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Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, greets supporters after a rally Thursday in Pittsburgh. 

On Easter Sunday, I sat around a large and tightly packed dinner table with my rambunctious extended Unitarian-Catholic-Jewish family. As often happens at these meals, politics was the topic of conversation du jour. (Mine is a family that blatantly disregards the adage about not talking politics in polite company.)

Donald Trump was an easy target for everyone, but as we moved to the Democratic candidates for president, things got a bit more heated.

Fueling our debate was Bernie Sanders’ sweep of three caucuses just one day earlier. He garnered between 69.8 percent of the vote (in Hawaii) and 81.6 percent (in Alaska). Perhaps even more impressive: Sanders won every single county in Washington state by between 20 and over 80 points.

These are not small victories. They are monumental and decisive statements that American politics are changing. Yes, Hillary Clinton has won more primaries and caucuses than Sanders, amassing a formidable lead of 268 pledged delegates and 440 superdelegates.

But what Sanders’ recent caucus victories reveal is that Clinton is not the foregone conclusion she is so often assumed to be. Indeed, some observers have taken to rolling their eyes at that assumption. “Media unimpressed as Sanders barely gets 70 percent of vote,” quipped New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz in a recent headline.

It is common to dismiss this self-described “socialist” and his “political revolution” as reflecting pie-in-the-sky delusions of the out-of-touch left. Critics contend his agenda is impossible, insisting politics just don’t work from the bottom up.

Sanders faces attacks from many Democrats who think his steadfast dedication to ending inequality and his withering and relentless attacks on Wall Street are the machinations of a naïve idealist. For these critics, Clinton is the only choice because she’s all but locked up the election and has a “realistic” political agenda.

Welcome to my Easter dinner table.

The thing is, such assumptions ignore everything that happened a week ago Saturday. These victories say something: that huge numbers of Americans believe Sanders should be president, and that his message — that inequality is unacceptable and government must do better for all of its citizens — is politically viable. They tell us that idealist politics are not naïve. They are valuable, they are popular and, most importantly, they are possible. (When actress Susan Sarandon set the Internet ablaze on Monday by saying that she might not vote for Clinton if Sanders fails to win the nomination, this is more or less where she was coming from, as she later made clear.)

The overwhelming conversation in the media and among Democrats (mine actually leans a bit further left), is there is a politics of a practical (Clinton), and then there is Sanders. You might like what Sanders has to say, you might even think he’s correct, but he doesn’t know politics and he’ll never be able to get anything done.

I see it differently.

To my mind, these assumptions reflect a reality that no longer exists. They would let the conditions of the present and the politics of the past determine the future.

By contrast, Sanders offers something different. His agenda reflects a conviction that an alternative future is possible. By their numbers and their enthusiasm, Sanders’ supporters have not only changed what is possible but also have emboldened those of us who have always voted for — and believed in — a new political future, regardless of how practical it seems.

Today, all eyes are now on my former home state of Wisconsin, which has made headlines in recent years both for its conservative governor, the former Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker, and for the weeks of large-scale progressive protests he and his agenda engendered in 2011. It is just that kind of grass-roots, big-crowd politics Sanders has tapped into and catalyzed.

Will he win in Wisconsin? I hope so. Would a win in Wisconsin provide the momentum he needs to win the Democratic nomination? I’m not sure. Will his campaign have altered what is possible politically in 21st century America? Absolutely.

Neely, a UW-Madison graduate, is an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College: abigail.h.neely@dartmouth.edu.

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