Everything you need to know about the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination can be found in a single moment in one of the early debates, when Bernie Sanders was asked for his thoughts on banks. His face creased in pharisaical rage.
"They trample on the middle class, they control Washington, and why do they chain all their pens to the desks?" he demanded. "You gotta break up the banks into little pieces and then flush the pieces down the toilet so you can never put the banks back together. Then you just make the bankers pay for college for everyone, and America's fixed!"
As Sanders spoke, Hillary Clinton shamelessly mugged crazy faces—until it dawned on her that the wild applause from the crowd was for him, not her. "Wait a minute, do you all like this?" she cried. "I'm not losing, am I?"
OK, that exchange only happened on Saturday Night Live. But that doesn't make it any less true. A self-proclaimed socialist whose entire platform consists of spending more money on everything and making somebody else pay for it has somehow broken into the presidential race, to the befuddlement of everybody—especially Clinton.
The 2016 campaign will long be remembered for its peculiarities. The role of still-not-dead Fidel Castro, whose revolution helped produce two major candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—by driving their parents out of Cuba and keeping them from returning. The most amazingly trivial and profoundly useless act of pandering in political history: Carly Fiorina's declaration on the campaign trail that she would root for Iowa over her alma mater Stanford in the Rose Bowl. (Iowa lost the game by 29 points, Fiorina the caucuses by 26.) And the shocking performances of two renegade candidates who are barely members of their own parties, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Trump's popularity, though undeniably surprising, was still an amplified version of a previously observed phenomenon: America's sporadic love affair with belligerent rich guys, painfully unrequited since Ross Perot left politics.
Sanders is another matter. Embracing a political label that, outside a few mutinous congressional districts, has been instant electoral death for the past six decades, the independent senator from Vermont has not only renounced the political triangulation that gave Democrats all their presidential victories of the past 48 years; he openly preaches class warfare. Barely considered an asterisk when he announced his candidacy—The New York Times didn't even run a story, and New York magazine considered him significant only because he would "occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O'Malley"—Sanders roared from 30 points behind in the Iowa polls to a photo finish so close that some precincts were decided by coin flips. (This no doubt confirmed Sanders' oft-stated fears that money plays too large a role in American politics.)
It wasn't until the Super Tuesday voting in March that Clinton really reasserted herself as the front-runner—and even then, what did Sanders in was not his affection for socialism but his problematic relationship with black voters. In the cluster of southern states at the heart of Super Tuesday, Clinton rolled up majorities of 80 and 90 percent among the large black turnout. Outside the South, Sanders won four Super Tuesday primaries—Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota and, of course Vermont—and came within a gnat's eyebrow of upsetting Clinton in Massachusetts.
"I was surprised at the numbers of people who turned out for his rallies here," said William A. Prezant, an attorney and former state Democratic Party chairman in Nevada, another state where Sanders did startlingly well, winning more than 47 percent of the vote in February caucuses. "You'd think his talk about socialism would be anathema to the rugged individualism of Nevada. This is a state with legal gambling and prostitution.…But he's tapping into people who are disaffected, who feel they've not had much of a say, who feel the political system has really become an economic system for people like lobbyists and political consultants who are an economy unto themselves."
While the remainder of the campaign looks distinctly more favorable to the former secretary of state, there are still plenty of scenarios, mostly involving indictments or health crises, giving the Democratic Party establishment roiling waves of off-the-record jitters.
Even if Sanders' candidacy flickers and blows out, the questions it has raised will remain long after November: Has the American electorate taken a sharp turn left? Will we start seeing Che Guevara T-shirts on the podium at conventions? Or is Sanders just one more political sunspot in an election cycle that has already given us a Twitter war between a GOP candidate and a murderous Mexican drug bandit?
Part of the answer lies in the Bernie-friendly quirks of the electoral calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire are home to some of the most liberal Democratic voters in the country. The states are also small, making Clinton's ability to make big media buys with her vast campaign war chest (twice the size of Sanders') less significant.
Yet even if he loses, Sanders has still shown he can attract around 40 percent of Democratic voters across the country. That's an amazing performance for somebody who keeps a plaque on the office wall honoring Eugene V. Debs, who ran his 1920 Socialist Party presidential campaign from the prison cell where he was serving a sentence for sedition.
Sanders is a guy who throws around words like oligarchy like penny candy, promises to stop virtually all U.S. trade with countries not run by someone named Castro, and thinks the federal government should set up "worker-owned businesses." He wants you to be able to borrow money from the government at the Post Office. And his contempt for the marketplace borders on the paranoid. "You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers," he famously said at the beginning of his campaign, "when children are hungry in this country."
What Sanders means when he says he's a socialist—a democratic socialist, as he's always careful to add—is one of the great underexamined questions of the campaign. Sanders himself usually blows it off with a breezy line that he's not Stalin or Kim Jong-un.
"Does anyone here think I'm a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government? That I want all of you to be wearing similar-colored pajamas?" he asked some New Hampshire school kids last fall. After they finished laughing—the inevitable response—he explained that "democratic socialism" is just a kind of friendly neighborhood clubhouse where everybody's welcome: "a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country. And it is making sure that all of our people have health care as a right, education as a right, decent housing as a right, child care as a right."
If that's the definition of socialism, it includes just about every Democrat who's run for president in the past 30 years, and a lot of the Republicans, too.
"I don't think Sanders is a socialist by any political science definition I've ever heard," says the Middlebury political scientist Matt Dickinson, who writes the widely followed Presidential Power blog and is a longtime Sanders watcher. "There are different definitions, of course, but they all include some version of government ownership of the means of production. I've never heard him say anything along those lines."
Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson