Bernie Sanders’s Liberty University speech is the most important moment of the 2016 race

Bernie Sanders interview with Iowa Press

BernieSandersForPresident/YouTube

The War on Poverty affects everyone—and it’s time to make everyone listen.

On Monday, a diminutive Jewish socialist discussed racism and income inequality at the largest Christian university in the world. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination and a progressive favorite on sites like Reddit, addressed a crowd of 12,000 at Lynchburg, Virginia’s Liberty University, the institution founded by Jerry Falwell in the 1970s as a stalwart of conservative religious education in the U.S. Attendance at Sanders’ speech was mandatory and applause was muted, often described as “polite” in the wake of rapturous acclaim for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) earlier this year.

But what Sanders lacked in partisan appeal he made up for in the content of his message. Instead of focusing on the issues that separate Conservatives and Democrats, he focused on finding “common ground” between the two parties. 

“I am far, far from a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions—in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions,” Sanders told students. Despite Sanders’ stated belief in marriage equality and the right to choose, university president Jerry Falwell, Jr. found that the two men had much in common. “We have the same goals, helping people in need, we just have different philosophies on how to get there,” he said.

That’s about as close of an endorsement as he was going to get, but it’s an incredibly important one. Bernie Sanders is running a presidential campaign during one of the most bitterly divided times during our country’s history, and whether or not you support his bid for the White House, his speech may prove one of the most crucial moments in the 2016 race.

Sanders might not have won many future voters from the young crowd, but he engaged an audience that Democrats routinely ignore: conservative Americans. Instead of demonizing the other side—a common tactic during elections—Sanders wants to make them part of the solution to America’s most pressing problems.

As my colleague, Ben Branstetter, argued yesterday, the far-left Bernie Sanders is a product of a digital culture that feeds extreme partisanship. Forty years ago, a socialist candidate would have been unthinkable, but in 2015, the radical is becoming mainstream. 

Bernie Sanders is running a presidential campaign during one of the most bitterly divided times during our country’s history.

Research shows that’s true: Since the beginning of the first Bush presidency, a Pew study found that America’s “partisan gap has nearly doubled.” In addition, Pew explained that “the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent. … As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished.”

But the most damning finding from Pew isn’t just the increasing divide between the Red and Blue States—it’s the effect that’s had on political discussion. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994,” Pew found. “Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’” 

If that’s the case, it means that most of us aren’t willing to even listen to the political views of those we disagree with. After all, believing the other side is out to destroy the nation isn’t the most healthy prerequisite for engagement.

Sanders’ campaign is working to build a bridge across our country’s most sectarian areas by bringing his War on Inequality to every part of the nation—including those most affected by poverty, racial discrimination, and systemic injustice. 

That includes the American South, whose political leanings are more aligned Donald Trump and Ben Carson than Sanders’ vision of a New New Deal. But over the past few months, Bernie Sanders stopped in conservative Arizona and Texas, where he preached a  “jobs and education” platform to 10,000 Houstoners. “When childhood poverty in Texas is 27 percent, we’ve gotta take it on,” Sanders said. “When 34 percent of people living in Texas have no health insurance, we’ve gotta take it on.”

In Houston, Sanders amassed a crowd of 10,000 and reports indicate that his Phoenix speech had some of the largest attendance numbers of any political rally in the city’s history. This is because, as Falwell recognized, Sanders’ core values are everyone’s values—and especially relevant to Southern voters. 

The most damning finding from Pew isn’t just the increasing divide between the Red and Blue States—it’s the effect that’s had on political discussion.

As the Huffington Post’s Mark Gengioff argued, “the South is essentially a solid, grim block of poverty.” Between the years of 2000 and 2010, five of the states with the highest increases of people living in “poverty areas”—classified as neighborhoods where 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line—were in the South. They included Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Thus, if Bernie Sanders is declaring a war on poverty in America, he will need to focus on the region most disproportionately at risk for poverty—as the South is home to 41.1 percent of America’s poorest citizens. If these states might be inclined to tune out Sanders based on his party affiliation (even though he serves as an Independent in his home state), his campaign hopes to make them listen—and that can help build understanding and respect, if not converting followers. 

“I liked almost everything he said,” Liberty sophomore Sarah Fleet told the New York Times. While they diverged on social issues, she argued that’s OK: “[T]here’s no one who should be expecting everyone to agree on everything.”

Although compassion isn’t the message we expect to hear during a presidential race, it’s the one we should be preaching. Bernie Sanders might not be changing hearts and minds in the Red States—but by furthering a bipartisan culture of empathy, he’s quietly changing the way we talk to each other. No matter who you plan on voting for, this might be a campaign that’s even more crucial than the White House.

Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.

Photo via Bernie Sanders For President/YouTube

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.