Bernie Sanders' campaign is an experimental test of idealism. And it's working.
The Bernie Sanders campaign, when properly described, sounds like an experiment in politics so high-minded that it ought to have failed instantly.
Just think about it. Bernie Sanders runs against political juggernaut Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. His campaign relies almost exclusively on individual small-dollar donations. It refuses to gesture pointedly at Hillary Clinton's character, ignoring almost entirely her email scandal and several conflicts of interest that arise from her globalist grifter career where she does well for herself by appearing to do good for others. When the Sanders campaign hits Clinton, it's on policy; at last night's debate, Sanders' most aggressive attack on her character was a joke about speeches she gave to banks. Unless prompted, his campaign ignores the most obvious foreign policy scandals that can be tagged to her.
In other words, the Sanders campaign has avoided road-testing attacks on Clinton that could be used by Republicans, and instead focused all of its energy on advocating the grandly vague "political revolution" that most animates Sanders. It has named an enemy, the millionaires and billionaires who cheat America out of the democratic-socialist government Sanders believes the country deep down really wants. His campaign has tried to place itself in the great tradition of American protest and agitation.
He has leveraged the soaring political aspirations of his fans and the inherent drama of a longshot campaign against a frontrunner so heavily favored and so highly connected into a powerful movement. The Sanders campaign is a legitimate fundraising juggernaut, able to outdo in a single night what top Republican operations can pull off in a month. And, as Sanders constantly emphasizes, his campaign's reliance on small donors means his money comes with a democratic mandate. Of course that makes people want to participate and give more.
In other words, the campaign fits his unkempt and slightly guileless personality. And it also fits the moment in a way too often overlooked by commentators. Barack Obama's presidency promised a kind of moral and economic rebound for the country after the Bush years. The economy, after many rough starts, does seem to be galloping along. But those gains have been captured almost exclusively by those who are already economic elites. If the Obama presidency was the radical break from George W. Bush that failed to bring about a measure of greater economic justice or equality, perhaps what is needed is true political radicalism, and not merely another self-flattering member of the technocracy. For many, Sanders' vision of a deeper restructuring of the American settlement is the only sensible option left, because technocracy and neoliberal niggling has simply failed to deliver the promised goods.
But if Sanders fails to beat Clinton, the campaign can say honestly that almost nothing the candidate has done will have harmed her in the general election. The closest he came was in last night's debate when he swiftly changed the subject from whether Clinton lied to families of those who died at Benghazi to questioning the wisdom of intervention there, and making it a broader critique of American willingness to intervene generally. Some of his fans may wish that Sanders would show the killer-instincts Obama showed in 2008, when the Obama campaign directly challenged Clinton's foreign policy instincts and subtly eroded her personal reputation. But Sanders' brand is the integrity of his socialist vision that stands slightly above electoral politics.
And there is something perversely satisfying, for political junkies, in the desperate way the Clinton campaign has tried to generate sexist offense and umbrage out of normal conversational gestures in the Sanders campaign. Or the way that various Clinton allies have negatively branded the "BernieBro," the supposedly oafish young white man who supports Bernie Sanders and actually believes the old socialist's claims that a truly socialist political economy would render many debates about patriarchy and racism moot, by denying those forces the power to oppress and dominate others. The Clinton campaign's reaction to Sanders has mostly been to wince in front of his left-wing integrity as if it were a kind of Kryptonite smuggled onto Earth specifically to disempower her, a woman.
Of course the Sanders campaign has problems. After his '80s-era obsessions with socialist movements in the American continent, Sanders has shown a near-disinterest in foreign policy and can seem unmoved by problems in the Middle East that can't so easily be blamed on rich Americans. The economic forecasting that underlies his policy agenda makes the Marco Rubio tax cuts seem hard-headed and realistic. His "political revolution" would also upset so many arrangements that normal Americans find pleasing, namely the security of their health insurance. Oftentimes Sanders just sort of pronounces the need for a "political revolution" whenever a moderator or Clinton herself presses him on the details or feasibility of his politics. And the very mannerly way his revolution is being conducted may leave some of his supporters disappointed that Sanders is not doing what his lofty principles demand: everything it takes to win.
But in a campaign year that will be remembered with groans over the base insults being delivered in the Republican contest, the Sanders campaign has risen above all others in its unkempt and unshaken integrity.