If there is any single factor to explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, it would probably be his utter lack of affect.
Here is a man, after all, who opened his official campaign announcement by saying, “I’m happy to take a few questions, but we don’t have an endless amount of time.”
A man who, for some reason, doesn’t ever seem in possession of a comb, or a campaign staffer who could spot him one. (A trait he weirdly shares with the incorrigible mayor of London, Boris Johnson.)
A man who has apparently held the same core political views his entire adult life, and espouses them in the same manner whether he’s speaking to one person or to a crowd of thousands, and without any evident regard for how many—or how few—of his fellow citizens agree with him.
In short, Bernie Sanders is the real thing: A presidential candidate who can be taken at face value, and whose entire political fortunes rest on the strength or weakness of his ideas.
He is an entirely substance-based candidate, containing nary a whiff of hot air. In the present climate, how very fortunate we are to have him.
To be sure, we find candidates like this every election cycle—men we lionize for their “authenticity” and “straight talk.”
But Sanders’ authenticity exists on a level all its own, and his presence in the race demonstrates just how false the other would-be straight-shooters actually are.
Let us begin (as we must) with Donald Trump, the runaway favorite among likely GOP voters. By now, it is generally agreed—by Republicans and the media alike—that the appeal of Trump, such as it is, owes to his penchant for saying exactly what he thinks in the bluntest way possible, without any filter or sense of political correctness. In other words, people admire him for telling it like it is.
Horse feathers. People admire Trump because he says racist, inflammatory things about immigrants and allows white people to think of themselves as victims. Period.
His fan base cannot claim to care primarily about “issues” or “the truth,” since Trump has barely said a word about any issue, and whenever he has, his claims have shown to be greatly exaggerated, if not outright false.
If Trump proves anything, it’s that speaking directly from the gut is not an inherently welcome tack after all. Sometimes it just means you’re an intemperate jerk, and I’m not sure how helpful that would be for someone with access to the nuclear codes.
Then there’s Chris Christie, who was the GOP’s reigning straight talker before Trump parachuted into the tent. While not quite as crude or shameless, Christie’s image as an honest messenger of hard truths is exactly that: An image.
Rather than speaking plainly for its own sake, Christie is forever in pursuit of reminding us how politically heroic he is behaving whenever he finds himself in some scuffle or other within New Jersey politics. Whatever the issue, he cannot help making it about him rather than the principles involved. He always frames the debate as “me vs. them,” rather than right vs. wrong.
In this way, Christie shares with Trump that most obnoxious, yet alluring, strategy of reducing everything to personalities. Listen to both men long enough, and you’ll notice how often both resort to ad hominem—attacking the person instead of the idea.
(Recall the moment during “Bridgegate,” for instance, when Christie defended himself against former ally and schoolmate David Wildstein by saying, “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”)
Compared to all this childishness, Bernie Sanders’ candor is a difference of kind, not degree.
Like Christie, et al, Sanders has rooted his candidacy in telling difficult truths that voters might not want to hear—namely, that the whole American economy is rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Unlike those clowns, Sanders affects no particular ego in doing so. Yes, he believes he’s right and believes it strongly, but you get no sense that his views are shaped or clouded by his ambition for high office, or by any outsized sense of his own awesomeness.
Indeed, if being elected president were all he was interested in, he wouldn’t dare ruffle the feathers of America’s ruling class, whom he may well need to adequately fund his campaign, and whose lack of support may well make his nomination impossible.
By ruffling away, Sanders is challenging the theory that money controls elections more than people. That if your campaign is not supported by a super PAC and/or a few well-placed billionaires, then you don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning. Should Sanders manage to secure the nomination in the teeth of such institutional hurdles, it would be a glorious day for democracy.
In the meantime, we would do well to ponder a related, and no less crucial, query: Is America ready to elect a serious person for president?
When I say “serious,” I mean it in both senses of the word: Serious in intent, but also in disposition.
By all means, Barack Obama was a serious candidate in 2008, insomuch as he ran on a credible platform of changing the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and reversing several major Bush administration policies.
At the same time, Obama was utterly game to mix it up on late night TV—appearing on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live at key moments—and to indulge, however reluctantly, the media’s inevitable excesses all through his presidency. He has always been willing to bask in his status as a cultural icon, and to milk his personal popularity for all it’s worth. And he ain’t half-bad at doing it.
Sanders, meanwhile—with his laser-like focus on the plight of the working class—imparts very little in the way of a sense of humor. While not entirely without wit or an engaging speaking style, Sanders doesn’t seem to care about the personality aspect of the campaigning process—what Obama has long referred to as “silly season.”
Case in point: Sanders was asked recently in an interview, “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” His response: “I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?”
In fact, the interviewer was raising the perfectly legitimate concern that female candidates are scrutinized for their looks in a way that male candidates are not—a point Sanders later conceded and called “absolutely wrong.” But Sanders’ initial reaction to the question stands as an instructive window into his psyche.
Above all, it makes absolutely clear that he has no patience for side issues. He entered this race because he wants to close the gap between America’s ruling rich and powerless poor, and he simply doesn’t have time for the media’s asinine detours into frivolous nonsense.
The real question is: Are the rest of us grown up enough to follow his lead?
Every time a new election rolls around, we implore our candidates to be frank with us about everything that’s wrong with our country and what it’ll take to fix it. “Give it to me straight, senator.”
But then, when we actually get those candidates, we panic and run away in horror—right into the arms of someone with a big, glittering smile and the assurance that everything is just fine.
In truth, as voters we are attracted to characters, not ideas. In this way, finding a president is a bit like finding a lover: We have all these abstract notions of what our perfect match will look like, but in the end we fall for an individual—someone who, more often than not, bares little resemblance to what we thought we were looking for in the first place.
For Democrats this year, Bernie Sanders would seem to be the best of both worlds: He subscribes to Democratic Party orthodoxy on virtually (if not literally) every issue and he is willing to defend those principles without equivocation or fear.
The only concern, then, is this nebulous concept we call “electability.”
As Democratic voters would have it, Sanders represents everything they’d ever want in a nominee—not least a president—except they’re just not sure he’d be able to sell himself to enough non-Democrats to carry the election next November.
It makes sense enough, as far as political strategery goes. But it nonetheless begs the question: If Sanders is a near-perfect distillation of what your party stands for, yet you’re afraid to actually nominate him, what does that say about your party?
It’s easy enough to condemn the entire GOP on the basis of its disgusting infatuation with you-know-who. But that doesn’t mean Democrats should let themselves off the hook, for they, too, must come to terms with what their team represents in the America of 2016.
The apparent fear within the Democratic ranks is that America is just never going to vote for a self-identified socialist for president.
You know, just like how America will never vote for a black person like Barack Obama.
Or a Catholic like John Kennedy.
Or a populist like Franklin Roosevelt, whose harebrained commie proposal known as “social security” would surely have proved ruinous to our very way of life. What a great relief that we re-elected Herbert Hoover instead.
The truth is that, under the right circumstances, Americans are prepared to anoint pretty much anybody to the top job in the land. There was even that time we went with a divorced former movie actor, because, hey, what’s the worst that could happen?
Either Bernie Sanders is right for the times or he’s not. In the fullness of time, we’ll know for sure.
But what a shame it would be if—long before we reach that point—his own party writes him off as an impossible dream rather than a plausible reality.