Can Bernie Sanders Win Over Conservatives?
Many of my liberal friends are scared. They read in media depictions of the political rise of Donald Trump confirmation that the other half of their country is just as bad as they feared it was: ignorant, hateful, reactionary and bent on turning the nation into a Miller-soaked theocratic state. The conservative hordes rise against us, they warn. To stop them we must nominate Hillary Clinton.
I’m not so sure. First, I don’t fear conservatives. While I grew up, they were my teachers, guardians and friends, and they are my neighbors now. Aside from actual hate groups and those entrenched in the upper class (groups that, compared with the rest of society, are relatively unpopulated), it is their leaders in politics and the press whom I fear, the kinds of figures we all rely on for guidance and information, but who for the American conservative history has provided copious charlatans and cranks.
Over the past six months, I discussed this election with almost everyone I met. This wasn’t a scientific study, but the fact that many conservatives I spoke with — such as the owner and dishwasher, both of them ex-cops, of the restaurant beneath my apartment, a pilot, a contractor and a striving middle manager of a local energy utility — came to favor a previously unknown New England socialist over the candidates of their own party suggests to me that 1) with respect to the breadth of his appeal, Bernie Sanders is a kind of Democratic candidate unprecedented in our era, and 2) the dilettante sociologists in my liberal circles don’t grasp the character of their fellow Americans as well as they think they do.
Consider for a moment the energy and swiftness with which, amid a virtual media blackout that lasted many months, millions of Americans flocked to Sanders’ side. Then consider that, as of this writing, Trump has received just short of two-fifths of the votes cast in the Republican primary. Now ask yourself whether, given five months to make his case to the American public, the dignified, barnstorming, anti-establishment Sanders, enjoying the support of his committed and media-savvy volunteer army as well as Hillary Clinton’s Democrats (and the liberal media that currently favor her), could overcome the patent buffoonery of Trump to win the hearts and minds of a sufficient number of conservatives who, for all their alleged backwardness, still hold the same basic interests in community, economic security and opportunity, civil liberty, and physical safety as the rest of us.
Now consider Clinton. Even among liberals her name is synonymous with Wall Street, and Wall Street is not associated with optimism for the future. The FBI continues to investigate her conduct at the State Department, and her family’s multi-billion-dollar philanthropic network means she’s conspicuously entangled with the world’s glittering, begrudged oligarchy. Do you believe her campaign is positioned to overcome the conservative distrust that a right-wing attack machine captained by Trump, Ted Cruz or John Kasich would relentlessly inflame among the masses? Now combine your answer with polls that show Clinton trailing Sanders by as many as eight points in national match-ups against Republicans, and others that suggest one-third of Sanders’ spirited supporters would neither vote for nor support her in the general election.
The liberal case against Sanders’ electability stems from a lack of faith in the sensibility of American conservatives. Led by casual media fearmongering and long distaste for the bitter fruits of unimaginative leadership to believe that the public is helplessly divided, educated liberals especially doubt that an honest, respectful and sustained appeal to our shared interests can moderate the passions of our conservative neighbors. For those of us who speak to children of the power of love to trump hate, this should not be a respectable position.
Consider, for example, that many Americans reject the idea of labor unions when pollsters use the word “union” in questions about whether respondents approve of them. But when the same Americans are asked if they might prefer to be represented in negotiations for better pay and benefits from their employers, they respond positively. Do you doubt, reader, that the trusted, plain-spoken Sen. Sanders lacks the savvy to exploit such subtleties to gain the confidence of working Americans? Of Americans who know, as the rest of us do, that they’ve been screwed by their leaders, and who are eager for a champion who will help them realize the right to self-determination?
If Sanders wins the nomination, his supporters will have a fight ahead. Fortunately, in his character we have a formidable combination of the rhetorical pugilism of Theodore Roosevelt, a quality that Republicans intuitively respect, and the generosity of spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If he is nominated and elected president and uses his bully pulpit to simultaneously dignify and arouse the masses and enact policies that provide them with relief, a significant number of our conservative neighbors will recognize it and begin to support him. Let us give him the chance to try.
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