With a shocking upset in Michigan, Bernie Sanders is proving he’s not dead yet. The only ones who aren’t surprised are the millions of millennials packing stadiums to see him. JOHN VON SOTHEN travels aboard Air Sanders to meet the improbable icon of the new American left.
On March 1 at 6:30 AM on a typically Vermont frigid morning, I find myself with other members of the press corps camped out on the lawn of the Roger Miller community center in the state capitol of Burlington, waiting for the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders to vote. It’s Super Tuesday, the day eleven states including his home state would vote in the Democratic primary which means a grand total of 807 electoral votes were in play.
As the wind rips off of Lake Champlain, the largest fresh water lake in the country, reporters jog in place and photographers clap their gloves, each of us waiting impatiently for Sanders’s motorcade to arrive. Sanders, who still calls Burlington home, lives in a neighborhood not far from the voting location, in a neighborhood of white shingled two floored homes, small front yards, something you’d expect from a Bernie Sanders-ian neighborhood.
When he finally arrives, the silence is broken with photo clicks, tripods hurriedly moved, questions tossed out by journalists, and cheers of “Go get –‘em Bernie” from a young couple on bikes who’s managed to sneak under the police rope behind the candidate.
Sanders is wearing a non-descript black wool coat, no gloves, no scarf, and as he faces the cameras and the howling morning wind almost oblivious to the cold, I’m shocked, frankly, by how old he is. Sanders is a slight man, a bit hunched over almost like a gnome. He talks in a gravelly voice that has a pinch of anger. It’s almost as if he’s come outside in pajamas to collect his morning newspaper and found a bunch of strangers standing on his lawn.
There’s one thing watching Sanders on YouTube giving a speech to a filled stadium of 30,000 screaming fans and another thing to see him up close. You forget all what you’ve read or watched. You even forget you’re a journalist for a second, simply because the reflex you’ve been taught since a kid is to shut up, be polite and listen while an old man is talking to you.
And this old man is talking and talking, and talking, and the more Sanders talks, the more young voters are listening……… and voting.
The elder millennial
2016 may go down as the year the “millennial” (those born between 1982 and 2000) awoke. They number 83.1 million in America now and are considered the largest generation in the country-equal in voting power to the famous Baby Boomers (once considered the king makers of American politics). For them, Sanders has become an unlikely political icon, and the Feel the Bern movement the new Yes we can.
Sanders’s crowd-funded, Vine filmed, viral meme inspired campaign of saying no to the billionaire class on a progressive/populist platform not seen since Roosevelt’s New Deal, has sent shock waves throughout the American political establishment rattling an already upside down and incomprehensible primary season leaving those on the left, those on right and those inside Hillary Clinton’s wondering if they’re not again facing Barack Obama part II.
Never in the history of politics has one candidate captured the under-35 vote as much as Sanders, which is curious considering Sanders has none of the attributes that made Obama so popular. He’s old. He’s grumpy. He wears $100 suits and is last guy who’d update his Facebook status six times a day to share something Bernie related.
But it’s precisely this group of voters that has kept Sanders in the race, helping him rise from a measly 3% in polls last year to a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton, an adversary who has the support of her party, a war chest of corporate donations, and the complicit backing of a mainstream media who has routinely written Sanders’s obituary only for him to hang on and claw his way back into the race Reverent-style, slowly hoarding delegates towards, yes, what could still be a July nomination.
For one week this spring I traveled as an embedded journalist inside the Bernie Sanders bubble, flying aboard Air Sanders along with other members of the press following the candidate sometimes to three cities a day, watching him make speeches, give interviews, huddle with his advisors, read polls, shake hands, eat La Durée macarons (courtesy of yours truly), kiss babies, and raise his fist to thousands of maniac fans urging them to wage “the next American Revolution.”
During my trip, I also got to see Sanders up close too, when he’d come back to the press section of the plane to answer questions often starting each response with the proverbial “Look,” the catch phrase he uses as a way to foreshadow what he’s about to tell you is no-bullshit. My fellow journalists, most of whom were millennials themselves and who’d been traveling with Sanders since Iowa in January, had a casual rapport with Sanders along with his wife, Jane, who too would come back and sit and take selfies with us ignoring the old customs of “on the record/off the record” protocol.
