Bushwick in Brooklyn is a remarkable distillation of inequality in modern America. Walk five minutes west from Jefferson Street towards Manhattan and you’ll find white students in coffee shops tapping away on expensive MacBooks. Walk five minutes east and you’ll encounter all the familiar markers of metropolitan – in this case, black and Hispanic – poverty: inadequate housing, understocked grocery stores, and big plots of empty, overgrown land.
Bernie Sanders grew-up on the other side of Brooklyn, in Flatbush. Once a predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbourhood, Flatbush is today a broader mix of American immigrant communities. One of the largest ethnic minority groups in the area is Haitian. Sanders left Brooklyn in 1960, transferring from Brooklyn College to the University of Chicago, where he studied politics, before decamping permanently to Vermont, the small north-eastern state for which he is now a two-term United States senator. But he is still every inch the Brooklynite. You can tell by the way he talks. “He speaks Brooklyn,” one of his former high school classmates told The New York Times recently. “He’s not a phoney, and that shows.”
In stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, his chief rival for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, Sanders is a legitimate political outsider. Although the 74-year-old frequently votes with the Congressional Democratic caucus, he sits in the Senate as an independent socialist. He won’t accept money from ‘corporate interests’. (The $26million he raised in campaign contributions over the summer came almost exclusively from small individual donors.) Despite his growing popularity, his support in the mainstream media is limited.
Sanders leads Clinton in New Hampshire but trails her in Iowa, the first two states to ballot as part of the Democratic primary process. He polls well in hypothetical match-ups against prospective Republican nominees such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson. One of Sanders’ great political strengths is his ability to communicate radical ideas in simple, populist language. “There is no justice, and I want you to hear this clearly, when the top one-tenth of one percent … in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he told students at the conservative Lynchburg University in Virginia in September. “And in your hearts, you will have to determine the morality of that, and the justice of that.”
But Sanders’ unexpected and impressively sustained assault on the Democratic establishment owes as much to the substance of his policies as to the strength of his rhetoric. Sanders has built his campaign around two core themes: the widening wealth gap and the long-term decline of the American ‘middle class’ – a catch-all term encompassing everyone bar the very richest and very poorest Americans.
The statistics are striking. In 1981, 59 percent of American adults were classified as middle income. By 2011, that figure had fallen to 51 percent. Over the same period, middle America’s share of national output shrank from 60 percent to 45 percent. Last year, according to the US Department of Social Security, just over half of America’s workers – upward of 100 million people – earned less than $30,000 per year and nearly 40 percent earned less than $ 20,000.
‘Sanders 2016’ has gained traction because middle-class living standards have not kept pace with economic growth, and because – even now, seven years after the election of Barack Obama – the benefits of that growth still concentrate disproportionately in the hands of the rich. The closeness of the Democratic leadership (particularly Clinton, who receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Wall Street) to corporate America has also convinced many activists that a conventional candidate might struggle in what is shaping up to be an unconventional presidential race.
There are, however, some sizeable obstacles blocking Sanders’ path to the nomination. Foremost among them is the overwhelming whiteness of his support. A CNN poll earlier this year put his backing among non-white Democrats at just 9 percent and a recent Fox News poll suggested that only 5 percent of African-American Democrats planned to vote for him in the primaries. As well as being almost uniformly white, his followers tend to be young, college educated and professional.
In other words, in the looming face-off against Clinton, Sanders will thrive in one part of Bushwick but lose badly in another. He’ll carry Vermont, the whitest state in the Union, but not South Carolina, one of the most racially diverse.
The homogeneity of Sanders’ base is problematic because, as Sanders himself acknowledges, his chances of success at the general election rest on a high turn-out. “Democrats will not retain the White House … unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a large voter turnout,” he said recently. “Democrats win when the turnout is high. Republicans win when the turnout is low.”
The Sanders’ strategy is to rebuild the coalition that launched Obama into the White House in 2008. (Seven million more Americans voted in 2008 than in 2004.) But that coalition was multiracial. It included huge numbers of black and Hispanic voters, as well as women, the low paid, and white liberal graduates. Unless Sanders can attract a similarly expansive alliance – and soon – it is difficult to see how his campaign can advance on what it has achieved so far.
The irony is that Sanders – a Brooklyn socialist of Jewish extraction – is much better placed than Clinton – a liberal WASP – to understand the complexities of race and class in modern American politics. Perhaps, despite the heavy and persistent Flatbush accent, he has spent too much time in Vermont. Or perhaps he just needs to sharpen his message. He could start by talking more about the inequalities that exist within middle America, as well as those that exist between middle America and the rest.