How Bernie Sanders has emboldened America’s Left

Even if Clinton takes the nomination, will the fire sparked by Sanders’ conviction smoulder on? CNN’s Sally Kohn talks politics and the U.S. election with OpenCanada.

By: /
April 21, 2016
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during an election rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

After winning 16 state primaries — including seven in a row — and mobilizing a ground swell of support around issues such as climate change and corporate tax reform, Bernie Sanders’ winning streak fizzled to an end this week in New York, placing the nomination well within Hillary Clinton’s grasp.

But even if he loses the Democratic primary, Sanders’ campaign has left a revolutionary mark on the American political machine, as essayist and U.S. political commentary Sally Kohn explained to OpenCanada earlier this month.

Kohn sat down with reporter Krista Hessey at the recent Progress Summit in Ottawa to discuss the presidential election, Americans’ perspectives on Justin Trudeau and the future of progressive politics in North America.

From Justin Trudeau’s sweeping majority here in Canada to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States, it seems voters are hungering for something new. Have you noticed any positive steps made in progressive policy this year, in the U.S. or globally?

I have that traditional American bias where I mostly pay attention to American politics – I've been thinking so much about the election, for better or for worse. It has been interesting in the last 12 months to see Republicans shift around criminal justice policy, in particular sentencing reform as well as issues around heroin addiction, opioid addiction and responses to it. Republicans who, once upon a time, were very anti-needle exchanges and [against] providing or making available medicine that would deal with overdoses or emergencies, are now suddenly willing to do that (notably, now that more of the people suffering under heroin and opioid addiction are white. They didn't care as much when it was perceived to be something facing the African American community.) 

And on the Democratic side?

On the Democratic side, there is more of a renewal to fight hard. We thought we were trying to fix the minimum wage and get paid leave and make all of these new advances, and now suddenly we're re-fighting abortion? Like, are you kidding me? 

It is a little bit of a step backwards. Although I would say, again in the context of the presidential elections, it has been interesting to see both Democratic frontrunners be against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, against the Keystone XL pipeline, those things have been positive developments. 

How do you think Sanders’ campaign has impacted the public's perception of the left in general and in North America specifically?

You know, ideology is complicated, and when we get hyper-partisan, as we have at least in the United States, it tends to artificially represent the simplicity of political positions, when in fact, positions are exceptionally more complicated. You show people the wealth distribution, without it being labeled, that mirrors the United States and a wealth distribution that mirrors Sweden...80 percent of Americans choose the wealth distribution that looks like Sweden. Does that mean that 80 percent of the American public are democratic socialists? I mean, that's sure interesting, are they? It's the same thing: do you believe in the equal, full participation of women? And everyone goes, ‘Yes! Of course I do!’ Then you go, ‘Well, are you a feminist?’ Then they go, ‘Whoa, wait a second.’

By owning the language, [Sanders] has helped empower and embolden a part of the left that has traditionally felt that it has had to be more shy or timid around its views. But, and I think this is even more valuable, he has helped draw some distinctions for the general public. So, you know, the general public [thinks]: ‘Oh, Obama's a socialist!’ Well, by no definition, ever, is Obama a socialist. But now you can kind of see that, because oh look, here is one. I think that the variety which the centre-right has had for quite some time – certainly in the last 20 years people have been pretty clear about the difference between a libertarian Republican and a right-wing religious Republican – the Democrats haven't had the benefit of that, so I think it opens up the political conversation more broadly for everyone. 

Are there any negative consequences to opening up that conversation?

No! I don't think there are negatives to honesty in politics. I don't think there are negatives to broadening the spectrum of what is realistically possible. We forget that if you didn't have Pat Buchanan in American politics, an extreme, overtly hateful right-winger, you couldn't have gotten George W. Bush. Compassionate conservatism, right? You needed the one to make the other seem like the reasonable alternative and in Democratic politics...in terms of actual candidates, especially at a national level, you never had that spectrum. Which isn't to say there haven't been moments of it. Yeah, you had [Ralph] Nader, but Nader didn't run the Democratic party. You had Howard Dean, considered to be a grassroots, populist candidate, who I don't believe is left, and certainly didn't run as left as Sanders is. So no, I don't see any downsides.

In Canada, voter opposition to the Conservative policies of right-leaning Stephen Harper helped cement Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority. Trudeau has visited the U.S. four times over the past seven weeks, and has received an extremely warm welcome each time. Do you think Americans see Trudeau as...

As some kind of great human being who rides unicorns? Yes, apparently we all do.

Would you say Americans are actually familiar with his policies or do they just focus on his face?

No, absolutely not. It's more than just his face, although the analogs between Obama and Trudeau are fascinating. And again, I'm making broad generalizations, I'm not saying this is true of everyone, but a lot of people on the progressive left really embraced Obama as this progressive, left figure, which he was not. It's not like he was a Trojan horse, it was very obvious to anyone who knew his background, who was listening to his stump speeches, that he was a centrist candidate, running as a centrist candidate. He very much knew he was borrowing movement language; he was trying to play into the imagery of left politics without buying into the substance of it. He knew what he was doing.

We also wanted it to be true, because on the left you had the sense of, oh we can't win, we're never going to get to vote for the person we actually really want to vote for, so I'm going to accept this kind of illusion that isn't bad. And by the way, race politics I think play a part in that because you can say, at least from an identity politics perspective – and not to trivialize this at all, this is of incredibly significant importance – at the very least we know from a sort of social progress perspective, this is a very progressive choice. To have America's first Black president is a small notch but a significant notch against the incredible, horrible history of racism and racial oppression in our country.

But the larger sense of public investment, the left’s public investment in him as this progressive candidate, was unfounded. And I think [this sense of having voted in a progressive candidate] is probably the same thing with Trudeau, at least vis-à-vis the American voters. Here we are, we on the left are faced with Trump on the one hand, on the other hand, we have Bernie, who maybe our hearts are with, but he rubs up against my political pragmatism. Can this guy really win? What would he be like as president? In the mess of that, here comes this incredibly poised politician-y, celebrity looking guy, who I'm told rides a unicorn and I think it is easy for the American left to go, ‘Oh! Wish we had one of those.’

Where do progressives go from here in North America? How do you maintain the momentum that has kicked up with Sanders' campaign?  

In the U.S. context, it is a wait and see moment. Bernie is not out yet, but it isn't looking good. I don't think Hillary is letting it go this time. Assuming she does get the nomination, there are a number of factors that will play into the more narrow context for this election and how engaged or disengaged generational voters in the United States feel thereafter. Some people are pessimistic, [but] I'm pretty open, I think it [will] depend on the work that Hillary and her campaign do to authentically integrate the energy and ideas that Bernie and his supporters represent. And, I think it also will have a lot to do with who Hillary's up against, if she is the nominee. If she's up against Trump or Cruz, it will energize and galvanize the full spectrum of the centre-left in a way that would be unstoppable.

That being said, my longer term hope is that there's a generation politicized by the hopefulness that is inherent within the Sanders candidacy, that you have a generation in our case that has been raised on cynicism that the system is broken, this deep, justified distrust of the political process. And seeing, hey, wait a second, it is broken, [but] we can grassroots fundraise our way into challenging the largest political machine that ever was created. That you can boldly stand up and say yes, I am a socialist, yes I want healthcare for all. You can say these things and win. Maybe not win the whole thing, but come close and win some states. My hope is that there is a generation that is inspired by that. Then they run for office, they move through government and take over the system because they have a new sense that it can be changed. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.