And it was here on this vintage Eastern Airways 737 rolling/flying political school bus with a white haired professor at the wheel, where I tried to figure out who Bernard (no middle name) Sanders is; where he came from and what he’s up to. Because it’s not every day a 74 year-old Jewish socialist from a small rural state in New England has a real chance to be President of the United States.
Bernie and Vermont
Born in 1941 to Polish Jewish immigrants, (Sander’s father came to New York in 1927 and his mother, who was born in NYC in 1912, had Polish origin), Sanders grew up poor in Brooklyn before attending the University of Chicago where he quickly became involved in civil rights movements, finding the classroom “boring and irrelevant.” He organized Chicago’s first civil rights sit-in, a non-violent protest held in 1962 protesting the university’s ownership of several segregated housing projects. He later participated in the march on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I have a dream speech,” and that summer, he was arrested during a demonstration against Chicago’s segregation of public schools.
Following college, Sanders flirted with being a filmmaker, than a carpenter, than a teacher and eventually left for Vermont “captivated by rural life” as he described in his political memoir Outsider in the House. In 1980 Sanders became mayor of Burlington, unseating a long-standing Democratic mayor Gordon Paquette despite being an avowed socialist and relative political unknown.
For eight years as mayor, Sanders balanced the city budget, renovated Burlington’s downtown; all while hosting a TV show on local cable called Bernie speaks with the community. In 1987 he ranked as one of the top mayors in the US according to US News and World report, and following his final term, departed to Harvard University to teach political science part time.
In 1991 Senators was then elected to congress and served in Washington until he became Senator in 2007. Sanders quixotic career in Washington often found him at odds with both Republicans and Democrats, which many feel isn’t a coincidence considering his personality and the state he was representing.
Rural, predominantly white, a ski location in the winter and mountain retreat in the summer, famous for its Ben and Jerry’s ice scream, maple syrup, and its left of center summer camps which thousands of East Coast kids (like mine) flock to each year, Vermont is a bouillabaisse of rural hunters and gun enthusiasts, mixed with college professors, writers, and urbane city transplants, like Sanders, who began moving there in the 60’s and 70’s from nearby states like Massachusetts and New York, thereby changing the political landscape.
Although quite poor, Vermont is often cited as a laboratory for social experiments and cutting edge legislation. It became the first state to legalize same sex marriage in April of 2009 and routinely ranks high for its strict environmental laws and its heavy investment in green technologies.
Yet despite all of Vermont’s forward thinking, there is an “old” Vermont too, those who own guns and who do not have a college education, and who still make up a large part of the population. Sanders ability to meet them half way on various issues, has helped him gain Republican support throughout his career, where most would assume he’d fail.
The Socialist who wants to win
Sanders points out this isn’t a conflict of interest, that the issues he fights for actually concern both camps, which explains why throughout his career he’s run as an Independent (2016 being the exception) rather than a Democrat.
“The truth of the matter is,” says Sanders mid-flight, “is if you put a lot of your energy into economic issues, what you find is, conservative Republicans don’t have healthcare, conservative Republicans can’t afford to send their kids to college, conservative Republicans are being thrown out of their jobs as our good-paying jobs move to China. And if you talk about those issues, you know what people say? I need somebody to stand up to protect my economic well-being.”
This stance is why Sanders thinks independent voters are migrating more towards him than Clinton and why he’s always polled well versus Donald Trump in a general election.
“I tell Republicans. Look, we’re not going to agree on every issue, that’s for sure. But don’t vote against your own interest. I don’t mind if millionaires vote against me. They probably should. But for working people, we’ve got to come together, healthcare for all, stop our disastrous trade policies, make sure all of our kids get the education that they need. On those issues, I think we can bring people together.”
“Bernie has been able to appeal to groups that no one assumed would support socialists,” said Garrison Nelson, a professor at University of Vermont who has known Sanders for four decades. “This includes gun-rights supporters, police during his time in Burlington and veterans’ groups as a senator. The thing about Bernie which is different from most socialists in America is Bernie wants to win.”
Matt Dunne, a former state congressman who’s running for Governor of Vermont this November, and who introduced Sanders for a victory speech on Super Tuesday evening, has modeled his career around what he calls the “Sanders method.”
