Bernie Sanders' Old-Time Religion

by Charles J. Reid, Jr. Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 07.07.2015

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is this summer's campaign phenomenon. Consider the crowds he is drawing. In Madison, Wisconsin, he recently attracted a crowd of nearly 10,000 raucous, enthusiastic supporters. This on a beautiful summer's evening when many Wisconsinites are at the lake or on vacation. And in Iowa, he drew 2,500 equally fervent supporters in one of the biggest campaign events to date in that early-caucus state.

Why? Why such success, and why so soon? I will suggest that Bernie Sanders has tapped into something very deep in the American psyche: the realization that America is at its greatest, and at its best, when it is standing for progressive values.

The American progressive movement is not a recent creation. It is now over a century old, and tens of millions of Americans lead better lives because of its successes. Let's take a look at just a few of its accomplishments. In the early 1900s, child labor was rampant and a blight on the American landscape. Progressives in Congress enacted child labor laws in the 1910s, which were struck down as unconstitutional by a conservative Supreme Court in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918). It took until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and a more progressive Supreme Court for this cruelest form of exploitation to finally be banished by law.

Think also about Social Security. It was created by progressives in the New Deal to address the crisis of poverty among the elderly. Countless families had lost their means of support as the banks failed and the economy ground to a halt under Herbert Hoover. Families cracked and fragmented under the strain, with individual family members going their separate ways. The old social safety nets of home, neighborhood, and private charity utterly failed.

It took a progressive administration, Franklin Roosevelt's, to rescue the day. Over the complaints of Republicans, who gloatingly predicted that it would soon bankrupt the nation, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law. Over eighty years later, Social Security is still going strong.

It was the progressive movement in the years after World War II that created the infrastructure that allowed millions to enjoy the American dream. The post-World War II labor movement brought a middle-class standard of living to America's working class. Great American state university systems -- the University of California system, and the University of Wisconsin -- were tuition-free. The University of California only began to charge tuition after Ronald Reagan became that state's governor.

And let us not forget the cause of civil rights. It was the progressive President Lyndon Johnson who shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress while the conservative Barry Goldwater plotted with Southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond to move the solid South from the Democratic to the Republican column. And we should not forget that it was Lyndon Johnson who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, as well as the Medicare Act, even as Republicans complained that it amounted to socialized medicine.

So why is Bernie Sanders so popular? I will submit that perhaps it is because many see this progressive legacy to be at grave risk. The Republican nominee for vice president in 2012, Paul Ryan, sought to convert Medicare into a voucher system as part of his Orwellian "Path to Prosperity" budget. And what about voting rights? In state after state, Republican-controlled legislatures have enacted so-called "voter identification laws" on the pretext that there is a crisis of ineligible voters casting ballots. There is no crisis. It is entirely imaginary, trumped-up. The real purpose behind these statutes, according to civil-rights organizations and the ACLU, is nothing less than voter suppression.

It is this perception of a gathering threat to hard-won gains that is stirring a popular response in the summer of 2015. And Sanders' platform seems ideally tailored for this moment. Let us look at a few examples: He supports U.S. Rep. John Lewis' Voting Rights Amendment Act, which seeks to legislatively restore portions of the Voting Rights Act that were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013. And he has harshly condemned voter ID laws on the basis of statistical evidence that turnout is reduced in the states that have the most restrictive laws (such as Kansas and Tennessee).

Or consider health care. Sen. Sanders recognizes that health care is a fundamental human right. It is recognized as a non-negotiable right by virtually every developed nation in the world. And it is not surprising, perhaps, that these nations all have much healthier populations than America. In 2013, the World Health Organization ranked longevity in the United States at 34th, tied with, among other nations, Cuba. Chile, Slovenia, and even Greece have greater life expectancy than the United States. We can do better.

In contrast to the Republicans, who only want to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, Sanders has proposed a "Medicare for All" program designed to improve access to health care and enhance Americans' good health. Even under the Affordable Care Act, far too many people are uninsured or receive inadequate attention. We need to remember that a healthier America is a more prosperous America.

And then there is the matter of economic justice. Sanders has declared that no one in the United States who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty. And today, there are millions who do. Bernie Sanders has called for moving the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Right-wing opponents will, of course, do what they have done for 80 years: complain that it will kill jobs. It hasn't, and it won't.

Sanders is running on other issues, too, that would greatly improve the lives of ordinary Americans: bank reform, college affordability, and the reversal of that egregious judicial error, Citizens United.

There is a breeze stirring this summer. American progressives perceive that the accomplishments of the last century are in jeopardy. At the same time, aspirations are high. Idealism and faith in our common abilities, after all, are what built the United States into a great nation. Will Bernie Sanders win the Democratic nomination for president? It is far too early to say. Will he reignite a movement for greater social, racial, and economic justice in America? Perhaps he already has.


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Charles J. Reid Jr. PhD, JD is a sought-after expert on Catholicism and canon law, and a popular blogger for the Huffington Post on the intersection of politics and the Catholic religion. He has contributed to several books and law review articles on topics such as Catholicism and abortion, the Vatican and other related items and has contributed to news stories concerning the Pope, Catholicism and law.

Dr. Reid earned his JD and JCL (canon law) from the Catholic University of America and his PhD from Cornell. He is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and prior to this post, was a research associate in law and history at the Emory University School of Law.

Dr. Reid is available for media interviews. Please contact his publicist Bonnie Harris via email at  or by calling 612-801-0912612-801-0912.


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