Sanders Can Stir, But Can He Steer?

 /  Oct. 3, 2015, 2:34 p.m.


Between student questions regarding his favorite books, and David Axelrod’s playful banter about his alumni status, it is clear that the University of Chicago family is proud that Bernie Sanders was educated in Hyde Park. And for no small reason: Senator Sanders is a beacon in the progressive movement and a leader in the fight to bend this country’s moral arc farther in the direction of social justice. But while his speech conveyed a passionate and authentic take on vital issues facing our country, it ultimately lacked any concrete or even common sense suggestions on how to make change given the current condition of our government.

Senator Sanders delivered his typical stump speech, slightly altered to focus on our priorities as University of Chicago students.  He began by focusing on the progressive victories of the past century and highlighting the fact that many of those victories were unimaginable at the time he graduated from the College in 1964. He spoke about the election of a black president, marriage equality, and huge strides made in the fight for women’s rights, among other advances. As you’d expect, he spent the latter half of the speech discussing the areas in which we still have progress to make, particularly regarding money in politics. At one point, he described the Citizens United case as “totally corrupting” to the American political system, and made clear that he looks forward to the day the case is overturned.

As liberals, and as supporters of Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, we agree wholeheartedly with most of the sentiments behind Senator Sanders’ speech. Equal pay for women, healthcare for all, a strong social safety net, more equal distribution of wealth, and a fairer criminal justice system are foundational principles of the modern American left and are supported almost universally by Democratic candidates. After all, despite the mudslinging of the primary season, regardless of who the nominee is, we are all committed as liberals to furthering the progressive agenda. We all have the responsibility to support whomever is elected as our torch-bearer for 2016.

We’ll admit it: we, too, are fired up by Senator Sanders’s strong conviction. But we remain wary of his plans to achieve these goals in the face of such strong opposition in Congress. During the Q&A following his speech, the senator was asked how he plans to implement his policy proposals, considering that congressional Republicans have explicitly vowed to block many of them. He responded by simply saying there is the need for a “political revolution” and a “complete transformation of the political system,” and vaguely mentioned something about “an offer they can’t refuse.” However, the reality is that both houses are currently held by Republicans, and it is not realistic to expect a successful Democratic presidency devoid of compromise.

Hillary Clinton appears better able and more willing to reach the compromises our country needs. She has a track record of working with Republicans, notably during her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her work to improve the quality of life for veterans. She has won praise from unexpected voices such as Rick Perry, who described her as a “very, very capable public servant.” Lindsey Graham, one of her Senate colleagues from across the aisle, said that she was one of the “greatest ambassadors for the American people that I have known in my lifetime.” Acknowledgements like these reflect that political revolutions come in the form of small legislative victories that are achieved through thoughtful deliberation, negotiation, and compromise with every side.

Senator Sanders offered plenty of populist rhetoric, and if his goal was to fire up a crowd of idealist undergrads, he succeeded. But, if his aim was to persuade a group of critically-thinking intellectuals that he has the chops to pass progressive legislation in a gridlocked Congress, he left much to be desired. Although Sanders has pushed important policies to the forefront of many political conversations, we encourage the student body to critically evaluate his policies and plans for implementing his agenda, rather than just celebrating his intellectual roots. The senator’s charisma and ability to rally supporters and progressive agenda make him a compelling candidate, yet he’s missing the final piece in this puzzle. Real progress in the lives of Americans requires real legislative action in Washington—an ability to work with the other party to get things done—and Senator Sanders just doesn’t get that.

This article is published in partnership with the Chicago Maroon as part of our ongoing 2016 election coverage. 

The image featured in this article was taken by Michael Vadon. The original image can be found here

Jamie Ehrlich and Forrest Sill


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