Welcome to our recurring series “Who The Fuck Are All These Fucks?” in which we profile, in brief, each of the 2020 candidates for president. This series is not meant to be exhaustive, and you’re encouraged to look into each candidate on your own.
Welcome back to part seven in our everlong series on the Democratic nominees. I’ve waited here for you. We’re talking about the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders, who formally announced his campaign today.
NAME: Bernard “Bernie” Sanders
AGE: 77, 79 by the time he would be inaugurated
CURRENT JOB: United States Senator from Vermont
PREVIOUS JOB: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Soviet Union’s at-large district
DOES HE HAVE FOREIGN POLICY POSITIONS YET: No, guys, that’s really not what he’s about
Bernie Sanders is a true New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1941. He grew up in a working class immigrant family and many of his relatives were killed during the Holocaust – events that gave him a distinctive political perspective when he studied political science at the University of Chicago in the 1960s.
Sanders was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality while at the University of Chicago, and chaired both groups, eventually merging their university chapters together. He became active in protests, especially against racial segregation, and was arrested and fined in 1963.
In 1964, he graduated and returned to New York City, where he struggled to find a job that was engaging enough to keep him occupied while also paying enough to keep him above water. He left the city after four years, “captivated by rural life,” and moved to Vermont where he he produced short films that were sold to schools and to socialist and left-wing political groups.
Sanders, who had experienced Democratic Party politics in the seedy underbelly of 1960s Chicago, was not interested in being a Democrat. He joined Vermont’s nascent Liberty Union Party, an antiwar, anti-capitalist party, and ran for Governor of Vermont and U.S. Senator in 1972. He ran again for Senator in 1974 and again for Governor in 1976. He never won more than 11,000 votes.
In 1977, Sanders appeared ready to leave political campaigning behind and he joined the American People’s Historical Society, one of several organizations created to preserve labor and socialist history in the U.S. during the cold war. But a big political break would appear under his nose in 1980, when Burlington mayor Gordie Paquette ran for his sixth term.
Paquette was the Democratic nominee in what looked like it would be an uncontested rate. Republicans were disinterested in challenging Paquette, a centrist Democrat with strong ties to the city’s business community, so when Sanders entered the race he was essentially the “Democrat” – despite being an independent – against the “Republican”, a lifelong registered Democrat.
Paquette was popular, but Sanders built a political apparatus of volunteers and professors from the city’s many colleges, who in turn helped to get students motivated to support Sanders. The city’s police union backed Sanders over Paquette because of Sanders’ support for unions and labor rights. Unexpectedly, Sanders won, squeaking ahead of Paquette by the narrowest margin. He won re-election three times, bolstered by a political apparatus that was now a party, the Vermont Progressive Party, who supported him by electing candidates to the Burlington City Council.
What was socialist Burlington like? Well, Mayor Sanders balanced the city budget, lured a minor league baseball team to the city, and worked with the city council to develop a new master plan for the city’s waterfront era. At the time, the waterfront was a mostly industrial district; today, it’s a mixed-use neighborhood with extensive parks, residential buildings, offices, and a little stand where you can get raspberry maple ice cream.
He also allowed a menorah to be placed at city hall, which the ACLU of Vermont objected to unsuccessfully. Sanders is Jewish, although Richard Sugarman, a religious studies professor and friend of Sanders, says his identity is “certainly more ethnic and cultural than religious,” and Sanders does not attend services or observe holidays. His wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, is Catholic and Sanders is an admirer of Pope Francis.
Bolstered by his tenure as mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Sanders ran for Congress in 1988, coming in second behind Republican Peter Smith. Two years later, he defeated Smith and became the first self-described socialist in the U.S. House. He ran for the Senate in 2006, endorsed by Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean. In Congress, Sanders has been a reliable voice for banking reform, criminal justice reform, and civil liberties. He opposed the USA PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War and has called for more restrictions on surveillance by the federal government.
In 2018 he introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act (clever readers will notice that reads “Stop BEZOS”) which would require large corporations to pay the cost of food stamps and Medicaid benefits received by their employees. The Stop BEZOS Act shows where Sanders has an opportunity to reach progressives and conservatives at the same time: many conservative pundits and politicians said the proposal made sense – businesses that earn billions, pay little to no tax, and have employees who depend on welfare programs are pretty unpopular on both sides of the aisle.
Although sometimes referred to as a “democratic socialist”, Sanders is a social democrat, who favors a regulated capitalist economy similar to what’s common in Europe. Sanders supports strong unions and government intervention to break up trusts; he opposes the concept of “too big to fail” banks or companies and has said the government should force those companies to split up.
Sanders’ weak spots, politically, tend to be foreign policy and diversity. Sanders is focused primarily on domestic issues. That might partly be because when the U.S. does “foreign policy” it’s usually to invade another country for fun or to ruin their government because it’s scary and doesn’t like how we invade other countries for fun. But it’s also because he champions international cooperation, which is a very boring concept where (a) you don’t invade other countries for fun and (b) boring diplomatic things happen and they aren’t interesting to talk about.
On diversity, Sanders’ problem isn’t that he’s boring but that he doesn’t seem to notice he’s got the stage all to himself. His 2016 campaign was criticized for not being sufficiently diverse. In late 2018 and early 2019, it was revealed that the campaign also had poor measures for reporting and responding to sexual harassment; although former campaign staffers who alleged sexual harassment say they don’t fault Sanders, they have expressed hope that his 2020 campaign will be better about those issues. Sanders also says his campaign should be better, and his longtime campaign manager Jeff Weaver will not be in charge of the campaign. But Sanders has often struggled to put female and/or nonwhite voices in prominent places in his campaigns, something that arguably hurt him against Hillary Clinton three years ago. In a race that includes candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Pette Buttigieg, and Julian Castro, Sanders needs to make sure he reaches out to, well, black women, women in general, black people in general, LGBT+ voters, and Hispanic, Latinx, and immigrant voters.
Sanders would also be the oldest person ever elected president, 79 at the 2020 election. President Trump, who currently holds that honor, was 70 at his election (he’ll turn 73 this year); both Trump and Ronald Reagan, who was previously the oldest person elected president at 69 in 1980, have been the subject of speculation about their mental capacities specifically* because of their age at election.
In many ways, this campaign won’t be about Sanders’ ideas. After the 2016 election, many of Sanders’ positions became default Democratic positions: nearly every candidate has supported Medicare for All, most support higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and many have endorsed other tax and budget reforms. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) got her political start in a Sanders 2016 campaign office and is now one of the most prominent Democrats in the country. Instead, it’s going to be about whether Sanders can re-create, in some way, the apparatus that supported his mayoral runs back in the 1980s. Can he build a campaign that can support his message even when he isn’t in the room? Can he show that female, LGBT+, and nonwhite voters will be part of his candidacy and his prospective administration? Can he demonstrate that even if he’s the oldest person elected president he’ll have the ability to do his job and people he can count on to support him?
Only Joe Biden consistently polls ahead of Sanders right now, and Biden hasn’t yet thrown his hat into the ring. Sanders needs to build that support fast and prove that he is the candidate for 2020. Let’s see if he can.
* Not to be confused with all the other reasons we’ve speculated about Trump’s mental capacity