eyes on the U.S.

Bernie's Ready For Another Run — Are Democrats Ready For Him?

The straight-talking senator from Vermont energized the 2016 presidential race. But he faces a very different playing field this time around.

Still feeling the Bern?
Still feeling the Bern?
Paul Waldman


WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders just made it official, announcing that he'll be a candidate for president in 2020. His candidacy brings lots of questions along with it, but the one I'd like to focus on for the moment is this: How is he going to present himself in relation to the party he wants to lead? Because that could turn out to be the biggest challenge he faces in getting the Democratic nomination.

One thing's for sure: Bernie is Bernie, and he isn't going to change. He's delivering the same message and talking about the same issues as he has since he began his political career almost four decades ago. If you ask him, he'll tell you that the country has finally come around to his way of thinking, and he'd have a good case to make. Just three years ago he was considered a radical for advocating things like a $15 minimum wage and Medicare-for-all, but now those are mainstream positions and nearly consensus among Democrats.

But there's another thing Sanders believes that also hasn't changed, and that could be a problem. He has built his identity on being an outsider, someone trying to force change from outside the system. And "the system" includes the Democratic Party, which he has always seemed to consider only slightly less corrupt than the Republican Party. Even after running for the Democratic nomination, he retained his official status as "Independent," though he caucuses with Democrats in the Senate.

In 2016, his status as an independent was the perfect place from which to launch a campaign against Hillary Clinton, the ultimate party insider and cautious technocrat. His critique of the political and economic system, combined with his uncompromising beliefs on issues, made for a clear contrast and attracted legions of idealistic young people who not coincidentally didn't have any other real options.

Just three years ago he was considered a radical.

This campaign will be very different, with at least a dozen other strong Democrats running. And one question Sanders will face is whether Democratic primary voters share his contempt for their party.

Or to put it more politely, his belief that the Democratic Party has to change if it's to succeed. The trouble is that argument is tougher to make after the 2018 election than it was before. Consider, for instance, this June 2017 op-ed Sanders wrote in the New York Times, in which he surveyed the state of the party and said, "If these results are not a clear manifestation of a failed political strategy, I don't know what is. For the sake of our country and the world, the Democratic Party, in a very fundamental way, must change direction."

Did the party change between then and the midterms? To a significant extent it did. A huge number of new people got involved in their local party organizations and decided to run for office, bringing an unprecedented grass-roots energy to the party. And on issues the party continued its leftward evolution, which you can see both in the stances the candidates are taking and in the beliefs of rank-and-file Democrats.

Take a look, for instance, at this report just issued by Gallup on the state of the Democratic Party. It shows that compared to what they believed 10 or 15 years ago, Democrats are more likely to call themselves liberal, more likely to have higher education and more likely to be nonwhite, all of which is helping to push the party leftward. The candidates are responding in many ways, all of which gives Sanders the ability to say that the party has come to him, whether it's the wide acceptance of universal health coverage or the fact that his competitors are now echoing his critique of the influence of the wealthy and corporations. Most of them have pledged not to take PAC money in their campaigns.

All of which may be satisfying for Sanders, but it also presents a problem. It's hard to be a rebel when the power you're fighting against doesn't disagree with you on all that much. And it may be even harder to argue that the power structure in your party needs to be overthrown when most of the voters you're appealing to aren't all that dissatisfied with that power structure, if it's being represented by a large group of interesting candidates.

Are the voters after a set of leadership characteristics? Charisma?

That isn't to say Sanders won't retain his most passionate supporters from the 2016 campaign. But his candidacy does raise this question: When primary voters choose a candidate, exactly what are they after? Is it a distinctive policy program? That makes it difficult, because the programs the candidates are offering will be so similar. There may be some people on social media who loudly proclaim that any candidate who doesn't favor precisely their preferred health-care plan is a sellout, but those voters are a tiny portion of the primary electorate. Are the voters after a set of leadership characteristics? Charisma? A general outlook on politics and government that matches theirs?

If there's anyplace where Bernie still stands apart, it may be on that last factor, that no one else has quite his commitment to fundamental change (or at least he'd say so). He'd also argue that only with his uncompromising commitment can change actually be achieved. And true to his activist identity, he says that the only path to change is by creating pressure from below to force it on an unwilling system. Here's part of what he said in his announcement video:

"The only way we will win this election and create a government and an economy that works for all is with a grassroots movement the likes of which has never been seen in American history. They may have the money and the power; we have the people."

He doesn't have them yet, but we'll see if he can mobilize them. To win the nomination he's going to have to convince Democratic voters that their party is a big part of the problem. And that may not be an easy sell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!