A million years ago (last August), when the possibility that Bernie Sanders might be able to mount a halfway serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s presumptive nomination for president was just beginning to be taken seriously, I covered a daylong confab in Minneapolis of the Democratic National Committee at which all of the presidential candidates spoke.
In the crowd, I saw state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) very active in the room and wearing a “Bernie for President” t-shirt, so I tracked him down soon after for an interview about why he was for Sanders.
Hornstein wasn’t interested then (and still isn’t now) in talking about whether Sanders had a real chance for the nomination. He’s doesn’t aspire to be a horse-race handicapper, he explained, he aspires to be a progressive-movement builder and a Paul Wellstone acolyte.
Wellstone, like Sanders, stood up for populist/progressive positions at the edge of the acceptable range for U.S. politics at the time, and he won U.S. Senate elections with youth-powered campaigns that eventually morphed into the ongoing Wellstone Action movement.
Sanders has far exceeded expectations for how far a septuagenarian Jewish senator from a tiny state who has never called himself a Democrat and has called himself a socialist (“democratic socialist,” to be sure) could get in a race for the nomination of the party he never really joined. He hasn’t given up yet, and far be it from me to assess his chances of winning the nomination, except to say they are dwindling, especially after his big loss this week in New York. (Nate Cohn, The New York Times’ political math guy, says Sanders would need to win 58-59 percent of the remaining delegates just to catch up with Hillary Clinton in the pledged-delegate category, and he also trails by a large margin among the superdelegates.)
It brought me back to my months-ago conversation with Hornstein, so I tracked him down Wednesday. He said he is “still not interested in being a political handicapper” but that he “would acknowledge that Clinton has a big advantage.”
Building a movement
But he also is still interested in movement-building and still thinks the Sanders campaign has played something like a Wellstonian role by bringing young people into the political process and by stretching the definition of permissible thoughts on politics and policy. He said:
“Through the Sanders campaign, a movement is being built — of people of all ages but particularly young people — who are stating in no uncertain terms that they want fundamental change in our economic and political system. So the challenge moving forward — regardless of the outcome of the campaign for the nomination — is how to increase and involve particularly these young people in the summer and fall campaign” and to continue to build on Sanders’ message.
“A strong and unequivocal message has been built around the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporate interests, and the danger that that poses on a variety of specific issues but fundamentally on the health of our democracy. And yes, it still reminds me of the Wellstone movement because there’s a populist message that’s very focused on grassroot organizing and activism. In that regard, I think Bernie and Paul have a lot in common. It’s an aspirational message that really speaks to what politics can be rather than business-as-usual politics.
“Through the Wellstone campaigns, a whole group of people got involved in a way that even built institutions, such as Wellstone Action and other kinds of spin-offs, where people are doing what Paul admonished, which is combining good public-policy ideas with grassroots action and with involvement in elections and campaigns. It’s known as the Wellstone triangle. What he said is that you really need all three of these, acting in concert, to be effective in making change.
“Wellstone Action has trained thousands of grassroots activists, candidates and election workers over many years in many states. It’s really had a national impact, and one of its organizers, by the way, Peggy Flanagan, is now serving in the Legislature.”
Hornstein clarified that he knows of no formal, institutional connection between Wellstone Action and the Sanders campaign, but he believes many young people trained by Wellstone Action and Camp Wellstone do support Sanders, although undoubtedly some also support Hillary Clinton.
If Sanders does end his presidential campaign, Hornstein said, it’s vital that the issues he raised continue to be addressed and that the leaders of the Sanders and the Clinton campaigns keep those young people who have been energized by Sanders’ candidacy engaged in politics through the fall. Sure, he added, “the Republican extremism” will motivate some anyway, but it’s vital that the discussion include “something positive, something aspirational.” Hornstein said:
“I want the themes and the overall framing, particularly of the economic justice, climate and war-and-peace issues that Bernie has raised so clearly and unapologetically, continue to be part not only of the Democratic Party agenda, but its messaging at all levels, in races for the statehouse.
“So much is on the line in 2016, and it’s absolutely clear that everything Bernie has been talking about resonates very well, not only with base Democratic voters but independent voters. There’s something very wrong and something very broken in our politics and that has to be understood and acknowledged and acted upon.”
In that context he mentioned some of Sanders’ critiques of the campaign-finance system, the role of big lobbies, the concentration of economic power in a small number of huge financial institutions and climate change.
“We are the wealthiest society in the history of the world,” Hornstein said. “We do have the resources to address these issues. We do have the resources to improve upon the Affordable Care Act and move toward single-payer health care.”
Single-payer health care
If Clinton, who opposes single-payer, defeats Sanders, won’t that discourage movement down the single-payer path? I asked.
Single-payer health care is something that, until the Sanders campaign, has been treated as “unobtainable,” Hornstein said, “so even people who favored it didn’t feel able to advocate for it.” The same is true of other Sanders positions. But Sanders demonstrated that there is an audience willing to listen to those ideas, and Hornstein expects the size of that audience to grow.
Civil rights, gay rights and the abolition of slavery were all ideas that were once considered “unobtainable,” until a movement in favor of them grew too large to ignore, he said.
“What we’ve seen during this primary and caucus season is the depth to which many people agree with the fundamental ideas that Sanders has been talking about,” Hornstein said. “Those ideas predated him and will continue after him. One election is important, but it doesn’t define or fully capture a movement.”
Hornstein said he likes Sanders and what Sanders has stood for during the campaign, and he believes the Sanders campaign helped build the movement for those policies and educated a lot of 18-29-year-olds who will sustain the movement and project those proposals into future campaigns.
I asked whether Sanders’ campaign had made the future of U.S. politics safe for people who call themselves “socialists.” Hornstein said it isn’t about labels, it’s about ideas.
“You can call them what you want,” he said “Use the word ‘socialism’ or not. It’s just a word. And Bernie has never advocated for socialism in the traditional sense of government ownership of the means of production.
“Ultimately, it’s what Wellstone always said. Government should be about improving people’s lives, and health care that covers everyone will improve people’s lives. Paid family and medical leaves will improve people’s lives.”
And that’s what Bernie and others are talking about. Not what terms you use to talk about them, Hornstein said, and added — half-jokingly, I assume: “The arc of history bends toward justice. The arc of history bends toward single-payer.”