By Mark Hertsgaard
Oct 15, 2015
Bernie Sanders’s secret weapon is hiding in plain sight. It was there for everyone to see throughout the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, but we aren’t hearing about it in the post-debate coverage. Apparently it is invisible to the TV talking heads, headline writers, pundits, campaign reporters, and other media types who decide these things.
The media elites are fixated on a single question only: Who won? The American media’s tendency to cover politics like a sporting event dates back decades, of course, but it seems to grow more entrenched and absurd with each passing election. Thus the presidential election is covered like a horse race, presidential debates like boxing matches. Who landed the best punches? Who avoided them? Hence most news stories after Tuesday night’s debate carried headlines along the lines of “Hillary Triumphs After Attacking Sanders’s Gun Record.”
What actual voters think about Tuesday’s debate, however, might be quite different. Michael Tomasky, the political columnist at the Daily Beast, seems to be the only mainstream commentator who broke from the herd to make this point. Citing the results of two separate focus groups whose opinions had not been influenced by the media’s post-mortem declarations, Tomasky wrote, “There’s reason to believe that people watching at home didn’t share the media’s overwhelming verdict” that “Clinton crushed it.” On the contrary, both focus groups thought Sanders had won.
Leaving aside the simplistic focus on who won or lost, Sanders clearly appealed to many people Tuesday night, and his secret weapon helps explain why. That secret weapon is the gift of plain speech. This gift is less about the content of Sanders’s remarks, though that matters, than it is about the way he delivers them—he uses the kind of language ordinary people use themselves and speaks with a passion that makes it clear he genuinely believes what he’s saying.
Agree with his specific ideas and policies or not, Sanders was the only person on that stage Tuesday night who talked like a real person, not a calculating politician or policy wonk. Sanders didn’t talk about a “five-point plan,” like Clinton did in describing her proposal to reform banking regulation, or try to cram statistics into every answer like former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley did. Sanders didn’t mince words (“of course” he’d shut down the NSA’s domestic surveillance program) or run away from what he believes in (democratic socialism, as manifested in Scandinavia). He embraced his beliefs and actions and explained them in straightforward terms: yes, he had a different voting record on guns, because he represented a rural state where guns play a different role in daily life than they do in urban areas, but he was still tough enough to receive a grade of D-minus from the National Rifle Association. You might like that answer or not like it, but at least you can understand it.
Maybe the reason today’s media elites miss this aspect of Sanders’s appeal is that they’ve been on the inside of the political carnival looking out for so long that they’ve forgotten that debates, campaigns, and elections are not for them, they’re for the public. Most media elites are so distanced from ordinary people, and have been rubbing shoulders with conventional politicians for so long, that they don’t really get how alien and off-putting most politicians sound to the average person.
A second case in point: Sanders also was the only person on stage Tuesday night whose every other sentence didn’t contain a self-praising “I”: I accomplished this as governor, I have a plan for that, I have high ethical standards. What regular person likes listening to a braggart? (Well, clearly millions of Tea Party supporters and other right-wingers find Donald Trump’s bragging appealing, but even that is likely to wane after a while.) Sanders likewise refused to be drawn into attacking other candidates—even after Clinton went out of her way to attack his gun record and despite CNN’s childish insistence on trying to provoke cat fights, as if urging two candidates to criticize one another somehow amounts to hard-hitting journalism).
Again, this is an area where the media elite is in its own world, annoyingly out of touch with average Americans. The media likes cat fights because they make for dramatic television moments that the rest of the media can then talk and write about. The average American, by contrast, has been saying for years that she doesn’t like attack ads or their journalistic equivalent. The political and media elite’s continued wallowing in this mud is a part of the reason so many Americans are turned off to politics, at least as it’s presented by the mainstream media.
Bernie Sanders’s secret weapon of plain speech means that he comes across as, in a word, authentic. And authenticity goes a long way with Americans. We are a people for whom ideology matters a lot less than speaking plainly and sticking by your beliefs.
All of which recalls a leader who could not be more different from Bernie Sanders ideologically: Ronald Reagan. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, media elites ridiculed him as a simplistic former Hollywood actor whose ideas were too extreme for middle America. Voters, however, responded to Reagan’s clear, simple message and made him president. Fingers ever to the wind, the media elites soon changed their tune, christening Reagan “the Great Communicator.” There was sycophancy in the media’s about-face, but also reality: Poll numbers showed that even many Democrats who did not agree with this or that specific policy of Reagan’s nevertheless gave him the benefit of the doubt because he communicated his ideas in a clear, simple way and obviously believed they would work.
If the first half of Sanders’s secret weapon is how he speaks, the second half is what he says. The political and media class in Washington haven’t caught up to this either, but Sanders’s basic message is one that very large numbers of Americans agree with: The system is rigged. The top 1 percent—“the millionaire and billionaire class,” as Sanders puts it—take too much of the nation’s wealth. Our political system and its elections are corrupt: The rich can buy a government that’s to their liking by throwing unlimited amounts of money at elections.
This may sound like radical, left-wing talk within the elite circles where most of the Washington political and media class travel, but it sounds like common sense to vast numbers of people across the country. Americans of all regions, political affiliations, ages, and races recognize that what Sanders says is true. And they find it refreshing that finally there is a politician who says it with the kind of conviction and track record that makes it believable, not just a campaign posture.
Speaking plainly and saying things that vast numbers of the American people agree with is what makes Bernie Sanders a much more creditable candidate than the mainstream media has recognized. It’s why Sanders is drawing such enormous crowds on the campaign trail. It’s why his poll numbers are close to or better than Clinton’s in key primary states and nationwide. It’s why he is raising as much money as Clinton is, despite forgoing donations from the millionaires and billionaires who dominate every other candidate’s fundraising efforts.
None of this means that Sanders will be the next president of the United States. But isn’t it a bit early to be drawing that conclusion about anyone? Here’s a prediction, though: The more opportunities ordinary Americans have to see and hear Bernie Sanders directly, unfiltered by the mainstream media and its silly definitions of proper news coverage, the less secret Sander’s secret weapon will be—and the more likely that Sanders will get what he asked for Tuesday night: for “millions of people to come together” to make a “political revolution” and take back their government from the 1 percent and those who do its bidding.
Most Popular Today from The Nation
THE NATION IS READER FUNDED. YOUR SUPPORT IS VITAL TO OUR WORK. DONATE NOW!