Pundits notwithstanding, Senator Bernie Sanders has a real chance in 2016—not just to derail Hillary Clinton but to be elected President of the United States. He is in the best position to invent himself nationally of any candidate since 2007, when a relatively unknown freshman Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama burst onto the national scene. Like President Obama before him, Sanders’ relative lack of name-recognition gives him a huge advantage over Clinton, who spent two decades inventing herself and suddenly, thanks partly to Sanders, now finds it necessary to reinvent herself, a far more difficult task.Inventing oneself nationally requires three things: developing a network of both on-the-ground and high-tech operatives across the country; raising the required operating funds; and changing the national conversation. The first two of these are both necessary, but by themselves they are insufficient. For all the Obama campaign’s organizing savvy, technological sophistication, and fund-raising skills, what really delivered the President his victory over Hillary Clinton was his adeptness at changing the national conversation, an adeptness she lacked then and still lacks now. Sanders has that adeptness; the only question is whether he will utilize it to the fullest.Changing the national conversation is not simply about changing discussions of specific policies. It is about changing the way people think about politics. And because language provides basic categories of thought and communication, changing the national political conversation means no less than changing the national political vocabulary.Obama did it brilliantly in 2007 and 2008. He took a national vocabulary that centered upon negative self-definition and turned it positive. For decades Americans had defined themselves in terms of what they were against. They were “anti-communist,” then “anti-terrorist,” and of course “anti-big-government.” Obama replaced that with a vocabulary that focused on what people were for, a vocabulary that spoke to hopes rather than fears. That change in the national vocabulary is what got him nominated and twice elected President.Six years after he first took office, however, much of the national political vocabulary, and the conversation issuing from it, has again turned negative. All prospective candidates for 2016, including both Sanders and Clinton, are spending substantial amounts of time on the attack. If anything, the vitriol on the part of Republican leaders is more pronounced than it was in 2008. Obama did change the national political conversation, but the change did not last—and that is what has given Bernie Sanders his greatest opportunity.Traditionally, success in democratic mass politics comes from a judicious combination of two kinds of behavior: obedience and disobedience. Most successful politicians know there are rules it is best to obey, whether they relate to campaign strategy, behavior in debates, or one’s choice of enemies. At the same time, there are situations in which one must not only be, but be seen to be, disobedient. Challenging accepted norms is what makes a politician stand out. Donald Trump has done well in early polls by openly stoking racial resentment, by refusing routine declarations of party loyalty, and by flouting Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment regarding fellow Republicans. Despite his poll numbers, however, he has not changed the substance of the national conversation.Bernie Sanders already has, and he has done so by using a political vocabulary no other candidate has dared use. He not only uses such taboo “foreign” words as “revolution,” “socialism,” and “class,” but uses them in ways that challenge audiences to ignore the taboos. For example, he asks them to consider that Americans may have something to learn from how other nations, those he calls “democratic socialist,” handle such issues as health care, mandatory paid vacations, and a minimum wage. In a country that prides itself on having invented everything worth inventing and having the best solutions to all problems, using a vocabulary that invites its citizens to take seriously the norms of other nations is already a major foray into linguistic disobedience.But Sanders is going far beyond that. In utilizing a supposedly alien vocabulary, he is challenging Americans to process information differently, to look at their own standard vocabulary through new eyes. He is turning American exceptionalism on its head, asking audiences to look at America’s exceptional approach to health care not as an achievement but as a shortcoming, not as an asset but as a liability. And in tying a corporate-dominated health care system to political and economic domination by what he calls the “billionaire class,” he is violating an even more basic taboo. He is challenging the sacred notion that America is a classless society and calling for a “revolution” against control of government by a wealthy “oligarchy.” Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked “economic royalists” and publicly welcomed the hatred of “organized money” has a major party candidate been so outspoken in attacking class privilege.Most important of all, Sanders is changing the national conversation by taking a unique approach to the issue of negativity itself. While he has been consistent in his anti-corporate stand on policy issues from environmental damage to the tax code to foreign wars, he has been equally consistent in opposing the politics of personal demonization. In so doing, he is not only refocusing the national conversation on issues rather than upon personalities; he has positioned himself brilliantly to respond to what will be the inevitable personal attacks based precisely upon his use of a supposedly alien vocabulary.At the same time, like Obama before him, Sanders has defined himself aggressively in terms of what he is for. He has advanced a positive, itemized agenda with respect to such key issues as single-payer health care, free college tuition, a livable minimum wage, and a host of others. Thus while