wealth and political influence he routinely lambastes.
Although Sanders has begun to diversify his speeches, he could do better. For example, at the last Democratic debate, on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, he could have appealed more to black Democrats. He could have spoken in depth about his lifelong commitment to King’s transformational project — the historical project, not the diluted, holiday version — a project that goes far beyond the incrementalism pressed on President Obama, on which Clinton only promises to build.
Sanders would need to become trusted inside and beyond the Democratic coalition. For example, a Sanders movement might coalesce around health care access and funding. Clinton argues for expansion of the Affordable Care Act, while Sanders wants to move over time toward single-payer/(expanded) Medicare For All.
Eighty-one percent of Democrats and 58 percent of all voters support such a system, according to a December poll by the Kaiser Foundation. If Sanders’ campaign can make single-payer central, he might well win among Democrats. The issue might also help Sanders among Republicans. According to the Kaiser poll, 30 percent of them favor single-payer.
Among Democrats under 45, Sanders is ahead 2 to 1, according to a poll by the New York Times and CBS News. The results are more than reversed among those over 45. Superdelegates at last available count are running 359 to 11 for Clinton.
This generation gap tells us more about the future of the Democratic Party than any demographic divide. Sanders seems most popular in states he has most visited, and appears down nationally overall among Democrats because of lower support in states where he is not yet well-known.
Invited to identify with a candidate who spoke for their compelling concerns, younger supporters might well invest the time and resources to challenge party elders. And many no-longer-young but formerly active leftish Democrats could be newly inspired to pour their now-considerable resources — money, time, heart — joyously into a Sanders uprising.
If Sanders can become such a candidate, his supporters could generate a movement at least as strong as that which carried Obama twice to the White House. In order to beat the Democratic establishment, Sanders will have to inspire a dynamic popular movement powerful enough to beat the Republicans in November, and change Congress, too.
Such a movement would require the development of a new meme capturing what about Sanders ’16 is new and electric, catching fire with mainstream and social media.
A movement of possibilities and a meme. That would be enough for me to pour a cup and toast what could be. Progressives over 45 need to recognize that this country increasingly belongs to those who come next. According to the Census Bureau, millennials already outnumber boomers. Let their visions flourish. If they go on the move in sufficient size and force and multiplicity, shouldn’t they have their chance to win and bring another, better, greener world into view?
Clay Steinman is professor of media and cultural studies at Macalester College and co-author of “Consuming Environments: Television and Commercial Culture.”