Rhetorical Recap: A Monotone of Righteous Anger

Bernie Sanders Presidential Candidacy Speeches (Plural)

Bernie Sanders was the first 2016 candidate of note to return for 2020. Apart from the president, he may be the only one. So what is new and what remains the same?

Like the entering Democratic class of the new Congress, Sanders has staffed up with more diversity. His 2020 campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is Muslim; three white male consultants at the top of the 2016 campaign left citing creative differences after Sanders rejected their launch video. Instead, Sanders announced his candidacy on February 19 by talking to the camera for nearly eleven minutes. He opened as follows:

Hi. I’m Bernie Sanders. I’m running for president, and I’m asking you today to be part of an unprecedented grassroots campaign of one million active volunteers in every state of our country.

The long anticlimactic remainder of the video was, as it turned out, a short version of the speeches to come.

In response to news about sexual harassment incidents and unequal pay in his 2016 campaign, Sanders apologized and in a CNN Town Hall on February 25 “he cited reforms put in place for his 2018 Senate reelection and said every staffer on his presidential campaign will be trained to identify sexual harassment and have access to an ‘independent entity’ for reporting misconduct.”

Promoting the speeches, Sanders campaign personnel seeded expectations of passages in which the candidate would “get personal” in speaking about his past. His 2016 campaign had been launched on the steps of the Capitol and the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont, that is, in the places Sanders works. The live debuts for 2020 were set in Brooklyn and then Chicago (second city, yet again), the better, according to the New York Times:

“to reveal more of his personal story, starting with the rally in Brooklyn, near the rent-controlled apartment where he grew up, the son of a Jewish immigrant, and on Sunday in Chicago, where he went to college and joined civil rights protests.”

One change from 2016 went relatively undiscussed: the decision to deliver two announcement speeches instead of one. Perhaps this was a flex to show Sanders’s rivals and the political class that he could pull off back-to-back events with packed and fervent audiences.


Sanders opened with a three-step vision of an historic revolution underway, consisting of the 2016 campaign, the 2020 campaign, and the Sanders Administration that victory will bring. Thus framed, Sanders delivered his remarks with propulsive clarity, marching from one declarative sentence to the next. “We are…. “ “We say….” “We will….”

The text lends itself to call-and-response encapsulation, although he did not partake of that technique:

[What do we want?] Justice.

[What kinds of justice?] Economic, social, racial and environmental justice.

[Who we are up against?] Overcompensated corporate-government complexes and government-favored sectors: Wall Street, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, military-industrial, prison-industrial, fossil fuels.

[What makes them go?] Greed.

[How will we defeat them?] People power.

[Why will we defeat them?] Our cause is just: “We believe in democracy not oligarchy.” “Downward mobility is not acceptable.”

The “personal” passages came after the problem-solution-vision statement, not before as in so many of these speeches. In Brooklyn, Sanders ad libbed an “I know where I came from!” with an insistent bellow, as though responding to someone who had just expressed doubt that he did. He did not reminisce wistfully about playing stickball in the city streets. What followed wasn’t so much a story as a statement, with anecdotes mustered as rationales for his policy positions, catalysts for class consciousness, and a summoning of animus toward the incumbent. Sanders brought up his family’s immigration to the US, a trek darkened by the Holocaust. But his immigrant story centered on justice, not the customary values of freedom and success. He offered piercing comparisons of his outer-borough upbringing with Trump’s:

[I] did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos and country clubs….

My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young…

I did not come from a family of privilege that prepared me to entertain people on television by telling workers: “You’re fired.” I came from a family who knew all too well the frightening power employers can have over everyday workers.

And the topper:

I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination. I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation, and attended Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for jobs and freedom.

He spoke in greater detail about his personal history as a protester in the Chicago speech.

Throughout the speeches and the long video Sanders maintained a monotone of righteous anger. He has done that since day one of his entry into presidential campaign politics. He is an exponent of extreme dissatisfaction with what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington awkwardly but insightfully termed the “IvI Gap”in a 1981 book: the condition or perception thereof that American Ideals are not being measured up to in Institutional performance.

Bernie Sanders has an explanation for the current gap. He has a set of policy solutions to close it. He has a strategy of grassroots overpowering elites to implement it. And he speaks of them in the rhetorical style of a protester.

Two confusingly linked terms did not appear in Sanders’s speeches: “Democratic Party” and “democratic socialism.”

Sanders never referred to, much less attempted to align himself, with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton (no surprise there), Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman or any other Democratic president. For all his interest in appealing to African-Americans, the key bloc in the party which vaulted Hillary Clinton over him in 2016, he never mentioned the path-breaking presidential candidacies of Jesse Jackson or Shirley Chisholm. He spoke not to “my fellow Democrats” but to his “brothers and sisters.” He name-checked civil rights movement heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and was introduced in Chicago by the great protest voice of Nina Turner, a Democratic official in Ohio government from 2006 until 2014 who has since headed his grassroots organization Our Revolution and now serves as co-chair of the 2020 campaign.

Nor did Sanders say anything about democratic socialism. The word “socialism” makes liberals and moderates anxious; it has been a weapon for conservatives since the ur-consultants Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter tagged health care reform as “socialized medicine” in the 1940s. In his CNN Town Hall, Sanders responded to a question by defining what he means by democratic socialism as an expansion of Constitutional rights to encompass economics. He anchored his concept in FDR’s 1944 Four Freedoms speech. In other words, democratic socialism to Sanders means a right to government paid health care and education, and (new to my ears) a guarantee of environmental sustainability.

Sanders has a lot of people with him. He met his one million active volunteers goal days after calling for it; small dollars have flooded into his campaign account; he leads the polls among declared candidates for the Democratic nomination. Two days after the Chicago speech (March 5) he signed a loyalty pledgethat he would run and govern as a Democrat. It was required by the DNC.

To sum up: a democratic socialist, late-coming Democratic party member, and self-defined agent of a non-violent but thorough-going revolution in American politics leads the race for the nation’s longest established party’s nomination for president. The lead may not last beyond Joe Biden’s entry. But this is quite a rare situation. I asked my presidential historian colleague Lara Brown to name a comparable moment and she said, “Thomas Jefferson, 1800.” The first Democratic president, a leading protester against the British Crown, and the author of America’s most important Declaration.

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