Sanders has decades of experience fighting for popular issues, which gives him credence with potential followers by highlighting the genuine nature of his beliefs. This is all supported by a popular message firmly centered on economic populism. Using this specific set of competencies, Sanders was able to lead a transformation of the US progressive movement.
Born in 1941 to working class Polish parents, Bernie Sanders has displayed heightened levels of compassion and righteousness since his youth, sometimes to his own detriment. In high school, he lost a student body election due to his focus on aid for the Korean students overseas (Jaffe, 2015, 33). His activism only intensified at university, where he held active roles in student peace organizations, which he even prioritized over schoolwork. It was at this time that Sanders was arrested for his involvement in Civil rights protests (Ibid, 48). Nevertheless, this could also be seen as the period when Sanders reached his radical peak. After university, Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968, where he would tone down his rhetoric and begin his political career. At first, he joined the Liberty Union party and campaigned for various positions under their banner in the 70s. Throughout his many loses, he was able to gain name recognition in Vermont leading to his 1981 independent mayoral campaign (Ibid, 73). In 1981, Sanders shocked all pundits, when he was elected as mayor of Burlington, Vermont by defeating the Democratic incumbent as a third-party candidate. This was particularly surprising considering the fact that third party campaigns tend to be unsuccessful in the US. On a rather limited budget, Sanders managed to effectively mobilize students displeased with the status quo and secure a slim victory. As an independent, Sanders faced notable opposition from the city council, where he had to balance together a delicate coalition to pass parts of his agenda (Urevich, 2020). In the following years, Sanders proved to be an effective mayor, who subsequently defended his post in three elections despite challenges from both major parties. His margin of victory in these subsequent elections also grew to more comfortable levels. Considering his success, Sanders decided to run for Vermont’s seat in the House of Representatives. Although his first campaign in 1988 failed due to vote splitting with the Democratic nominee, Sanders still received 37% and ended up only 4% behind the Republican victor (Jaffe, 2015, 109). Still, this allowed him to display his potential to win statewide elections as a third-party candidate, paving the way for his win 2 years later. In Congress, Sanders distinguished himself from his Democratic colleagues by promoting issues to their left, true to his self-appointed Socialist label. Although his opportunities to make an impact were limited, his supporters tend to emphasize his record-breaking ability to pass roll call amendments and his effect on larger discourse (Qiu, 2016). In 2006, Sanders campaigned for one of Vermont’s Senate seats. Unlike before, he sought the Democratic party nomination, which he used to officially gain the party’s endorsement, marking a new period for Sanders. After his election into the Senate, Sanders saw an increase in name recognition. However, this was largely negligible compared to its meteoric rise following the announcement of the Sanders 2016 presidential campaign (Google Trends, 2022). This gained him a significantly wider reaching platform to promote his message. Sanders quickly and decisively became the progressive alternative to the moderate frontrunner, Hilary Clinton. By forming this wide-reaching coalition, his campaign saw some promise, ultimately securing 43% of the popular vote. Afterwards, Sanders maintained his position as the unofficial leader of the progressive left, which has seen him further promote left issues and attempt another hopeful yet unsuccessful presidential run. One can see the prominent role leadership throughout Sanders’ political career. It is effective leadership that has helped him successfully enter politics and advance his career. As a political outsider, he did not have the same type of support from inside the system and has relied on energizing relevant segments of the public to accomplish goals. In this essay, I will argue that transformational leadership best describes his approach, as Sanders also places substantial emphasis on changing politics. Not only that but there is some evidence to suggest that Sanders is genuine in his intent as opposed to pseudo-transformational leaders typically found in the political setting. It is also this genuine attitude that should help sustain the movement in the future.