“What I learned from Bernie is if you don’t speak from the heart you can’t run from a small state like Vermont. Authenticity is super important, and nobody can be that more than Bernie Sanders.”
“He’s not looking to be loved,” a Democratic strategist told me. “Most politicians have this needy quality to them. It’s part of the animal. Not Sanders. He’s not even really concerned if you like him. He doesn’t have time to waste on seducing you. Instead he’s more concerned with convincing you.”
“Bernie has found power in bringing up uncomfortable truths. It’s his magic.
And people realize that this is the new breed of politician to emulate.” Says Dunne. “The problem is Bernie Sanders is hard to replicate. But maybe that’s a good thing.”
The decision to run
One of the uncomfortable truths Sanders continues to bring up during our flights to Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts is the past eight years haven’t been as great as many think, which puts him in a tricky position of questioning the state of the country without criticizing too much a popular President.
But for Bill Curry, a former White House counselor to President Bill Clinton, Sanders is simply bringing up what many on the left refuse to acknowledge, simply because Obama’s accomplished nature is so strong.
“I often talk to Democrats who don’t know that Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage as President even though he had the votes for it; that he chose not to prosecute Wall Street crimes or pursue ethics reforms in government. They don’t know Obama dropped the public option for healthcare or the aid he promised homeowners victimized by mortgage lenders. They don’t know and don’t want to know.”
Sanders’s criticism of Obama isn’t a new thing. During a radio interview in July 2011, Sanders responded to a caller saying “there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the President, who believe that with regard to a number of issues, he said one thing as a candidate and did something very different as President. They cannot believe how weak he’s been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans.”
Later in the program, Sanders went as far as to say he’d encourage someone to run against Obama in the 2012 election.
“There are a lot of smart, honest, progressive people who I think can be good Presidents,” he said. “And I think one of the reasons President Obama has moved as far to the right as he has, is because he thinks he can go all the way and no one (on the left) will stand up to him.”
Sanders remarks at the time gave some the hope that he himself would challenge Obama, but it wasn’t until a group called Progressive Democrats of America approached Sanders, did he seriously consider running.
“I remember it all very clearly,” said peace activist Medea Benjamin, who served on the PDA board, “We were constantly pushing Bernie to run, but I think he was always looking for someone else to do it, but that someone else wasn’t there.”
Eventually the group organized a petition of 11,000 signatures urging Sanders to run, not as an independent, but as a Democrat. The night the petition was handed to him, Sanders made a speech which sounded eerily similar to the speeches I saw him make in early March, a speech that touched on the frustration of the middle class, the increased numbers of people living in poverty, the inequality of wealth in the US, and the broken campaign finance system.
“No matter who the next president of the US is,” Sanders told the small group of followers that evening, “This I can say with absolute certainty. If that President is serious about addressing the huge crisis facing this country, that President cannot do it unless there is a political revolution.”
The small room erupted with chants of Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! the same chant I heard as he stepped on stage at the Breslin center in East Lansing, Michigan to a crowd of 9,000 screaming supporters, many of whom had waited outside for two hours in the brutal cold to catch a glimpse of a political phenomenon.
“This campaign is listening to you the young people,” Sanders calmly announces to the audience, looking tired thanks to a brutal itinerary we’ve been following. (The campaign was supposed to visit Illinois that day, but inner polls had shown he was testing well in Michigan and still had a chance to win there, hence a change of plans to reroute the plane from St. Louis back to Michigan.)
“Right now, we have close to 5 million donors giving to this campaign,” Sanders announces, than pauses as if he he’s a professor giving a surprise quiz to students, “And do you know how much the average donation is?” he asks coyly knowing full well the crowd has the answer. (The average Sanders campaign donation amount is a common fact echoed routinely by the campaign.)
“27 dollars!!!” screams the entire center. Sanders chuckles. “God, you kids are smart.”
As the crowd laughs, Sanders takes off his jacket and throws it on the chair behind him, which triggers even a bigger applause. With his tie askance and his white hair looking like he just woke up, Sanders rolls up his sleeves and starts what will be a well-oiled 45 minute speech that begins of course with, “Look…”
Minutes later, he poses a question to the audience, one he routinely asks on the campaign trail. “How many of you are suffering from student debt?” 8 out of 10 people in the crowd raises their hands.
