Disco and folk music filled what little space remained in the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center. Having spent hours outside, enduring frigid temperatures and seemingly endless line, a crowd of 9,000 was chomping at the bit. Anxious to see their champion, applause broke out every few minutes, whether it was the long pause that followed “Disco Inferno” for no apparent reason or the campaign aide who walked out to stock the podium with bottled water. When it was finally time, after more than a few false starts, the applause that welcomed Bernie Sanders to his first campaign stop in Michigan could only be described in one word — thunderous.
As I scanned the crowd, I searched for common denominators between the “Grandmas for Bernie” and the college students, the young woman wearing a hijab in the fifth row and the group of elderly Black women who sat near the aisle. White and Black, old and young, privileged and poor, people of every creed and sexual orientation stood shoulder to shoulder. Together, they screamed and waved signs, stomped their feet and lifted their arms above their heads like a gospel choir at a Sunday mass. Regardless of the issue he discussed, the support was loud and it was unanimous. Why? Because Sanders supersedes the labels that have dominated this campaign cycle with the simple fact that he is an idealist.
The media introduces and perpetuates these labels until they are taken as gospel by the average voter. Establishment versus outsider, big money versus individual donations, party endorsements versus appeal to millennials are all ways in which the race for the Democratic nomination has been framed. But none of them captures the central issue of pragmatism and the role it plays in our politics. Perhaps the best example thus far has been the controversy over the term “progressive.” In response to doubts raised by the Sanders campaign about her liberal credentials, Hillary Clinton fired back by branding herself as “a progressive who gets things done.”
This distinction, though, results in an odd willingness among liberals to forsake the ideas they support, from health care as a human right to tuition-free higher education, as fantasies. People who align idealistically with Sanders will find themselves hailing pragmatism and drifting toward Hillaryland, saying, “In a perfect world, I’d vote for him, but I just don’t think he can pull it off,” or “Programs like that may work in Sweden, but I can’t see them being implemented in the United States.”
David Brooks’ column “Livin’ Bernie Sanders’s Danish Dream,” bemoans the naiveté of millennials, supporting “a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values.” He points out to Sanders’ supporters the litany of horrible problems that plague European countries operating under this brand of socialism, including long wait times at the doctor’s office and universities, as he puts it articulately, becoming “less good.”
Allow me to rebut. Sanders’ idealism is attempting to reshape the economic system not to alter American values, but rather to produce a system more compatible with our values of equality and economic liberty. Living in poverty and debt due to hospital bills, a minimum wage below the poverty line or tuition spikes should not be commonplace in the wealthiest country on the planet. When Democrats read articles like Brooks’ and make concessions about the principles driving Sanders’ campaign, for the sake of “realism” or of winning the general election in November, they lose the touch with the very basis of American liberalism, the idea that the pursuit of equality and respect for the rights of the individual result in a better society for all.
Critics are not wrong when they point out, as they frequently do, that Sanders repeats himself a lot. He recycles riffs about income inequality, campaign finance and the criminal justice system. But why is this a problem? What better indication could there be for Democrats that he will not subscribe to the custom in presidential elections of “running to the center of the road” in hopes of attracting moderates and independents when November comes?
As his remarks came to an end, the 74-year-old senator from Vermont reminded his faithful that “thinking small” is part of the status quo. He then called on them to “think big,” but the crowd was unsatisfied. Hearing the impression of his thick New York accent rippling through the crowd, Sanders obliged and corrected himself —think “yuuuuuuge.” And why not? The best campaigns are composed of ideas, like Obama’s in 2008 preaching “Hope” and “Yes We Can.”
Of course, pragmatism is important in the public discourse. But in campaign season, with four years of governing ahead of the 45th president to iron out the kinks and navigate the legislative challenges, pragmatism cannot define your vote. That is misplaced caution, casting a ballot based on what others tell you, rather than what you believe, is possible. If you do not believe that health care is a human right, that higher education should be debt-free or that the minimum wage should be $15 per hour, do not vote for Bernie Sanders. However, if you support those ideas but will vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s more realistic, take a minute to consider whether that vote would truly represent you.
Idealism is not a vice. Idealism drives the Sanders campaign. Idealism made thousands upon thousands of feet stomp and shake the arena Monday afternoon. Idealism attracts voters from every generation to the same, singular man. Idealism won the New Hampshire primary and nearly tied the Iowa caucus.
Bernie Sanders is a 21st century Don Quixote, tilting at windmills to undo wrongs and bring justice to the world. So, instead of running scared or clinging to a fabricated definition of pragmatism, liberals should recognize Sanders for what he is: their very own knight errant.
Brett Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.