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The Political Moment Finally Caught Up To Bernie Sanders' Message

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd Tuesday during a campaign rally at the Big Four Lawn park in Louisville, Ky.
John Sommers II
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd Tuesday during a campaign rally at the Big Four Lawn park in Louisville, Ky.

Back when Bernie Sanders' campaign was just ramping up, and he was still giving speeches under covered picnic shelters to small groups of Democrats, he was talking about a political revolution.

"The only way we bring change to this country — and I'm the only candidate, I think, who will tell you this — is when we develop a strong, grass-roots movement that tells the people who today control America they can't have it all," Sanders said in June to a crowd of about 50 in a park outside Des Moines, Iowa. "This country belongs to all of us."

Bernie Sanders speaks to a small crowd in 2015 at a park's picnic shelter near Des Moines, Iowa.
Tamara Keith / NPR
Bernie Sanders speaks to a small crowd in 2015 at a park's picnic shelter near Des Moines, Iowa.

The speech hasn't changed much, but the venues have gotten bigger — much bigger. And now, it actually looks like a movement.

"You know, oftentimes in politics we talk about a candidate rising to meet the moment," says Neil Sroka with the progressive grass-roots group Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders. "But in this case I think what we've seen in this election is the moment meeting a candidate: Bernie Sanders, who has literally been fighting on income inequality issues from the very start of his career."

NPR found tape of a 1976 gubernatorial debate where Sanders talked about income inequality — about "the richest one-half of 1 percent" earning as much as the bottom 27 percent.

Sanders' statistics have changed — the gap between rich and poor has grown — but today he gets thunderous applause making the very same case.

"We will not accept a rigged economy in which ordinary Americans work longer hours for lower wages, while almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent," Sanders told supporters in his New Hampshire primary victory speech.

That message appears to be exactly what a large — though not nomination-winning — share of the Democratic electorate was craving.

Sanders has won 18 states, and is likely to win at least a handful more before the end of the Democratic primaries; that's a remarkable feat for an insurgent candidate few had heard of a year ago. It's especially remarkable if you consider that candidate is a 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist — and that he took on one of the best-known and best-connected politicians in America.

The message seems so perfectly calibrated to meet the mood of the post-recession Democratic electorate that intensive polling and a lengthy series of focus groups might have arrived at the same result: that voters are hungry for economic populism, are frustrated by big money in politics, feel powerless to do anything about it.

Instead, campaign aides say, Bernie just did Bernie.

Sroka points to a video of Sanders endorsing presidential candidate Jesse Jackson nearly 30 years ago.

"You see a Bernie Sanders from 1988 literally saying the same things that he is saying now," Sroka said. "It's, like, unbelievable."

Sroka says the ground was prepped for Sanders' long-held message to thrive, plowed by phenomena like the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. That protest movement didn't meet its goals, but did elevate the idea of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent.

"The party has shifted and changed, and kind of this Elizabeth Warren wing of the party was rising prior to the 2016 election," said Sroka. "Now it is the leading force in the Democratic Party."

The Black Lives Matter movement played a part, too, in stoking civic engagement and awareness, especially among young people.

And then along comes Bernie Sanders talking about a revolution.

"About one in 12 college students last year said that they expected to be involved in a student protest or demonstration, and I think about three-quarters of freshmen believe that it's really important to help others in difficulty," said Tom Sander, who specializes in civic engagement at Harvard's Kennedy School. "Those are actually the highest levels that we've seen for freshmen since the mid-1960s. So that's what Bernie is tapping into."

Now the question is whether Bernie Sanders can convert his movement into something lasting, with the Democratic nomination for president getting further from his reach.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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