If you attended a Bernie Sanders rally this summer, when his seemingly quixotic presidential campaign began gathering force, you might have noticed a few surprising things about the crowd. One was the scarcity of nonwhite faces—a problem that the campaign would soon be confronted by, very publicly.
Another was how many young people were turning out to see an irascible seventy-four-year-old senator from Vermont. But that’s a little like being surprised that some millennials appreciate Neil Young or Joni Mitchell at a time when it’s easy to find songs from different decades in a promiscuous jumble online.
Young people who like Bernie Sanders like him because he sounds like an old record.
He’s been talking about the injustices done to working people by unequal income distribution for more than forty years.
His voice, often hoarse from his habitually loud and impassioned speeches, even has the crackle of worn vinyl.
In Portland, Maine, on an evening in July, the line to see Sanders looped around the Cross Insurance Arena. Sanders’s popularity had clearly been exceeding his own expectations.
In a conversation this summer, he recalled an event in Minneapolis: “I was blown away. We were driving in, we saw these lines of people snaking down the sidewalk. ‘Jesus, what is that? There’s a ballgame going on?’ ”
At the Portland rally, I met a group of five friends who were drawn to Sanders because of his commitment to banish money from politics: he has sharply criticized the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, in Citizens United, to permit unlimited campaign spending by corporations, and has lamented the outsize influence exerted by billionaires.
Several of the friends praised Sanders’s pledge to raise the federal minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. One member of the group, Erin Kiley, a millennial who owns Portland Flea-for-All, a marketplace of vintage and artisanal goods, said that she developed “a huge political crush on Bernie” in 2010, after Sanders delivered an eight-and-a-half-hour speech on the Senate floor to protest the extension of tax cuts instituted during the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Sanders’s gruffness, didacticism, and indifference to appearances—both he and his wife, Jane, told me how much he loathes shopping—are central to his appeal.
All the friends described Sanders as “authentic,” a word that many people would be hesitant to apply to Hillary Clinton. Kiley acknowledged that Sanders’s unvarnished qualities might turn off some voters, but noted that in the current election cycle “the whole spectrum of candidates is less schmoozy, polished, and warm.” She went on, “Everyone seems a little off the wall. Howard Dean was thrown off the national stage for being angry. But people like Trump because he’s an asshole and says whatever he wants.”
Kiley’s friend Dawn York, who runs a vintage-clothing shop, said, “Most candidates are robotic and rehearsed.” She saw “a real person in Bernie.”
Sanders has been known as a democratic socialist for decades. This didn’t matter much to Kiley or York, or to most other Sanders supporters I met during the next few weeks; mainly, they were impressed that he hadn’t shed the term. York thought that, because of Sanders and his “social-media-driven fans,” socialism was “getting a bit of a P.R. makeover.”
She noted that sites like Reddit and Twitter were circulating videos of “Bernie explaining why he identifies as a socialist, and what it means to him, in a really positive light.” She added, “The word had a retro connection to Communism and was originally thrown at him as a damning label by his opponents. But for his supporters it isn’t a deterrent.”
A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that, among voters under the age of thirty, forty-nine per cent had a positive view of socialism. (Only forty-six per cent had a positive view of capitalism.) Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, who has written about Sanders, says that younger voters “may not be willing to entertain a whole new system, but they are open to a pretty profound critique of the current one. They’re not as naïve as Americans used to be during the Cold War—they know that there are varieties of capitalism, that there is social democracy in Scandinavia and Canada, where the government plays a bigger role in regulating corporations and in expanding the safety net.”
At a recent San Francisco gathering for Sanders, I met Derek Zender, a twenty-three-year-old marketing student. He told me that his parents, who live in Orange County, dismissed Sanders as “a decrepit old socialist who means well but doesn’t understand how the world works.” Zender thought they were overlooking the fact that “many American institutions—Social Security, unions, Medicare, the postal service—have elements of socialism.”
In Portland, Sanders took the stage, a little hunched in a gray suit jacket. His flyaway white hair was largely subdued, but his face turned pink with exertion as he delivered an hour-long speech, during which he did not use a teleprompter and barely consulted a sheaf of loose yellow papers on the lectern.
“America today is the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” he declared. “But most people don’t know that, most people don’t feel that, most people don’t see that—because almost all of the wealth rests in the hands of a tiny few.”
Sanders signals his moral ferocity by choosing words like “horrific” and “abysmal” and sonically italicizing them, as in “This grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is immoral.” He was born in Brooklyn, and his unreconstructed borough growl reminds voters that he stands apart from the “oligarchy.” His hand gestures are as emphatic as a traffic cop’s.
When he delivers speeches, he’ll often jab his finger at the lectern, as though he were enumerating the plagues at Passover.
Most of his policy proposals have to do with helping working people and reducing the influence of the wealthy.
He would like to break up the big banks, create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure, and move toward public funding of elections—and provide free tuition at public universities. (This program would be subsidized, in part, by a tax on Wall Street speculation.)
He wants to end the “international embarrassment of being the only major country on Earth which does not guarantee workers paid medical and family leave.”
In the speeches I heard, Sanders rarely discussed foreign policy, though he spoke with conviction about climate change and the need for the U.S. to set an example for Russia, India, and China by using fewer fossil fuels.
He tends to sound both doleful and optimistic, like a doctor who has a grave diagnosis to deliver—and no time for small talk—but is convinced that he can help his patient heal.
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