The state of global politics in the 2010s is a key part of the Sanders rise to prominence. Following decades as a figure in the background of politics, Sanders came out of the shadows to lead the national progressive movement. This was facilitated by The Great Recession, which saw the masses starting to question the conventional neoliberal order as a wave of left-wing populism swept the world. For example, in the same year, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the leader of the UK Labour party, with other left-wing victories throughout Europe (Sparrow, 2015). Simultaneously, the uncertainty that allowed left-wing populism to flourish also empowered its right-wing variant. In the US, this materialized in the rise of Donald Trump. Although he has been seen as the most salient example, right-wing Eurosceptic parties throughout the European Union made notable gains in EU Parliamentary elections years before Trump’s emergence (Treib, 2014). The difference between the two variants of populism could be understood in several dimensions, but their approach to leadership is the most relevant for this paper. Left-wing populism attempts to expand public discourse and involve as much of the population as possible. The hope is that by involving the wider public, more people will engage in actively promoting left-wing policies (Abraham, 2020). In some ways, this depends on the common left-wing notion that there is a large amount of latent left-wing energy throughout the population. In contrast, right-wing populism is more centralized in nature. In practical terms, this sees the movement building up a leader, who then proceeds to hopefully execute the movement’s agenda. Although right-wing populists may adopt democratizing policies such as direct democracy, these may merely be used by the government to justify certain policies as is the case in Hungary, for example (Ilikova & Tushev, 2020). Using this comparison, one can already see the more ethical foundations of left-wing populism.
Bernie Sanders as a Transformational Leader
To begin, defining transformative leadership and its particular traits may be fruitful. Effectively, it sees leaders placing particular emphasis on the gradual evolution of their followers (Adanri & Singh, 2016). In contrast, transactional leadership sees leaders and followers in a simpler exchange, where followers complete individual tasks for a reward and the leaders provide them with basic support. As such, one can intuitively see why transformational leadership would be preferred in political movements considering their long-term orientation. Ambitious political projects take time to build and require the passionate involvement of volunteers to grow support. Transformational leadership allows this to happen using its following traits: idealized influence (charisma), idealized interest, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration and ethical sensitivity (Adanri & Singh, 2016).
Out of its traits, intellectual stimulation is the most distinct. This includes the ability of the leader to push the follower’s thinking to their limit and enable new approaches to problem solving. In the political context, this should hopefully allow the follower to be able to better see the value of the movement and promote its agenda more efficiently. Firstly, one can see this attitude with Sanders by looking at his years as mayor of Burlington. As a progressive independent, Sanders found it difficult to pass through his agenda due to obstruction from the conservative city council. In an effort to overcome this, Sanders mobilized his supporters to put pressure on city hall. This had a short run effect, where more legislation was able to pass due to the support displayed by Sanders supporters. Then this mobilization was also followed by a long run effect where there was some enthusiasm created for the Sanders agenda, which was reflected in city council elections (Jaffe, 2015, 102). This meant that Sanders was eventually able to vote out some of his conservative opponents on the city council. This is especially relevant as Sanders described his intent to attempt similar tactics if he were to win the presidency (Urevich, 2020). Moreover, Sanders could be seen as promoting a more left-wing version of politics throughout his career. In 1981, he became mayor at a rather delicate time for a self-described Socialist. The early 1980s saw the election of Ronald Reagan and a rightward shift of both major parties, which was accompanied by a general distrust of government. However, Sanders helped keep a different vision alive in the minds of Americans by bringing media attention to his Burlington (Jaffe, 2015, 179). As mayor he displayed the power of government intervention by enabling Burlington to prosper using such policies (Schjønberg, 2010). Moreover, his even wider and more direct influence could be seen following his presidential campaign. Here, Sanders was one of the first serious contenders for the presidency in recent history to support Medicare for All. This allowed the issue to become mainstream in US politics and gain consistent majority support (Chen, 2021). In other words, his presence in politics transformed the population’s view on healthcare.
