Bernie Sanders is definitely a political outsider. A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, he has literally come out of left field and now trails front-running Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by mere single digits, according to polls. Even mainstream corporate media can no longer ignore the huge crowds Sanders draws. Of course, that media acknowledgment is grudgingly: CNN suggests Sanders’ crowds consist of “curiosity seekers” rather than supporters, and warns that his run could “backfire and create deep divisions inside the Democratic Party that [Clinton] is far more likely to lead.”

Clinton claims she’s not concerned. But it is interesting that her plans for the coming months include “nuanced policy speeches” addressing the same Progressive issues on which Sanders has been decisively outspoken. Clinton intends to say a few words about affordable higher education, the pay gap between men and women and paid family leave. She also plans “a few well-honed attacks” on her Republican opponents.

Those “well-honed attacks” are more likely to backfire. If Sanders’ campaign is showing us nothing else, it’s the People are hungry for a real statesman who addresses the issues rather than playing the role of a celebrity and spending 75% of the time mudslinging. Those issues include:

  • Veterans: Sanders has worked with House Republicans to expand health care services for veterans as well as addressing other challenges ex-service personnel face. Not surprisingly, veterans’ organizations are becoming some of Sanders’ staunchest supporters.
  • Income inequality and poverty: this has long been among Sanders’ top issues. He acknowledges that “Big Money interests” are virtually invincible – unless We, The People stand up and start “making them an offer they can’t refuse.”
  • Student loan debt: this burden affects 71% of college graduates, who labor under an average debt load of over $30,000. Sanders is calling for tuition-free college for all undergraduate students, financed by a miniscule tax on stock trades.
  • Citizens United: Sanders states that the existence of SuperPACs “is what makes our current campaign finance situation totally absurd.” It is an issue upon which liberals and conservatives (at least those outside the Beltway) agree on. Sanders is the only candidate who has publicly refused to take SuperPAC funds.
  • Health care: The Affordable Care Act may have given more Americans access to medical services, but it falls way short of providing guaranteed health care enjoyed by citizens in other industrialized nations. Sanders is again calling for expanding Medicare into a single-payer system for everyone.

These ideas are supported by a majority of self-identified Democrats – and surprisingly, a large percentage of young (under age 45) Republicans. Yet, neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the Republican candidates have addressed these issues in any meaningful way. It is indeed the Corporate Establishment’s worst nightmare.

The biggest challenge Bernie Sanders faces is the word “socialism.” For decades, thanks largely to “Red Scares” of the 20th Century, socialism has been demonized, associated with “godless communism” and the Big Government “nanny state.” It has been presented as a “threat” to personal liberty.

Yet, people living in socialist democracies still enjoy personal liberties – even more so than Americans, anymore. Socialist democracy encourages entrepreneurship and allows private, for-profit businesses to operate and flourish. Citizens of socialist democracies continue to have freedom of (as well as from) religion. At the same time, these citizens are not burdened with student loans and the threat of bankruptcy from medical bills. Yes, their taxes are higher – but we in the USA still pay for these things indirectly, with no guarantee from the “free market” that we’ll get what we’re paying for.

Given that, why is “socialism” such a scary prospect?

Increasingly, it isn’t. The WORMS (“White Old Republican Males”) who came of age during the excesses of the old Soviet Union are dying off.  At the same time, the generation that grew up during an age of deregulated, no-holds-barred, anything goes, Ayn Rand-style capitalism and trickle-down neoliberal economic policy has seen the destruction it has wreaked on a once-proud, thriving republic. They’re ready for real change.

Increasingly, they see that Bernie Sanders is the one candidate who is truly committed to leading us all toward that change.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.