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Sanders’ campaign: more than policy

Tribune News Service

(Tribune News Service)

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is exceeding expectations in the race for the Democratic nomination for president. He barely lost to Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, and a Quinnipiac poll released last Friday shows his support among Democrats nationwide to be 42 percent.  

Sanders has gathered this momentum with a progressive platform that calls for a number of ambitious policy plans. He proposes tuition-free college education, a Medicare-for-all health care system and expanded social security benefits. While acknowledging that these initiatives would be costly, he claims to be able to fund them with taxes aimed primarily at corporations and the wealthiest Americans.  

But critics on the right and the left are questioning the feasibility of his proposals. Some question the ability to fund the plans, others say that they could never realistically pass through Congress. Hillary Clinton has seized on these criticisms, imploring Democrats to vote “with both your heart and your head” in her closing statement at the last Democratic debate. Clearly, she wants voters to think long and hard about the plausibility of Senator Sanders’ proposals.

The Sanders campaign, however, is not built on individual pieces of legislation, but rather a firm commitment to prying power from the hands of wealthy elites and giving it back to the people. His plans may seem far-fetched, with Sanders’ constant calls for a “political revolution” amounting to an admission that they would not pass through our current Congress, but they should be seen as priorities for a country yearning for a more progressive future, not direct promises.  

Sanders regularly focuses on an obvious truth: that money plays an enormous role in the American political system. The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case loosened campaign finance restrictions and allowed for the creation of political action committees (PACs). Since then, wealthy elites have been funding political campaigns to a greater and greater extent.  In 2014, approximately 47 percent of total campaign donations came from the hundred largest super PAC donors.  

This trend is significant because it represents the shifting of ever more power to the wealthiest members of society. By allowing money to play such an important role in our system, we have granted more power to people who have more of it. The results are obvious; public policy tends to reflect the desires of just the elites, not the entire public.

A 2014 Princeton Study confirmed this notion with data from 1981 to 2002, before Citizens United and the PAC phenomenon. Researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that “a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one out of five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four out of five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.” Ordinary citizens are not so influential, with Gilens and Page noting that “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”  

While campaign finance may not be the most obvious issue, it is central to the entire political process and the way our democracy operates because of how it affects the distribution of power. Elites can turn their desires into reality, while the rest of us cannot. That is not only undemocratic, but terrifying as well.

We live in a country where the government has the power to draft individual citizens and send them off to war. The government decides our laws and how to enforce them and plays an undeniably large role in our lives.  If the government is beholden not to us but to the wealthiest portion of society, we are all subject to the consequences of what those elites decide to do with their power.

Bernie Sanders relies on small donors to finance his campaign and is attempting to reform this corrupt, oligarchic system.  His specific policy proposals form just part of a larger mission to restore the legitimacy of American democracy.

People should not vote for Bernie Sanders with the expectation that they will see free public colleges and a single-payer healthcare system in the next five years, goals that may indeed be as improbable as some critics suggest. They should vote for him because they want a president who truly represents their interests and seeks to wrest power from the wealthy elite.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at bclabaul@umass.edu.

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