The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. Our little group, friends after sharing the miserable ordeal outside, scraped through by the skin of our chattering teeth, but the doors soon closed on thousands more.
As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!” The roar got louder. “It sounds to me like the people of Vancouver and the state of Washington are ready for a political revolution.” Clearly they were, along with millions of other Americans across the country, who have been rallying in such astonishing numbers to the political phenomenon that is Bernie Sanders.
While the headlines and pundits focus on the truly frightening Donald Trump, Sanders has been going about his business, undeterred by numbers that show him with little chance of wresting the Democratic Party nomination from the well-connected Hillary Clinton. He pursues his quixotic quest with no sign of flagging enthusiasm, urging the crowd to register and show up for the coming caucuses to determine convention delegates for the State of Washington.
Now it was our turn for the Bernie Sanders Socialist Revival Hour. The rally in Vancouver showcased just how much the Sanders campaign and its captivating slogan “A Future to Believe In” remains full of vigour. A pleasant but otherwise nondescript, mid-sized city just across the Columbia River from Oregon, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Vancouver is hardly a hotbed of political activism. Yet people began lining up at the crack of dawn for Sanders’ early afternoon appearance. “There are a lot of people here I never thought would show up for a political rally,” one soaked, early arriver told a reporter. Indeed, that has been a feature of the Sanders campaign from the beginning. Many of those flocking to his side are first-timers from well outside the traditional political spectrum. Millennials, in particular, were everywhere in the sea of Gortex and hoodies that stretched in all directions outside the school. “Maybe we can start a revolution,” said the young nursing student ahead of us in the rain-lashed line.
And maybe they can. Later that day, 25,000 showed up to hear Sanders in Seattle, another 10,000 in Spokane. Campaign organizers have now audaciously booked Seattle’s 45,000-seat Safeco Field for another mass public gathering. So far, Sanders has scored victories in 11 primaries and caucuses, securing a total of more than 900 delegates. Not bad for a Noam Chomsky-loving, self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where, until recently just to be branded a liberal was considered political death. It’s really quite amazing.
Few, maybe not even Bernie Sanders, saw this coming when he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The general consensus was that we were looking at a coronation, that there was an anointed candidate,” said Sanders. He paused. “Well, ten months have come and gone, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case….” The fired-up crowd erupted in a frenzy of sign-waving and cheers.
As the primaries pile up and the convention nears, Sanders has not watered down his radical rhetoric and progressive policies one bit. There is no move to the mushy centre in search of undecided voters. His targets remain the billionaires, Wall Street speculators, multi-national drug companies, the corporate media “who talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people”, “militarized” police forces… The list is lengthy. His platform is pitched at the young and the powerless, low-wage earners struggling to make a living in a land, said Sanders, where corporations pack up and move, if they can make even a few dollars more somewhere else. The “real change” the United States needs is unlikely to come from “Secretary Clinton”, he asserted bluntly, with her millions in campaign donations from Wall Street and trusts that include the fossil fuel industry and big pharmaceutical companies.
He laid it all out in a direct, forceful 45-minute speech, short on humour and niceties, long on all the ills of American society and, in the words of Lenin, “What Is To Be Done.” Wild applause greeted every point he hammered home.
Like an old-time blues shouter, Sanders asked: “Are you ready for a radical idea?” The “Yes!” was deafening. “We are doing something extremely unusual in American politics,” he confided. “We are telling the truth.” And what is that truth? Sanders didn’t mince words. “The truth is that the ruling class of this country is so powerful that a handful of billionaires believe that with their billions they have a right to win elections for the wealthy and the powerful…But we say ‘no’ to the corporate billionaires on Wall Street. We are a democracy, and we are not going to allow billionaires to take it away from us.”
Despite the USA’s deep-seated history of red-baiting and anti-communism, Sanders is thriving with a socialist message that hasn’t changed all that much in the 40 years he’s been preaching it, a perennial lone wolf from the left. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, people are listening and lapping it up. He has tapped into a lot of the working-class anger that has also helped propel Donald Trump to his current, scary prominence. The difference is that Trump’s poisonous brand is exclusive, while Sanders’ message is resolutely positive and inclusive. He wants a fair deal for everyone.
Sanders ploughs forward, undeterred by the legion of mainstream critics. “I’ve been criticized for saying this, so let me say it again,” he told us, drawing a rare laugh from the audience. “Every country in the world guarantees health care to all its people. Yet 29 million Americans still have no health insurance. Many others are being forced to pay huge sums for their coverage, while the drug companies keep ripping us off,” Sanders said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. Medicare for all!” The declaration drew one of the loudest responses of the day. “Bernie! Bernie”, chanted the crowd. The chanters included the woman beside us who had shared her umbrella during our lengthy wait in line. She had asked about Canada’s health care system, after telling us that full coverage for herself, her husband and two kids would cost a thousand dollars a month. So her husband is doing without. These are the people joining the Sanders crusade. Left behind by the powers that be, they feel no one cares for them but Bernie.
In Vancouver, they were almost all white, befitting the city’s demographics, and predominantly young, like the teenaged couple sitting in front of us who interrupted persistent smooching to raise their right hands in a fist whenever Sanders said something they liked, which was often. “We’ve received more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined,” trumpeted the junior Senator from Vermont.
Progressive promises piled up throughout his speech.
- a nation-wide, minimum wage of $15 an hour.
- a tax on “Wall Street speculation”.
- an end to “corporate tax loopholes”.
- an end to the War on Drugs (deafening whoops).
- fixing a “rigged economy” that has the top one-tenth of one percent owning “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent”.
- “comprehensive” immigration reform.
- taking on the fossil fuel industry to combat climate change and enhance sustainable energy.
- diversifying police forces “so they look like the people they’re policing”.
And finally, most popular of all, judging by the prolonged ovation it received: free tuition for all public college and university students. “Last I heard, getting an education is not a crime or a punishment,” said Sanders, to ringing cheers. “We need the best educated work force in the world. So why are we punishing young people with crushing debt by the time they graduate?”
Not since the hapless, 1948 run by Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party has there been such a radical, presidential platform from the left. Although it would undoubtedly be premature to write him off completely, Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democrat nomination. But he has tapped into a deep yearning for meaningful change among Americans struggling to survive, while the rich grow ever wealthier. No one seems deterred by the term “socialist” any more. As one of Sanders’ pollsters told the New Yorker, explaining millennial support for his candidate: “What’s their experience been with capitalism? They’ve had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you.”
Sanders has already forced an increasingly worried Hillary Clinton to tack leftward on a number of issues, and he is showing signs of cutting into her strong support among Afro-Americans. According to the latest Bloomberg poll, “feeling the Bern” has totally erased Clinton’s once enormous lead in popular support, and the two are in a dead heat. The remarkable journey launched by that old leftie codger has a ways to go yet.