“What is happening is that people in Nevada, people all over America, are fighting and demanding a political revolution,” Bernie Sanders thundered into the cold night air earlier this month at a soccer field in North Las Vegas, where several thousand people had gathered to hear him speak. “People from all walks of life are coming together, and this is what they are saying: They are saying in a unified voice, ‘Enough is enough.’ And what they are saying is that our great country and our government belongs to all of us and not just to a handful of billionaires.” The crowd responded with roars of, “Bernie, Bernie.”
Who would have thought a year ago that a candidate calling for “revolution”—a word Democrats have, for obvious political reasons, assiduously avoided for a long time—might emerge as the main alternative to Hillary Clinton? Or that Clinton, to ward off this candidate’s challenge, would be mimicking his hard-left stands on trade, campaign-finance reform, and the Keystone pipeline?
Bernie Sanders is a grumpy 74-year-old “democratic socialist” whose jeremiads don’t play well on television, where he seems to be yelling at the monitor; his political experience consists of representing a very small, rural state in Congress and serving as mayor of a mini-city of 42,000; before this campaign, he was not well known outside Vermont. For these reasons, among many others, he is probably not going to win the nomination. But the fact that he is playing such a central role in the primaries—attracting legions of small donors, huge crowds, and a healthy minority of Democratic votes—is itself noteworthy. In every previous election of the past generation or two, a candidate with this persona and rhetoric would have found himself automatically confined to the political foyer, while people like Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or even Martin O’Malley occupied the main stage. Something very different has happened this election cycle—and the question is whether it’s indicative of any developing, long-term trends in the electorate. Is Sanders, who came of age politically in the tumultuous 1960s, just a momentarily trendy anachronism, or could he prove to be a harbinger of a revived American Left?
To begin to answer this question requires a clear understanding of several things: what exactly Sanders stands for, who his followers are, and which elements of his message they are drawn to.
Sanders’s political trajectory is similar to my own. He got radicalized in the early 1960s at the University of Chicago; I was at Berkeley. We were both socialists who steered clear of violent crazies like the Weathermen or the Marxist-Leninist acolytes of Stalin, Mao, or Fidel. At the University of Chicago, Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth arm of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party. Rejecting the Soviet model, it defined socialism as an extension of democracy from the political to the economic sphere through public ownership of the means of production.
After graduating from Chicago in 1964, Sanders went to Israel for a year to live on a kibbutz—Israel at that time was a lodestar for many socialists—and following several fruitless years back in his hometown of New York, he set out in 1968 for Vermont. Sanders did not think of himself as a “hippie,” but he was deeply influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s. In Vermont, he joined several thousand other migrants of the new Left, including famed anarchist and fellow New Yorker Murray Bookchin. Sanders championed home birth and condemned compulsory schooling; he advocated free love and the legalization of marijuana; he dabbled in Reichian psychology; and he railed against commercial television which, “like heroin and alcohol,” Sanders argued, “serves the function of an escapist mechanism which allows people to ‘space out’ and avoid the pain and conflict of their lives.”
He joined the Liberty Union Party in 1971, a year after it was formed, and became its first candidate for governor. He focused his campaign on Washington, not Vermont, leading his Democratic opponent to suggest that he might have been more suited to be a congressional candidate. In a debate with his Republican and Democratic adversaries, he asked the moderator to inquire “why they don’t talk about the war in Vietnam, why they don’t talk about the fact that some people in this country have billions of dollars when others have nothing, why we have a grossly inequitable tax structure.”
Sanders’s objective was to radicalize the state’s electorate. “I even mentioned that horrible word ‘socialism’—and nobody in the audience fainted,” he recounted in a campaign diary he published in the alternative newspaper Seven Days. In his subsequent campaigns for the Liberty Union Party, in interviews and articles he wrote, and in a worshipful documentary he produced in 1978 on Debs, Sanders made clear that his ultimate objective was democratic ownership and control of the means of production.
