The year was 1932. The United States was at the peak of the Great Depression. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The efforts of the Herbert Hoover administration left the country demoralized, fractured, and in desperate need of a leader. In this vacuum of weakness and despair, a dictator or a demagogue could have easily taken the reigns of power, and democracy could have failed. But that didn’t happen. In November of that year, the nation elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the first time, and changed the trajectory of the twentieth century. His near four terms in office saved capitalism at home with the New Deal and protected democracy abroad from fascism. Born into privilege yet understanding of the needs of the common person, Roosevelt came to embody progressivism for a generation. In some respects, he still embodies it today.
Many presidents have since tried to maintain the political house that Roosevelt built. Lyndon Johnson continued Roosevelt’s legacy of Social Security with Medicare and Medicaid. Reagan, with the help of Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, saved Social Security from a near collapse. Barack Obama oversaw the passage of the Affordable Care Act, expanding healthcare coverage to millions of Americans. In their own way, these men defended Roosevelt’s legacy for decades, yet still haven’t taken his mantle.
Just like 1932, the nation currently faces problems that are poised to undermine the very fabric of democracy itself. Income inequality threatens to cripple the economic vigor of the United States and an increasing level of polarization and corporate cronyism make the nation nearly ungovernable. Greater still, the threat of Islamist and radical Christian terrorism shakes the foundation of our security and freedom. Yet, in the face of all these challenges, the current crop of presidential candidates does not offer much promise. Donald Trump is a bigoted fascist, arguing that “all Muslims” should be banned from coming to the US. Marco Rubio argues that the unconstitutional NSA phone record collection program should be reinstated, even when it threatened the personal liberty of citizens. Hillary Clinton, the supposed Democratic front-runner, is a corporatist centrist parading around as a progressive, proving once again that she and her husband are more than happy to be all things to all people while simultaneously believing in nothing. (If you doubt me, read the late Christopher Hitchens’s essay, “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.”)
But there is one person who rises above the fray, a man who has dedicated his life to progressive change and could easily upkeep the house the Roosevelt built. That man is Bernie Sanders. The longest-serving Independent in the United States Congress, Sanders has consistently defended the rights of the poor and working class. He supported marriage equality years before anyone did. When Hillary Clinton supported the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington and held sit-ins for civil rights during his years at the University of Chicago. Principled to the point of stodgy, Sanders represents a New-Deal style progressivism that I deeply connect with.
He defends a serious return to form for progressives. The Democratic party’s years-long flirtation with Neo-Liberalism has had less than diminishing returns. The party, as a whole, is in worse shape than the Republicans nationally. Now, as you read that, you may be skeptical, but let me reassure your concerns. Republicans have control of both houses of Congress, a majority of Governor’s mansions and state legislatures (including my own in Indiana), and have used their power to restrict worker’s rights, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights. It is not completely inconceivable, as it may seem with the current flock of GOP candidates, that they win back the White House. This is why it is crucial that the Democrats pick the right person; I think Bernie is that person.
One of the most interesting concepts I’ve read about recently is the the “Overton Window.” The Overton Window is a sociological term that describes what a broad populous is comfortable with ideologically. Politically speaking, it shifts either left or right depending on the leadership and the zeitgeist of the time. In some respects, the Overton Window is like a “bell curve” for political discourse, with radicals on each pole and centrists at the top of the curve. Conservatives, for nearly two generations, have shifted the nation’s political Overton Window farther to the right, so much so that what passes for “liberal” these days is closer to Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicanism of the 1960s. Because of this, the Republicans have lost their mind while the Democrats have lost their guts.
A lot of this changed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He shifted the Overton Window closer to the left, with the victories of Marriage Equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Affordable Care Act, and his historic nuclear agreement with Iran. As such, Obama reclaimed some of what liberalism meant before the wilderness years of Clinton and Company. However, he did capitulate to the Neo-Liberalists of his party, with the market-driven reforms in the ACA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade deal whose details are still largely unknown to the public.
Bernie shifts the Overton Window even more to the left, with policy ideas that seem “radical” on the surface, but are actually well-supported by national polling. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, make all public universities tuition-free, create Medicare for all, and pass sweeping reforms to Wall Street. During his years as a President, he may not achieve all of these policies, but making them a priority during his campaign has shifted the national discourse, with Hillary and even some Republicans echoing some of Sanders’s ideas.
Above all else, Sanders is the most secular presidential candidate this election cycle, which is refreshing for a secular voter like myself. He even went so far as not answering whether he believed in a god on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last fall. Instead of parading around some useless piety or quoting religious scripture, Sanders (who is a secular Jew) said:
What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. It is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people…We cannot worship billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.
This eloquent, yet direct statement sums up Sanders in a nutshell: a dedication to economic fairness, solidarity with the underclass, and compassion for all people. These qualities bring out the best in someone, especially someone running for the highest office in the land.
I voted for the first time in 2008, and my first vote for a president went to Barack Obama. I knew how important that vote, and his election, was for the country. It was nice to vote for someone who I actually believed in, rather than the dreaded “lesser of two evils.” Sanders’s candidacy gives me, as a voter and a liberal, the same inspiration and hope that Obama’s did in 2008, sometimes more so. His candidacy and hopeful election only underscores the success of the Obama era and a commitment to build on his legacy. Clinton does not inspire that in me, and the Republicans certainly don’t either. As such, it’s time that the United States elect Sanders for the Democratic Nomination and the Presidency, and if you think that a socialist can’t be President, just remember 1932 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.