I've never been one for attending religious services, but Monday evening, I journeyed up to Riverside Church in Morningside Heights to see Bernie Sanders kick off his tour promoting his new book for young adults, Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution. Sitting in the pews among a sold-out crowd of ecstatic Bernie supporters while the Vermont senator delivered a rousing speech, I thought, If church was like this, I'd go every day.
Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America, and watching the way he commanded the church, you can quickly understand why. "The political revolution is not Bernie, it is you," he began. Like the no-nonsense Brooklyn Jewish grandpa he is, Sanders laid out his clear vision for a more equal America, in accessible terms. He spoke of "the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in this country," framing it as not only an economic issue, but a "profoundly moral" one. What makes Bernie so compelling is that he presents his ideology through the lens of needless human suffering.
"The six—the six—wealthiest people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom half of the world's population, 3.7 billion people," he said. "There are billionaires out there who compete with each other to see how big their yachts are… While these billionaires boast of their wealth and their greed, hundreds of millions of people… suffer from malnutrition and die of easily treated diseases, while tens of millions more live in incredible squalor."
If you can't tell, I'm a fan of Bernie Sanders. I voted for him in the 2016 Democratic primary, even though I wasn't sold on his electability—after all, he's a septuagenarian who sounds distinctly Jewish and identifies as a democratic socialist. But after Hillary Clinton's uninspiring campaign, her surprise loss, and the feeling of all-consuming hopelessness that the Trump administration has spawned, I have found myself becoming an increasingly avid Bernie bro. The popularity of his leftist ideology has sparked a tiny flame of optimism within me, and as Trump continues to dismantle the government and divide us all, I really need that.
Bernie is sometimes criticized for focusing on economic populism at the expense of "identity politics"—a.k.a. the unique problems facing people of color and LGBTQ Americans. But on Monday he didn't only talk about the pain of the working class, the millions of Americans who are up to their eyeballs in student and medical debt, and the uninsured, but also condemned the trans military ban, the cruelty undocumented immigrants face and the need for DACA, the wage gap, and the perils of fossil fuels. Perhaps as a response to the "Bernie bro" narrative Hillary diehards continue to advance—that his support base is composed of sexist white men who only care about breaking up the big banks—Sanders's speech on Monday night was thoroughly intersectional.
The crowd was largely full of hardcore Berners—many adorned in Bernie paraphernalia. The gender split looked about 50/50. Half the attendees looked like they were 12, while the rest looked like they were about 126. There were lots of families there as well. Ava Dawn Heydt, an ardent supporter, passed out Bernie 2020 signs with her infant son strapped to her chest, along with her husband and four young children.
Juliana Perez and Sophia Singer—14-year-olds who were "almost 15," they both made sure to note—were there with their moms. They were all keen on Clinton throughout 2016—"Sorry!" Perez exclaimed—but since the rise of Trump, the women were increasingly feeling the Bern. "I like how he's trying to influence young people, and trying to get more us involved in politics because it's gonna be our choice when we get older," Perez explained.
Sisters Dahlia Hamza Constantine and Sarah Hamza, both Columbia graduate students and Bernie supporters, brought along their parents, neither of whom voted for Sanders but were nevertheless "interested" in the politics he espouses. "I'm a registered Republican," their father, Ahmed, who immigrated to the US from Egypt in the 1960s, told me. "If I knew Trump would become president, I would not come to this country… I'm distancing myself from all [political] parties now. I wish Sanders would start the independent movement."
Other attendees, both old and young, expressed a similar sentiment—they wanted Bernie to break off from the Democratic Establishment, as some of his supporters did when he lost out to Hillary Clinton last year. So it came as no surprise that some of the biggest applause of the night came when Sanders said, "[It] wasn't that Trump won the election, it was that the Democratic Party lost the election." (He didn't mention Clinton by name.)
After describing the struggles of working for low wages, being burdened by student and medical debt, Sanders said, "For many, many years Democrats have turned their back on that pain… It's hard time, if the Democratic Party wants to regain power, in the White House, in the Senate, in the House, in the governor's chairs all over this country, remember the old Woody [Guthrie]* quote, 'Which side are you on?' The Democratic Party must be on the side of the working families in this country." More uproarious applause.
Sanders's speech was ultimately about the pervasive injustice and pain many Americans suffer—basically the opposite of Clinton's "America never stopped being great" line from 2016. But that didn't mean his message isn't hopeful. He offered a path forward, announcing that his plans to introduce a Medicare-for-all bill in two weeks, but also spoke about mending the divide between Trump supporters and the rest of the country. "It is a mistake… to believe that all Trump supporters are racist or sexist or homophobes," Sanders said, before he delved into why the Democrats have failed the working class. He didn't talk about Trump supporters as lost causes.
Instead he said, "What Donald Trump and his friends are about is, for very cheap political reasons, trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin, our religion, the country where we came from or our sexual orientation. That's what demagogues always do… When we stand together and focus on the real problems facing our country, there's nothing we can't accomplish."
I was primed for that kind of message—after all, I was pretty much a full-blown Bernie bro from the outset. But until I saw him speak live, I didn't quite understand his mass appeal—how a senior citizen with slouched shoulders, whose voice sounds like the adults I grew up with, could win over so many Americans. He is a particularly compelling political figure because he's authentic, willing to display more emotion than many of his Democratic colleagues. He's not afraid to express his utter disgust for the billionaire class, and he is more than willing to criticize the Democratic Party.
The comparisons between Sanders and Trump are fairly obvious. (I mean, they're both old men from New York City.) The president won over large swaths of the country in part because he brutally mocked Establishment Republicans and seemed to be telling it like it was. Both Trump and Sanders embody a different style of politics than Obama, the Clintons, the Bushes, and so forth. They're not interested in respectability, nor are they afraid to say what they really think. Although Trump is seldom, if ever, honest, he is always authentically himself. Sanders a similar kind of elusive authenticity.
Of course, unlike Trump, Sanders is committed to an ideology that he's held for decades. He actually has a vision, and he expresses that vision, and the legislative work it would take to get there, as a cure for the misery of trying to survive in America. He makes radical change seem possible. If more Democrats were like Bernie Sanders, they might be able to start winning again.
*An earlier version of this article included a quote Sanders attributed to Woody Allen. He clearly meant the folk singer Woody Guthrie.
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