Bernie Sanders gives Democrats firepower with populist message

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I have been critical of Bernie Sanders over the last four years. I have been critical of his use of the Democratic Party as a vessel for his presidential aspirations. I have been critical of his lecturing tones on issues of race. I have been critical of his behavior toward Hillary Clinton and the manner in which he speaks to reporters. No rational person would accuse me of being in the tank for Sanders. But with all of that said, Sanders deserves praise for his focus on the issue of income equality in the United States. He is the conscience that our country has so desperately needed and his message has now reverberated throughout the entire Democratic Party.

The income disparity in our country is the next great economic crisis. According to Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, the top 10 percent of income earners now make on average more than nine times the bottom 90 percent of  income earners. Those numbers should worry anyone concerned with the type of future we leave to the next generation. A system built upon concentrated wealth among a few, and a lack of upward mobility for the masses, will undoubtedly lead to instability and political opportunism. That is what Sanders refers to when he proclaims on the campaign trail, “A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”

Sanders is absolutely correct on this. In the most prosperous country in the world, no one should go bankrupt because of health care costs or die because of an inability to afford proper medication. No one should go to bed hungry or suffer from malnutrition because he or she lives in a food desert and lacks access to basic nutritional resources. If we can afford to go to war, then we can afford to provide health care. If we can provide tax breaks for companies, then we can provide tax breaks for families. Our federal budgets are not just piles of paper. They show where our priorities are. As Martin Luther King declared, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of poverty.”

Sanders has been at the forefront of this issue. He has talked repeatedly about income equality on the campaign trail. Sanders has pushed in the Senate for states to raise their minimum wage to $15, while chastising Republicans for their support of tax cuts for the rich. Unfortunately, too much of his message is lost on mainstream voters because of his lack of nuance. Sanders has made it a practice to go after the rich as a whole, rather than the more reasonable approach to go after those who have failed to pay their own fair share and use loopholes to scam the system.

Using a sledgehammer to solve problems that require only a scalpel is a criticism that has often been leveled at progressives by Republicans, a criticism that has begun to stick in an election year. Unless progressives like Sanders take a more measured approach in their criticism of our free market system, they provide room for attacks from their detractors. That affects his chances of becoming president, and it also disproportionately harms the very individuals across this country that Sanders is defending.

Vilifying the rich without providing context allows Republicans to paint all activists as socialists, which is not the case. Instead, Sanders should tell the stories of those Americans who are unable to move up the economic ladder and of those families that are the backbone of our society but are unable to participate in our prosperity. Talking about income equality in a tangible way will resonate with many voters. The goal should be addition without subtraction. It is imperative not just for his campaign but for the movement as a whole that Americans see the fight for income equality as a fight that they can join in, rather than a fight that they will fall victim to.

Sanders has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of our income equality crisis here at home. Pundits like myself have often criticized him, without acknowledging the work he has done to bring attention to this important issue. Given his embrace of socialism and heavy handed attacks on the rich, Sanders may not be the best messenger to lead the conversation on income equality, however, that certainly has not stopped him from trying.

Sanders has inspired a new generation of leaders, like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, while ushering in a more progressive sway to a Democratic Party that has historically nominated more moderate candidates for president. His diehard supporters are proof that his message has plenty of traction. Only time will tell if Sanders can become the nominee, but there can be no denying the footprint that a previously unknown senator from Vermont would have on a Democratic Party that is looking for its populist message.

Michael Starr Hopkins is the founding partner of Northern Starr Strategies. He served on the Democratic presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Delaney. Follow him on Twitter @TheOnlyHonest.

Tags Bernie Sanders Congress Democrats Economics Government President Senate

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