How socialist Bernie Sanders offers Democrats a shot at the white working class

July 8, 2015

Almost everywhere that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont campaigns in his quest for the Democratic nomination for president, crowds overflow to standing room and in some cases out the doors.

Ten thousand people packed the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, recently. On a two-day tour of New Hampshire, 1,500 people came out to hear him in high school gyms and auditoriums, and at a barbecue and house party. Some polls have him tied or within a few points of frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the state, which hosts the nation’s first primary. Within the exalted halls of mainstream punditry, there’s been surprise, begrudging admiration and fears of spoliation.

New Hampshire isn’t racially diverse — it’s 94 percent white — but Sanders’ audiences otherwise encompass a broad cross-section of society: teachers, cops, food-service and healthcare workers, small business owners. Watching them listen intently, the burning question arises: Can Bernie be the guy who brings the white working class, especially men, into the fold of the progressive left?

Despite — or because of — persistently stagnant income and lack of social mobility, voters once called “Reagan Democrats” continue to feel betrayed by a Democratic Party they consider elitist and out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans. In casting their votes for Republicans, they cite cultural and emotional connection over tangible benefits like Obamacare, which has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by more than 10 million.

Sanders upends those expectations the moment he steps up to a microphone. Barack Obama was a rock star on the campaign trail, handsomely cool and elegant. Bernie couldn’t be more different. He’s older. His clothes are ordinary. He doesn’t offer much charm or soaring inspirational rhetoric. Instead, he launches right away against what he calls “the idolatry of money” and how the United States has “become an oligarchy.” His indictment is searing. At the Governor’s Inn in Rochester two weeks ago, he asked, “Did a terrible tornado rip through America and destroy our infrastructure? No. The greed of the billionaire class has got to end or they are going to destroy this country.” And the crowd rose to its feet with a standing ovation, as they did many times through his hour-long stump speech.

At New England College in Henniker the afternoon before, he called economic inequality “the great moral issue of our time. It’s not an issue that people feel comfortable with. But there is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as the bottom 90 percent.” His menu of solutions is ambitious: break up the large banks, free tuition at state universities, raise the minimum wage, expand Social Security and the Affordable Care Act, guarantee paid maternity, parental leave and vacations, and fund it all by increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing the military budget.

Scott Philbrick, a 52-year-old police officer retired on disability, voted for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the last election but said, “I want to hear” Sanders “because he’s not going to lie or candy coat. He’s going to say what’s on his mind, no matter what.” Mr. Philbrick waited patiently with a bound 1937 copy of the U.S. Constitution in which he collects candidate autographs. During the question-and-answer session after the speech, he asked a question on a lot of people’s minds: “How will you get your platform passed? There’s complete dysfunction in Congress.”

The senator warmed to his answer, one he annunciates in one form or another at every stop. Evoking populist imagery by addressing his audience as “brothers and sisters,” he asked them to “reach out to working-class and middle-class Republicans who continue to vote against their own best interests,” and change their minds. “They should not be voting for people who are cutting the legs out from under their kids,” he said, in reference to Republican cuts in Pell Grants. And then he singled out David and Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson and the Walton family that owns Wal-Mart — the country’s largest employer — for spending more on their causes than the entire Democratic or Republican parties have on theirs. He views that as antithetical to democratic values and ordinary citizens.

Call this a new variation on “Can I have a beer with him?”, the Joe Six-Pack factor that famously helped elect George W. Bush. Voters may or may not want to have a beer with Bernie — he doesn’t tell personal or emotional anecdotes very often — but they can be sure he’s not talking down to them. That may be the key to his method, his rise in the polls, the large crowds coming out to hear him. Few felt that they could have a beer with John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee derided as a windsurfer, or Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate considered wooden, or now, perhaps, Hillary Clinton, who has suffered from low “likeability” polls.

Bernie Sanders, an average-looking old man compared to any of them, is happy to make comparisons that could be punch lines at a Republican rally. At the Oyster River High School in Durham, he said, “Scandinavian countries have accomplished extraordinary things. Quality healthcare as a right. Excellent childcare systems. The U.S. is very different from small countries like Denmark or Finland. But that’s what socialism is about, and I don’t apologize for that. In Denmark, it’s very hard to be very rich and very hard to be very poor. Sounds good to me.”

So, can it work with white Middle America? Can he transcend preconceived notions about how “socialism” and “Europe” are bad? Kalika Bower, a 27-year-old waitress nursing her infant after an event, said, “I’m really inspired by Bernie’s goals: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. I have $20,000 in student loans. I would like to see him win. Though I’m skeptical as to how far he’ll get, he exceeded my expectations.”

More than any other Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory, Bernie looks most like the people he claims to represent. For working-class Republicans, it may be the first time that they’re hearing this message from someone who could be themselves. Some Democrats have given up the white working-class vote as lost. They prefer to focus on demographic groups that have been more reliably loyal in recent elections, such as women, African-Americans and Hispanics, and urban as opposed to rural constituencies. Bernie is working hard to win them back … and at least some of them are getting it.


