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What lies behind Bernie Sanders’ popular appeal

How can we account for the popularity of a self-proclaimed democratic socialist in contemporary America? The answer might lie in how his campaign embraced its idiosyncrasies and channelled them into popular sentiment.

Socialism has long been a political dirty word in the United States. Enter: self-proclaimed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among the choicest monikers Sanders has received from detractors over the years, there are three recurring themes — he is a socialist, populist and unelectable. It is worth noting that these are all incredibly nebulous terms, applicable to diverse (at times even contrasting) contexts and individuals. How Sanders’ campaign chose to operationalise them is the key to understanding his position as one of the Democratic party frontrunners across two presidential races.

The question of ‘electability’

While the Democratic party has long maintained that its primary goal in this election campaign is to remove Trump from office, Sanders weaponized his critique of Trump a bit differently. He strategically juxtaposed Trump’s narcissism and insincerity against two manifest principles of his own campaign — first, the catchphrase “Not me, Us” is perfectly succinct in repudiating both divisive politics and cults of personality; second, Sanders built cumulative trust by sustaining distinctive ideological consistency across decades, a rare feat in political careers as long as his.

Ultimately, stubbornness over the ‘electability’ quotient of certain policies neglects the fact that preferences evolve. The Democratic party’s own position on social security has shifted tremendously since the New Deal of the 1930s, in response to Republican counter-mobilisation efforts over time.

Who is a populist?

Although there is no definitive definition of the term, some semblance of a ‘lowest common denominator’ of populist politics does exist. This evolving consensus has tended to cluster around two necessary (but not sufficient) identifiers of a bona fide populist — ‘othering’ and personalisation. Both of these toxic signals are markedly missing from the Sanders campaign.

At the core of populism lies an antagonistic division of society that extends beyond ‘the people versus the corrupt elite’ which both Trump and Sanders have adopted. But unlike Trump, Sanders consciously cultivated a pluralistic view of ‘the people’ even if he did antagonise ‘the top 1%’.

Another characteristic of a populist politician is the promotion of a cult of personality that recognises oneself as the only hope of redeeming a broken system. An absence of this ‘saviour complex’ definitively undermines Sanders’ populist cred. In fact, he seems to have an aversion to personalising narratives, often to his detriment because he has a rather appealing backstory. While he may have learnt to channel some elements of his personal life as the presidential campaign progressed, he nonetheless maintained a parallel emphasis on the value of grassroots mobilisation.

Socialism(s)

Any functioning definition of socialism is likely to be highly contextual. Scepticism about Sanders is grounded in an absence of meaningful engagement with what political buzzwords might actually mean for us today. Sanders contributes to this discourse by actively mapping public resentment onto economic themes. This redirects anti-elitist sentiments away from negative unintended consequences like the erosion of trust in democratic institutions.

To have an enduring impact on the public consciousness, one must not merely capitalise on existing social divides, but favourably shape them in the process. Sanders’ political strategy demonstrates that external liabilities do not necessarily diminish one’s popularity.

Popular ideologies have an inherently imprecise character because their constituent meanings are negotiated in practice. What democratic socialism means for America in the 21st century must ultimately be contested on the campaign trail.