Bernie Sanders doesn't have to win the Democratic primary to do a lot of good
Senator Bernie Sanders (Brookings Institution/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders is running for president, settling your bet over what sticker you’re most likely to see on the back of a vintage Volkswagen for the next several years.

Ordinarily, we could stop here at the natural terminus for the proudly left-wing presidential contender – the joke. But at the risk of indulging that last bit of “hope” that wasn’t stamped out by watching the spiritual uplift of electing a black president in America be followed by obdurate meathead American racism and six years of global drone whack-a-Muslim, let us say this: there are reasons to feel good about Bernie Sanders, for all the many things he is not.

Bernie is not polished, because Bernie does not give a fuck. Bernie has shit to do, which is ostensibly why he was elected. For his pre-announcement – days ago – he walked outside the US capitol, took questions for ten minutes, then walked back inside to resume being a Senator. This approach is or is not a problem, depending on how hypocritical you think people are. Few people have spent their lives lamenting that politicians were insufficiently blow-dried. (NO. Make the hair TRUMPIER .) Most bemoan the plasticity of candidates and the lack of real priorities signified by omnipresent flag pins and a slightly different red tie than the guy next to him. If people actually mean that, great, because Bernie looks like he gets his hair cut at a barber college, buys button-downs by the gross at a Van Heusen outlet and chose the dental plate that came free with his insurance.

Bernie is not rich and he does not spend his time figuring out how to convert political problems into wealth opportunities for people who are already rich. Many people depict this as a liability – mostly rich people who consider choosing the government to be exclusively their purview, and the sorts of people who become rich by overcharging rich people for campaign ads, advice and strategy. Both of these groups will tell you that Bernie has no chance, because it is in their bottom-line interests to make demonstrations of a lack of fealty to wealth seem politically anathema.

But, going off the last few election cycles, Bernie is also not this year’s “outsider candidate”, since that term has become synonymous with little more than a jerk who resists convenient branding. He will not, say, strike the self-aggrandizing and delusional pose of a Ralph Nader, who could only arrive at the conclusion that there was no essential difference between George W Bush and Al Gore by surveying the playing field from somewhere 20 yards up his own ass. Bernie’s not a neoconfederate gold-goblin who profited off racist newsletters , nor is he that man’s son, a right-wingerfailing to disguise himself as an alternative to the right wing. He’s not even Dennis Kucinich, who seemed like an all-right dude but failed to spark anything like a movement and now makes appearances at events like CPAC to be the both-sides-are-bad retired politician who can collect appearance fees from all sides.

When it comes to policy, whenever someone resembling a social democrat (like Bernie) enters the Democratic primary, we are reminded of all the ways that the United States is more left wing than the labels would indicate. It’s as if the media collectively pauses a moment to say, Actually, the lazy Beltway media terms like “centrist” that we use to describe the values of people in safe six-figure salaries near the locus of American power are actually highly unrepresentative of the average American’s interests. We find out that, left to structure it any way they please, most Americans think income distribution in the United States should look like Sweden’s . We find out that, while most people have been taught well by right-wing demonization of the word “liberal” and tend to describe themselves as centrists or center-right , their opinions on individual issues are substantially more liberal – like favoring single-payer healthcare , say, or universal pre-K , subsidized college education , paid parental leave , environmental protection , etc.

These preferences work well if you want to have an academic discussion about demography and political theory. But they don’t work well in terms of generating electoral outcomes in part because the delivery devices of these policy proposals are often people like Kucinich, who neatly embodies the biggest problem of liberalism: it’s not much of a kick in the pants. Liberalism’s excitement factor is certainly nowhere near what movement conservatism offers people: the emotional ride of mainlining white socioeconomic (and racial and sexual) resentment, the righteousness that comes from a paranoid sense of victimization by all government and the bizarro high of wanting to kill everyone. The highs of liberalism are sporadic and gentler – Obama’s speech at Selma, Bill Clinton when he’s really on. Hell, liberals’ rock-and-roll candidate is Elizabeth Warren, who is nicknamed “professor” because she is one.

Bernie’s a little different. His tone on the issues reflects the populist resentment that currently works so well for the right wing and marries it to an often scoffing bewilderment that things are so screwy. Bernie Sanders gets annoyed like a person, not a politician, and then his staccato Brooklyn delivery imparts a pretty authentic American sentiment: How did things get this goddamn dumb? It is the old outraged voice of labor. If you’ve listened to any of his Senate or policy speeches – and, really, you can pick almost any one at random – he’s just as good at articulating the problems of income inequality or bank deregulation or for-profit insurance cartels or skyrocketing higher education costs as Elizabeth Warren is, but he does so with a vigor that she hasn’t matched yet. If you put a Texas twang on him and ignored the words and only listened to his tone, he does outrage better than Rick Perry.

And, look, he’s probably going to lose. But there are two more things he’s not going to be when that happens.

One, Bernie’s almost certainly not going to be a sore loser and will probably stump for the eventual nominee. This will surely disappoint someone like Nader (from the vantage point of whichever cross he nailed himself to), but Bernie will probably try to nudge the system along leftward, even if he has to hold his nose to do it.

Two, his losing will have a point, and it may find its own movement. Bernie’s declared his unwillingness to use the current Super Pac rules to game the system and allow huge chunks of unaccounted-for money fuel his campaign. Instead, he’s collecting checks one townhall, YouTube video and stump appearance at a time. It’s still a hustle and it’s still gross, but it’s a more honest hustle – and ultimately the failure of even an honest hustle will illustrate the point he’s been making for years about the undemocratic nature of money in politics, and how an undemocratic system can’t be reformed by an undemocratic process.

This is probably overly optimistic, but this is a good time for democratic and grassroots activism. So maybe having millions of Americans – who might have dipped a toe in the Fight for 15 or in #BlackLivesMatter or in signing petitions for Dreamers or women’s rights – meet a candidate who speaks directly to them, is beholden to them and energizes them and then watch him inevitably lose because he lost the pre-primary of donor collecting will provide that other kick in the pants. Perhaps it’ll be the kick in the pants that tells Democrats that they can’t just vote every four years and hope for a candidate who gives telegenic speeches about some new branded synonym for change, then elect him or her to the top job in the land and find themselves stunned that, as it turns out, trickle-down politics doesn’t work any better than trickle-down economics. © Guardian News and Media 2015