Bernie Sanders’ First TV Ad Campaign: Its “Conviction Politician” Theme and Why It Matters

Why Sen. Bernie Sanders' first TV ad campaign matters for the fortunes of his presidential ambitions and the future of effective progressive politics in America.

This past Sunday, the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that it would be airing its first ads in Iowa and New Hampshire starting this Tuesday (to a tune of around $2 million). Its inaugural ad is called “Real Change.”

Now, the $2 million political advertising blitz by the Sanders presidential campaign is effective on several fronts. The ads are effective insofar that they spotlight his biography (a compelling introduction of “who” Sanders is to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who may be unfamiliar with him); highlight his executive and legislative accomplishments as both mayor of Burlington, Vermont and as a U.S. senator (that emphasize his effective, practical, courageous, and principled approach to political leadership); and focus on his progressive policies that seek nothing less than to inspire a public hungry for bold action.

With that said, the most consequential—and subtle—theme (which is the focus of this article here) in Sanders’ first TV promo—which makes it even more saliently effective—is its driving point of conveying to the public that he’s the only authentic, principled “conviction politician” fueled by a movement during this year’s Democratic primary cycle. (A theme emphasized, explicitly, by touting the senator’s honesty and his message of “real change.”) Why is this important?

It matters because the theme’s practical effect is to address three crucial dynamics driving the zeitgeist permeating the Democratic electorate this primary season. First, an appetite for robust progressive action and change arising out of key areas—in particular inequality and an economy that has failed to work for many Americans on Main Street—that have been the missed opportunities of the Obama presidency. (Hence, the ad’s thematic appeal for “real change” rather than mere “change.”) Second, a palpable fear that the concrete liberal achievements of the current administration over the past seven years will be undone by further GOP consolidation in Congress. Third, a frustration over the Republican majority’s scorched earth obstructionism that will undermine the agenda of a Democratic White House should the Democrats retain hold of the Oval Office after next year’s presidential election.

Bernie Sanders

By projecting to voters that Sanders is a conviction politician who takes his cues from core principles rather than from polls, focus group studies, and advice by spin doctors—the analogy that comes to mind is the “signpost” vs. the “weathervane” comparison (as articulated by the famed British left-winger and former Labour MP, Tony Benn)—the ad goes to the heart of why it matters for the furtherance of progressive politics that touches upon the first dynamic stated earlier. By highlighting the theme that Sanders is an “honest leader,” what the ad argues is that, unlike Hillary Clinton, there is no doubt whether he means what he says and says what he means. As such, by explicitly painting Sanders as the principled and honest candidate, the ad aims to strike confidence in the minds and hearts of grassroots Democrats—hungering for bold, progressive action on tackling pressing issues such as economic inequality, racial justice, and climate change—that he will not quickly jettison a liberal agenda, without a fight, on these consequential matters. By painting Sanders as a progressive fighter, the ad implicitly communicates to viewers that the Vermont senator repudiates both calculating expediency and the tendency to succumb to the habitual penchant among Democratic presidential candidates of the past four decades who have campaigned on the bold left but governed from the vacillating, timid center (or center-right) once elected.

All of which leads to addressing the second and third aforementioned dynamics. Specifically, by having a conviction politician who will more likely than not follow through in governing from a bold, fighting progressive posture—in sharp contrast to the perceived poll-driven elastic principles of Clintonian-style (triangulating) politics—such choice in governance will sustain a tremendous level of energetic interest, among the Democratic grassroots, to keep Democrats very inspired and highly motivated to be electorally engaged in 2016 and beyond. In particular, being active, in terms of party activism and voting, through the 2018 midterms and the critical electoral presidential (and census) year of 2020. (Increasing turnout among Democrats in 2020 will be quite vital insofar as it will have a spillover effect on down-ballot races that will decide which party controls governorships and state houses that will impact important redistricting decisions on congressional districts based on census changes.)