his audiences leave his rallies knowing in detail what he is against, they likewise leave knowing in equal detail what he is for. He has balanced negative and positive with remarkable adeptness, and burgeoning attendance at his rallies demonstrates that.In so doing, Sanders has already accomplished three things. First, he has mobilized tens of thousands of white middle-class voters who are responding with equal enthusiasm to both the negative and positive aspects of his agenda. Second, he has forced Hillary to emulate as much of his vocabulary as she comfortably can, thereby spotlighting both her increasingly obvious effort at self-reinvention as well as her severe, self-imposed limitations in that regard. And third, he has forced mainstream media to cover him, which despite their obvious biases is a huge net gain in that it replaces tens of millions of dollars that he would otherwise have had to raise simply to get noticed.In short, Bernie Sanders is off to a flying start, and at the heart of his success is his enthusiastic embrace of linguistic disobedience. This is not to say, however, that his momentum will perpetuate itself or that he has done all he need do with respect to breaking linguistic boundaries. His most important tasks are still ahead of him.Of these, none is more obvious or more in need of attention than building a multi-racial coalition. His lifelong support of minority rights notwithstanding, he has started out at a huge deficit in relation to Hillary. While neither of them is black or Hispanic, in this case her name-recognition has given her an enormous advantage. To neutralize that advantage Sanders needs to build visible alliances with credible leaders in minority communities.In this regard, one of his greatest strengths is that he has recognized from the outset that he cannot do so by compromising his linguistic disobedience. That is, he cannot water down his vocabulary in order to reach out to minority groups. On the contrary, he can only do so effectively by showing in detail how minority rights are linked to, and indeed dependent upon, breaking the power of the “oligarchy” of the “billionaire class.” At the same time, as several commentators have observed, there is a huge potential pitfall here. Class does not supersede race in America. Minority voters need to know that their specific racial justice agendas are included in his agenda; otherwise, Sanders’ appeal will remain limited.He has gotten off to a strong start in this respect with the Hispanic community. In his July 2015 speech to the National Council of La Raza, Sanders scored major points on immigration reform, making effective use of his own experience as the son of a penniless Polish immigrant. Equally important, he was outspoken in linking the lack of educational and employment opportunities for Hispanic youth to his critique of income inequality and control of the economy by the “billionaire class.” As a result, he was interrupted by applause more than twice as often as Hillary and left the podium to a standing ovation.His coalition-building efforts with African-Americans did not begin as smoothly. At the Netroots Nation Conference, when the scheduled proceedings were interrupted by the Black Lives Matter protest, Sanders seemed to think his fifty-year record of support for civil rights would carry him through. It did not. He learned from the experience, however, and his address to the National Urban League two weeks later reads much like his La Raza speech with the specific details adapted to the concerns of black voters. From his critique of police violence toward blacks to his pointing out that African-American homebuyers were the ones hardest hit by the subprime mortgage meltdown, his message was clear: America must
simultaneously address . . . structural and institutional racism . . . while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else – especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and working-class whites – are becoming poorer.
If the intersection of class and race stands as Sanders’ most immediate challenge, the third group, working-class whites, presents what may ultimately be one of his most important opportunities. As Robert Reich observes, “For decades Republicans have exploited the economic frustrations of the white working and middle class to drive a wedge between races, channeling those frustrations into bigotry and resentment.” There is a huge chasm of racial resentment programmed into Tea Party rhetoric, and it is because of Sanders’ willingness to address the issue of class that he is uniquely positioned to bridge it. Can an expatriate Brooklyn-born Jewish self-styled “socialist” reach out to Tea Party adherents? To revive an already aging mantra, yes, he can; but his choice of vocabulary will be crucial. Bridging that chasm will be the ultimate test of Bernie Sanders’ linguistic disobedience.He has already taken an important first step in that direction. In his La Raza speech, the closing statement that literally brought the crowd to its feet was when he called for “a country that works for all our people, and we do it when we stand together, and we do not allow people to divide us, divide us, divide us.” In acknowledging and calling out divisive vocabulary on the part of the “billionaire class,” Sanders has put the issue of language front and center. But it is not merely the vocabulary of racial resentment he needs to address. Once again, the key issue is the intersection of race and class, and in order to address that intersection Sanders needs to go straight to the heart of American political vocabulary.Of all the linguistic conventions that characterize American political discourse, none have been more powerful, or had a more crippling effect on political communication, than the twin dualities of “left vs. right” and “liberal vs. conservative.” Politicians and media alike seem unable to think without reference to them. Policies as well as people are routinely classified according to these dualities. And these classifications, these labels, once applied, not only become part of