Democracy did not die in 2003, but a lot of people’s faith in it did. Just over 17 years ago, I was one of the millions of people around the world who marched against the Iraq war. The energy on the streets in London was electrifying; it was the biggest protest in British history. The government, I naively thought at the time, would have to listen. The government, of course, did not listen. A few weeks later, Iraq was illegally invaded. This great betrayal galvanised a few of my friends into activism. But it left me, and many others, disillusioned at best and apathetic at worst. My student idealism withered and I lost confidence in the democratic process.
In the past few days, however, something strange has started to happen: I have begun to feel hopeful about politics again. In the US, the growing success of Bernie Sanders’ grassroots movement in the Democractic presidential nominations has restored my faith in people power. It has made me dare to hope that a second Donald Trump term may not be as inevitable as I previously thought it was. It made me dare to hope that a more equitable America – and, by extension, a more equitable world – really might be around the corner.
Whoa, you might say. Slow down! Sanders has only won three primaries so far. Yes, he may have won Nevada by a landslide. Yes, he may have emerged as the clear Democratic frontrunner but there is still a long way to go before he wins the nomination, let alone the general election. Even if we do see a President Sanders, it is not as if he would be able to enact ambitious policies, such as Medicare for All, overnight. He may not be able to enact his policies at all.
This may be true. But do not underestimate the magnitude of what is unfolding in the US. Politicians love to throw around the word “movement”; precious few have actually built one. Sanders, however, has brought together a multiracial, multifaith, multigenerational coalition of people who are fighting for the collective good in a country long obsessed with individual gain. One of the most heartening things to come out of the Nevada caucuses was the overwhelming support Sanders got from members of the Culinary Workers Union. This support was a big deal because the union’s leadership has been vocal in its criticism of Sanders, warning that his healthcare proposal would “end” the exceptional healthcare coverage it had worked so hard to negotiate. However, as many union members told the press, Sanders’ plan to replace private insurance with universal health care was a major reason they were behind him. They wanted their friends and family to have access to the same great healthcare they had. Their support was the very embodiment of the Sanders campaign slogan: “Not me. Us.”
Sanders’ detractors frequently complain about how “stubborn” he is. They don’t seem to understand that this is precisely why people like him. Trust in traditional institutions is at a record low; but Sanders is that rare politician: one you feel you can trust. He has been true to his values his entire life, even when it is has been politically inexpedient. He has spoken out about US imperialism. He opposed the Iraq war. And he has been one of the very few American politicians to acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinian people. As a half-Palestinian, I can’t tell you how important and unprecedented it is to hear a mainstream American politician stand up for Palestinian rights.
At a time when everything is for sale, Sanders is a powerful symbol of someone who can’t be bought. He has refused to take billionaires’ money, relying on grassroots support. His snowballing success is a much-needed reminder that big money can buy you a lot of ads, but big ideas are what win you people’s hearts. Sanders may not win the presidency, but he has built a movement that the establishment will find it very hard to stop.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist