In recent weeks, Senator Bernard Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, and chairman of the Veteran's Affairs Committee, did something that Senate Democrats have not been able to do: He worked with a Republican to strike a bipartisan deal to reform our country's crisis-ridden veterans' health care system.
It's not the first time that Sanders has beaten the partisan gridlock. For Dodd-Frank, which re-regulated the financial industry after the housing crisis, he worked with Republicans on legislation to force an audit of the Federal Reserve's emergency lending activities. As a result, we learned that the Fed provided over $16 trillion in virtually zero interest loans and other financial assistance to every major bank in this country, foreign banks, and some of the largest corporations in the world.
During the debates over the Recovery Act (stimulus), he worked with Republican Senator Grassley on an amendment to prohibit financial institutions receiving TARP funds from hiring guestworkers when laying off Americans. During the bailout, big banks laid off over 100,000 workers while hiring cheaper labor abroad through the H-1B visa program. The Sanders-Grassley amendment put a stop to it.
Sanders -- widely known as "Bernie" -- is the longest serving Independent in congressional history, and Vermont's two-term senator, who previously served for 16 years as the state's only member of the House. Before that, he was mayor of Burlington, defeating both Democrats and Republicans over four mayoral victories. His electoral success in Vermont, traditionally a Republican stronghold, is in part due to his ability to attract conservative votes, despite his reputation as a steadfast progressive. It also has to do with his grassroots style: Sanders won his last re-election with funds derived from small donations (averaged around $48) and without the help of corporate PACs.
Sanders is once again making the rounds, this time as a potential candidate for president. With a strong career as an Independent, his run could help jump start a third party movement in the country. But it could also have a spoiler effect in favor of the radical Right. Progressive Democrats want him as their candidate, and believe that he could, at the very least, push centrist elements in their party to the Left. But critics contend that if he doesn't win the primary, he would just be scoring votes for Hillary Clinton, who can't be trusted to espouse a progressive platform once in office.
Few think he can win. But also, few seem to deny that the American political system is seriously broken, and that fixing it may require radical change. And, that congressional gridlock and the false promises of the Obama administration have left many people disaffected with mainstream party politics. That's part of the reason why Sanders' signature rails against political corruption and Wall Street power are starting to resonate more widely, as has the message of the Tea Party in recent years. With Republicans trying to privatize Social Security and courting billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, and Goldman Sachs-fueled Democrats behind the Wall Street bailout and NSA scandal, how can poor and middle class people realize their interests through the electoral process?
In the eyes of Big Politics, Sanders' alienation from corporate donors renders him weak and unwinnable. But in the eyes of everyday people, it could make him a hero. The American people know that their government is not structured as a representative body. And they know that both parties' leadership have more in common with each other, and with the corporate heads they cavort with, than they do with the people who make up their base. Political elites share class-experience and mutual access to power. Everyday people, on the other hand, remain fragmented, and thus powerless as potential agents of change.
Unless, of course, they form movements to contest political and social inequality, which is exactly what Sanders is trying to provoke. He's talking less about being president, and more about economic empowerment and "political revolution." Like Obama, Hillary's appeal to identity politics will win voters, but as a member of the woman club myself, I'm more interested in seeing groups typically divided along identity lines fight for more universal forms of freedom -- not just in terms of gender, but also race, age, sexual orientation, and most importantly, social class.
Presidential elections, especially in recent years, often sink to what Herbert Marcuse once called "the lowest common denominator" of American life. Real Housewives meets Super Bowl Sunday. But they also provide a brief opening for political conversation that's not part of everyday life for most Americans. This is especially true during the primaries, when the pool is much wider, and candidates visit folks in their own backyards.
Shifting the national dialogue to issues concerning poor and middle class people is particularly important in the lead up to 2016, especially since apathy and downright disgust have reached a new high. A political revolution may seem overly ambitious for an Independent from Vermont, but no more ambitious than convincing poor and middle class people that Sheldon Adelson and Goldman Sachs share their interests, or that a vote for Hillary or Chris Christie is somehow not a vote against themselves.