A key mediator of transformative leadership is an appreciation of ethics as suggested by Hoch et al. (2016). Although ethics and the associated trust also have a role in transactional leadership, this is even more central to transformational leadership. It is necessary for followers to believe in the ethical foundations of the leader, in order for them to be willing to commit to their long-term project. One can somewhat see such ethical foundations with Bernie Sanders. Firstly, his followers typically cite his policy consistency as exemplifying a genuine belief in the issues. Even more important is his support for issues that gained prominence recently before they were mainstream. For example, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of gay marriage since the beginning of his political career in the 80s. During his mayoral term, Burlington was well known for its support of the LGBT+ community (Jaffe, 2015, 104). Sanders then took the fight to Washington and clashed with Democratic colleagues on the issue. In particular, he showed opposition to the legislation banning homosexuals from the military, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the Defense of Marriage Act. It would be difficult to say that this was simply opportunistic behavior when one considers the support for the issue at the time. In particular, polling shows that only 16% of Americans supported same sex marriage in mid-90s (Smith, 2011). It was only once this approval changed over time that most politicians such as Hillary Clinton changed their position on the topic (Sherman, 2015). Secondly, his campaign style is also indicative of an ethical approach to politics. In 2016 Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton, who had several scandals linked to her at the time. However, Sanders made his intention clear to avoid these topics during his campaign announcement. Instead, he stressed the need to generally keep the campaign focused on the issues and avoided direct confrontation on “political gossip” (Sanders, 2016). For example, there was some controversy over her alleged handling of classified emails. The Sanders campaign made no attempt to use this situation to their favor. Sanders even emphasized this at one of the primary debates with the line: “people are sick of hearing about your damn emails” (Jacobs, 2015). Using this line, Sanders was once more trying to redirect the debate towards policy issues.
Charisma is an overarching feature typically associated with transformational leadership. In practical terms, this is the case as it enables the leader to create a deeper bond which in turn keeps followers engaged and ready to improve their skills. Bastardoz & Van Vugt (2018) describe this feature of charisma in terms of coordination. It could be seen as particularly important in politics, where there are many options and coordination of similar minded voters is required. However, this then begs the question how Sanders can be an effective leader while lacking what would typically be described as charisma. Afterall, he has been singled out for his unkept looks and to the point demeanor. In-fact this may simply go to the core of what one considers to be charisma. For example, Babcock-Roberson and Strickland (2010) define charisma in this context as providing an ethical role model, who helps followers identify with their vision. This may easily correspond to Bernie Sanders. His ethical background has been analyzed in the previous subsection. He also clearly lays out a long-term vision for his followers to strive for, using concrete policy proposals. Colwell (2020, 39) goes far as to suggest that such ambitious planning can supply a candidate with charismatic aura, which is much stronger than with conventional charisma. As such, the focus of Sanders’ charisma being on substance rather than style would be a strength. Additionally, his outward presentation is not necessarily detrimental. While his outward appearance has seen some scorn from political circles, this may differ for the wider population, which is his true target audience. Sanders has been described as having a particular form of “anti-charisma”, which is seen as a strength by some of his followers (Quaye, 2021). Consider the fact that Sanders has effectively utilized anti-establishment themes throughout his rise to prominence. Yet, it is precisely the stereotypical “smooth talking politician” who is seen as perpetuating the broken established system. Therefore, his presentation is actually consistent with his message.
As a transformational leader, a key part of Sanders’ plan is the inspiration of the next generation of leadership. The first major test of this were the 2018 midterm elections, where candidates all across the country ran under the progressive label. Due to their somewhat limited success, this was labeled as further proof of the rejection of Sanders’ program across the US (Siders, 2018). Nevertheless, this is where his narrative is quite relevant at preventing the discouragement of followers. As a populist, Sanders and his movement have the typical self-justificatory options. Firstly, Sanders places the emphasis on long-term success. This means that individual failures are less relevant. Instead, the focus is placed on the gradually shifting consensus within the Democratic party. Secondly, insurgent progressive candidates do not have the same resources as their more establishment counterparts. This allows them to justify loses as representing this monetary deficit rather than a genuine lack of enthusiasm for progressive policy. Maintaining such a perspective allows progressives to avoid getting discouraged. Furthermore, looking at an example of a young politician inspired by Sanders may be informative on the practical functioning of his influence. In particular, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) has become a political icon in her own right. However, she actually started out in politics as an organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016. In the following year, Cortez was recruited by the progressive group Justice Democrats to challenge the incumbent in her congressional district. Not only did the Sanders campaign provide her with her first relevant experience in politics, but Justice Democrats was also founded in 2017 directly inspired by the Sanders 2016 platform (Barron-Lopez & Caygle, 2019). After winning the election, AOC adapted the Sanders brand of progressivism. For example, her age and ethnicity point to her ability to relate to the typical younger and more diverse Sanders supporters at a personal level. As such, she is able to make use of a more personal kind of charisma. This has been a contentious issue with Sanders, whose lack of support among African American communities is seen as his key flaw. Simultaneously, AOC has seen some criticism for perceived overemphasis on social issues as opposed to Sanders’ staunch economic populism (Burgis, 2022). Research based on candidate messaging suggests that overfocus on social justice may limit the electoral chances of similar young progressives (Abbott, 2021). Still, there is yet to be any extensive analysis on the topic based on real-life data.
