Bernie Sanders has a point. And a baton, conducting to the beat of his rhetoric. He has a basketball palm, and a robust set of jazzercize hands. The senator from Vermont and presidential candidate pinches, pecks, pushes, wags, overhead and outward, his arms constantly in flight.
He may lag in delegates behind Joe Biden, the more physically composed former vice president, but he’s winning in body language.
“What he’s communicating is dominance. These big gestures make politicians appear larger,” says University of Arkansas political science professor Patrick Stewart, who studies body language in leaders. It’s manspreading with his hands. “People who do use their hands a lot are more emotionally evocative,” Stewart says. “They’re able to communicate more.”
Sanders is armed, literally, with a second, powerful form of reaching voters. Seated, momentarily silent or clutching a speech and microphone, his hands rarely stop talking. He is the great gesticulator.
Here’s a manual of Sanders’s six favored gestures and what each suggests.
👉 The rapid-fire finger pointing
The point is his favorite, like a go-to fleece vest. Though he’s an icon of the left, the senator favors his right hand. His point is a moving target, waving, dancing toward the heavens, the exits, his exultant base, the gesture of his that’s most mimicked in Larry David’s spot-on “Saturday Night Live” impersonation.
“Bernie is literally making a point by doing this,” says Donna Van Natten, author of a book on political body language. “It can be pretty positive as long as it’s not pointed at someone.”
Sanders’s effusive body language “is very authentic. There’s nothing fake here with these expansive behaviors. He’s speaking from the heart,” says body language authority Joe Navarro.
The insistent point conveys how he feels about social inequality and our political system, Stewart says. “What he’s communicating is anger, these large gestures and often choppy motions.”
🏀 The basketball palm
Sanders is prone to extending his arms out or overhead and holding out his open hand as if palming a ball, a gesture that makes him appear larger, taller and athletic — vital messaging when you’re 78 years old, one of the oldest individuals ever to run for president, and the victim of a recent heart attack.
Outstretched fingers suggest “I have nothing to hide, something we like to see,” Van Natten says.
🎶 The conductor’s baton
Sanders is the leader of his own orchestra. He controls the beat, his hands conducting from overhead, down to his waist, then out to the sides.
“When the baton matches with the point the person is making,” Stewart says, “then it’s an exceptional rhetorical tool.” The baton says, Pay attention to me, follow along.
The gesture can own the room. “What we’re looking for in messaging is if the emphasis is still there. Does he have the energy and drive?” Navarro says. “For a guy who’s had a heart attack, he does remarkably well.”
The baton keeps him in charge, even on a debate stage among other candidates. Stewart says, “essentially, he’s conducting the audience.”
👌 The pinch
Sanders’s gestures appear visceral, unfiltered, the opposite of scripted and staid, to accompany his cumulus hair. Most likely, it’s cultural, learned in his Brooklyn childhood home and community where gesticulating was common and imitated.
He terminates many gestures with a pinch, pressing his fingers to his thumb to signal the end of his statement. It conveys a precision, a control, to finish a movement that often seems less so. The pinch is his piquant coda, as though he’s adding a dash of salt to flavor the message.
The hands are talking, yelling, taking the audience on a wild emotional ride. The pinch is here to say “We are done. I have spoken. At least for this moment.”
🔵 The big half-circles
Sanders’s big hands often travel in half-circles — upward, outward and to the side, at his waist and hips. The circles mark more territory and suggest openness and inclusion, but are rarely completed.
“Leaders usually have gestures that are broader and higher than non-leaders. We expect them to have broad gestures,” Navarro says, as they’re communicating to large crowds, not individuals. But “we usually want them to be more controlled” than Sanders’s movements, Navarro says. “You never coach anyone to talk like this. We want to see broad gestures that are smooth.”
But smooth is not how Sanders rolls. Or gestures.
🕺 The hands that dance away from the body
His hands flutter and fly away from the waist. Again, he eats space. They’re less ballet than “Stomp.”
“This is a grass-roots kind of guy — I don’t have to be reserved,” Van Natten says. “I think it has to do with his activism. You show it through your body.”
It’s the sort of gymnastic physical display that may not be tolerated in younger candidates and people of color, trying to appeal to a wide base. Consider the corporeal calm and control former president Barack Obama exhibits, the polar opposite of Sanders. Van Natten says, “God forbid a woman behaves like this. Holy moly.”
Sanders and President Trump both speak volumes, if not libraries, with their bodies. Sanders does it almost exclusively with his hands. Their messaging is clear and timely, Stewart says, working in crowded debates and with a vexed electorate: “They’re communicating that they’re bigger than life.”