Bernie Sanders: Inspiring the ‘Practical Dreamer’ in Each American
By most measures, these are dark times. Most people recognize this, either in their own lives, in their observations of the state of the world, or both. Bernie Sanders has been railing against the forces driving this darkness — from the Big Banks on Wall Street to the government corruption in Washington, D.C. — for decades now.
His consistent message and morality is one of the reasons most people trust him.
However, we’re at a point now where we really don’t need to be told times are dark. It only makes us feel worse. No, what we want to hear from potential leaders is how it can be better. But unlike in the past, we want a leader who not only inspires us to take action to create a better future, but who trusts that if we work together, we can actually accomplish that goal.
For a long time now, Sanders has walked his talk, living as though he believes that. In this way, Bernie is the one candidate running for president, including Trump, who can help us move from the “Me” era of the past 40 years into the “WE” era of the next 40.
Now, I’ve been living as an American ex-pat in Japan since summer 2004 and my non-American friends often “take the piss” out of me for my strong sense of Yankee optimism.
If we Yanks are naive in our optimism, so be it. The problem is, over the past few decades, the Left has lost the language of appealing to that optimism. And, well, messaging matters. Fellow Lefties, bear with me, for I think the following anecdote proves this.
Current Vice President Mike Pence was raised in a family of Indiana Democrats but changed to a Republican as a young adult. Why? Because of Ronald Reagan. No, not the policies Reagan stood for but because of his vision.
In a fall 2016 interview with the Orange County Register, Pence recalled meeting President Reagan in 1988 when he was running for Congress as a 29-year-old, telling him, “I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done to inspire my generation to believe in this country again.”
Before I go on, let me reiterate: This essay is not about policy. It’s about messaging. So we can look to politicians whose policies we may disagree with, like Reagan, and still learn from their messaging.
In Reagan’s November 1979 speech announcing his run for the presidency, he spoke about the American can-do spirit when he said, “ Someone once said that the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place.”
Do we still believe that? Or have we given in to despair? I think there’s enough hope remaining in you because if there wasn’t, would you really have clicked on this article and read this far? I’m right about that, aren’t I?
Sometimes, though, to feel inspired about the future when one’s current situation feels dire, it’s useful to draw on the past. In Reagan’s speech, he did this by speaking of how when George Washington’s men were freezing at Valley Forge, Tom Paine told his fellow Americans: “We have the power to begin the world again.” Reagan then said, “The citizens of this great nation want leadership, yes, but not a man on a white horse demanding obedience to his commands. They want someone who believes they can begin the world again. A leader who will unleash their great strength and remove the roadblocks government has put in their way.”
Now, until that very last part, I think Sanders could almost say exactly the same thing and have it resonate in 2020. Because while the issues facing Americans in 2020 are different than they were in 1980, the feeling that things are on the wrong track is similar, yet we still retain enough hope to believe that we can turn things around.
And Sanders can argue against the Reagan philosophy that the government is the problem simply by pointing to the last 40 years where, no matter who was in the White House, we’ve tried that approach and seen income inequality race to record highs, millions go without health care, millions get locked up in our prisons. Yes, under this system of trickle-down economics, aka neoliberalism, too many Americans are uncared for. In addition, our culture is more caustic and more divided than it was at the start of this experiment.
As a result, we need to re-imagine the role of government and of the presidency as one which not only inspires individuals to take charge of their lives but one which motivates us to reinvest in an ethic of looking out for each other.
To do that, I think Sanders needs to do a better job of focusing on the greatness within every American, arguing that every person around you has potential untapped, and that if we work together, the sky truly is the limit. And that there is much work for us to do.
This is real populism, not the sort of populism Trump pedals in which is all about how great he is and how America will be great if we all follow him, all while using the politics of division to separate us from each other.
A positive message of collective solidarity is an anti-elitist message which people want to hear because it empowers them to believe that they can and will play a role in shaping our future.
The one time a Democrat in recent memory spoke this language was in 2008 when it propelled Barack Obama (“Yes, we can”) to a landslide victory. Unfortunately, he didn’t govern as though he believed his own rhetoric and that had the very sad consequence of making many of us more cynical and of paving the way for Trump.
Fortunately, we know Sanders is different because he’s spent his life working with mass movements. Even in the last few years, he has been on the front lines, marching with workers from Amazon to Disney helping them achieve a living wage.
