Make no mistake, Bernie Sanders has a politically sound strategy. Throughout this campaign he has fostered it, refined it and implemented it to great effect. His populism does not stem from an inherent morality. He does not have an Arthurian round table of justice, honor and equality. Bernie has a plan calculated on the most basic of human calculators, pure politics.
Virtually all ambitious politicians strive for the ultimate goal of becoming President of the United States. No higher office exists. How then does a socialist reach the POTUS goal?
According to his Senate website, Sanders is the "longest serving independent member of Congress in American history." Bernie has no superior claim to others as an idealist and outsider. A stranger to politics, political calculation and strategy he is not. In fact Bernie has done virtually nothing in his life other than run for and hold political office. So how does an independent socialist become a Democratic candidate for President? He implements an effective and sophisticated strategy to get there.
Election calculus does not require a degree in rocket science or qualification for brain surgery. You need to know your audience (target market/supporters), you need to understand your opposition's strengths and weaknesses, you need to have good timing, and ultimately you need to understand what message will best reach your target supporters. It helps to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as well. The real key to an effective strategy lies not in simple linear thinking about these components but in weaving them together so they all coalesce into an useful mechanism for winning.
Timing, they say, is everything. They know of what they speak. Bernie has graced the political stage for almost 40 years, he's had other opportunities. Given his age, his time may be running out, but the timing couldn't be better. The country is angry, divided, and ripe for "revolution." The threat of communism, and the adjunct fear of socialism, died long ago. Progressives (blech, I hate using that word, why can't I call them lefties or radicals or at least liberals?) favor European neo-socialist policies. Mix that up in the stew of presidential primary politics and you can easily see the timing for a bubbling pot of Bernie love.
But there's an obstacle. Hil's in the mix. She's popular, she's smart, she's a woman, she's got credentials and backers and the Democratic establishment out the wazoo. Who can Bernie target as an audience when he's up against that? How can he reach that audience, once he decides on his target market? The keys - anger, division, fear. Who is angry and at what? What do they fear? What frustrations do they harbor?
Think like Bernie's political consultants. Oh, yeah, he has them just like all the others. Who, you might ask yourself, are the constituents that make up primary voters? The Democratic voters divide into a number of categories for easy marketing - minorities, the poor, elderly, Tom Wolfe's radical chic (rich liberals) and their beneficiaries the Democratic political establishment, young idealists, garden variety progressives and moderate social liberals. You know, because you know politics, that Hil will get the minority votes, because she has established credibility in their communities and you do not. Hil is likely to get the elderly because they are more moderate and they remember Bill. Hil will get the establishment. You might be able to pull the poor, the radical chic and the young idealists and the most left leaning progressives. Moderates go to Hil.
So the target audience consists of the party's left wing, the frustrated poor and young idealists. How do I reach them? What political strategy can I use to greatest effect to bring them in to primaries in droves?
Populism has been used for thousands of years as an effective political strategy in times of anger, frustration, upheaval, fear and injustice. Populism doesn't merely promote policies to appeal to the electorate logically. Populism plays on the anger, frustration, perceived injustices and fears of the population to avoid having to make real policy choices and to avoid having to define policy too clearly. If the anger, fear and frustration mean the populace wants the moon, you promise them the moon. It doesn't matter if you can deliver, it doesn't matter what it costs, it doesn't matter who it tramples or what it violates. The moon it is, cause that's what they want. Populism's only vision, in the words of some Republican talking points, requires leading from behind. Populism gives the people what they think they want, not what is right, or what they need or even what you believe. Give them what they want and then you can get elected.
Populism provides the perfect strategy for Bernie. The young idealists are frustrated? Give them the old chicken in every pot, the old free lunch, or in this case free tuition. The poor are angry? Throw them millionaires and billionaires and Wall Street to sate their anger. Progressives think they have been betrayed, throw them universal health care and higher taxes on those millionaires and billionaires and stomp all over free trade policies. For goodness sake stay away from foreign policy. Hillary was Secretary of State and a damn good one, no sense in trying to attack strength with weakness. Hil can be attacked on her ties to Wall Street and her speeches. Young idealists will come out in droves if you promise free tuition, and get them riled up enough about millionaires and billionaires and how Wall Street is forcing all our jobs overseas and big corporations are getting fat and happy off jacked up prescription prices. Moderates are not big primary voters anyway. Get enough of the poor in industrial states, and voila a recipe, a strategy for success.
My problem lies in all the adoration heaped on Bernie by his supporters as some kind of moral saint looking out for the little guy. Bernie is viewed as somehow above the fray and outside the political elite. That's preposterous. Bernie is as calculating in his populism as Donald Trump is. They have taken the exact same approach, long on rhetoric and rabble rousing, short on substance. They go for the same fears, frustrations and anger in much the same populations. They are both "full of sound and fury signifying nothing."