(This article first appeared in DISCLAIMER Magazine)
It’s been a while since I met Bernie Sanders, decades in fact; I interviewed him in the days when both Clintons were still in Arkansas, Sanders was a recently elected Congressman and I was studying journalism and working for a Vermont TV station while in Washington DC.
Knowing nothing of Vermont’s politics or his track record I focused on the slightly more academic question of the effectiveness of a loner Socialist congressman. Sanders is currently running for the Democrat Presidential nomination, but he was originally elected as an independent socialist. In a political system then absolutely divided between Republican and Democratic faultlines the concept of an independent was utterly alien. And an avowed socialist? It was unthinkable.
To have been elected as such was an extraordinary achievement given the American political landscape. But once elected he had to navigate the labyrinth of custom and procedure that ruled the House of Representatives; where connections mattered and deals were done in bars and backrooms still filled with cigar-smoke.
Representatives were expected above all else to deliver for their constituents – it was the home of ‘Pork Barrel politics’. That’s defined by Collins dictionary as “government appropriations for…local improvements to please legislators‘ constituents”. That the campaign group Citizens Against Government Waste is described by the Washington Post as ‘the leading opponent of pork-barrel spending’ and has pages such as ‘Porker of the Month’, ‘Congressional Pig Book’ and ‘The Swine Line’ shows how endemic it still is.
How on earth as a loner could he deliver? He couldn’t even rely on the other Vermont congressmen for fellowship: there weren’t any. California had 45 Congressional Districts. Vermont just the one. Bernie.
How could he possibly be re-elected if he couldn’t bring home the bacon? But he did get re-elected, and he is where he is today jostling at the front of the pack of Democrat candidates for the Presidency. That is both an impressive achievement and a sign of the skills he possesses.
As well as talking to Sanders, I interviewed a young reporter on the newspaper Roll Call, which has the masthead ‘The Source for News on Capitol Hill Since 1955’; a political insiders’ institution about as deep inside the Washington Beltway as you can get. He was dismissive of Sanders’ influence. How on earth could he achieve anything all on his own?
Bernie Sanders is still the outsider and his current insider opponent has moved from Capitol Hill, in general, to Hillary Clinton, a woman who is the pinnacle of insiderdom; Empress of the Beltway whose privately-servered Rolodex has the numbers of everyone worth being connected to in Washington, and that other town of insiders, New York, too. And Los Angeles.
My abiding memory of Sanders is of restless energy, which comes through in the video. Watching it now I can’t believe how little of Bernie Sanders there is in a piece about Bernie Sanders… he barely gets to say that he, uniquely, in a divided legislature gets the opportunity to tell the truth to everyone, before the report moves on.
Worried he was not going to get a fair shake of the stick in the report, Sanders asked his colleague, Congressman John Conyers, to contribute. Conyers is currently serving his 26th term in the House of Representatives where he has been since 1965. He is a decorated Korean War Veteran, who was present at the Selma Civil Rights March in 1963 and was number 13 on Nixon’s enemies list in 1971.
To meet our deadline, Conyers had to sprint to be interviewed and was out of breath and noticeably sweating when he arrived for filming. I was embarrassed that a veteran elected representative was forced to go to such lengths to fit an interview in with our deadline. But it told me something else.
The fact that he was prepared to sprint around Washington, and get hot and bothered in the process told me of the depth of friendship the new congressman Sanders inspired. Conyers had a lot better things to do than talk to us but because Sanders wanted him to, he talked to us.
That personal loyalty, spread amongst thousands of activists, is a powerful force in a campaign for the presidency. While it helps to have billionaires bankrolling your campaign, it is more important to have hundreds of thousands of committed activists who may only be able to contribute $27 dollars each on current average but contribute enthusiasm, dedication and time too.
And what Conyers said in my interview about Sanders is prescient:
“What is in his power, that he does well, is to articulate a progressive position, a position that sometimes isn’t fully considered by a lot of people and he makes it palatable and understandable”
As a description of the man who just won the New Hampshire Primary and forced Hillary Clinton to what was essentially a dead heat in Iowa, that remains the perfect key to understanding the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders. And it comes at a time when an electorate is reaching out for that progressive agenda.