As the Iowa caucus rapidly approaches, Sanders has begun some of his speeches with an ode to past social movements, including labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights and gay rights. In front of crowds, he ticks them off one by one and teaches them like a history lesson. In all of them, the moral arc is the same: some people had it rough, they banded together and fought the man, and then they won.
Remember the right to unionize? “In the early 1900s, American workers were forced to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week,” the Vermont Senator told a crowd of 1,300 on Friday night in Dubuque. “Men and women said, ‘We will not have this, we are human beings, we want dignity in our jobs.’”
And women’s rights: “Over 100 years ago, women were treated in this country as second- or third-class citizens. Women didn’t get the right to vote. Women didn’t get the jobs that they wanted to do,” Sanders said on Saturday morning in Manchester, Iowa. Then, “women said, ‘Sorry! We’re going to do the work we want to do.’”
And most recently, same-sex marriage: “If we were in this room 10 years ago, and somebody said, ‘I think in the year 2015, gay couples will have the right to marry in 50 states in this country,” Sanders said on Friday, “somebody would look up and say, ‘“What are you smoking?’”
But the reason throngs of people come to see Sanders is for the next big movement he promises: Sanders’ political revolution against the billionaire class. Hence, the segue: “We can be proud as a nation that over the last few decades, we have made some pretty significant progress,” he said in Dubuque on Friday. “But here is one area where not only have we not made progress, we are losing ground, and that is the economic struggle.”
Sanders sees this shot against the powerful forces in the U.S. — the large corporations, Wall Street banks, corrupt politicians and the moguls who elect them — as the next great movement in U.S. history. And days away from the first primary contest, it’s a way of explaining to his audience what he plans to do. He is in most polls a few percentage points behind Clinton and needs a large turnout among his inspired base in order to win. Losing Iowa would not bode well for the political revolution.
And the talk of a previous vision gives his campaign a historical perspective. Sanders gets to tell the audience just how big his goals are.
“What [this campaign is] about is understanding that change in our country, change in our world has always come from millions of people standing up to justice,” Sanders said on Saturday. “Imagine working people and low-income people, people of color standing up for justice, standing up for dignity and being prepared to take on the billionaire class. This campaign is about saying ‘Sorry, in the United States of America we will not tolerate the top tenth of 1% owning as much wealth as the bottom 90%.”
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In an interview with TIME in September, Sanders explained that he sees his campaign in the tradition of those movements. “The fight that we’re talking about now is a simple fight. It says our economy has got to work for the middle class and working families of this country,” Sanders told TIME then, four months after launching his campaign. “That’s a tough fight. It’s a tough fight because it’s a different fight from these other fights.”
With just a day left before the Iowa caucus, Sanders reminds his audience of the role they can play in launching the next movement. Caucusing for Sanders is the first step in the political revolution. “On Monday night,” Sanders says, he wants his audience to send a signal that “we are going to take America in a new direction.”
And in a tight race against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that may mean going down in history.