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Idealism in Politics

As the 2016 presidential election cycle has moved into full swing, much media attention has been devoted to the meteoric rise of several anti-establishment or nontraditional candidates. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson, have all risen and fell in both the polls and in the amount of media coverage they receive, but only two remain somewhat relevant: Trump and Sanders.

Much has been made of Sanders’ rise from joke candidate, known only as a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, Hillary Clinton’s only serious challenger within the Democratic primary. He seems to have inspired a liberal insurgency by voicing far-left sentiments, contrasting the typically moderate views held by Clinton. She has, in fact, moved left on many issues in response to his campaign. Millennials, a group typically known for their lower voter turnout, are his largest base of support, with him receiving large boosts in publicity and popularity (likely larger than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican) through social media. He preaches a populist message: attacks on income and wealth equality and support for free college, universal Medicare, campaign finance reform, etc. And yet, nearly every national and state-by-state poll still gives Clinton a significant advantage.

Of course, there are many easily identifiable reasons for this. There are still thousands (millions, even?) of voters out there, from both parties, who have no idea who he is, beyond the fact that he has weird hair and he is some sort of Socialist. So that, of course, hinders him in the race against Clinton, who will likely garner the default support of mainstream Democratic voters, given that Joe Biden has chosen not to run.

And there’s the simple fact that many Democrats see Clinton as their best or only chance, and choice, for a candidate who can win against Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. I was talking to a friend the other day, and he asked why I supported Bernie. He did “like his ideas and policies and all”, but saw him as “unelectable” and “too idealistic”. These are issues with his candidacy that I’ve struggled with: after all, is it really reasonable to expect middle-aged Middle America to embrace a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn? And if he does somehow win the presidency, will he be able to muster bipartisan support for any of his policies?

But what I think rises above these concerns is what has propelled him in the polls, what has created an almost cult-like following about his candidacy, what has prompted cautious comparisons to the 2008 Obama campaign: when he speaks, you know and I know that he believes what he says. He does not waffle on issues: he voted against Iraq in 2002 and maintains that view today and has advocated for gay rights since the beginning of his political career. He emanates authenticity and honesty: he has condemned super PACs and other sources of “Big Money” in politics, and has solicited nearly all of his campaign donations in the form of small individual donations. He is not afraid to stand on his convictions in defiance of the majority: he was one of the few opponents to the Iraq War in 2002, and was one of two senators who voted against the PATRIOT Act. He has run as an independent for most of his political career, unafraid of the label Democratic Socialist. All in all, he is a man of conviction, a man who was arrested for protesting segregation during college, a man who participated in the March on Washington and saw Dr.King give his “I Have a Dream” speech, a man who has never run a negative campaign ad, who is not afraid to say what he thinks and listen to the opinions of others. So he’s an idealist. But maybe that’s just what this election cycle needs.