Blog post

Ethan Earle: Bernie Sanders' Socialist America

20 January 2016

Reflections on the Sanders campaign thus far by Ethan Earle, Project Manager for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung NYC. First published at

I was born in North Carolina, but my parents are from Vermont and I grew up taking long summer road trips up the east coast to visit our family in Burlington, the state’s largest city with just over 40,000 people. It was on one of these trips, sometime in the early 1990s, that I first learned about Bernie Sanders and his uniquely American brand of democratic socialism.

Vermont is an odd little place. It is 49th of fifty states with just 626,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in small farming towns dotted around the Green Mountains that run like a spine up its length. Vermonters are characterized by a proud sense of self-reliance mixed with a stubbornly independent and occasionally revolutionary streak. The state was founded by a breakaway militia during the Revolutionary War. It would later become the first state to abolish slavery and play a crucial role in the Underground Railroad, hiding escaped slaves in its sinuous terrain and shepherding them across its northern border to Canada. Growing up I would hear these stories told as proof that Vermonters are engaged citizens who don’t take kindly to injustice or political doublespeak.

In 1980 Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders entered Vermont politics stage left, running for mayor of Burlington as an Independent and self-described democratic socialist. He defeated the five-term incumbent by ten votes and would subsequently be reelected three times. During his period as mayor Bernie became widely known as an outspoken leftist, but also, crucially, as an effective administrator. He opened the city’s first women’s commission, supported the development of worker cooperatives, and initiated one of the first and most successful state-funded community-trust housing experiments in the country. This last measure has ensured the preservation of low- and middle-income housing and calmed gentrification in the midst of a waterfront revitalization development project that has otherwise transformed the city’s downtown. Bernie the Leftist invited Noam Chomsky to speak at city hall and traveled to Nicaragua to meet with Daniel Ortega and establish a Sandinista sister city. Bernie the Administrator balanced the city’s budget and oversaw the transformation of Burlington into what is regularly considered one of the nicest and most livable cities in the United States.

In 1990 Bernie ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and became its first Independent member in forty years. He quickly moved to found the Congressional Progressive Congress, to this day one of the few leftist bulwarks on Capitol Hill. He criticized politicians from both parties for being subservient to corrupt Washington logic. He came across as an ever-serious, one-pitch politician, at all times earnest and alarmed about the crises our country is facing. If at times his manner could be gruff, his social graces lacking, there was never any doubting that he cared deeply about his work. He would soon emerge as an important national voice on issues ranging from income inequality and universal healthcare, to campaign finance reform and LGBT rights. He would later become a prominent early critic of the Iraq War and domestic surveillance programs like the PATRIOT Act.

Basically Bernie stayed the course he had set from the start—that of an unabashed progressive who bases his work on principled independence and the stubborn notion of getting stuff done.

Continue reading on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-NYC site

Filed under: 2016uselection, berniesanders