Polemic, platitudes, and empty rhetoric

Bernie Sanders’ book launch at the Sheldonian left Cat Bean doubtful of the ability of populists to create meaningful political change

The chance to see Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is one that cannot be passed up lightly. In the current political climate a politician that seems to explicitly understand the youth and issues facing the future, a man with genuine principles unhampered by the slickness that seems inherent in the worldwide political system, is incredibly hard to come by. However, the hour or so that he spoke for was unconvincing and depressing, a disappointing charge to level at the man described as “America’s most popular politician” by Baroness Helena Kennedy when introducing him.

Speaking to Oxford less than 24 hours after Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement, Sanders’ tone immediately snaps to one of anger, that which he has become famous for over the past couple of years. So far, so justified, and after thanking his brother Larry for introducing him to the stage he launches into a fluent and passionate diatribe about the issues facing the climate. By tapping into the fears that most rational and climate-aware people share regarding the future of the planet, he makes it clear that he is still the candidate of the youth. Candidate is the key term here, with much of his speech feeling as though he is trying to sell himself to the audience, rather than to capitalise on the momentum his presidential campaign created and throw himself into new future projects. While his words on the environment are up to date, they feel rather more like an addendum to provide some deviation from what subsequently veers dangerously into stump speech territory. The whole speech felt like a campaign rally rather than the launch of the paperback copy of his 2016-published book, Our Revolution: A future to Believe In.  

Trump is naturally given prominence in Sanders’ speech, a vast polemic that covers fake news and the media, the President’s pathological lies, this week’s disastrous budget proposals, and the state of healthcare in the United States. This first part is informative, and serves nicely as an introduction to the rest of the talk, which considers how America ended up in the position it is in now, post-2016 election. This is where Sanders’ populist rhetoric is most expanded. Inequality (which Sanders considers to be the biggest issue facing politics), massive poverty rates, as well as the flaws of the Electoral College, are used to explain why the Democrats lost last November. However, these arguments, while powerful in the sheer force of their anger, didn’t feel like the rallying cry Sanders clearly intended them to be, but rather a rehash of the same miserable politics we see every day on our Facebook news feeds, discussed between friends over dinner, or in the pages of broadsheet newspapers. His analysis of the causes of what Trump so ominously called “American carnage” was certainly interesting, but is so present in our current political discourse that it doesn’t need repeating— everyone is already painfully aware of them. The question of how to solve them was hardly touched on.

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Sanders jokes that his wife tells him that people need tranquilisers at the end of his speeches. So, he attempts to end on a high note, addressing hope for the future and telling young people to get involved in politics. It is certainly rousing, but somehow falls flat at the same time. Given the long tirade coming before it, the juxtaposition of an attempt to inspire leaves a sour taste in the mouth. All in all, the speech feels somewhat incomplete, focused almost entirely on a depressing forecast for the coming years under Trump’s demagogy and very little on how to actually enact change and solve the problems of inequality in America. If this had been a campaign rally, the negativity would have been followed by an upswing—an imperative to vote for Sanders to solve the problems. Instead, the audience was left with few policy prescriptions beyond promises to break up the big banks, attempts to rebuild the Democratic Party to be one of the working class and of young people, and of a movement coming together against Trump. How are these lofty aims going to be achieved? Platitudes alone are insufficient for the kind of revolution that Sanders is trying to inspire.

An issue that is conspicuously absent until the very end, in a short question and answer round, is that of Hilary Clinton’s success over Sanders in the Democratic primaries. When asked whether he would have won in November, having been chosen as the Democratic candidate, it feels like the elephant in the room has finally been addressed. Diplomatically, he answered with a refusal to engage in counterfactuals—and rightly so. The fixation of the liberal left with the ‘what ifs’ of a Sanders candidacy is today still far too prominent in post-election rhetoric, rhetoric which is now stale, seven months on. Had Sanders come to beat Trump last year, I suspect many of the same problems that Trump is currently experiencing when trying to pass laws through the House and the Senate would be experienced by Sanders (albeit without insidious Russian interference).

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It is easy to understand why Sanders’ populist doomsday tones captured the unrest felt in the American youth, particularly in the face of Clinton’s veneer of control and party-political machine behind her. Sanders felt real, and truly on the side of the people. But there were no coherent policy proposals and acknowledgements of an inefficient legislature in his speech, an attribute of Clinton’s that has sorely been overlooked. Politics is a game, and an institutionalised system, and a workhorse like Clinton would have ten times the positive gains in DC because of her intimate knowledge of the system, not despite of it. Clinton has emerged from her loss with plans for a new political action group ‘Onward Together’, with plans to fund groups that train women to run for representative positions and groups fighting for criminal justice reform. Sanders is still aiming at the same targets he has always done.

The Clinton comparisons serve to highlight what seems to me, as a cynical politics student, a large oversight in the dominant narrative of politics among my peers. Often the way to enact actual change is going within the system rather than against it. Populists like Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK can only create so much momentum until they tire out. Sanders’ liberally abrasive style, combined with his almost empty rhetoric, exposes the rational limits of populism. Political parties cannot be built around a populist, because things start to rapidly fall apart around them: the centre cannot hold. Even where populists do have policies (like the Labour Party manifesto), they are often idealistic rather than efficient and effective in reaching their stated aims—the promise of totally free higher education for all is one contemporary example. Those wanting to avoid the mistakes of 2016 in the upcoming June 8 general election should be wary of this when thinking about their vote.

America’s most popular politician? Perhaps. The audience seemed to think so, lavishing Sanders with applause and giving him a standing ovation at the end. But the rhetoric seemed to be stuck: the politics of progression ironically unable to move forward from the place of anger we are at right now. Anger is good, but it isn’t enough to actually change anything.