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Stephen Gottlieb: Bernie

I have been an admirer of Senator Elizabeth Warren for many years, ever since she spoke here at Albany Law School some time back in the 90s. But I respected her decision not to enter the primaries to contest the nomination of Hilary Clinton. Obviously I never had to decide whether I would choose to vote for Warren or Clinton, but I came to the conclusion long ago that the candidates I liked best had no real chance of winning. So I have tried to keep my picks within the realm of the people I thought could win.

But Bernie Sanders is creating another possibility. Simply put, the Democrats have lost much of the constituency for real, liberal, politics, politics for Americans with average incomes, politics for people who are being given the shaft by business as usual. Those folk have been part of the constituency of the Democratic Party for years. But many of them have been staying home and not voting, or deserting the Democrats entirely.

The Occupy movement showed that there is still some life in that constituency. And it showed that American politics and Democratic Party politics can be rejuvenated. Except that it collapsed – not for lack of support but because it was never organized for the long haul.

Senator Sanders has no hope of winning the general election but he provides a symbol people can rally around, and a voice in the Democratic Party to those who care about providing real opportunity and a fair shake for all. Putting his views into the political process is very different from opening a tent on Wall Street. Bernie is trolling for votes. His success in mounting a challenge to Hillary will measure the possibility of returning Democratic Party politics to an agenda that better reflects the economic needs of Americans.

Years ago a congressman by the name of William Fitz Ryan represented a liberal district in Manhattan. His brother served on the Board of Directors of the program I worked for and commented that for Congressman Ryan, pushing Congress from the left, created opportunities for his fellow legislators to shift the battleground.

I think Bernie is in that tradition. If he can arouse the mass of Americans who care about each other’s fate, and arouse the many whose lives are crushed by the disinterest and hostility of those who have power and money, then Bernie can shift American politics from the rut it’s been rattling around in for several decades.

In that way, Bernie is more a cause than a candidate. He can be the beginning of a movement and an organization, just as Howard Dean did with his pioneering work in the 2004 primary campaign. The crucial thing isn’t what happens to Bernie; it’s the opportunity to take advantage of his candidacy – win, lose or draw – to energize the party organization and speak to more Democrats with a better, more inclusive vision.

There’ve been a number of transformative candidates on the Democratic side: some who’ve won like Kennedy and Clinton; others who’ve lost like Stevenson, Dean and Gore – but they all made a difference. If Bernie drives enough people to get into the campaign and organize for a long push, the effect on Hilary and succeeding elections may have us all celebrating a greater America.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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