Vermont senator Bernie Sanders spoke on Saturday evening at the People's Summit in Chicago, Illinois, giving the assembled crowd his take on how to launch effective, on-message, policy-driven political careers that will appeal to the progressive grassroots. It's no surprise that his speech was highly anticipated, given that the 2016 Democratic primaries turned him into a household name, and a popular one at that. And it's fair to say he was as on-message as ever ― you should really take note of this one line from Sanders' People's Summit speech.
It came in the opening minutes of the emphatic speech, which contained many of the same core elements as his presidential campaign ― forthright arguments in favor of progressive policy, especially economic justice, and the championing of "the 99 percent" over "the one percent." He also took a moment to pull the lens back, however, talking about the dramatic ways in which mainstream political belief can change over a relatively short period of time.
We have in recent years made enormous progress advancing the progressive agenda. Sometimes, what we all do is we look at today and think “well, that’s kind of the way it always was.” That’s not the case. Ideas that just a few years ago seemed radical and unattainable are now widely supported, and in fact, some of them are being implemented as we speak.
Sanders went on to note the progress his political coalition ― which is to say, the economic justice-oriented progressive grassroots, which carried him through a losing yet hugely successful presidential campaign ― has made in changing the acceptable range of public opinion on the $15 minimum wage.
The so-called "fight for $15" has been a longtime centerpiece of Sanders' policy slate, and he's not wrong about just how much the conversation has changed the last several years. A 2016 poll found that 48 percent of Americans supported a $15 per hour minimum wage, while 66 percent supported an increase to at least $10.10. While raising the minimum wage has long been a politically popular proposition, the notion that one could campaign for a $15 per hour wage would've been tough to believe back when former president Barack Obama called for a nine dollar minimum wage in 2013.
Ultimately, it's a testament to the power of advocating passionately, vigorously, and without apology for policy ideas that will make a big immediate impact, rather than a more cautious, guarded, incrementalist approach. Obviously, both tactics present benefits and costs, but staking out strong, rooted positions can also help set the tone when it's time to negotiate a compromise.
If there's anything that's hard to deny about Sanders, it's that his presence in American politics has helped mainstream some progressive causes that were once casually dismissed as too left-wing for the American electorate ― single-payer health care, which has gained support in the polls in recent years, is another prominent example.
The basic takeaway, in other words: fighting the good fight gradually moves public opinion and helps make the once-impossible possible, so progressives shouldn't be shy about explaining what they believe in and how it'll help people.
As for Sanders himself, the 75-year-old democratic socialist has not been forthcoming about any future political plans of his own, beyond his current job as Vermont's junior senator. He's steadfastly refused to address any presidential rumors thus far, although throughout his speech, "2020" chants could be heard in the crowd.
As it stands now, Sanders enjoys some of the highest popularity numbers of any left-wing politician in America, including within the Democratic Party which he conspicuously declines to officially join. Simply put, he sits in a uniquely advantageous position to spotlight and assist new up and coming candidates and politicians in the progressive movement, and his appearance at the People's Summit shows he's working with an eye towards the future.