“I see this at every single place I go,” Sanders tells us. “We are punishing people and forcing them to live under strain for decades because of what? The crime of wanting to get an education?”
“I come from a family of artists, who didn’t really ever have money. Bernie is the first politician to acknowledge these people exist, which is ironically, most of this country,” says Rose Hazard, 28, who spoke to me at a Bernie event in Milton, Massachusets. “I went to college for 6 years, and now I’m 150K in debt. That’s a real issue for me. Like a lot of the young people here.”
Bernie and the Media
By the time I joined the press team at the end of February, the numbers of those traveling with Sanders had diminished significantly. Some journalists had been reassigned to the Trump campaign while others were sent home to rest. From those who stayed, you sensed less interest in the daily campaign and more of a “let’s see how this plays out” attitude. A fellow journalist had even told me in late February, “John if you’re writing a Sanders piece, you should get there immediately – before it’s all over.”
What soon ensued on the trail was a dichotomy of two parallel worlds. One, in the mainstream media, which routinely described Sanders’s campaign on life support, struggling to survive and ready to pack it in, and the one we were witnessing firsthand, the one where Sanders’s events continued to pack auditoriums with thousands of fans, volunteers and Sanders waving maniacs, all shrieking Bernie! some even fainting; where streets were lined with onlookers yelling for the candidate to wave out the window from our motorcade, signs of Bernie for President spiked on most lawns, T-shirts of Bernie sold in every diner, Ben and Jerry’s creating their own “Bernie” flavor. It was as if critics were telling you a movie had flopped; yet you were seeing thousands of people waiting down the block of every cinema to buy a ticket for the new Star Wars.
If they weren’t calling his campaign over, MSNBC, CNN and even the New York Times were simply ignoring Sanders, giving more time not only to Trump, but even to fringe Republican candidates like Marco Rubio who hadn’t even won one state.
In Portland, Maine the day after the Super Tuesday results, Sanders was running late for his speech. Our flight had been delayed in Vermont because of bad weather, and as the press hopped off the bus to trail a jogging Sanders, taking only our laptops with us our cords dragging behind, we entered the side door of a packed downtown ball room so police dogs could sniff us before we sat down in the press area, 50 meters from the stage where Sanders would go on. The crowd was already in a frenzy, clapping in unison, and shouting Bernie!! Bernie!, and as Sanders jumped up on stage and waved, the cheers from the 4000 in attendance became deafening.
“This campaign is listening to you – not to the press nor to the pundits nor the pollsters.,” he told them. “It’s listening to those who no longer have a voice in this America.”
As the ballroom shook with emotion, I watched in surprise as the journalists already in attendance were barely listening, instead looking at their phones, tweeting and seeming indifferent, which made me think back to what Curry had said when he explained why many in the media had been overlooking Sanders.
“One way the media helps Clinton is they share her ideology. These are mostly very bright people who see the world as Hillary does. They are Democrats first for cultural issues. They identify with elites, even know a few power couples and view the current corrupt rules of the game as laws of nature. It’s one reason why not one of them saw any of this coming.”
On the night of March 15 following votes in Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Florida, Sanders made a similar speech to over 7.000 followers, in Arizona, touching on why his campaign was still alive. Although Sanders had secured 281 delegates that night, none of the main networks covered it live. CNN and MSNBC chose instead to film an empty lectern at Donald Trump’s mansion in Florida, expecting “the Donald” to speak any minute.
Sanders was visibly angry for days following the black out, and later on MSNBC, he voiced his displeasure with how the media was covering not just him, but the entire campaign.
“90% of your coverage is process. It’s soap opera. I am running for president because we have a disappearing middle class and 47 million people living in poverty. The amount of time the media pays to those issues is minimal. Look at the pain in America today, and look at how the candidates are responding to that pain. We have to pay attention and not treat it like a silly game. Campaigns and elections are not a game!”
Many feel the media’s attempt to sensationalize the 2016 campaign has inadvertently helped the Republican candidate Donald Trump not only avoid scrutiny controversial candidates in the past have faced (Sarah Palin for example), but has also made him the star of a six month “Kardashian” type reality show.