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Sanders is well intentioned in his legitimate concern for fairness and greater equality but he offers few realistic – financially or politically – alternatives. The countries he lauds in Scandinavia are moving in the opposite direction from Bernie, cutting back government spending & programs and reducing taxes. And Americans simply would not put up with the levels of taxation required to fulfill his wish list, such as “free” college and expanding Social Security. His panacea, tax the wealthiest (the top 1% already pay about one third of all Federal taxes, a share which has increased over time), would barely put a dent in the debt chasm created by growing entitlements as baby boomers retire and neither would shaving 10 or 15% off the defense budget, which in itself is a bad idea on national security grounds. With Sanders there is less here than meets the eye and he fails to acknowledge the real conflict, between well cushioned retirees with their social security, houses, and pensions, who are mostly white, and children, increasingly non-white, and who are getting shortchanged financially.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Yes, please nominate bernie sanders. I could use a good laugh. We need a strong economic mind like bernie’s to limit our choices in deodorant and running shoes.
Because apparently that will help put food on the table for the poor. ders-condemns-existence-of-23-different- deodorant-brands-while-children-go-hungr y/

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

@EndlessIke, Americans still don’t know the difference between socialism and communism, and you don’t either.

Posted by Hulls | Report as abusive

“Scandinavian countries have accomplished extraordinary things…” Scandinavian countries have secured their borders and DO NOT HAVE 16 million ILLEGAL ALIENS sucking their country dry like the USA does.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

@LetBalanceCome If you truly believe this, you should question the efficiency of the ICE and fight businesses using illegal labor – until your realize there is no political will to remove cheap, illegal labor that supports lower consumer prices. More realistically, you should consider Norway’s free healthcare, free education and high taxes and as much more significant contributor to the country’s overall standard of living and wealth.

Posted by Hulls | Report as abusive


Thanks for telling us what we Americans will tolerate, especially considering the progressive taxation in our nation’s history.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Bernie is a rock star on the campaign trail. You personally are overly tuned to appearances rather than substance (typical of people in the entertainment business). That exposes your shallowness. Listen to Bernie’s word and then try to think rather than feel, and try not to see only what you can manipulate for your own fame and fortune like most superficial supposed journalists these days. Whites (what a racist term) are not tired of the of the left. Jefferson was a liberal. No, many people, including some whites are tired of the infiltrated democrats who have sold out the American people. Corporatists, Feminists and Blacks who claim permanent victimhood, and simply corrupt politicians (think Chicago) abound in the democratic party and they play their roles as if Rush Limbaugh were writing the script. They are fake liberals. They harken back to the same traditionalism that the right does. They are moles within the party.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I have never once been able to get a comment on one of Alan’s opinions. I assume that I am to accurately critical of his points.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

@LetBalanceCome You definitely haven’t been to Scandinavia lately or have never head of Schengen area. To have an idea, in Malmö, which is Sweden’s third biggest city, 1/3 of the population was born overseas! And most of them are NOT from Europe.

Posted by Work23 | Report as abusive

I wrote and submitted a polite heart felt relevant reply to this editorial earlier today. It was not included in your comments section. Sorry to have bothered you, I won’t read your opinion pieces again, and I’ll also switch from Reuters to Bloomberg. Have a day.

Posted by anotherfakename | Report as abusive

Great article. Absolutely, positively the Democratic Party has been losing members in droves (of course so has the RNC). The duopoly is very elitist. There has been very little space at the cocktail parties for teachers and laborers and taxi drivers, police officers, grocery clerks, etc. Bernie welcomes these people with his honest take on our country and the world. The fact is, he actually likes them. He doesn’t look down on them. He doesn’t speak down to them. He doesn’t over-think every sentence and and run his speeches by media consultants. It is refreshing and he is refreshing. I was at the speech in Portland, Maine on Monday along with 8000 others. The people were the crossroads of America and contrary to many pundits, I did not see them as representing the liberal wing of anything. Casually dressed, young, old, families, gays, teachers and lawyers and bikers, (and probably some) scofflaws. Real people. Happy people because they finally had a reason to LIKE a candidate for something.

Posted by charlottescot | Report as abusive

RE: “Though I’m skeptical as to how far he’ll get, he exceeded my expectations.” – He’ll get as far as we take him. This is a democracy.

Posted by Onerioi | Report as abusive

@ Cassiopian RE: “the top 1% already pay about one third of all Federal taxes, a share which has increased over time” That’s because their income keeps going up while the rest of us have seen decreases, or at best, stagnation.

Posted by Onerioi | Report as abusive

With all the Hispanics, blacks, homosexuals and women voting Democratic, that leaves only old white men and a few Asians to vote Republican.

Posted by ArribaJuarez | Report as abusive

I wonder if we are just too big a country for something along the lines of Scandinavian socialism. But I’d like to see the experiment take place. And I’d like to see a Sanders vs. Trump race; a real choice, no echoes. We have been electing same-sames for decades, regardless of party. These two guys are both plain-speaking, and, most welcome, devil-take hindmost re: PR. They are truly different, too, one from the other and both from the packs at their heels. These are authentic American characters. Let either win, and try his way. I feel as if I have been eating out of cans forever, and here, suddenly, plain and unapologetic, are apples from a tree, potatoes from the earth, fish from the sea. And my lost appetite is noticing.

Posted by NBE | Report as abusive