Even when he was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s and was preoccupied with controversies over lakefront development, Sanders continued to be wedded to a Marxian view of socialism. He told The Baltimore Sun in 1981 that he would like to nationalize the banks, but that “I don’t have the power to nationalize the banks in Burlington.” He told a professor who wrote a dissertation in 1988 on his mayoralty that he supported a society “where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.”
But Sanders, like me and others who had been socialists, began to moderate over time. We came to understand that the economics of Marx and Debs were not feasible and that, for the foreseeable future, capitalism, in some form, was here to stay. You can see the softening of Sanders’s socialism in interviews he gave after he was elected to Congress in 1990. “To me socialism doesn’t mean state ownership of everything, by any means,” he told the Associated Press. “It means creating a nation, and a world, in which all human beings have a decent standard of living.” In 1991, he told the Los Angeles Times: “All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ Our goal is to create a society where you don’t have such a gross inequality in terms of wealth and power, and to provide more political equality for working people and poor people.”
By the time he was elected to the Senate in 2006, Sanders appeared to have abandoned altogether the older concept of socialism. He now equated socialism with what was happening in Scandinavian countries. “I’m a democratic socialist,” he told The Washington Post. “In Norway, parents get a paid year to care for infants. Finland and Sweden have national health care, free college, affordable housing, and a higher standard of living. ”And in the first presidential debate this fall, Sanders cited Denmark as an example of a socialist country. The younger Sanders (and any self-respecting socialist of the 1960s) would have regarded these words as apostasy. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland were liberal capitalist countries: Their social-democratic parties had managed to enact reforms that bettered citizens’ lives but they still had to heed a capitalist class that owned the country’s industries and banks.
In Sanders’s speech Thursday at Georgetown University—which was intended to clarify what he means by socialism—he cited New Deal reforms and his own proposals for free tuition at public colleges, Medicare for all, and a $15 minimum wage as examples of “democratic socialism.” These may be commendable goals for the country, but they are part of an effort to humanize rather than abolish capitalism. Indeed, when asked by Stephen Colbert this past September about being a socialist, Sanders replied, “I prefer the term, actually, to be a ‘progressive.’ ” This puts him very much in a tradition that has coursed through American politics for more than a century—from Teddy Roosevelt to the New Deal to Ralph Nader. Progressives want to subordinate the imperatives of the market and of private business to the public interest, and to remove the special influence of business from the political arena. They want to achieve liberty and equality. They do not seek to eliminate capitalism but, through regulation and very selective nationalization, to reduce the inequities of wealth and power that a market system creates.
The last two Democratic presidents both endorsed a version of progressivism in their campaigns—Bill Clinton’s 1992 manifesto, Putting People First, was coauthored by Derek Shearer, a veteran like Sanders of the new Left—but once in office, they were forced under pressure from Republicans and business interests to abandon early initiatives. Clinton ended up deregulating banking and much of telecommunications; Barack Obama largely let the big banks off the hook for the financial crisis and deferred to insurance and drug companies in fashioning his health care plan. Sanders is promising a return to a purer progressivism—one where Wall Street will no longer have a say and where ending political and economic inequality will be a central government concern.
But who are the voters flocking to this message? Sanders often uses the term “working people” to refer to the constituency he wants to lead. It’s a term that conjures guys in overalls; yet the bulk of the people at the rallies I attended were college students, recent college graduates, or white-collar professionals who have the types of jobs that require a college or even a post-graduate degree.
At the Sanders rally in Las Vegas, I interviewed about 30 people and also circulated around the crowd. I did talk to a janitor from Las Vegas’s militant culinary union and to a retired auto mechanic from Idaho who had moved to Las Vegas, but the rest of the people I encountered were students, teachers, scientists, civil servants, and social workers. At a Sanders rally at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, I found a similar crowd, with government consultants, IT administrators, and engineers also thrown into the mix.
