In the past week, Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has danced and extolled his grandkids on Ellen, explained socialism (sort of) on Real Time With Bill Maher, defended Hillary Clinton’s emails in a debate quip that went viral, and got impersonated by Larry David on Saturday Night Live.
The impression by David — who, like Sanders, grew up in Brooklyn during the 40s — was so successful and widely applauded that Sanders jokingly offered to take the comedian and writer on the road with him. It even prompted the candidate to deviate from his laser-like focus on economic inequality and joke about his underwear.
So Sanders has burst out of the MSNBC bubble and is having something of a media moment. But will his greater exposure reduce him to a caricature or turn people on to his critique of the political and economic status quo?
A candidate who might have initially been vulnerable to being stereotyped as a humorless socialist type, Sanders is now showing his lighter side and kibbitzing with big TV hosts. And so far, he’s doing a pretty good job of it. Mainstream audiences are getting a glimpse of the figure who was mostly known for drawing huge crowds of idealistic lefties to his rallies — and disappointing many by flubbing a few confrontations with Black Lives Matter activists.
Sanders’ entrance into the national spotlight has come at a time when his most rabid online supporters are making things more difficult for him on the Internet, with their rigid, knee-jerk attacks on everyone from Black Lives Matter activists to feminist Hillary supporters, as well as their theories about an anti-Bernie conspiracy among the media. (“Here comes the Berniebro,” proclaimed the Atlantic. ) By showing up on popular TV shows and speaking directly to voters, Sanders circumvents the manarchist moat that has begun to surround his campaign on social media.
Even as his pop culture profile rises, Sanders is becoming, as a friend of mine put it recently, an “avatar” for integrity. Whether it was standing up for Clinton on the matter of her emails, quietly meeting with Sandra Bland’s family and promising to #SayHerName during the debate, or coming to the aid of Andrea Mitchell by dressing down a horde of rabid camera-people who almost injured her, he has the air of the gruff yet courtly gentleman about him, an honesty and bluntness that are far from focus-group tested but internally consistent.
This demeanor gels with Sanders’ outrage about the US’s lack of paid maternity leave. When he speaks on this topic, he sounds like a new grandpa who is really pissed that his kids can’t spend more time playing with his first grandchild.
Sanders has also made it clear that he’s refusing a campaign donation from Martin Skreli, known on the Internet as the douchebag who raised the price of an important HIV medication, and donating it to a medical clinic instead.
Taken together, all this cultural exposure has created a Bernie Sanders persona that’s more interesting and multidimensional than the candidate’s initial barnstorming suggested. And then there’s the final piece of the Bernie puzzle: He is the most high-profile Jewish politician we’ve seen in a long time. Joe Lieberman might have been the first serious Jewish presidential candidate, but Sanders is the first one who’s merely Jewy in a secular, cultural way. His inflection, his demeanor, that Brooklyn accent, the hand gesticulations — it all has the map of the Jewish diaspora written all over it.
Specifically, he represents a non-religious, politically radical branch of Judaism that often gets elided when the media focuses on Israel or religion as representative of Jewish culture. It’s why some of us have responded to him as though he were a long-lost family member — because he looks and sounds exactly like our real family members.
But it isn’t just Northeastern socialist Jews who feel that way. Sanders feels like everyone’s relative, apparently. These are just a few results I found in a five-minute Twitter search:
The “Bernie is my grandpa” meme is very adorable, and accurate, but I wonder if it undermines some of the gains he’s made from his media blitz. There’s no question that Bernie Halloween costumes will be popular this October 31, complete with drunken fulminating about “millionaires and billionaires.” But people don’t necessarily vote for their uncle who rants at the Thanksgiving table or the character Larry David plays on TV. Indeed, since the debate — which tacked way to the left partly because of Sanders’ presence — Hillary Clinton has gained further on Sanders in the polls.
Yes, Sanders’ rising profile and growing fanbase suggest that he’s lodging in voters’ consciousness. The question is, is he doing so as a goofy figure rather than as a genuine political contender?
It’s important to remember that unlike certain other “outsider” candidates, Sanders is a proven and effective politician. If you ask Vermonters about “Bernie,” many of them don’t think of him as a kooky public figure, but as the guy who gets things done in their state, is on their side, and engages regularly and tirelessly with his constituents. Does that side of him translate to Ellen and Bill Maher?
Clearly, there’s a public hunger for Sanders’ no-nonsense style of rhetoric. The question that remains open is whether the mainstream media, and Americans, will be able to swallow Sanders’ newly revealed sense of fun while still taking his outrage seriously.