Bernie Sanders will likely represent the hard-line Left in 2016. Will he help or hurt the movement?
By Simon van Zuylen-Wood
Progressive America Rising via National Journal
Shortly after 9 a.m. on the second Saturday in May, at the altar of a massive, ornate church in Northampton, Massachusetts, a lanky, white-haired reverend named Todd Weir assumes the pulpit. His congregation is hosting a conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the grassroots organization Progressive Democrats of America.
Before him sits an audience of several hundred. In the course of welcoming them to the church, Weir directs their attention to a bronze relief of the fire-breathing, 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards. "Edwards preached over and over again about the dangers of the concentration of wealth and power that were happening here in the Connecticut River Valley," he says. "I think he would be here today with the Progressive Democrats of America, saying, ‘Run, Bernie, Run!’ "
The image of Jonathan Edwards—a Puritan in a white powdered wig—stumping for the socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in front of progressive diehards wearing hiking boots has hardly settled in our minds when, several minutes later, a man in a cowboy hat takes the podium and begins whipping the crowd into an even more frenzied state. "I’m happy to be here with you rompin’ stompin’ scrappy ‘n’ savvy attendees, you corporate greed-whackers and butt-kickers," twangs the populist Texan radio host Jim Hightower. A few more minutes of inspirational preamble follow before he introduces the guest of honor: that "hell-raiser extraordinaire who drives the Koch-head corporate plutocrats crazy."
A roar emanates from the pews, and 72-year-old Bernie Sanders trudges up to the pulpit. He waves tersely and motions for the crowd to sit down. "What I wanted to do this morning," he tells his adoring and expectant fans, "is kind of bore you a little bit."
True to his word, Sanders proceeds to drain all the energy from the premises with an hour-long lecture full of bleak statistics and wonky digressions. Phrases like "chained CPI" and "real unemployment" feature prominently, along with endless talk of the Koch brothers and their abettors on the Supreme Court.
According to the day’s agenda, the speech is supposed to be followed by a 15-minute meet-and-greet for the senator and audience members. Instead, when he finishes, Sanders bounds up the aisle, shakes some hands without breaking stride, then bolts out the front door. Back at the altar, a panel on media quickly assembles. It includes progressive radio host Thom Hartman, a baby-faced labor reporter named Cole Stangler, and the actress-activist Mimi Kennedy, who played the hippie mom on Dharma & Greg. "That," Stangler announces to the crowd, "was a pretty depressing speech."
Outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2013. (Getty Images)Indeed it was. The performance was vintage Sanders: brimming with umbrage and entirely lacking in charisma. It was also probably a warm-up act for what could be one of the more intriguing story lines of 2016. For months, it has seemed increasingly likely that Sanders is going to run for president. The founder of Progressive Democrats of America, Tim Carpenter—who died of cancer two weeks before the conference—had started a petition beseeching Sanders to run in 2016, and part of the point of the event was to gin up enthusiasm for his candidacy. Meanwhile, Sanders has visited Iowa and New Hampshire; boasted that he’d make a better commander in chief than Hillary Clinton; and repeatedly said he’s "prepared" to enter the 2016 race, even informing me at one point—without making anything official—that he was "looking forward to running for president of the United States."
If Sanders runs, he will do so as the candidate of the Democratic Party’s uncompromising left flank.