The Daily Northwestern

Kirkland: Why I love Bernie Sanders

William Kirkland, Columnist

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Let’s be upfront about it: Bernie Sanders is a pretty weird guy. First off, he describes himself as a “grumpy old” democratic socialist, an anomalous independent in the hyper-partisan Senate. And when he announced he was running for president at the end of April, he didn’t go for the usual big speech at a uniquely personal historic site as is routine for most candidates. Instead, he wandered out of the U.S. Capitol Building on a lunch break and delivered an off-the-cuff 10-minute speech to a handful of reporters, saying, “We don’t have an endless amount of time,” and wandered back into the building to finish his work for the day, work more important in his mind than running for president of the United States.

Then there’s the fact that he’s running as a democratic socialist for the nomination of a centrist political party, in order to win the presidency of a center-right country. Bernie Sanders is not only a socialist, he’s a proud and unabashed socialist. When George Stephanopoulos (who, as it happens, is a big-time Clinton supporter) told Sanders on his show, “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now. He wants America to look more like Scandinavia,” Sanders deadpanned “That’s right. What’s wrong with that?”

The good news for Fox News is that Bernie Sanders is not going to win the presidency, let alone the Democratic nomination.

But Bernie Sanders isn’t in it to win it; he’s got a different plan. And so far it’s working.

As the far left candidate in a race for the nomination of a center-left party, Sanders is single-handedly shifting the playing field of the Democratic primary. He’s opening up ground for his opponent (who will be the nominee and, with any luck, the next president) to move to the left. He’s Hillary’s great foil, and can make her look like a centrist even as she positions herself far to the left of where she did in 2008. As the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said, “Having Bernie Sanders in the race, calling for populism, will help open the political space for people like … Clinton and others to take bold stands.”

And so far, it’s working. Clinton’s first policy speech was a bold call for police demilitarization, racial justice, the end of mass incarceration and serious efforts to fight economic inequality. Meanwhile, her support is only growing.

I don’t know where Clinton’s sympathies really lie on the spectrum of the political left, but I will say that she has sounded her most authentic and passionate in recent weeks as she’s discussed her commitment to progressive causes and issues. I give a lot of credit to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who is not running for president, for making that possible.

There’s also the fact that Sanders energizes young voters, like his many supporters at Northwestern, to get more involved in the political process. At a time when many millennials are more and more apathetic about U.S. politics, he infuses the staid and predictable electoral process with his “grumpy old guy” charm and powerful message of democratic socialism.

On Tuesday, Sanders is expected to announce new legislation that would make college tuition at public colleges and universities free. It’s a great idea. Germany did it, and Denmark and Sweden have been doing it for a while.

Everyone knows Sanders’ proposals will not leave committee, let alone pass the Senate. But they’re shifting the conversation and broadening the boundaries of our mainstream political spectrum. And, with any luck, a critical mass of his progressive enthusiasm and at least a handful of his policies will make their way into the White House, one way or another.

William Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to