The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders is unique in American history. Never before has there been such a popular upsurge within the two-party system, led by a democratic socialist rooted in the best of the prophetic Jewish culture. This historic campaign is more than a monumental battle over the soul of the Democratic Party. It is, more significantly, a moral and spiritual awakening of fellow citizens — especially young and old ones — for the rebirth of American democracy.
Despite the vast array of voices in the Democratic and Republican parties, there is widespread agreement that our political system is broken, our economy is unfair, and our culture is in decline. No candidate — with the exception of Hillary Clinton — believes the status quo is fine, fair, and in good shape (thanks to President Obama).
The genius of Sanders is to exemplify a profound integrity and genuine conviction in the midst of pervasive mendacity and raw ambition. There is little doubt our statecraft has been wrecked by a crass opportunism and greed that debases our public life and demeans our common good. The widely attractive soulcraft of Sanders provides an authenticity of moral depth and spiritual substance. Sanders’ righteous indignation is not mere narcissistic anger (like that of Donald Trump); rather it flows from profound sensitivity to the suffering of the weak and vulnerable. Sanders’ big vision and big heart — in contrast to Clinton’s big name and intimate link to big money — yields a real hope grounded in community. Unlike Clinton’s sense of entitlement and prerogative, Sanders is the quintessential American underdog who suffers, strives, and triumphs.
For example, Clinton cannot conceive of the victory of Sanders — she is blinded by her Machiavellian “morality” and spiritual vacuity. The Clinton machine either wins by any means and celebrates, or loses, whines and recalibrates. In stark contrast, Sanders tends to stand above the fray but is willing to engage in fierce combat if his integrity is attacked. In this moment of ugly polarization, we need leaders, regardless of race or gender, who have what the great Jane Austen called constancy — a steadfast commitment to moral consistency and practical wisdom like that of Anne Elliot in “Persuasion.’’
Democratic soulcraft — empathy, integrity, and a mature sense of history — constitutes the raw stuff of democratic statecraft. We will never fix our broken systems with mendacious leaders or tendentious citizens. We must search for higher moral ground and spiritual heights — and the grand example of Sanders is the best we have in our present moment of political decadence and cultural decay. Like the prophetic performance of Kendrick Lamar at the Grammy Awards, we need a Coltrane-like intensity of moral and spiritual witness, and the campaign of Bernie Sanders is such witness — namely, the democratic awakening in our time.Cornel West teaches philosopy at Union Theological Seminary.