What I Learnt From Bernie Sanders

It is a bitter irony that Bernie Sanders has announced his withdrawal from the battle for the Democratic nomination for 2020 at a time when his revolutionary policies have never been more relevant. With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc in the United States of America, discussions around Sanders’ trademark proposals for Medicare for All, a higher minimum wage, and more robust measures for a social safety net are gaining traction with a rapidity that would have been hard to imagine when Sanders launched his presidential bid in February.

Like millions of youngsters around the world, I was dejected to find the news of the end of the Sanders campaign. Growing up at a time when the world has pivoted to right-wing authoritarianism and the charlatanism of populist politics, Sanders taught me that it is still possible to participate in politics without compromising on one’s principles.

Labelled as a socialist in a democrat’s clothing, Sanders never altered the fundamental beliefs that have defined his political career – even if large parts of the electorate failed to appreciate his ideological stance, deeming him virtually unelectable at several stages of his presidential runs in 2016 and 2020.

This unflinching commitment to his salient ideas may not have earned Sanders a presidential ticket, but it has reshaped conversations around state participation, bringing his 2020 rival Joe Biden much closer to Sanders’s policy framework than Hillary Clinton four years ago. Even those among the Democrats who felt that Sanders would be a far too radical alternative to Donald Trump could not help but accommodate a significant section of the issues that have made Americans ‘Feel the Bern’.

As someone who has been repeatedly outraged by the mercenary business of mainstream politics, I have been refreshingly reassured by Sanders and his army of small donors that it is still feasible to expand a grassroots movement without bending to the interests of big corporations.

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In order to mobilise the masses, however, financial resources and a strong manifesto are never enough; galvanising a nation demands passionate communication, and this is another area where Sanders has convinced me that parroting half-truths and unleashing a hate-mongering offensive against one’s opponents can be avoided. Through honest messaging, coherent articulation, and rational debate, Sanders has taught me that even when most of the world is drowning in a culture of spurious rhetoric, one can speak with grace and fervour, poise and purpose.

But the biggest lesson that I have learnt from Bernie Sanders has been how, as a society, we must alter our priorities. This alteration does not merely rest on greater political awareness of the evils of excessive capitalism, but also involves an urgent attention to the ever widening needs of the working class, students, and minorities, many of whose lives have been hollowed out by the complacent handling of the 2008 financial crisis, and risk exacerbation amidst the pandemic and the imminent calamities of climate change. As a student with a mounting student debt, I could immediately connect with Sanders’s call to make higher education free and pave the way for a society where education has not been commodified by the relentless juggernaut of the neo-liberal capitalist order.

In a world where intellect is sifted through binaries, Sanders has reminded me of the importance of nuance. One can support private companies without giving free rein to the tyrannies of the free market; one can learn from erstwhile socialist states in their creation of welfare facilities without converting one’s own country into a hardcore left-wing bastion plagued by dictatorial tendencies; one can identify oneself in a complex position along the political spectrum and retain that ground no matter the vicissitudes of a polarised polity.

It is this increasingly relevant nuance that the US seemed incapable of accepting about Sanders.

For all that I have learnt from Bernie Sanders and shall continue to imbibe through his subsequent participation for change, my most profound learning, perhaps, has been about the state of the American democracy. A democracy so ravenously torn apart by systemic inequities culminating in the nightmare of the Trump era that it has seasoned itself against the limitless potential for genuine transformation represented by Bernie Sanders – the very same promise of realising the impossible, based on fairness and equality, that had once birthed the American Dream.

Featured image credit: Reuters