Now when I say work, I want to stress something that seems contradictory to our modern way of thinking: the work we will undertake is joyful work. It is the kind of work you wake up to and feel excited about doing because it’s work that not only makes a difference in your life, but in the lives of people around you. So much of what passes for work in the modern world leaves people feeling meaningless because it is meaningless. No, real work is work that makes a difference.
Now, what this means for each person will be different. The key is to dig into your talents and ask yourself, “How can I use these talents to serve this cause of truly making America great again?”
It recalls that line from one of the more inspiring Democratic presidents of the 20th century, John F. Kennedy, who said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
This is the sort of energy I think Sanders really needs to reinforce. He knows this, evidenced by his campaign slogan, “Not Me. Us.”
Much as we hear about how Elizabeth Warren is a fellow progressive, I don’t see her embodying this sense of collective purpose the way Sanders does. Instead, while she does have some policies I can get behind, she seems like she’d govern from the same sort of top-down perspective that we’ve had for years. Everyone from Reagan through yes, Trump (“I alone can fix the system”) has governed this way.
But that’s not the vision I have of the 2020s and I doubt many of you do either. More and more of us are feeling that we have to take a more active part. Again, whatever that means to each of us will be different.
The wonderful thing is the answers are many. It could mean working to heal the land, the oceans or the air; it could mean to help laborers transition into the post-labor world that candidates like Andrew Yang are focusing on; it could mean working directly with candidates that we admire on their campaigns, or working on specific political issues such as getting money out of politics. Whatever it means, it means taking action and doing so because you feel inspired to do so.
It’s part of the American spirit to be practical dreamers, to believe that we can do something as outlandish as take a boat across the Atlantic to shores unknown, leaving our families behind maybe forever, all because we feel a better life exists somewhere over the horizon.
That sort of thinking, or maybe better put, feeling, is what led me to leave all I knew behind 15 years ago to move to Japan and start a life here, a life I’m still evolving with as I raise two kids in a country where I still don’t speak or understand the language nearly as well as I want to. Yet still, I do it because I believe I can do it.
Americans want to have that sense of mission, that sense of collective purpose. It’s been missing for a while now but with someone like Bernie Sanders in the White House, it can be reinvigorated, especially if he starts to run on this sort of platform.
Now, before I finish this, I want to walk my talk of believing in WE by sharing that the seed for this essay was planted by Anand Giridharadas when he was on Michael Moore’s new podcast, Rumble, in December. On it, he argued that there are two deeply American languages progressives like Sanders don’t use enough, the languages of patriotism and of personal transformation.
Giridharadas tied the concept of a national health insurance system into patriotism in a very creative way, saying, “I think the Battle of Normandy should be invoked every time someone talks about health care. I think someone should find a story of some dude who ran eight times back and forth from the water line to the cliffs to drag people he didn’t know to safety, people he would never see again and we should understand that as a kind of metaphor for the health system that soldiers deserve to come home to and everybody deserves to have. I think we should sell that as this is who we are — we take care of each other, have taken care of each other — this is who we are, this is patriotism.”
In terms of personal transformation, he spoke of how Americans love this framing: follow a diet and change your life, take a pill and your love life will be better. We like things that promise us if we take action, our lives can improve.
“What I want some of these progressives to learn to do is to co-opt this language of personal transformation but for grand public policy,” Giridharadas said. “To say: who would you be … if you didn’t have student debt? What kind of marriage would you have if health care anxiety was not a part of your marriage? What kind of relationship with your children would you have if you could work one job instead of three?
“We have to do better of showing people what life will be like if this succeeds,” Giridharadas said. “I think what no one says is ‘Life will be so much more fun in America if we win.’
As someone who has been raising my family in a country with national health insurance, I can attest to this. My marriage of 14 years has some stress, but health insurance is not one of them.
A doctor’s visit here is a very simple thing. We can go to any hospital or clinic we want. Once there, you show them your health insurance card, maybe fill out one short paper, wait a very short time, see the doctor, get your meds and you’re done. Very simple. As it should be.
So yes, if I was advising Bernie Sanders, I’d tell him to focus on what life will be like, how much better it will be, with him as president and with us working together with him. Do you see this sort of vision being offered by other candidates in the Democratic Primary? I don’t.
Thus, Senator Sanders, it’s time to really separate yourself from the pack by talking in positive terms about the kind of country, no, the kind of world, we can create together as we move into the transformational 2020s. Let’s be practical dreamers and let’s get this thing done!