“Donald Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the mother lode,” said former Today host, Anne Curry, referring to how it’s estimated Trump has received more than 1.9 billion dollars of free air-time on television. “Trump stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a time when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
Pressure to bow out
As the primary approaches the summer conventions, there is growing pressure within the Democratic party for Sanders to bow out of the race, simply out of fear that he is bloodying Clinton too much for the general election and giving her opponent material to attack her with.
“What Bernie doesn’t want to go down in history as is the Ralph Nader of 2016,” says Jason Horowitz of The New York Times, referring to the leftist Ralph Nader who siphoned off 2% of the Florida vote in 2000, robbing Al Gore of victory there and subsequently the national election.
However Sanders maintains leaving is not his call to make. “This is a movement, this is not about one candidate,” Sanders tell us during one flight, pointing out there’s equal pressure from his loyalist base of “Sanders-istas” to stay in the race.
“No we don’t think it’ll be better if we get out,” Senior Strategist Tad Devine told me. “I’m sure the Democratic establishment and others would like to see that happen, but I think the best thing we could do is challenge Clinton on ideas and on message and continue to build this campaign-not just for Hillary Clinton’s sake, but for the sake of the Democratic party, bringing in potentially millions of people into this process, young people who otherwise would not participate who would not register to vote, this is a huge contribution that Bernie can make not just to Clinton but to every Democrat.”
The Sanders Legacy
Radio host Thom Hartman agrees that Sanders’s mere presence in the race is affecting American politics in a generational shape-shifting way.
“The fact that the leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is beginning to actually parrot word for word the things that Bernie Sanders has been saying for thirty years is a good thing. The fact that Donald Trump even is able to gain traction on the right by repeating some of Bernie Sanders’s best lines is arguably a good thing, because what all this means is that there is a political revolution happening.”
Hartman speculates win or lose, Sanders has formidable weight now. “Whether he beats Hillary or not with delegates, Sanders is going to go into the July convention with an amount of power we haven’t seen for a long time from a progressive.”
According to Hartman, 2016 could be 1976 all over again, when then Republican candidate Ronald Regan challenged the nomination of then sitting President Gerald Ford at the convention. Reagan lost, but he installed an ideology of neo-liberalism, which he used in 1980, and which set the table for the next four decades.
“Regardless of how it goes, it’s safe to say Bernie Sanders has not only altered the Democratic Party, but altered the history of a nation for at least a generation or two” adds Hartman.
“If Bernie Sanders had died a year ago, his obituary would have been maybe a paragraph towards the end of paper,” said Horowitz. “Now he’s the face of the new American left. He’ll go down as an historical figure.”
Towards the end of his Burlington victory speech on March 2nd, Sanders does something I haven’t seen him do before – he turns his attention away from Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street and the past decades of failed neo-liberal policies of both parties, choosing to focus on everyone’s boogieman, Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump insults Latinos, blacks, gays, veterans like John McCain and anyone not like him. And thank God for that!” The crowd laughs back, and suddenly Sanders balls his fist sporting that testy anger I witnessed that cold morning on Super Tuesday, that anger he flashes when he boards a plane for the 50th city he’s visiting this month without slowing down, that anger that’s driven him for decades since Chicago, fighting the same fight, voicing the same message, burning that same Bernie Sanders burn. “We will beat Donald Trump in November, my friends, because at the end of the day, love trumps hate.”
The crowd explodes, and amidst the banners, the lights and music, and much to the surprise of his security detail, Sanders “goes rogue” descending into the crowd like a rock star diving into the pit. There he’s quickly mobbed by kids and soccer moms, gun enthusiasts and aged hippies, all of whom reach and squeeze and do their best to shake hands or give a pat on the back to a candidate who could easily be their cranky uncle or grandfather, all while Starman by David Bowie cranks on the speakers.
For a spectator from a distance, it’s like one of those Where is Waldo? books – the only way to find Sanders is to look for the shock of white hair moving like a centipede through a sea of humanity. And as he disappears then reappears, Sanders never once shows panic or fear nor over excitement and hysteria, just an effortless calm almost like he’s levitating. And it’s at this moment that I realize who this inscrutable Bernie Sanders really is.
He’s America’s political Yoda, the young activist turned aged warrior from a remote mountain wilderness; the elder wise man and unlikely hero of a new generation of voters whose force awakens and whose eyes now turn to in an election that could very well be the one that revolutionizes America.