public discourse; they become essential to the way voters think. A Bernie Sanders is labeled the quintessential “leftist liberal” while the typical Tea Party adherent is labeled “rightist conservative.” Given that most Americans relate to these as polar opposites, how is the former to communicate with the latter?There is only one way to do it, and it requires the most linguistically disobedient strategy of all. These dominant dualities cannot be ignored; they are omnipresent as the foundation stones of American political discourse. If Sanders is to reach out effectively across the racial and political chasm, he needs to take on those dualities directly. He needs to confront them, address them, and show how they have been used to keep Americans divided and to keep people with common interests from communicating with each other.Up to now he has not done so, preferring instead to identify with the “progressive” label, which in recent years has re-emerged as an acceptable mainstream alternative to the “liberal” label. In so doing, however, Sanders has denied himself a key tool in advancing his own argument with respect to divisive vocabulary.Nowhere has divisive labeling had more profound consequences than among working and middle-class Americans. Early in 2012, a panel of MSNBC commentators agreed that if Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party ever communicated with each other, it would be the beginning of the end for corporate domination of the American economy. That is, if they could get beyond divisive labels they would discover how much they had in common and take common action to address their concerns. What the commentators missed was that what kept the two groups from making contact was precisely the divisive vocabulary to which they had been subjected ever since their respective movements began. Occupy Wall Street has since faded from the scene but the issue of divisive vocabulary remains, and exposing that vocabulary now becomes one of Sanders’ most important opportunities.At the heart of the matter are the assumptions embedded in the twin dualities with respect to the role of government in American life. For decades, Americans have been trained to believe that “liberal” equals “left” equals “more government involvement” in the economy, while “conservative” equals “right” equals “less government involvement.” As Robert Reich and others have pointed out, the racial connection comes from the added Republican message that “more government involvement” really means taking money from hard-working whites and giving it to non-working non-whites.In short, the message is that “leftist liberals” use government to victimize working whites for the benefit of undeserving racial minorities. In the economically stressful environment of recent years it has been a very effective form of divisive linguistic training, especially given the easily identifiable target of a supposedly “left-liberal” African-American president. Most important, the message is that only “rightist conservatives” can protect working whites from this systematic victimization, and that they will do so by opposing and ending the “left-liberal” government programs upon which that victimization is based.During the 2012 presidential election cycle this training was reinforced by Republican usage of such words as “entitlements” and “redistribution.” The former had originally been used literally to refer to programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which seniors became entitled by paying into them during their working years. Republicans now reversed that usage and began using the word to imply an unearned government giveaway, thereby suggesting that an “entitlement” was a payment to which people felt they were entitled when in reality they were not entitled to it at all. Here again, the racial dimension was added by applying the term “entitlement” to programs such as food stamps, which many working and middle-class whites assumed were of disproportional benefit to non-whites.At the same time, the term “redistribution” became Republican shorthand for “left-liberal” government programs that took from working whites and gave to non-working non-whites. Two of Mitt Romney’s key mantras were that President Obama preferred “entitlements” to “opportunity” while also believing that the proper role of government was to “redistribute” wealth from those who had earned it to those who had not. Reflecting both mantras was a placard, ubiquitous at Tea Party rallies, that read, “You Are Not Entitled To What I Earn.”While Romney failed to unseat Obama, his usage of terms nonetheless passed into the mainstream of American political vocabulary, so much so that even supposedly neutral media now routinely use the terms “entitlements” and “redistribution” the same way he did. Media usage thus reinforces identification of these terms with “left-liberal” programs that take from working whites for the disproportional benefit of non-working non-whites. That is the linguistic situation Sanders faces in reaching out to Tea Party adherents and to the millions of white working voters who utilize that same vocabulary in that same way.Again, Sanders has made a start. Without specifically attacking Republican vocabulary, he has consistently pointed out that the “billionaire class” wishes to end both Social Security and Medicare, and that this will negatively affect working people of all races. What he has not done, and where his greatest opportunity lies, is to show how that vocabulary, as accepted and transmitted by the media, supports the “billionaire class” in that effort by depicting entitlements as giveaways. This, more than anything else, is what Sanders needs to do to show working whites how that vocabulary operates to camouflage reality, to divide working people on the basis of race, and thereby convince working whites to vote against their own interests.In this, Sanders can build upon a precedent set by the man he hopes to succeed. One of the memorable moments of the 2012 campaign was when President Obama counterattacked against Romney’s