“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.”

John Judis
As a visiting scholar at Carnegie, Judis wrote The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
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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. 

This article originally appeared in the National Journal.