The New Hampshire primaries are tomorrow, and politics are on the minds of Americans. It seems that this election cycle has elicited greater involvement than perhaps any other in my lifetime. It’s logical; Obama’s finishing his second term, the 24-hour news cycle is as insatiable as always, and a dizzying number of candidates clamor for its attention. The race features a xenophobe with an outrageous combover, a sleepy neurosurgeon, two people with very familiar names, a senator who shut down the government, and even a democratic socialist.
Hillary Clinton was the heir apparent for the democratic nomination from essentially the spring of 2014 until the Iowa caucus last week. There a virtual tie with a Vermont senator, unheard of one year ago, exposed the fragility of Clinton’s campaign despite her name recognition, political infrastructure, and vast expenditure. Nevertheless, I too used to see her as an inevitability, a default option preferable to any of the clowns offered by the GOP over the past few years.
I first heard about Bernard Sanders from an episode of the Daily Show covering the announcement of his bid for the presidency. He was so obviously ungroomed and unfiltered. I couldn’t help but admire his authenticity, even as I chuckled. During the following months I learned more about his policy stances, his worldview, and his refusal of super PAC money. Slowly I came to see Sanders as the ideal (but idealistic) candidate. At the same time Clinton became progressively less appealing, but I nonetheless considered her as the probable 45th President of the United States.
My cynicism came to an abrupt and joyous end in September when I watched Sanders' appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I had always seen Bernie as inspiring, but I believed he would be ultimately doomed in a general election. That changed when I learned that he has been polling better than Hillary Clinton in theoretical matchups with Republican candidates since this summer. I was also, once again, convinced of Bernie’s extraordinary honesty and reliability. He’s had a long and meaningful career, including exceptional prescience in both domestic in foreign affairs. Lastly, I found out that Sanders has the most small donors of any political campaign in the history of the United States; as of February 8th he’s received over 3.5 million individual contributions, averaging just $27. The conversation between Sanders and Colbert invigorated me with hope, a belief in the viability of a campaign unassociated with corporate money. He could win.
I’m proud to be part of that democratic vision; I made my first ever campaign contribution to Sanders in January. This, for me, is the ultimate issue: campaign finance corruption. As I’ve become more informed as a citizen of the United States, and as a citizen of the world, it’s become apparent how broken our democracy is. I believe that America has become what Noam Chomsky describes as “a plutocracy with democratic forms”—every few years we undergo the ritual of checking a box, but the real political power rests in the hands of the extremely wealthy. The rich have a radically disproportionate influence on public policy due to a political process that institutionalizes bribery. No issue, whether Democratic or Republican, can be addressed in a way that prioritizes the interests of citizens over those of unaccountable private wealth unless the election process undergoes serious repair. Lawrence Lessig articulates this much better than me:
I am so passionate about this point that I would vote for a candidate who differed from me on every other issue, as long as campaign finance reform was their first priority (and they weren’t a sociopath). Luckily, no such compromise is necessary; I side with Bernie Sanders on many issues, and I’m proud to back the only presidential candidate seriously addressing our corrupt system while putting his (individually-raised) money where his mouth is.
Bernie is not a perfect candidate. I’m getting a little tired of his stump speech, he can sometimes confuse his statistics, and he has yet to effectively communicate his phenomenal civil rights record to black and Latino voters. No single person can fix our country, and Sanders readily admits this fact. Real change requires popular support and cooperation. Bernie is perhaps the candidate that most inspires this enthusiasm, as the success of his unlikely campaign suggests. Despite progressive ideals that draw criticism from those invested in the current status quo, Bernie gains new allies each day—of which I am proudly one.