Pseudo-transformational Leadership Interpretation
Another question is whether Bernie Sanders may not be a pseudo-transformational leader. This is defined by a misuse of transformational leadership traits in order to gain power. However, as the difference is mostly based on intent, it is difficult to decisively tell the two apart. Still, Barling & Christie (2008) tries to determine possible benchmarks to identify pseudo transformational leaders. Here, the results would be mostly in favor of Sanders. For instance, the paper portrays the level of obedience that the leader requires as indicative of their intent. Considering the fact that Sanders supports mobilization through decentralized leadership, it could be said that he requires low levels of obedience from followers. A more contentious point would be the fact that the study finds that pseudo transformational leaders cultivate a dependence of their followers on the leader’s presence in the movement. Some may argue that the US progressive movement has become somewhat dependent on Sanders. Still, the answer may be more complicated. Mather & Jefferson (2016) finds that Sanders’ entry onto the political scene was accompanied by a version of left-wing authoritarianism. However, it also suggests that authoritarian tendencies have a complex psychological origin, which means that it may well be unintended. Furthermore, one can find more subtle reasons to suspect Sanders’ genuine transformative intent. For example, consider his regular use of the self-imposed label “socialist” when referring to his project. The term has had harmful connotations in US politics throughout the 20th century due to Cold War connections (Jaffe, 2015, 175). This makes it puzzling to some pundits why Sanders would so readily identify with it and its sister term “Democratic Socialist”. Afterall, it is more likely to harm his electoral chances as compared to conventional phrasing. Nevertheless, if one views Sanders as a devoted transformational leader, it is relatively logical. As part of his project, Sanders hopes to make left-wing policies, such as universal healthcare, the norm in the US. This would naturally include helping facilitate a wider shift in the public’s mindset surrounding the power of the state. In other words, for Sanders’ long-term goals to be achieved, the public should lose its fear of “socialism” (Jaffe, 2015, 198). The best way to do that is to destigmatize the phrase through repeated use. As a genuine transformational leader is more concerned with the long-term success of the movement, he is less focused on the impact of the term on his immediate electoral success.
The Unique Leadership of Sanders
Bernie Sanders is a rather unique figure for the US, which can be emphasized using a comparison with Barack Obama. At first glance both individuals may be viewed as very much similar. Both challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and focused their attacks on her establishment ties and policy inactions. Nevertheless, there are several rather substantial differences in regard to their leadership styles. Firstly, Obama did not present policy as distinct from his centrist rivals when compared to Sanders. Although he gained favor with the progressive wing in 2008, he did so by channeling progressive energy with less specific policy devotion. For example, while Hillary Clinton actually expressed commitment to some form of healthcare reform in the 2008 primary, so did Obama. However, their plans were rather similar in terms of the mechanisms involved and to what extent they challenged the status quo (Noah, 2007). In fact, it was only another progressive long shot primary candidate who supported Medicare for All in 2008. One can see a clear contrast to Sanders, who has been consistently left wing on most major issues throughout his career. Unlike Obama, Sanders clearly placed himself on the left-wing and supported a distinctly left-wing plan in the form of Medicare for All. This, combined with a more direct approach to discussing policy, meant that Sanders lacked the same level of policy ambiguity that surrounded Obama throughout his career (Foley, 2013). It is this policy ambiguity that allowed Obama to attract followers from all over the political spectrum as everyone could project their beliefs onto him. Secondly, it is doubtful that Obama aimed for the same mass mobilization as Sanders. Although Obama has set up several organizations to improve democracy, their structure was notably more conventional compared to the plans that Sanders has described. For example, Obama’s group Organizing for Action has been described as promoting the views of Obama’s wealthy donors rather than his typical voter (Vogel at al., 2013). One can identify the cause in its very specific top-down organization (Epstein, 2013). This includes centralized identification of issues to be pursued and the use of traditional campaigning tactics. Although this has definite strengths, Dreier (2009) goes as far as to identify this as a key pitfall of the Obama presidency. More decentralization of the political process may have been required for major reforms to occur, while Obama chose to stick to conventional campaign methods. At least this highlights a clear contrast to Sanders, who appeared to have more unconventional tactics in mind. Namely, he has