When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president this past week, he sent a message to America. It is clear that Sanders intends to continue to lead the progressive movement, which he helped create four years ago and still exerts enormous influence over. While Sanders’ determination to see his agenda achieved is commendable, his insistence on personally leading the movement is harmful to progressive values in America.
It is an ironic fact that populist movements tend to be spearheaded not by large groups of people, but by charismatic individuals. Sanders and President Donald Trump both fit this mold, as do historical figures like Huey Long, Robert Kennedy and William Jennings Bryan. Political “celebrities” of this sort distinguish themselves from more conventional leaders because of the enormous amount of influence they have over their respective movements and because of their incredibly loyal and devoted supporters. Trump and Sanders supporters, for example, are notoriously loyal to their leaders. The amount of enthusiasm these celebrities generate gives their movement a short boost. The problem is that this passion is eventually directed not at the ideas of the cause, but at the celebrity themselves.
Even if they are completely devoted to their cause, populist celebrities are imperfect vessels for communicating their movement’s agenda. By implicitly presenting themselves as the embodiment of a political campaign, a celebrity associates all of their flaws or eccentricities with the movement itself. Donald Trump, for example, launched his campaign with a platform that included many legitimate concerns about corruption in Washington, but because of Trump’s own racist and aggressive tendencies, the cause of right-wing populist reform has become indelibly associated with racism and violence.
As a result, Trump supporters are more sympathetic to aggression and discrimination because Trump exhibits these traits. But opponents of Trump are more likely to disregard everything in his platform because they dislike him. Sanders’ own identity has limited the scope of his movement in its own way. Sanders’ race and background have distanced minority voters from him, and consequently from his platform. Appointing an individual as the head of a movement hurts the cause’s image and scope.
Hitching a movement to a single gifted individual also has dramatic consequences for the longevity of the movement. Celebrities tend to burn bright and fast, and when they are dead or retired, in the minds of many the movement itself has died. Factions form, and any unity which the group possessed dissipates. The leftist programs of Long and Kennedy, for instance, both ended with the assassination of their leader. Sanders is 77 years old. If he continues to stifle the ascendancy of new progressive leaders, then in a few years progressives could find themselves completely leaderless and directionless, like so many other populist movements in American history.
In the early 1890s, the Populist Party, founded on a broad series of progressive issues such as the introduction of an income tax and better working conditions, emerged in American politics. The party grew gradually until it hitched itself to Democratic presidential candidate Bryan. Captivated by Bryan’s eloquence and hoping to achieve a bigger national profile, the populists threw all their weight into electing Bryan, despite the fact that his platform did not entirely overlap with their own. In the end, Bryan was defeated in the election of 1896, and since the Populists had decided to not focus on down-ballot elections, the party lost all its influence and rapidly vanished. This is a good example of how the inconsistency of political celebrities can nullify the more steady views of the people.
American democracy is based on the idea that individuals with similar ideas band together to form movements which then change the country. But too often these groups give up their power to decide the direction of their movement by choosing an inspiring celebrity to lead them. Charismatic and influential leaders like Trump and Sanders have the ability to subvert the democratic process by twisting the ideas of the people who helped elect them. To achieve maximum success, a movement must be spearheaded by local organizations which remain loyal to their ideas and not to national figures.
Many people, myself included, hoped that Bernie Sanders would gradually withdraw himself from politics and leave the management of the movement to others. But if Sanders succeeds in once again asserting his dominance of the left, progressivism will continue to be his movement, and consequently never be greater than the man himself. I don’t claim that Sanders is as far down this path as Trump, but his actions show that he wants to continue in that direction. While I don’t doubt that Sanders’ intentions are good, his actions are harmful both for the ideas and people he claims to represent.