Why Bernie Sanders wins the crowds

Story highlights

  • Much of what Bernie Sanders has to say resonates with a broad spectrum of middle-class voters
  • Julian Zelizer: In an age when so many politicians seem so scripted, Sanders actually believes in something

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Bernie Sanders is drawing some large and enthusiastic crowds.

In New Hampshire at the Keene Recreation Center, which can hold more than 750 people, the place was packed to capacity with an overflowing crowd outside eager to hear him speak. This comes as a surprise. After all, Sanders has been a Democratic socialist for much of his political career. It would seem he is too far left on the political spectrum to be taken seriously.
The senator from Vermont is gaining attention among candidates and the press. Although some observers have explained the Sanders phenomenon as a product of Democratic politics shifting to the left, the truth is that much of what he has to say resonates with a broad spectrum of middle-class voters. Even if some of his solutions are far too much government for a broad portion of the electorate, what he's saying about American politics is resonating with voters.
    Julian Zelizer
    A brief look at Sanders' stump speeches quickly reveals the senator is not always as "radical" as many people believe him to be. In many ways, he is as American as apple pie.
    One of the biggest issues that helped Sanders gain traction is his passion for revitalizing the middle class.
    Many voters in blue and red states are scared about the "new normal" of sluggish economic growth. They see their grown children struggling to obtain economic security. Polls indicate that people in both parties are greatly concerned about the expanding divide between the rich and poor.
    While most Democrats still dance around this issue, fearful that their opponents will tag them as "too liberal" if they call on government to do something, Sanders tackles the issue directly. "In my view, the issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time; it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time," he said.
    Unlike many candidates on the campaign trail, Sanders understands that these economic problems are directly related to the problems with the political process; namely, the power of private money in elections.
    Economic inequality is not inevitable, in his mind. Polls show Americans are greatly concerned about the damaging reverberations of the Supreme Court's Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to private money in campaigns. Sanders is unabashedly a critic of super PACs, large donations, and exorbitant campaign expenses. If it were up to him, the senator would revitalize the Watergate-era campaign finance reforms and go even further. He taps into deep discontent when he tells voters, "Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their super PACs and their lobbyists."
    And, in an age when so many politicians seem to be scripted and elected officials willing to say anything to do better in the polls, Sanders actually believes in something.
    Sanders believes in government.
    When confronted with the major problems of the day, Sanders insists that government has historically done a pretty good job with issues like employment and infrastructure. He has no problem saying that the government can do a great job.
    With many political advisers thinking about more "triangulation," Sanders harkens back to the accomplishments of the New Deal and Great Society. "If we are truly serious about reversing the decline of the middle class," Sanders said, "we need a major federal jobs program which puts millions of Americans back to work at decent paying jobs. At a time when our roads, bridges, water systems, rail and airports are decaying, the most effective way to rapidly create meaningful jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure."
    His speeches are littered with examples of programs that have been effective. While most Republicans and a large number of independents and Democrats won't agree with his conclusions, there is something inescapably appealing about a candidate who stands for something with such clarity and verve.
    Will he win? Probably not. Hillary Clinton will embrace many of these themes and speak more vocally about these issues, though probably with more hesitation and equivocation than Sanders. Clinton has launched a strong campaign, and with the possibility of electing the first female president, there's optimism and excitement in the air.
    But Sanders' arguments will continue to resonate with middle-class voters and his speeches will put immense pressure on Clinton and other Democrats. Even if Sanders is too far left, candidates in both parties should listen to what he is saying and learn about some of the concerns that are shaping the electorate.
    Editor's note: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect number for the attendance of Bernie Sanders' talk at the Keene Recreation Center.