How wide is Bernie Sanders’ appeal? This cheering Fox News audience is a clue | Bhaskar Sunkara
The US senator drew cheers from the audience when he spoke about healthcare, revealing just how popular his policies are
Bernie Sanders was supposed to be deep behind enemy lines on Monday night. He was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for a live town hall, hosted by Fox News, a network not everyone thought [he] should come on. It was a resounding success, and a reminder that Bernie, not Trump, can actually rally together a majority of Americans.
The Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum didnt figure that out at first. Early on Baier asked those in the audience with employer-sponsored health insurance to raise their hands. Then he asked those among them who would be willing to switch to government-run health insurance to raise their hands. The hands stayed up, the crowd cheered.
Bernie Sanders didnt shift his rhetoric to the right to accommodate his hosts, or what many would assume to be the preconceptions of his audience. Instead, he was simply Bernie. Straightforward, honest and pivoting brilliantly to his strongest talking points.
When faced right off the bat with questions about his tax returns, which showed that he had earned a healthy sum off book royalties, he joked that he couldnt apologize for that and that it was a pretty good book that the Fox News hosts might want to read.
When an audience member asked him about why he calls himself a democratic socialist, he didnt shy away from the term: Democratic socialism to me is creating a government, and an economy, and a society that works for all rather than just the top 1%. He denounced absurd inequalities and said that human beings were entitled to basic rights to health and education, things that shouldnt be privileges, the result of accidents of birth. An audience that weve been told hated socialism, and feared government, applauded.
Failing to tar him as a millionaire hypocrite, Baier shifted gears and tried to depict him as a bad socialist: wasnt making money off a bestselling book the definition of capitalism, a sign that the system was rewarding good effort? Sanders had a ready reply: What we are fighting for is a society where not just a few people can make a whole lot of money but a society where everybody can have the ability to live in security and dignity.
Sanders fended off hard questions, about his age, and about whether his ideas were too radical, with appeals to a majoritarian commonsense that the United States should not wage foreign wars, that everyone deserves a living wage, healthcare, and protection in old age. While other candidates fumble with word salads calling for things like affordable access to social goods, Sanders speaks about social rights and the obligations that a state has to its citizens, and why we need to tax the income of the wealthy to pay for it.
Compare it with the message millions have been getting from elites over the years: struggling with addiction to opioids? You must be morally weak. Your plant closed down? Stop whining and take a coding class. Cant afford to see a doctor? Why dont you eat better and try some yoga. In other words, its your fault. And those working harder or with better habits are the ones getting ahead.
Trump spoke to some of this anger, but directed it at immigrants and others also looking for a better life. And once elected hes used his office to further boost the wealth and power of the 1%. Against this, the reminder from Sanders is simple: its not your fault. Youre doing what you can, but you need help and the society that helps you will enable you to help yourself and others. We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world why should we be the major country with the highest rate of childhood poverty? Its a good question, one that Trump would never ask.
But its not simply enough to say that we all deserve nice things. Sanders was keen to remind the audience that wed have to go up against a powerful political establishment, against big corporations and against the military-industrial complex to reshape the United States. He provided, in other words, an object of scorn, a proper place to direct anger not other bullied people, but those benefiting from oppression and exploitation.
Sanders wasnt speaking to Fox News, he wasnt speaking to a red state crowd, he was speaking to a progressive majority that exists everywhere from the countrys large cities (home, mostly, to working people not coastal elites) to its rural heartland and it showed.
He did stumble a bit talking about immigration, professing a view that acknowledged the humanity of those attempting to enter this country, but not pushing against the narrative of false scarcity that tells us that the United States is full and that theres a finite amount of good jobs to go around. But overall, he spoke with moral urgency, emphasizing not just economic justice, but social, environmental and racial justice too.
Though he often attacked Trump, he did more than that, offering dreams, ambitions, and real policy for a working class that has seen its wages and living standards stagnant for decades to aspire to. He didnt mention Russia once; he focused on the issues that he could discuss with the most clarity. This is the type of formula that can win an election, that can counter Trumps dangerous right-populism, that can unite those struggling for a better life across the country.
Theres a small fringe of racists and backward-looking people that Sanders will never be able to win over, but for the vast, alienated majority, Bernie laid out a vision for progress and prosperity. He may just march that majority into the White House.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality