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Wed Nov 27, 2019, 07:44 AM

Bernie Sanders vs. The Machine

In 1981, he was elected mayor of Burlington. But the city’s bureaucracy showed him that winning wasn’t everything. So he learned how to fight back.

By Alexander Burns
Nov. 27, 2019


If his political ideology had long been clear, it was in his early years as mayor that Mr. Sanders refined his methods for accumulating and using influence, according to a review of hundreds of personal letters, city documents and newspaper articles from Mr. Sanders’s time as mayor, and interviews with more than a dozen people involved in Burlington politics in the 1980s, including Mr. Sanders.

By that March election in 1983, the first time in his life that he was running as an incumbent, Mr. Sanders had forged the theory of political change that still guides him. It is defined by direct confrontation with conservative institutions and legislators, blunt talk about economic grievance and an unrelenting effort to inspire demoralized, lower-income voters with promises of true societal transformational. He believed that only a sweeping vision of a better system could summon the kind of grass-roots mobilization he needed to achieve even more modest goals.

Much as he mobilized voters against his adversaries in Burlington, Mr. Sanders said that as president he would personally target senators who blocked policies like “Medicare for All,” even in the most Republican-leaning states. By showing the working class that they had a fighting president on their side, Mr. Sanders predicted he could transform impoverished conservative states like West Virginia and Mississippi, which President Trump carried easily in 2016, into far more progressive ones.

Mr. Sanders conceded that he would be up against huge forces of opposition: “The Republican National Committee is not the Democratic Party of Burlington, Vt., in 1981,” he said. And he indicated in the interview that former President Barack Obama had raised questions about his plans for mass mobilization.

But in Burlington, even people who do not share Mr. Sanders’s worldview say his tactics worked.


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