Turning out Democratic voters (in large numbers) during these crucial election cycles will be critical to defend and consolidate the liberal achievements of the Obama administration by scaling back the GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress. And, as such, creates a legislative beachhead that can expand the progressive agenda, in the future, by laying the groundwork for building congressional Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers. The combined impact, arising out of these legislative majorities, will open up immense possibilities of passing long overdue pieces of liberal legislation that include, among other things, the expansion of Social Security, tougher regulations reining in Wall Street’s excesses, and passing much-needed campaign finance reform to undo the damage of Citizens United.

In essence, what the ad shows is a key strategic pivot by the Sanders campaign. During the early months of the Democratic presidential primary season (from spring to summer), the Sanders campaign initially focused on introducing the senator and establishing his progressive bona fides (and brand) to a public barely familiar with him. At this present juncture, the campaign is now pivoting to its next strategic stage: outflanking Clinton’s recent moves toward claiming the mantle of being the sole credible progressive alternative in the Democratic Party, in best position, to defeat the retrograde agenda of whoever the Republicans select to be their presidential nominee in 2016. (A pivot all the more important in light of Clinton’s deft move, during the past several months, away from her natural centrism toward the left on an array of key issues due, in part, by the threat posed by Sanders’ popular progressive insurgency.)

By the ad showing that Sanders has the unique capacity (in comparison to his fellow Democratic presidential aspirants) to excite an impassioned mass movement, his campaign is making the implicit argument that he, alone, is best equipped to sustain passionate electoral engagement among Democrats in 2016 and beyond. This is a crucial prerequisite to meaningfully safeguard and expand a progressive agenda that will only occur so long as Democrats are able to make inroads in Congress to build a filibuster-proof majority as a result of increasing voter turnout among pro-Democratic voters who tend to significantly drop-off in voting during non-presidential election cycles as a result of being electorally unenthusiastic and unmotivated

In building upon some of the key points communicated in its first ad, it is crucial for the Sanders campaign, in the coming months, to flesh out explicitly (in future ads and on the campaign stump) its message that the concept of mass movement politics that animates the senator’s candidacy is a crucial element in forging an effective political strategy that can stop GOP obstructionism in its track. By inspiring a mass movement that can sustain excitement among Democratic-leaning voters to motivate them to turn out in large numbers—in 2016 and after—this will mobilize a practical progressive politics of getting things done that votes out Republicans from office and builds Democratic majorities that will finally open up legislative space to advance the liberal agenda currently bottled-up in Congress.

Furthermore, Sanders must explicitly connect the aforementioned point, above, with his advocacy for “political revolution” (which, for the senator, is nothing more than a movement-fueled framework for practical electoral politics) as he has yet give a detailed explanation of what that phrase practically entails. By defining the concept of a movement-centric political revolution within the framework of practical politics, Sanders can blunt the Clinton campaign’s strongest critique against his candidacy: that Democrats should not waste their votes on him as he supposedly represents an impractical, undefined and nebulous “movement politics” of vague generalities, whereas she’s an advocate of pragmatic—get down to brass tacks—progressive politics of concrete achievement. In so many words, Clinton’s potent criticism against Sanders is that he may inspire, but she gets things done. (This criticism is a continuation of Clinton’s 2008 critique against then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama by using the Lyndon B. Johnson analogy that it takes an effective president to achieve remarkable change in the legislative sphere.)

If Sanders in the coming months of the remaining primary season fails to flesh out the critical nexus between movement politics and practical politics, then Clinton’s argument that she’s the only credible progressive that can marry a robust liberal agenda with practical politics may very well succeed in persuading a majority of Democrats to agree with her by voting for the former secretary of state in the Democratic primaries. Such a failure would not only be regrettable for the fortunes of Sanders’ insurgent presidential candidacy but also, possibly, be a setback for the electoral future of principled left-wing politics in America fueled by the potent, collective energy of a people-powered movement in ushering a (small-d) democratic, progressive political revolution.

(Photo: People waving Bernie Sanders for President 2016 campaign signs at the 2015 Iowa Fair. Photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo used in this article slightly cropped by the post’s author.) 

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