By ABE ASHER
If Bernie Sanders beats the odds and wins the Democratic nomination and the presidency, the speech he delivered on Oct. 19 to nearly 26,000 at Queensbridge Park should be remembered as among the most consequential in the recent history of this country.
Sanders was that day returning to the campaign trail less than three weeks after suffering a heart attack— and while his address centered on familiar themes, like the assault on the working class and need to establish a national healthcare system, its conclusion was anything but ordinary.
The takeaway that day, and the takeaway on many days before and since, is that Sanders is a unique presidential contender in 2020.
He has, time and again, gone where no other candidate in this year’s race has been willing to go: standing with the heroes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Voting rights for incarcerated citizens. National rent control. Canceling student debt. Canceling medical debt. Ending all deportations. Abolishing ICE.
He was the only candidate who opposed Donald Trump’s new NAFTA trade deal, a pact excoriated by the Sunrise Movement, and the only candidate to vote against every single one of Trump’s military budgets.
In foreign policy, the arena in which the president has the most direct control, Sanders is leagues ahead his rivals. His worldview is not radical, but it is nonetheless firmly beyond the influence of the military industrial complex.
We saw this clearly in October, when Sanders was the only candidate who moved swiftly to condemn the military coup that removed Bolivian president Evo Morales from power while his rivals hemmed and hawed or stayed silent.
He led the charge to stop American intervention in Yemen, to save the Iran nuclear deal, and to insist that Palestinians must have equal rights. He has refused to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s president. He is firmly against interventionism and militarism, and would thus fundamentally reorient American policy on the world stage.
Even if Sanders’ democratic socialism is merely a version of New Deal liberalism, it is meaningful that he refuses to identify himself with a capitalist economic system that is inherently destructive and responsible for destroying the planet.
He is, hands down, the most progressive candidate running. He has the most progressive record, he has the most progressive platform, and he has the most progressive backers.
The marquee endorsements he has received in recent months from the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar speak to a broader theme: that Sanders is not running a conventional campaign for president, but instead leading a movement to change the face of American politics and link that movement to its counterparts around the world.
The impact of what he has already accomplished is encapsulated by the fact that his highest profile endorsers in this race — from Ocasio-Cortez and Omar to Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Pramila Jayapal — all were inspired or aided by Sanders’ 2016 campaign and became powerful elected officials in its wake.
A vote for Sanders is a vote for those leaders and the vision of the future they represent.
As Noam Chomsky has outlined, this is what makes Sanders such a threat to all those who benefit handsomely from the current political setup: he is building power with people who are not beholden to entrenched power and not afraid to challenge its wisdom.
That is what Sanders has been doing for decades. His inflexibility — his stubbornness — is one of his most appealing political characteristics. He believed the same things when he was a carpenter as he believes as a senator, and, as he said in Iowa last month, he is now “too old to change.”
And yet, throughout his time in public life, Sanders has proven himself to be an extremely effective dealmaker. He has also quietly, over the last several years, improved himself — as a candidate, an advocate, and a thinker.
He’s made tremendous strides on immigration, to the point that he now has the field’s best set of policies on the issue and those related to it. Backed by Sunrise, he has centered climate change in his campaign like no other serious contender has. After rightly being protested by Black Lives Matter members in the last campaign, he is rallying with them in this one.
Cranky as he can be, egoistic as he can be, he listens. That’s what this campaign has been about, from town hall to town hall, plumbing the depths of American suffering in the neoliberal age and producing scenes so raw that watching them almost feels intrusive.
He listens — not to consultants and corporate media members, but to young people and people in pain.
Concerned he can’t win? I’m concerned nobody else can. Joe Biden is a decent man, but a terrible politician who has spent his entire career veering from one reactionary policy position to another and now struggles to speak coherently. He has much of Hillary Clinton’s baggage, but an even more apathetic following and incoherent theory of politics.
Pete Buttigieg is a naked careerist running without the support of young people or people of color. Elizabeth Warren is principled and inspires stronger support, but is in no way a movement politician and suffers from a trust deficit connected to her decades of identification as an indigenous person.
Sure, some Americans merely want this election to facilitate a return to normalcy. To again experience the simple pleasure of turning on their televisions and not seeing Trump.
But more Americans — many more — neither want nor can afford a return to normalcy. This is what the members of The New York Times editorial board do not understand in any tangible way. Life expectancy is falling. Wages are stagnant. Families are still being separated at the border. People are using GoFundMe to finance their medical care.
Voters hate Congress. They hate the establishments of both parties. They hate the fact that politicians who dine with the ultra rich in wine caves and then spend millions of dollars on advertisements attacking universal social policy are treated as credible.
But they view Sanders as honest. They know he is unbought. And they know he’s going to fight for them. Trump instinctively understands the danger that this poses to his fragile coalition, which is why he is terrified of facing Sanders in November and has been fretting about his poll numbers in states like Pennsylvania.
Of course, no one knows for certain who is electable. We can make educated guesses, but those educated guesses are guesses all the same. The real reason we must elect Bernie Sanders is that his vision for building a world of peace, justice, and equality is unmatched in this field.
At the end of that rally in Queens, Sanders went off script. He concluded his speech with a passage that should reverberate in the mind of every voter this spring and fall who does not possess the wealth to inoculate themselves from the threat of governance by and for the one percent.
“Take a look around you and find someone you don’t know,” he said. “Maybe someone who doesn’t look kind of like you, maybe somebody who might be of a different religion than you, maybe they come from a different country.”
“My question to you,” he continued, “is are you willing to fight that person… as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
How many national politicians in the modern history of our country have so clearly and so powerfully articulated the principle of solidarity? That you and I are bound up together, connected by our shared humanity in a manner both practical and spiritual? How many have even tried?
This question drives to the center of a political philosophy that has animated Sanders’ entire life, and its core function is truly radical: to lift us out of the loneliness and despair that our imperialist, capitalist, white suprematist, patriarchal society is designed to isolate us in.
We all must fight for people we do not know. That is the only way we will claw our way out of the mess we are now in. Shoulder to shoulder. Eyes on the prize.