There is no mystery about why Bernie Sanders is advancing so rapidly in the polls. For decades, America's mood has alternated between fear and hope, often encapsulated within the struggle between economic inequality and political power. For all this time Bernie Sanders has championed ideas and issues which have essentially been below the radar of downsized mainstream politics. His initiatives have reanimated the nation and reenergized the grassroots movement.
Inequality Becomes More Unequal
In his candidacy, Bernie Sanders has awakened America from its hibernation to bear witness to the link between its unresponsive political system and economic inequality. Six years into the Obama presidency the level of poverty is higher than before. The gains of economic recovery have been rewarding to those at the very top -- but this has meant very little to middle-class Americans. Consider this: the Internal Revenue Service reports that the average annual income for the richest 1 percent has risen from $871,100 in 2009 to $968,000 over 2012 and 2013, a rise above levels seen for close to a century. This while average American salaries have remained stagnant for the better part of the past three decades, further sabotaged by unsustainable borrowing.
Since the 1980s, the cost of a college education in the US has more than tripled and total student debt owed in US has surpassed one trillion dollars. There is a cultural divide in the terms of access to education, which is the base of the pyramid if we are at all interested in having a meaningful conversation about removing the obstacles of upward mobility.
Millennials are the New Boomers -- and Sanders Knows It
According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are replacing baby boomers as the most powerful voting bloc in the US, and they are feeling the economic pressure more than previous generations. Sanders has courted young voters with policies designed to appeal directly to them. He promises to eliminate tuition at public colleges and to fund the projected $75 billion cost with a tax on Wall Street transactions. He vows to help students refinance their loans at lower interest rates. Since these programs are aimed at an already-left-leaning generation, it is not surprising, as the latest Monmouth University poll suggests, that Sanders is dominating Hillary Clinton with young Democratic voters.
Millennials are willing to fight for better economic prospects, universal healthcare, and free education. Their drive goes well beyond voting, or achieving historical political feats; to them the "political revolution" that Sanders talks about is an existential necessity.
The United Oligarchy of America?
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United essentially paved the way for the elite to inject money into the veins of the political system like never before, while diminishing the average citizen's influence in their own political future -- a blatant assault on the very foundation of American democracy. Perhaps it's not astonishing that Princeton researchers last year characterized the US today as a society resembling an oligarchy.
Sanders is challenging this "new normal" as far as money in politics is concerned. Without any support from Super PACs, his grassroots campaign raised $73 million last year, breaking the individual contribution record previously held by Barack Obama. This showcases the potential of grassroots fundraising, giving hope to progressive bottom-up movements. There is a passionate movement to overturn Citizens United which is now galvanized through Sanders's candidacy, a prime example of the possibilities political engagement and activism can inspire.
Sanders Is Transforming the Democrats
With primary season looming, Hillary Clinton is now trailing Sanders in Iowa, and in New Hampshire polls suggest he is enjoying a commanding lead. The Sanders campaign is transforming the Democratic Party by pushing its center of gravity to the left. For the first time in decades, an unapologetic socialist has transformed political debate in ways that were unimaginable only months ago.
Momentum and timing are powerful things in politics. This is the year of anti-establishment politicians, and what is undeniable is that Bernie Sanders's authenticity is proving to be indispensable in current mood of American domestic politics where grandiose established names are failing to produce the traction they so seamlessly did before.
Across the Western world, the trend of frustration is being channeled either into the ranks of xenophobic populist right movements or to the new progressive left. For many disenfranchised middle-class Americans, it is Donald Trump who has become the answer, directing their fury at anything but the structural deficiencies of the financial system that caused the 2008 economic calamity. But whether or not Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, his grassroots movement offers a hopeful remedy to America's inequality problem.
Time for a Genuine Alternative?
Bernie Sanders is a self-described "Democratic Socialist" and when he calls for political revolution, his resonant message could upend the distorted priorities of the United States. Sanders speaks a language that simply describes today's reality for a majority of Americans. He has avoided the triviality of gotcha established politics, resisting the influence of big money and fear politics by reenergizing the traditions of bottom-up movements and offering a genuine alternative to American political discourse.
Whatever happens from here on, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed or ignored. The politics of conformity in Washington that was entrenched during decades of an unchallenged narrative of status quo has been broken.