• In 1962, the college-age Bernie Sanders was arrested by the Chicago police, protesting racism. He continued his activism throughout the 1960s. He was also an antiwar activist.
• In 1972, before Roe v Wade, he took a pro-choice stand.
• In 1987, when he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders was explaining the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation to schoolchildren.
• Throughout the 1990s, Bernie Sanders, as a member of the US House of Representatives, was a reliable ally of the Congressional Black Caucus, sometimes the only light-skinned. Representative who stood with them.
• In 1995 he defended gay and lesbian service members on the House floor.
Yet Bernie could not be a national political leader for many years; there was no faction in either major party he could lead. There has been no Democratic left since the loss of the Presidency to Reagan in 1980. Since that time, elections have been increasingly dominated by wealthy donors and candidates who cater to them. The abandonment of anti-fascist media law and regulation under Reagan, the general commercialization of news, and the emergence of the major right-wing propaganda network Fox News made it impossible to be a major leftist leader within either major party. It took the crash of 2008 and the failed response to it to create the conditions that put Sanders in a position to lead a major Democratic faction.
But Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and many women are convinced he cost her the election. On top of which he is a light-skinned secular Jewish man and is therefore held to a far higher standard than a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. I remember with loathing how Sanders was painted as racist and sexist despite his long history as anything but, while Hillary Clinton, with a history of racist language and support for racist policies in the 1990s and a wobbly position on abortion, was given a pass, apparently because she was a good Methodist woman.
It remains true that the largest plurality of voters vote on representation. This is not a simple matter of voting for someone like themselves. A majority of white women, for instance, find Donald Trump representative of them. (I can only wonder why he doesn’t remind them of every harasser and rapist.) This is an impediment to the choice of good leaders. Instead, we get people who can persuade the public that they represent the public – affinity scams on the broadest scale. William Clinton “felt their pain” until he was in office, then delivered more pain.
And sometimes, usually desperate times, a great leader slips through the haze of self-regard. We get a Washington, a Lincoln, an FDR. But there are no guarantees. Sanders’ time, I think, has passed. He would, I think, have made a great Senate majority leader, if the Democratic Party had not been so conservative in his time. If elected to the Presidency, Sanders would turn 80 in office and I doubt he could survive the stresses of the office. But there seems no-one of comparable stature among the Democratic hopefuls, though I think well of Elizabeth Warren. Would that we could learn to embrace our best in their times!