shown interest in using mass protest and mobilization to promote his agenda. Thirdly, Obama was more personality focused concerning his leadership style. Although Obama’s rise to prominence did include many policy specifics such as his critique of Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, the star factor cannot be ignored (Pew Research Center, 2008). The Obama campaign placed notable emphasis on his life story and humble beginnings as a community organizer. This was only fueled further by media interest in celebrity treatment of Obama. In contrast, Sanders was significantly more policy focused throughout his presidential campaign and overall political life. In order to illustrate this, Harry Jaffe (2016) compares Obama and Sanders and notes that, Sanders has had fewer publications, with most of his works centered on policy. Meanwhile, Obama’s books are mostly about his life story. Yet, the ultimate personification of this attitude is his campaign slogan: “Not me, us”. Here, Sanders stresses the fact that he is only a part of a larger movement that benefits from his success. It is the success of the movement that is the focus and not his personal success. Although the above comparison focused on Obama, the points made would apply to many other seemingly mold breaking progressive politicians trying to copy the Obama formula (Zeleny, 2019). Ultimately, many of them could be seen as pseudo transformational leaders, who invoke populist themes in an attempt to secure electoral success. To be fair, it is impossible to say whether one can decisively conclude that Obama is actually a pseudo transformational leader. Still, the comparison does stand to highlight why Sanders’ leadership style stands out within the Democratic party in its dedicated transformative nature and the extent of this transformation.
Due to Sanders’ ever-increasing age, the idea of finding a similar younger figure to take the project to the next stage is a popular one with US progressives. However, actually doing so may not be as simple (Barkan, 2022). As highlighted above, Sanders possesses a set of delicately balanced skills that make him an ideal progressive leader for the US. He is willing to fight for the issues, while also knowing when to fall in line. As part of this, he also does not exhibit dominating personality traits, which would otherwise draw scrutiny from left leaning voters. Simultaneously, Sanders has decades of experience fighting for popular issues, which gives him credence with potential followers by highlighting the genuine nature of his beliefs. This is all supported by a popular message firmly centered on economic populism. Using this specific set of competencies, Sanders was able to lead a transformation of the US progressive movement.
Timescale Effects in Primaries
Based on this analysis, one may wonder whether the specific way in which Sanders executed his transformational leadership through the use of the primary system could potentially translate into other countries. The problem is that the US has a somewhat particular political culture, where primaries to determine party candidates occur at frequent intervals and can take more than a year (Smith, 2020). This also includes large scale campaigning by individual candidates. As such, Bernie Sanders was able to move into the national spotlight for a substantial amount of time by running for president. During this year, he was able to exert his influence and help develop the mindsets of relevant subgroups within the Democratic party. Meanwhile, most other countries do not present such opportunities to non-mainstream politicians. For example, UK parties have leadership elections at significantly more erratic intervals which occur over only a month or so. The US even presents opportunities for such transformational leadership at the state level through primaries for Congress elections, for example, which can also take over a year. Meanwhile, the UK alternative of such contests is more of a formality. As such, in other countries backbenchers cannot exert such direct transformational leadership. Additionally, there is foundation in theory on the significance of time in transformational leadership, which supports the idea that the length of the primary matters. Specifically, Shamir (2011) explores the effect of timing on leadership effectiveness. This analysis even places particular emphasis on transformational leadership. The key finding is that different lengths of exposure will lead to varying levels of commitment to the project. Although short exposure may lead to some change in perception, longer exposure will lead to more identification with the specific leader and their project. This can be related to the Sanders movement in a fairly direct manner. Brief exposure to a political leader may change one’s political views, which would include adopting some of the leader’s political beliefs. However, the extended length of the primary season meant that many progressive aligned specifically with Sanders’ vision for the future. Not only that, but the study also suggests that the transmission of the leader’s vision begins to increasingly occur at the group level over time. This may be reflected in the numerous online communities and political organizations that sprung up from the prolonged exposure to the Sanders campaign.
