On the face of it, Jerry Brown’s political credentials are hardly those befitting an underdog.
2013 saw him surpass Earl Warren as California’s longest serving governor, a post to which he was re-elected in November of the following year. That latest win represented the eighth time the San Franciscan had successfully sought office in America’s most populous state.
And yet, Brown’s reputation beyond the confines of the west coast has always been rather less pronounced.
Indeed, despite beating Evelle Younger to the Californian governorship by a record margin in 1978, that supremacy seemed to matter little when he widened his horizons two years later.
Brown’s futuristic ideology was rooted firmly west of left field by the national media, his “Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe” credo rendering him a twee aside within the Democratic primaries rather than a central player in them.
After all, in a race which featured political juggernauts Ted Kennedy & Jimmy Carter, Brown was dismissed fondly as the little engine that couldn’t quite.
His decision to return to the caucuses in 1992, however, elicited annoyance rather than endearment among colleagues. Those in the party had already thrown their lot squarely behind the grandiloquence of Bill Clinton, the Arkansas Governor long since touted as the man who would be king.
Despite being initially disregarded as little more than an errant speedbump on their procession to Pennsylvania Av, Brown’s groundswell of support in the lead-in to Super Tuesday was likely more of a headache for the Clinton think-tank than they might care to admit.
Indeed, if his moderate showings in the early going may have initially allayed any such concerns, successive wins in the hotbeds of Maine and Colorado saw them swell to new heights.
And while his promise to “take back America from the confederacy of corruption & careerism in Washington” seemed at least superficially populist, the core ideals which underpinned it were not without their substance.
In addition to his then avant-garde policies on renewable energy and climate change, Brown had also gained traction through progressive takes on flat taxation, living-wage measures and single-payer health care.
With ballots looming in the swing states of New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, he inexplicably topped media polls in all three.
An Icarian desire to build on his laurels rather than rest on them would ultimately prove his undoing, however.
Concerted attempts to build bridges among urban minorities served only to burn those he had already established with sizeable rural conclaves across the country. Clinton recaptured the initiative thereafter, seizing both the Democratic nomination and the oval office by year’s end.
Given that it’s so often written by the victors, history rarely gives much credence to insurgences akin to that of Brown.
And yet, while the Golden State governor is nowadays content to watch matters unfold from the shadow of the Hollywood hills, he could be forgiven for thinking he’s read the script for Election 2016 somewhere before.
To suggest that Bernie Sanders is merely ‘Fifty Shades of Brown’ would be remiss, of course. After all, the New Yorker’s temperament is rather more Harlem heat than California cool.
Character differences notwithstanding, however, the similarities between the pair are too striking to ignore.
Whereas Brown managed to fan the flames of public indignation following America’s congressional banking scandals, Sanders has zeroed in on the country’s current distortion of wealth as a means of lighting a fire under his own campaign.
“We currently have more income inequality than any major developed nation on earth, and yet the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the 1920s” said the 74-year-old upon the launch of his manifesto in Burlington. “There is something profoundly wrong when the top one per cent owns more wealth than bottom ninety. Our country has become the anti-Robin Hood.”
Although that last line might call to mind some hollow presidential platitudes of yore, Sanders’ career-long denouncement of what he coins the ‘billionaire class’ speaks for his sincerity.
Seeing as US politics has long since been underpinned by the very power brokers against whom he’s railing, the Brooklynite finds himself plumping for a road less travelled.
In fact, whereas Clinton’s campaign is powered in large part by the macro-backing of Wall Street leviathans such as Goldman Sachs, her opponent’s approach is altogether more incremental.
Using grassroots tactics akin again to those of Governor Brown, whose 1992 campaign was itself bankrolled almost exclusively through telephone donations, Sanders’ accumulation has been rooted in his innovation.
By the close of play in 2015, his website had drawn north of 2.2 million individual contributions all told, surpassing President Obama’s record for the number of single-year donations to a presidential nominee.
The Vermont senator’s engagement with contemporary electoral platforms has belied his status as the race’s oldest remaining candidate, his prominence across the social media gamut garnering him unparalleled support from those in the much sought 18-29 demographic.
He has also succeeded in purveying his message via more time-honoured means.
Messrs Leno & Letterman may have exited stage left, but the draw of their late-night franchises remains unrivalled within American broadcasting. And while candidates have largely towed the party line during their trawl around the labyrinth that is network television, Sanders’ most recent appearance on CBS’ Late Show proved a welcome change of pace.
“People have regularly called you a liberal and a socialist,” mused nascent host Stephen Colbert during their September interview. “Why will you not accept those two terms as the insults they are intended to be?”
Though the bon mot drew laughs from guest and audience alike, it was very much a joke with a jag. Socialism, within the American echo-chamber at least, has never been much of a laughing matter after all.
“Let’s just say I prefer the term ‘progressive’,” quipped Sanders in reply.
Semantics aside, his apparent embracement of the liberal umbrella has served to turn the tables on colleagues and adversaries alike.
Indeed, while those on the GOP side of the ledger have used President Obama’s perceived socialist affiliations as a stick with which to beat him, Sanders has pre-empted any such strikes.
And if the perceived leftward lean of the current administration is best encapsulated by the Medicare brouhaha, an alignment with Scandinavia’s reformist model has become Sanders’ own calling card in that respect.
Not since the heady days of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ has such a root and branch reshuffle been proposed by a would-be commander-in-chief. Sanders’ Nordic paradigm encompasses everything from universal health care and mandatory maternity benefits to free college education and progressive taxation.
Though seeming to fly in the face of the capitalist foundations upon which traditional middle-America was built, his contention is that ‘traditional’ middle-America no longer exists.
He believes stark polarisation of wealth between the two outermost extremes is alienating those caught in the crosshairs, corrupting the effectiveness of elective and legislative politics across the board.
Likewise, while state mediations such as the Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ ruling have heightened corporate profit margins, statistics released by America’s Bureau of Labour indicate that the real hourly and weekly earnings of those further down the pyramid remain at their lowest point in 50 years.
As such, Sanders’ keenness to restore the ethos of solidarity among those on the wrong side of the thumb has, in many ways, emerged as the core tenet of his campaign to date.
Indeed, if the New Yorker’s economic policy mirrors that of Northern Europe, his humanitarian principles are rooted very much in America’s Midwest.
During his time at the University of Chicago, Sanders’ ethical disposition was shaped by that of another famed Jewish radical.
Saul Alinsky, the posthumously styled ‘father of community organising’, turned a once hackneyed idiom into a political movement.
Based on a belief that upward mobility was only attainable through ‘strength in numbers’, Alinsky urged all stricken minorities to band together, from those hindered by the African-American ghetto culture to the white working class.
Suitably inspired, a wide-eyed Sanders followed in Alinksy’s blazed trail, chairing Chicago’s Congress on Racial Equality during his stint as an undergraduate, leading the committee’s charge against educational segregation.
Although he would not be long for the academic sphere, he carried those ideals into a 40-year political career which saw him graduate from Mayor of Burlington to the US senate.
His quest for equality evolved accordingly, encompassing not only racial relations but also the rights of women, labour unions, public sector workers and environmentalists. Upon these self-same rocks the 74-year-old will hope to build his church in 2016.
And while the Democratic Party has historically prided itself on batting from left base on these very issues, the party in its current guise has shifted ever more right of centre.
With tectonic changes continuing to abound across America’s political discourse, the bigwigs in blue could be forgiven for favouring Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’ romanticism as the ballots begin this week. If recent polls are to be believed, however, that decision may well have been taken out of their hands.