Bernie Sanders' Campaign Was All Policy Talk. His Values Would Have Made a Better Rallying Cry | Opinion

With Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign foundering, several theories have emerged to explain the former front-runner's plunge to the rear. One theory commonly presented, as if it were a fact, holds that Sanders proved to be too "radical" for most Democratic voters, while moderate Joe Biden was more to their taste. Another contrasts Sanders' curmudgeonly personality with Biden's down-home niceness.

There's a smidgen of truth to these explanations, but only a smidgen. Sanders' economic policies command strong support among Democrats, so much so that Biden has been forced to embrace many of them. A majority of Democrats approve of single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college, student debt forgiveness, a $15 minimum wage, breaking up big banks and paid family leave, according to a review of polls by the fact-checking site Politifact. And if niceness were a make-or-break factor for politicians, Donald Trump would not be president.

The point that these theories miss has more to do with values than with policies or personality. It has to do with Sanders' failure to assert himself as a preacher who calls on his fellow citizens to create a radically more just, egalitarian and peaceful society.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Sanders calling himself a "democratic socialist." Like many progressives, he is inspired by key ideas emanating from the European Enlightenment and the American New Deal. In fact, the values that inspire his politics are rooted in the Abrahamic religions. Sanders advocates for people in need of public services and communal support, opposes gross inequality and abuses of power by the over-privileged, and recognizes that America's destiny is not to be a global empire, but part of a global family.

These values are not too radical for the voters. Most Americans, not just Democrats, agree with them.

Yet his candidacy suffered from an overemphasis on policies and a failure to preach the underlying values that inspired them.

Sanders is a fine teacher, but not a great preacher. To preach well, as most clergymen and women will tell you, requires relating one's own personal characteristics and experiences to the principles advocated.

Sanders liked to say that the current presidential race is "not about me. It's about us." But it is about him, as well as us. He is, among other things, a child of Holocaust survivors who, if his campaign had succeeded, would have become the first Jewish president. The Sanders camp may have been reluctant to make this an issue because there is still a lot of anti-Semitism in the atmosphere, and they were afraid of crystallizing it.

If so, this was a mistake.

What happened, when the personal side of Sanders' campaign was subordinated to legislative proposals, was a failure to mobilize voters on the basis of their deepest moral principles.

Sanders and many of his followers have talked about generating a revolution. What they mean by this is a nonviolent mass movement that changes the system for the better: a movement analogous in some ways to the American Revolution, the rise of anti-slavery forces and the labor movement, as well as recent mobilizations for peace, civil rights and the liberation of women, people of color, LGBT communities and other disenfranchised groups.

But think about these movements for a minute. Without an appeal to radical Judeo-Christian ethics, without inspired preaching by figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, A.J. Muste, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Americans have seldom been motivated to join mass mobilizations for change.

Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernie Sanders delivers a campaign update on March 11 in Burlington, Vermont. Scott Eisen/Getty

Sanders' failure to recognize and celebrate his own prophetic values—his tendency to talk about policies first and values second, if at all—weakened his campaign's ability to inspire voters to reclaim their radical moral traditions. This relative silence also leaves the field of values to preachers like Trump, who has never hesitated to equate his own narrow-minded tribalism with "true religion."

Biden, in contrast, is comfortable talking about moral and spiritual values. This is probably one reason for his success against the Sanders campaign. But Biden's problem is that he believes in comforting the afflicted, but not so much in afflicting the comfortable—i.e., systems change.Sanders could have used some of Biden's warmth, but Biden desperately needs Sanders' fire.

The lesson seems clear here. The Democratic standard bearer needs to call us, as the prophets did, to eliminate unjust privilege, transform the system and create the beloved community.

Neither Biden nor Sanders will be elected president because of the excellence of their health insurance plan or their promise to make public colleges more affordable.

If they're elected, it will be because a large majority of Americans, longing for more just and caring society, recognize the candidate's deepest values as their own.

Richard E. Rubenstein is University Professor at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution of George Mason University. He is the author of many books, including Thus Saith the Lord: The Revolutionary Moral Vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.