Pick a year from the lives of the top two Democratic candidates, and they’ll present a study in contrasts. 1964: Bernie Sanders, a year after participating in MLK’s march on Washington, spends some time on an Israeli kibbutz. Hillary Clinton does volunteer work for Barry Goldwater. 1979: Hillary Clinton becomes the first female partner of Rose Law Firm and makes scads of money from cattle futures contracts. Bernie Sanders makes a documentary about the Socialist Eugene Debs. 1987: Bernie Sanders releases a recording of “We Shall Overcome.” Hillary Clinton serves on the board of Walmart.
Sanders, who has remained loyal to his progressive ideals, has authenticity by virtue of continuity. Clinton on the other hand has been fickle at best and a conservative in sheep’s clothing at worst. But the race doesn’t feature a populist pitted against an ersatz liberal. It shows two politicians, both populists, expressing their populism in different modes.
Populism, by one common definition, is the support of the rights of the powerless against the elite. Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who infamously resisted federal integration policies, is an example of a right-wing populist. Bernie Sanders, waging a crusade against the financial sector in a bid to close the income gap, is rhetorically left wing. But what connects Sanders and Wallace isn’t just that both, in their differing ways, rail against what they perceive as the Goliath of overwhelmingly powerful interests. They also stake out positions that, ironically, struggle to muster mainstream appeal. When Wallace ran a third-party, dark-horse campaign for president in 1968 he only received 13.5 percent of the vote. And Sanders, despite his recent surge, still trails Hillary Clinton in polls. Even in an election cycle that pundits claim is defined by the issue of economic mobility, Sanders, the populist who has been beating the redistribution drum the longest, is still a long shot.