Last night, Bernie Sanders managed to get 10,000 people to show up to a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin to watch a speech. At this point in the campaign cycle, that's incredible. The speech, which was met with thunderous applause from the crowd, is worth watching in full:
Whether he wins or loses, Sanders' ability to inspire that kind of intensity around a political campaign has important implications for the future. He is potentially engaging a large new cohort of people in politics, people who are specifically inspired by a message of populist economics rather than the mix of anti-war sentiments and racial progress themes that mobilized people for Barack Obama in 2008.
At the rally, Sanders hit on his key policy themes — single-payer health care, a $15 an hour minimum wage, free college tuition (a good theme in a university town like Madison), a $1 trillion infrastructure program, and a massive jobs program to tackle youth unemployment.
But his biggest message, as is often the case with insurgent candidates, was a little bit meta.
"This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders," he said, "It is not about Hillary Clinton or anybody else." Instead, it's "about putting together a grassroots movement of millions of people to make sure the government works for all of us and not a handful of wealthy campaign contributors."
I think Bernie Sanders will end up the progressive Ron Paul. Which is a good thing! https://t.co/MPhFS1e6RD— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 2, 2015
More than any specific issue this is the clearest contrast between Sanders and not just Clinton, but any mainstream Democrat who would have emerged to fill the Sanders void had Clinton decided not to run. The Democratic Party stands for very different things than the Republican Party, but both parties are financed largely by very large checks from very wealthy individuals and the ability to cater to the sensibilities of some subset of America's super-rich demographic is a crucial test of leadership for both parties.
Sanders stands outside that system. He's managed to campaign and win in a small, cheap, and very liberal state without cultivating a following among the uber-wealthy and he's happy to run a shoestring presidential campaign powered by small donors.
And you can see from this kind of huge turnout that this is a message people are very excited about. To the extent that Sanders is able to move those people up the ladder of engagement from engaging with Sanders content online to showing up to Sanders rallies in Wisconsin to donating and volunteering in political campaigns, that can have a lasting impact on the world.
Sanders' style of politics faces very significant challenges at the presidential level, but as Sanders' own career has shown, it works perfectly well for lower offices. What it takes is the engaged network of grassroots supporters. Taking such a network national could be an enduring contribution to the US political landscape.