Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination should be lauded for, at a minimum, unapologetically bringing liberal/progressive social justice views to the forefront of the national dialogue.
For most of the decade-and-a-half I can claim to have followed politics in the U.S. closely, it's been the Republican Party's right-most wing that has set the terms of the debate1 and the Democratic Party that has largely emphasized moderation rather than countering with stridently left-wing ideas. The roots of this dynamic lie in recent history.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan won re-election while carrying 49 out of 50 states, a little more than a decade after fellow Republican Richard Nixon accomplished the same feat. It cemented a rightward re-alignment in American politics that has resulted in compromised liberal politics to this day. Bill Clinton was famously a "New Democrat" and leader of the "Third Way", which was successful in winning elections but required, for better and worse, adopting numerous conservative positions: proclaiming an end to "welfare as we know it" and "the era of big government", pushing for deregulation and free trade deals, passing the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, and harsh anti-crime stands.
That may have been the only electorally viable strategy then, but much like the Force in Star Wars, America's politics became imbalanced and are now tipping toward a correction. It begun with the election of Barack Obama, who, particularly after the passage of a watered-down Affordable Care Act, has faced political opposition that has hamstrung him in many ways. The subsequent reaction from Democratic voters in the face of recent Republican electoral success, though, is to want to tack further left. Hence the unexpectedly competitive race for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination between front-runner Hillary Clinton, perceived to be of the old centrist establishment, and self-described "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders.
For me, Bernie Sanders' emergence has been a wonderful development. It's not because of any antipathy toward Clinton; my general distaste for dynasty politics aside, if she is the nominee I will advocate and vote for her enthusiastically against any of the current crop of Republican candidates for president. Nor is it because of my perfect alignment with Sanders' policy positions (I don't, for one, concur with his opposition to major free trade agreements) or campaign promises (some of which are, like with every other major candidate, outlandish). Rather, I find him inspiring as an honest, empathetic, lifelong advocate across a spectrum of social justice issues that haven't been given much shrift in presidential politics, where the likes of Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Rand Paul fell short.
If a president—or in this case, presidential candidate—can set the national agenda and be something of a moral barometer, then I want someone who prioritizes a fight against wealth inequality and thinks that even "low-skilled" workers deserve a livable wage; I want someone who finds the failed war on drugs and sentencing disparities repugnant; I want someone who will reverse staggeringly high incarceration rates, championing rehabilitation and re-integration for non-violent criminals; I want someone who prioritizes a secular public identity over overt religiosity; and, as an added bonus, I appreciate someone whose campaign funding is more democratic, relying on small donors rather than Super PACs.
It's debatable whether, were he to actually win the Oval Office, Bernie Sanders could be an effective executive and administrator. Or to do so more effectively than any other contender, at least, in a hyper-partisan and politically gridlocked capital. What I do know is that I'm tired of the country's political agenda being set on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, and that I am heartened by Sanders' competitiveness thus far. My hope is that even if he is not the eventual nominee, his candidacy will have permanently injected a robustly liberal viewpoint on social justice into the mainstream.
1. To list just a handful of examples: the acceptability of waging preemptive war and using torture, resistance to new gun control measures, a dogmatic and unyielding commitment to tax cuts, the intrusive expansion of the national security apparatus, and forestalling for years the legalization of gay marriage (which proved to be quickly accepted by the majority of American people).