A Jewish socialist from Vermont likened to Jeremy Corbyn is stealing American hearts and minds in the race to replace President Obama next year, writes Stephen Oryszczuk
Bernie Sanders, 74, who is up against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, has emerged as one of the surprise stars of the early campaign.
Sanders’ converts like his tough message on income inequality, LGBT rights, universal healthcare, climate change, civil liberties and campaign finance reform. His message to the country’s billionaires that they should be paying their fair share and not hiding their wealth in tax havens has proved immensely popular.
Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland whose family were killed in the Holocaust. His heritage informs his politics. “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election and 50 million people died as a result,” he once said. “What I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.”
While he is “proud to be Jewish”, he is not religious and is married to a Catholic woman. He praised Pope Francis for “raising profound issues” but has done plenty of that himself, taking on big pharmaceuticals, the military-industrial establishment, the gun lobby, banks and all manner of other powerful groups.
In 1988 he ran as an independent in Vermont, finishing second. Two years later he ran again and won, the first independent to be elected to the House of Representatives in 40 years. He has remained in elected office ever since and over the years has garnered some high-profile supporters, including Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman who, in a moment of sincerity, said: “His moral compass and sense of values inspires me. He always seems to be on the right side of history.”
Such support has encouraged his run for president, funded not by wealthy benefactors but by thousands of small donations averaging $43 each – hardly surprising given his views. “The greed of the billionaire class is destroying this country,” he has said. “And whether they like it or not, we are going to stop it.”
Like Corbyn in the UK he is a foreign policy dove, opposing intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, and objecting to the mass surveillance of citizens. On Israel, he is critical but supportive, and wants a Palestinian state. On last year’s war in Gaza, he defended the Jewish state and blasted Hamas, but asked: “Has Israel overreacted? Have they bombed UN facilities? The answer is yes, and that is terribly, terribly wrong.”
Another similarity with the new Labour leader, with whom his campaign team liaised, is that Sanders appears to have been the subject of scare-stories in the media, the most recent of which in the Wall Street Journal claimed Sanders wants $18trillion in new spending over the next decade.
No matter Gerald Friedman, the economist whose analysis was used for the WSJ article, later said he was misinterpreted, and Sanders’ healthcare proposals would actually save America $5 trillion – mud sticks.
Or does it? Like Corbyn, who also looks more professor than politician, the white-haired Sanders seems immune to the PR. His campaign just gathers momentum, as his relentless focus on the “shrinking middle class” and the widening income gap in America (greater than at any time since the Great Depression) continues to strike a chord, just as Labour’s grassroots embraced this summer’s anti-austerity option.
Will he beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nod? Despite overtaking her in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and featuring on the cover of Time magazine, it’s unlikely.
Still, he is the one setting the agenda: his every musing is re-tweeted, favourited and greeted with great interest by hordes of fans young and old.
And you never know. This democracy, it’s a funny old business, as we’ve just found out here across the pond.