There is another aspect of the Bernie Sanders campaign of which the establishment political set and the mainstream media seem wholly unaware: his direct and persistent appeal to people’s morality.
Bernie’s full-throated attacks on what he calls “the billionaire class” are widely described as a populist message, designed to appeal to working class moderates on an economic level and liberal intellectuals on a philosophical level. The media frame the Sanders message and the Sanders campaign as straddling these two demographic groups, and they constantly express doubt as to whether Bernie can expand his audience beyond these two cohorts.
What neither the establishment media nor the establishment political class have grasped, however, is the extent to which the Sanders Message is an ecumenical call for a return to MORALITY.
As I described in my previous post on this subject, Bernie’s message is firmly based in economics, and he is addressing economic issues that have not been tackled openly and honestly in over 30 years. The novelty of such a thematic is part of why he has such appeal among voters looking for a fresh dialogue and new ideas. What gives Bernie the ability to win over voters of all stripes, however, is his willingness to ”call out” the ultra-wealthy and the corporations for their rampant GREED.
The 1980’s saw a rise in the perceived importance of wealth and financial power, or what Niall Ferguson, the noted Harvard economist, has described as “The Ascent of Money”. The Reagan Revolution brought with it the idea that our purpose was to become rich, to win, to beat out our competitors not only in our professional lives but everywhere; the 1980’s of Ronald Reagan were the time of the first banking crises, the first bailouts, and the birth of America’s fascination and obsession with the wealthy. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” debuted in 1984; Dallas and Falcon Crest, the fictitious depiction of two powerful family dynasties, dominated prime time TV. Everyone wanted to be rich. And that was OK because, as Gordon Gekko assured us, “greed is good.”
In the 2015 of Bernie Sanders, greed is definitely NOT good. As a matter of fact, greed is EVIL. Avarice has once more regained its place among the 7 Deadly Sins, and it is perfectly OK to condemn – on moral grounds – those who are fabulously wealthy yet aspire to even more wealth.
The quasi-religious nature of the moral opprobrium Bernie heaps upon the wealthy and the corporations is no accident, and in his economic jihad Sanders has one incredibly powerful and yet seemingly improbable ally: Pope Francis. Whenever he gets a chance, Bernie gives a shout out to the Pontiff, telling anyone who will listen that Francis is one of his “heroes”. Bernie cites the Pope whenever he is talking about income inequality, climate change, unbridled capitalism, the need to take care of the poor, and what Francis calls “the cult of money.”
When asked, Bernie consistently asserts his popularity among normally conservative constituents. After 25 years of representing some very conservative parts of Vermont, he is not afraid of having substantive discussions and finding common ground. Indeed, Bernie’s latest foray in this area will be when he will address the students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Apparently every Democratic leader was invited, and Bernie was the only one who responded, and did so positively. In explaining his decision to go to Liberty U, Sanders said “I think it is important … to see if we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.” That is pure Bernie.
And so we have the Sanders recipe for success: a “political revolution” that is fuelled not just by economic themes but by moral dicta. And it is resonating. The Reagan 80’s saw the rise of the so-called “Moral Majority” that quickly turned Americans’ attention away from economic issues and focused them on what Pat Buchanan called the “Culture Wars” over abortion, equal rights, gay marriage, and so on. Bernie is, in many ways, appealing to that same cohort of people who are ready and willing to vote their moral conscience, but he is turning them back to the morality of a massively unfair economic system. Whether he can actually cobble together a “majority” with this moral message remains to be seen, but so far he seems to be hitting the right chords.