These Sanders supporters are part of a stratum of the American labor force that the census designates as “professionals.” They most often work for a wage or salary. They produce ideas and sophisticated services rather than physical goods. They work in hospitals and clinics, schools and colleges, and, above all, offices. Unlike routine service workers, they make decent or even very good money. In White Collar, which appeared in 1951, C. Wright Mills labeled this group “the new middle class.” The French sociologist Serge Mallet called them the “new working class.” At the socialist journal I helped edit in the early 1970s, we called them “educated labor” and part of a new “diversified proletariat.”
The ranks of professionals grew steadily during the 20th century. In the Labor Department’s Monthly Labor Review, Daniel Hecker and Ian Wyatt estimated that this group, which they identified as “professional and technical” workers, went from 4 percent of the labor force in 1920 to 23 percent in 2000. The biggest jump came during the economic boom of the 1960s—which was also when this group began turning leftward.
Professionals were once the most conservative and Republican of occupational groupings, even more so than managers and executives. In 1956, according to the American National Election Studies, professionals backed Dwight Eisenhower by 69 percent to 31 percent; in 1960, they voted for Richard Nixon by 62 percent to 38 percent. But during the 1960s, they began to move toward the Democratic Party and toward more liberal or progressive positions. In the extensive surveys he conducted for his 1976 book The Radical Center, sociologist Donald Warren divided the electorate into “low-income,” “average middies” (those with middle income, but no education beyond high school), “high-education middies,” and “affluents.” Warren found the group that most consistently backed George McGovern in 1972 were “high-education middies.” Moreover, in the four elections from 1988 to 2000, professionals favored Democrats by an average of 52 percent to 40 percent. In 2012, Barack Obama won 56 percent of this vote, compared with 40 percent for Mitt Romney.
The new Left and progressive movements of the last 50 years have usually drawn their members, or at least their leaders, from this new middle class. That has included the civil rights, antiwar, public interest, environmental, and feminist movements—and, most recently, Internet-based groups such as MoveOn.org, which was founded by two Bay Area software developers.
Many of the new Left groups of the 1960s did advocate some form of socialism; but those that survived, and the groups that arose afterward, have embraced American progressivism. For these groups—and for the professionals who form the core of Sanders’s base—socialism has become a vague irrelevancy. When I asked people at the rallies what they thought of Sanders being a socialist, many of the students said it didn’t matter to them; a social worker pointed to the Scandinavian countries as a good example of socialism; others defined socialism in broad, almost meaningless terms. An IT person at the rally in Fairfax summed up “democratic socialism” this way: “ ‘Democratic’ means it is a democracy. We care for each other; that’s the ‘socialism’ part.” A water specialist for a Nevada agency said of socialism: “I think of community. Looking out for everybody, not just voting for yourself, but for your country.”
What did stir them, and provoked cries of “Bernie, Bernie,” were Sanders’s denunciation of the “billionaire class” and his promises, in their words, to “rein in capitalism,” “send kids through college for free,” and “get the money out of politics.” They understand what he means when he says that, in order to end the drift toward economic and political inequality, a “political revolution” is necessary. They know he doesn’t mean a violent overthrow of the government, but rather, as he said recently in South Carolina, that “millions of people have to stand up and get involved in the political process in a way we have not in many, many years.” When I asked a George Mason biology student at the rally in Fairfax what Sanders thought a political revolution could accomplish, she said: “He is really serious about the fact that our society and our economic system are upside down. Revolution is turning it all around.”
Why have “high-education middies” moved so decisively to the left over the last 50 years? Part of it can be explained via the theory of post-materialism developed by the political scientist Ronald Inglehart. In the wake of the 1960s revolt, he argued that rising prosperity after World War II had brought new nonmaterial issues such as the environment, the quality of consumer goods, and race and gender roles to the forefront in place of more immediate economic concerns. Colleges, especially those that catered to upscale students, became incubators of this post-materialist politics.
