Nothing highlights Washington’s sceptical view of the political left like the arrival of Bernie Sanders into the presidential race.
The independent senator from Vermont is typically dismissed as a “ self-described socialist ” by those who doubt America’s appetite for policies seen as mainstream in much of the world but long-regarded as almost unmentionable in the land of the free.
But while even his biggest fans don’t necessarily expect to see the 73-year-old maverick waltzing into the oval office anytime soon, his decision to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination coincides with rising optimism that their focus on income inequality and campaign finance reform is catching the national mood.
“There is a reason why it’s called economic populism: it’s because it’s popular,” says Charles Chamberlain of Democracy of America, whose 1 million activists support both Sanders and the more reluctant Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whom they are also encouraging to run.
“It’s a real stretch to say [Sanders] is out of the mainstream; he is very much ahead of the curve when it comes to a lot of politicians in Washington,” argues Chamberlain. “It is Washington DC that is out of touch with where the average American is really at.”
For this reason, many progressive activists rankle at the description of their members and favoured candidates as leftwing.
“I don’t call ourselves ‘left’ and part of the reason is the centre of the country agrees with us,” claims Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
He argues that the surprise decision of Clinton to champion many of the same themes as Warren and Sanders shows such views are now mainstream among Democrats, and the only question is how forcefully Clinton will follow through with policy.
“The shift in direction of the Democratic party is now coming to a close with the victory of the Warren wing,” claims Green. “It is now about a scale – do we go big or settle for smaller changes?”
It is certainly true that Clinton’s apparent conversion from avowed centrist to critic of the economic elites has caught many by surprise.
“Back in December people on her campaign staff were saying she was going to run against gridlock, for bipartisan solutions – and that’s certainly not what’s happened. Since she has launched, it’s all about the middle-class and making the economy work for everyone and a system that’s rigged,” says Chamberlain. “We believe that the issue of income equality is going to be the dominant fight of the 2016 election … and we are seeing that.”
It also coincided with a shift among leading Senate Democrats, such as Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, who many had long regarded as irredeemably part of the Washington establishment.
A few weeks ago only seven senators were openly fighting for enhancing the Social Security safety net, and many favoured instead the conservative entitlement reforms sought by Republicans and briefly endorsed last year by the White House too. Now 42 out of the 44 Senate Democrats are preparing to vote to expand Social Security .
Similarly, Senator Chuck Schumer, of New York, is supporting legislation seeking to eliminate student debt at public universities – a key aim of progressive activists that may yet be adopted by Clinton .
But more radical activists on the left caution that there is a limit to how far mainstream Democrats will join Sanders in espousing truly transformational policies, such as a constitutional amendment to strip corporations of political power sought by groups such as Move to Amend .
“The politicians who are taking their money and therefore their marching orders from the Super Pacs and the billionaire class and Wall Street are not going to champion the kind of change that Move to Amend is demanding,” says its spokesperson, the former Green party presidential candidate David Cobb.
“We are moving the needle in that we are forcing some of the most dominant political players to say the things that they have not been saying, but I have no illusions that they are going to champion the systemic transformational change that a real democracy movement would require.”
Optimism on the left is also tempered by memories of even greater exuberance before Barack Obama was elected.
“That’s what you saw in 2008,” acknowledges Chamberlain. “People wanted bold change, and in some ways we got it and in other ways people were disappointed.”
For groups hoping to mobilise the much-vaunted but often elusive “grassroots”, lasting change requires more than just one person or a party hierarchy to change its rhetoric.
“This mistake that is often made is the idea of the great person theory … or to look at party apparatus, instead the question is: is there a mass movement in this country that is cohering?” says Cobb.
“Take the growing resistance to the schools-to-prison pipeline, take the justifiable anger at rising inequality … and you begin to see the recipe for that movement,” he adds. “What we are beginning to see between [the anti-police violence movement] Black Lives Matter, between the [immigration] Dream defenders, Move to Amend … you see all these early stages of a movement that is beginning to speak the same basic language.”
The bigger hope for activists like Cobb is that such a movement may also transcend left-right boundaries and appeal to disillusioned Republicans too. But for now, many would settle for a world where Bernie Sanders was not the only Washington politician prepared to self-identify as leftwing.