Leadership Effectiveness Using a Comparison to Trump
In assessing the effectiveness of Sanders’ leadership in relation to his presidential campaign, comparisons are frequently made to Donald Trump (Mather & Jefferson, 2016). Afterall, both emerged onto the political scene approximately at the same time, representing the populist wings of their respective parties. Out of the two, Trump would appear to have achieved more success. Unlike Sanders, he not only won his party’s nomination and the presidency, but he has also effectively integrated himself into the party infrastructure. However, is the comparison fair? In-fact, further analysis reveals the significant effects of divergent party contexts, as well as different transformational leadership goals. Most significantly, Trump could be described as a dominance-based leader (Bastardoz & Van Vugt, 2018). Over the course of his political career, he has been known to sporadically cut ties with allies, leading to a careful approach from everyone in his circle. This has only been amplified by immediate popularity amongst the party base, which Trump has been quick to use to his advantage in dealing with other politicians. One can also consider Trump’s surface presentation during primary debates. Here, he was typically seen making personal attacks at the expense of other candidates and even going as far as attacking the former GOP President George W. Bush in a rather direct manner. This is a strict contrast to the reserved ethical leadership of Bernie Sanders. Although he has been know to clash with establishment Democrats, his criticisms were always timid, indirect and with a focus on policy differences (Sanders, 2016). Despite its success for Trump, it is likely that his approach would have not worked in the Democratic party. The attitude described above is more acceptable within the Republican party due to the typical association of authoritarianism with right-wing as suggested by Laustsen & Petersen (2020). This suggests that conservatives see the world as dangerous, and due to this danger seek strong personalities to lead them. This once more corresponds to the idea of dominance-based leadership using fear as a motivator. In contrast, liberal and left-wing parties favor a more stable approach to politics. As part of this, they tend to show more skepticism towards leaders relying on dominating traits. This also explains why Sanders must be careful in his attacks on the Democratic establishment. He must balance a sense of respect for his colleagues with voicing the suspicion shared with many voters. As such, the success of Trump style tactics would be doubtful in the Democratic party. Additionally, the different goals of both politicians as facilitated through their leadership can highlight the difficulty in comparing their differing levels of success. Interestingly enough, both Trump and Sanders could be described as transformational leaders (Galvin, 2020). However, the intended goal of their transformation very much differs. Sanders aims for the before explored widespread democratization of the American democratic process and the acceptance of socialist ideals within the US. On the other hand, Trump’s transformational leadership could be seen as more based around building loyalty to Trump and therefore pseudo transformational in nature. Yet, this does not change its very real overall effect on his followers. Trump has distinguished himself among Republican presidents in the emphasis he places on deepening their connection to their base (Galvin, 2020). In some ways, his goal in this regards could be described as an increase in the level of his supporters’ skepticism towards the political establishment. This was also supplemented with support for a more extreme version of Republican isolationism. However, such goals could be seen as only supplementary to building loyalty to Trump. In this way, Sanders’ goals could be seen as a more ambitious derivation from the status quo. Indeed, it may be that Trump has succeeded in the short-term, while Sanders has helped advance his goal in the long run. Trump’s effect on the Republican party has been seen with further embracement of fringe politics throughout the country. Yet, this development may be short lived and reliant on Trump’s presence in the political arena. Meanwhile, the further leftward shift of the Democratic party that Bernie Sanders has helped advance is likely to continue due to its grounding in popular policy and genuine transformational orientation.
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