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To understand Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, read his autobiography

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on October 3, 2015.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on October 3, 2015.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Even those who broadly share Bernie Sanders’s goals are often skeptical of his means to achieve them. Faced with a Republican Party that has an apparent lock on the House of Representatives, Sanders has vowed to transform American government through a "political revolution" that will bring millions of low-income voters to the ballot box.

To many observers of American politics, this plan sounds quixotic, unrealistic, even downright delusional. When we interviewed six political science professors about Sanders’s general election chances, none saw much evidence that it could succeed.

What, then, explains Sanders’s own faith in the idea? To get a better grasp of the candidate's thinking, I read Sanders's autobiography, Outsider in the White House, which was originally published in 1997 and rereleased for his current campaign.

"I have learned from the experiences recounted in this book that political revolutions are possible," Sanders writes.

On the off chance you don't feel like reading a nearly 20-year-old political autobiography yourself, here are three ways doing so helped me understand Sanders's thinking about the political revolution.

Sanders sees racism as a tool of plutocrats

The book brings into focus Sanders's understanding of the role of race in American politics, which he sees as essentially similar to that of the southern planter plutocracy before the Civil War:

"White workers were encouraged to despise, and protect themselves from, their black neighbors, or face losing what they had. The rich folks in the South — the bankers, the manufacturers, the cottonfield owners — laughed all the way to the bank. ...

Republicans are faced with the same dilemmas that vexed the ruling elites of the South: How to convince working people and the middle class to vote against their own best interest."

For Sanders, racism is a trick engineered by the white elites to keep poor whites from uniting with poor African Americans. Sanders sees this trick as acutely vulnerable to being exposed as a lie.

"For a hundred years, the white workers of the South were the most exploited white workers in America," Sanders writes. "But what did they have? They were given [the n-word] to hate and look down on."

Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire after winning the New Hampshire primary. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This interpretation of history is how Sanders sees contemporary politics as well, and it goes a long way toward explaining why he believes in the possibility of "political revolution."

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has begun attacking Sanders as a "single issue" candidate who only knows and cares about financial inequality. Clinton's case is that Sanders can't address America's racial gap if all he knows about is its wealth gap.

"Not everything is about an economic theory, right?" Clinton said to hundreds of supporters at a recent campaign rally, according to the Washington Post. "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism?"

In his book, Sanders really does suggest that American racism is a function of the outsize power held by financial elites.

"[Newt] Gingrich, his colleagues and his corporate sponsors can't discuss or resolve the real problems facing the average American, but they can certainly deflect attention from them," Sanders writes. "They can divide the middle class from the poor, and all of us by race, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation."

It's not that Sanders thinks ending economic oppression would make racism magically vanish. But he does seem to be arguing that if we could overcome racism, then it would be easy to build a cross-racial, class-based alliance to curb the power of economic elites.

But while Clinton has created a bit of a straw-Sanders here, what's true is that he appears to deny the authenticity of racism and white supremacy as political forces in their own right — as opposed to cynical manipulations by the wealthy.

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Sanders also sees the media as a tool of plutocracy

One of the most frequent notes of skepticism about Sanders's "revolution" is his belief that he can inspire "millions and millions" of working-class Americans to get involved in politics and vote.

This is what many see as the crucial problem with his plan. Even if he did win the primary, and even if he did somehow win the general election, what would give him the magical ability to transform Congress as well? How could Sanders engineer a new political landscape where Barack Obama — who benefited from massive voter turnout in 2008 — failed?

In the book, Sanders does have an answer for this question — fixing what he sees as a hopelessly corrupted mainstream media:

A principal source of the crisis in American democracy is the oligopoly — a handful of megacorporations — controlling the media ... One of the greatest crises in American society is that the ownership of the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Sanders's book puts an enormous amount of faith in the idea of reforming the economics of American press. The senator argues that ensuring voters get relevant political information will bolster voter turnout, which in turn would ensure that lower- and middle-income people have a greater say in politics.

"The current monopoly over thought and expression is clearly a serious danger to our fragile democracy," Sanders writes.

He proposes three solutions to this problem: antitrust legislation to break up "the monopoly" of media control; dramatically increasing funding of public broadcasting; and having the Federal Communications Commission reinstitute "the fairness doctrine." (Under this last proposal, radio and TV stations would have to give those of opposing views the right to respond.)

"In the early years of this century, when the railroads had a strangle-hold over the crop sales of midwestern farmers, Congress passed legislation to bust the trusts and limit their monopoly," Sanders writes. "There is an equally pressing — perhaps even more pressing — reason for us to pass media antitrust legislation today."

So important is this question to Sanders's overall belief system that as a little-known congressman in 1993, it was one of three issues he brought it up in his first meeting with then-President Bill Clinton.

"He and Mrs. Clinton were being ripped apart by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers every day of the week," Sanders writes. "I asked him to think about the very serious problem of corporate control of the media and what, if anything, could be done about it."

Sanders doesn't talk about this much on the campaign trail in 2016 — perhaps because even though none of his policy ideas were adopted, the media landscape has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s. And it's arguably changed in ways that vindicate some of Sanders's thinking. His campaign was initially written off by most established political reporters, but Sanders-related content proved highly viral on social media. Even as most prominent pundits — including liberal ones like Paul Krugman — remain deeply skeptical of Sanders, pro-Sanders takes are widely shared and read.

Sanders sees Vermont as a template for national success

Sanders's book recounts his career in more or less chronological order. But there's one big exception: Sanders's 1996 congressional reelection campaign, a story he repeatedly highlights throughout the autobiography as exceptionally formative.

It's an odd choice, and a revealing one.

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Iowa this summer. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

On the surface, there are so many better options to choose from. Sanders stunned Burlington when he successfully ran for mayor as an independent in 1981. He got national attention in 1990 when he was elected the first socialist member of Congress in decades. He squeaked out a narrow three-point victory during the Republican wave of 1994.

Why, then, does he repeatedly highlight his relatively easy and uneventful 1996 victory — he won by a 55-32 margin — over Republican Susan Sweetser?

Sanders gives us a clue in how he talks about the election. Over and over, he cites the amount of money spent against him in the campaign, noting that he was "targeted by corporate America" and placed atop a national business group's list of candidates to beat.

"My opponent has been promised $153,000 from the Republican national party, which will come directly from some of the richest people in America. She has already received, and will undoubtedly continue to get, heavy contributions from the some of the largest corporations in America and from groups that represent multi-billion dollar corporate interests," Sanders writes. "Never before had the ruling class of Vermont and the nation paid quite so much attention to a Congressional race in the small state of Vermont."

Money is so central to his understanding of politics that he writes as if this made him an underdog in the race. And when he wins, Sanders sees it as vindication that a "political revolution" of the lower class is possible in America — because it already happened in Vermont.

There are a lot of problems with this claim. Vermont does have a left-wing third party with seats in the state legislature, but it's hardly a dominant force. The Republican candidate in the 1996 race, challenging a liberal incumbent in the most liberal state in a presidential election year, was almost certainly the real underdog.

But Sanders does not think about politics as a function of voter ideology. He thinks of it is a function of class. And if the voters of Vermont support his crusade against the financial elite, Sanders thinks, the voters of America will do so as well.

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