But there was another factor that explained why professionals turned leftward. The older professionals, epitomized by the dentist or doctor, saw themselves as entrepreneurs and identified with Republican support for the free market. They took pride in their autonomy and in their product: Teachers wanted to teach; physicians and nurses to heal; engineers to make things that worked. But just as happened to the crafts workers of the late 19th century who went on to form the American Federation of Labor, professionals began undergoing a process that Marxists call proletarianization. They lost their independence and autonomy, they increasingly worked for a salary, and their work became subject to the imperatives of administrators and executives. In response, some of them joined or formed unions; but, more generally, they became critical of the new economy and of those who ran it. Unlike an older generation of professionals, they didn’t regard capitalism and the free market as holy writ.
Over the years, the left-wing and liberal movements that these professionals have spawned have had their ups and downs. With the end of the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the militant African-American movement, much of the energy passed out of the new Left. Many of the public-interest, feminist, civil rights, and environmental groups endured but largely as Washington-based letterhead organizations that collected direct-mail contributions to fund their lobbying.
During the past two decades, however, the progressive Left has again begun to stir. The contributing factors have been varied—opposition to the Iraq war; the increasing power (especially at the state level) of an ever-more-conservative GOP; a growing sense, in the wake of the Great Recession, that conspicuous consumption, political corruption, and under-regulated capitalism were all out of control. Yet another factor was economic pressure on a new generation of high-education middies—pressure that has made them justifiably anxious about their future. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the real inflation-adjusted wages of young college graduates are 2.5 percent lower this year than in 2000. Student-loan debt, too, has emerged as a major concern, increasing by 84 percent from 2008 to 2014.
Sanders’s campaign speaks directly to all these concerns. His prophetic persona, wonderfully profiled by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker, stands in sharp contrast to most other candidates. (Interestingly, the Sanders supporters I spoke to described his appeal—he’s “free of special interests,” he’s “consistent,” he “tells us what he really believes”—with virtually the same words many Trump supporters use to praise their candidate.) But the essence of Sanders’s success probably does not lie in his style. Instead, it lies with a segment of voters who, for the past 50 years, have found it difficult to romanticize pure capitalism. That doesn’t mean they are socialists, but it does mean they want capitalism to be strictly regulated in the public interest. And Bernie is speaking their language.
Following the 2016 campaign, Sanders himself may fade from the scene. He is an aging figure, and while he has abandoned his earlier view of socialism, he still has not fully adapted his newer version of democratic socialism to American political traditions. Many Americans, for instance, are not likely to warm to the example of Scandinavian countries, with their very high taxes and centralized governments.
But his campaign may nonetheless represent a watershed in the development of a new progressive politics. The group from which Sanders has drawn his support—professionals and technical workers; essentially, the high-education middies—is continuing to grow. According to economist David Autor, even during the recession, from 2007 to 2012, the number of professionals and technicians grew about 5 percent, while the number of production, sales, and (routine) office and administrative workers shrunk. Unlike many manufacturing and low-level service jobs, the jobs of professionals and technicians are not easily subject to automation. On the contrary, these are often the people who use computers to achieve automation.
And there is no sign that the pressures that have moved theses voters to the left will abate. They will continue to be subject to wage and autonomy pressures from administrators, managers, and executives. Even doctors are now becoming employees of hospital chains. The social and economic distance between them and the billionaire class will continue to grow. And while a new recession does not appear imminent, there is also little sign of the kind of buoyant recovery that the United States experienced in the 1990s.
The result of these changes over the next few election cycles could be a more assertive Left in the Democratic Party—which could, in turn, result in increased polarization and even, in reaction, a further turn of the country to the right. But as the ranks of these voters swell, they could also help to create a more progressive country over the long term. If that happens, then historians may, decades from now, regard Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign as a harbinger of what became a substantial challenge to the powers that be.