usage of the word “redistribution.” What Romney’s platform amounted to, the President declared, was an effort to use the power of government to take from the poor and give to the rich. It was “Robin Hood in reverse,” or “Romneyhood.” The effect of the counterattack was immediate and electric. Sanders needs to build upon this strategy but to take it much further. He must deal not only with specific words but with the entire issue of divisive vocabulary. That is the only way to get to the heart of what keeps working people divided on the basis of race and thereby keeps them from launching what he calls a united “political revolution.”Sanders’ strategy, like Obama’s, should include both exposure and counterattack. Just as he needs to expose the way in which the “billionaire class” has deliberately turned the word “entitlement” inside out, he needs to counterattack by spotlighting the enormous advantages to which the “billionaire class” itself feels entitled in the political arena. He should be pointing out that members of that class feel entitled to spend unlimited amounts of secret money to buy elections; entitled to control top positions in the most important government departments, including Treasury, Justice, State, Interior, and several others; entitled to legislation that allows them to pollute the environment without regard to long-term effects; entitled to huge government subsidies to ship jobs abroad and to pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. And, of course, they feel entitled to have working people bail them out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars when they crash the economy and bankrupt millions of those same working people. In short, Sanders needs to show that even while the “billionaire class” uses the word “entitlement” to divide working people against each other, that same “billionaire class” feels entitled to massive government assistance to which they are not in fact entitled.Again, building upon Obama’s 2012 precedent, he needs to do the same for the word “redistribution.” Here Sanders has also made a start in arguing that 99 percent of the new wealth created since 2008 has gone to the top one percent of the population. This is redistribution, but as Obama pointed out, it is redistribution upward, not downward. Far from having begun subsequent to the last recession, this process has been happening since the 1980s but has greatly accelerated since that recession. Most important, it is happening not because of a lack of government involvement in the economy but because of massive government assistance to the largest and most powerful corporations, including banks. In short, Sanders needs to do the same for the word “redistribution” as for the word “entitlements.” He needs to show how both have been used to divide working people against each other, and how it is the “billionaire class” that depends on massive government intervention to redistribute wealth upward rather than downward.Once he does that, Sanders needs to address the most fundamentally divisive vocabulary of all, namely the twin dualities of “left vs. right” and “liberal vs. conservative.” Because these dualities are so deeply ingrained in the national vocabulary, addressing them will be his most challenging task, but it will also be the most important thing he can do to change the national political conversation.Again, he has a ready-made starting point arising from his own voting record on the most important single Congressional vote of the past decade, namely the bank bailouts of 2008. He voted against them, but so did dozens of Republicans. Given that Sanders is routinely labeled “leftist-liberal,” does that mean that all those Republicans who likewise voted against the bailouts were really “closet leftist liberals”? Or that Sanders himself is really a “closet rightist conservative”? Or, given that government involvement in the economy is routinely labeled “liberal,” does that mean that President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who demanded the bailouts, as well as the bankers who benefited from them, were really “closet liberals”?This conspicuous lack of labeling is not a side issue or merely an interesting omission; it is symptomatic of a fundamental problem with contemporary American political vocabulary. In the most important government intervention of the new century, which redistributed hundreds of billions upward, the dualities of “left vs. right” and “liberal vs. conservative” were never applied, not by those who supported the bailouts or those who opposed them or by the media that covered them. Nor were bailouts labeled “entitlements” or “redistribution.”Like the dog that didn’t bark, this lack of labeling is evidence of a singularly important phenomenon. The standard labels, including the standard dualities of contemporary American politics, were not used and indeed could not be used, for purposes of neutral, value-free classification. Nor did those usually labeled “leftist liberals” and those usually labeled “rightist conservatives” oppose the bailouts for different reasons; they opposed them for the same reason, namely that they opposed the use of government to redistribute over $700 billion upwards. Despite this, however, years later the labels still operate to divide people, to obscure this commonality of perspective and thereby keep working Americans from communicating with each other.The overarching economic reality of American life is that wealth is being redistributed upward, not through the workings of a free market but through a variety of government mechanisms to which the recipients of that redistribution feel entitled. Standard political vocabulary legitimizes that redistribution and at the same time camouflages it by defining working Americans in opposition to each other and thus turning them against each other.That is what Bernie Sanders needs to unmask. In unmasking it, he will change the national conversation most profoundly and perhaps permanently. And that, in turn, is his best chance of being nominated and elected President of the United States.