BOSTON/SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Bernie Sanders has become the fresh face of the Democratic Party, providing an unexpected disruption to Hillary Clinton’s coronation march despite being so old that bizarre essays about rape he wrote 43 years ago have come back to haunt him.
These days, Sanders is all over the media. He’s on top in New Hampshire, close in Iowa, and potentially stronger than Clinton in a general election. He’s fundraising at Clinton’s pace despite relying heavily on small donors, and he’s reportedly drawing tens of thousands of people to his rallies.
But thus far, coverage of Sanders has focused superficially on his rise in the polls and the potential threat he poses to Clinton. Less attention has been given to what a Sanders presidency would mean, and how American voters are reacting to his candidacy. Wanting to better understand the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, The Daily Caller News Foundation dispatched a reporter to his two rallies in Boston and Springfield, Mass. over the weekend to encounter Sanders and his supporters in their natural habitat.
What we found is revealing: A socialist movement split over what socialism actually is; a mostly-white movement wishing it could add more melanin; a movement that demands new programs and new taxes but denies that it wants “free stuff.”
TheDCNF came away with nine major findings from its daylong journey into the heart of the Sanders campaign:
1. Sanders fans want free stuff, but they don’t want to say so.
In Boston, one of the strongest reactions of the night came from a preliminary speaker, climate change activist Bill McKibben.
“Jeb Bush says [that] Democrats want to give ‘free stuff’ to people,” said McKibben, which unleashed a torrent of boos from the crowd. “If by free, Republicans mean things like Social Security, then by God, we work for those things,” he added, unleashing a second wave of cheers.
But as Sanders’ own rhetoric delivered just minutes later revealed, it really is “free stuff” that is driving much of his campaign. Sanders opened his speech by blasting Walmart’s Walton family (their mere mention attracted a chorus of boos) for possessing as much as wealth as they do. He followed it up quickly with a call for a $15 minimum wage, for a massive government jobs program hiring millions in teaching, daycare, and construction, and for a “real hard look” at the “greed and recklessness” of Wall Street, which he described as too unwilling to make affordable loans to small businesses.
After an interlude to condemn Citizen’s United, he struck up the refrain again, calling for free public college and an end to the “absurdity” of student debt. This was most certainly a call for “free stuff,” as Sanders said this free college could be financed entirely via a $70 billion a year tax on “Wall Street speculation”– a practice none of his supporters appear to view themselves as engaging in.
While Sanders himself never outright mentioned “redistribution of wealth” as a goal, several of his supporters said it was a reason they liked him, with one describing his agenda straightforwardly (and positively) as “wealth redistribution through taxation of the rich.”
2. Sanders still has a “black people” problem, though his backers badly want to fix it.
Both Sanders and his supporters are very, very eager to counter his perceived problem with minorities, who have been far slower to hop on his bandwagon than white liberals.
Sanders’ Boston speech had some rhetoric about rolling back police brutality and ending institutional racism, but it’s clearly not his passion, taking up just a few moments. Still, his supporters went all-out to show their fervent devotion to the Black Lives Matter cause.
In Boston, a pep rally-type squad of Bernie believers at one point chanted “Black Lives Matter! Bernie Knows!” in addition to its more generic cheers. Not only that, but during the Boston rally any mere mention of Black Lives Matter or racial solidarity (by Sanders or by his preceding speakers) elicited enormous cheers from the crowd — even louder than those given to rhetoric on income inequality or other core Sanders issues.
For all their efforts, though, the crowd at both Sanders events was white. Very, very white, with a healthy sprinkling of youthful Asians. Getting an exact tally was of course impossible, but it seems likely that no more than two or three percent of attendees at either rally were black. That’s a very small figure for a Democratic event, especially in Springfield, where 22 percent of the population is black.
Even among blacks who did show up, not all of them were sold on Sanders. Tomeka Ligon, a black woman at the Springfield event, said beforehand that she wanted to hear more from Sanders about the police and racial issues before choosing to support him. She cited the Sandra Bland case as a particular concern, speculating that Bland’s supposed suicide by hanging herself didn’t make sense and that Bland may have been murdered.
3. Sanders fans are just fine with backing socialism … whatever that means.
TheDCNF interviewed more than two dozen attendees at the two rallies to learn more about their attitudes, in particular how they reacted to a self-described socialist making a serious run for the presidency. Not a single person viewed Sanders’ socialism as a negative in his presidential run, but they also had many different ideas about what the word precisely means.
One supporter, a bearded button-seller from Alabama (“a blue dot in a sea of red”), argued that Sanders wasn’t truly socialist or even left-wing.
“I think socialism is a name given to Bernie,” he said. “That’s what’s been shoved upon him … he’s not socialist, he’s equalist. He wants everybody to be equal, and that’s common sense. That’s not socialism, that’s not leftist thinking, that’s common thinking.”
Another backer, a student from the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Eric, said Sanders’ genuine socialism is why he favored him over Clinton.
“Ultimately, she’s a capitalist, and succumbs to the same pressures that other politicians do,” said Eric. “[Socialism is] putting people above money, having people at the center of society, and having it taking care of people be the highest priority, instead of trying to achieve more capital.”
Emily Engel, a Sanders backer who achieved some fame on the Internet for selling homemade Bernie Sanders dolls, offered a third definition for socialism as a counter to those who categorically oppose supporting a socialist.
“They don’t educate themselves enough to understand what [socialism] is. It’s not a dirty word,” she said. “It means change in the right direction … there’s a difference between socialism and communism. Period.”
Yet another person, a “superannuated hippie” named Carl (who sported a T-shirt showing Sanders in a Che Guevara-style beret), said socialism’s merits had been proven by Europe.
“In Europe they’ve been socialist since World War II, and they’re doing better than us economically,” said Carl, who added that he would vote for historic socialist candidate Eugene Debs if he were still alive and running for president.
4. Bernie may embrace socialism, but not all socialists embrace Bernie.
There were a good number of self-identified socialists at the rallies, but surprisingly they weren’t necessarily the Bernie diehards one might expect. Among the Bernie skeptics who could be seen at the rally were several socialists who feel Sanders doesn’t go far enough. TheDCNF encountered Elena and Jack, two members of the Trotskyist political party Socialist Alternative, who were hawking the party newspaper at the Boston rally.
While the two party members appreciate Sanders’ commitment to wealth redistribution and political revolution, they disliked the “cult of personality” he represents and wished that he’d stop showing support for Israel.
The two Trotskyists also said they disagreed with Sanders’ early handling of the Black Lives Matter movement (Elena and Jack are white and Asian, respectively).
“Bernie Sanders has the position that police brutality can be solved through the redistribution of wealth and having well-paying jobs for folks, and that’s against the current grain of opinion of BLM [Black Lives Matter] on how police brutality should be solved, which is confronting police for their crimes and arresting people, essentially,” said Elena.
Jack added that Sanders was ignoring “what we socialists call the ‘special oppression’ of racial minorities and nationalities. It’s not just the normal oppression you experience as a worker, but an additional oppression they experience based on the color of their skin.”
Another socialist named Josh, easily spotted because he was sporting a “Fuck Capitalism” T-shirt, said he liked Sanders overall, but wished he was more of a genuine “Marxist-Socialist” like himself. Still, he said it was important to back Sanders, as the election of a self-described socialist in the world’s largest capitalist country would “change the world.”
5. Sanders fans may care more about social issues than they advertise.
Sanders has spoken about putting social issues aside to focus on the greater issue of income inequality, and during his Boston speech he spoke about winning over working-class Republicans who allegedly vote against their own interest. Nevertheless, the loudest cheer of the night (save for Sanders’ entrance and exit) wasn’t for free health care, or free college, or for taxing the rich. Instead, it came when Sanders condemned the Republican stance against abortion.
6. Sanders fans don’t rock the flag that much.
Political rallies are often drenched in gratuitous patriotism, so the Sanders rallies stood out in their sheer lack of American flags. In fact, the only American flags carried by attendees at either event were carried by a handful of conservative counterprotesters standing outside the Springfield event.
Though there were no American flags, one person in Springfield did bring an immense rainbow flag, which drew loud cheers when it was waved around beforehand.
7. Many Sanders supporters dislike Hillary Clinton nearly as much as Republicans do.
Unsurprisingly, most Sanders fans said that if his campaign fails, they will be willing to vote for Clinton; some even said they would do so enthusiastically as Clinton was a close second for them.
But not everybody felt this way. Some said Clinton was at best the lesser of two evils, and some outright despised her, viewing her as no better than the hated Republicans.
Those who loathed Clinton rarely pointed to a particular policy position that made them oppose her. Instead, their dislike was much more personal: Many described Clinton as fundamentally less honest than Sanders (several cited her email scandal), and all pointed towards her fundraising apparatus and its heavy reliance on wealthy donors, which they predicted would bind Clinton to the interests of corporations and the “one percent.”
“She is full of shit,” another anonymous attendee said of Clinton, saying he’d never vote for her. Engel the doll-seller said Clinton was “just as dangerous as Trump as far as I’m concerned,” saying she feared she would take the U.S. into yet another war in the Middle East.
No fewer than four people independently pointed to a $500-per-plate fundraiser Clinton held Thursday in Holyoke as a reason they were behind Sanders, suggesting Clinton may be swapping votes for money on the campaign trail.
“Hillary’s out in Holyoke charging $500 a ticket,” said Lamear, a Sanders fan at the Springfield event. “I can’t afford anything like that.” Lamear said he wouldn’t vote for Clinton, saying her agenda was out of touch with working-class individuals like himself.
8. Sanders fans can be refreshingly honest:
9. Odds and ends:
People With Dyed Hair Spotted: 46
Coexist Bumper Stickers On Cars In the Springfield Parking Garage: 8
Different Petitions Circulated: 4. One of them wanted to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to define corporations as non-persons; another sought to levy a new tax on all incomes over $1 million.
“Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” Chants: 5. The subjects were abortion, equal pay for women, abolishing the Citizens United decision, eliminating institutional racism, and eliminating college tuition.
Bern/burn puns (e.g. ‘Feel the Bern,’ ‘Bern It All Down’): Unfathomable in their multitude.
Best audience quote: “What are they playing the Marine hymn for?” Uttered with derision by an older man who was chatting with the Trotskyists about the clash between the pro-North Korea Spartacist League and other Communist groups in the United States.
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