The audience at Friday night's benefit show in downtown Los Angeles proved that people are ready for the smiling, disheveled, more-or-less polite revolution.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are probably not the first band that comes to mind when you think of political activism. Yoga-sexual lead singer Anthony Kiedis is not Bob Dylan; perpetually shirtless bassist Flea is not Killer Mike. But in at least a few ways, the Southern California radio rock stalwarts are to Popular Rock Music what Bernie Sanders is to the Political Establishment.
Fiercely independent as he may be, Sanders may very well be molding the Democratic Party in his own image. Though at first it seemed as if his campaign was aimed mostly at keeping presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton honest and sufficiently left-leaning during the presidential primaries, it looks increasingly like the Vermont senator may actually have a real shot at securing his party's nomination. And where the Red Hot Chili Peppers were once an unknowable quantity that melded funk, hip-hop, and hardcore punk with knuckle-headed aplomb, the brotastic band unwittingly predicted a sea change in mainstream rock with 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, managing to stay so popular for so long that they outlasted—and outlived—contemporaries like Nirvana, Jane's Addiction, and Pearl Jam, to the point that by the time George W. Bush took office they'd become America's de facto answer to U2.
The logic might seem hazy, but Sanders's campaign and RHCP have enough of an affinity with each other that on Friday, they merged like a middle-aged Voltron for a fundraiser at The Theatre, a venue at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
Th crowd was more diverse, in terms of age and race, than I had expected from a Sanders event (or a RHCP concert, for that matter); a pre-show video montage of social and political leaders set to a live, ukulele rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" leaned heavily on non-white icons. This would presumably please the candidate—the knock on Sanders has long been that he polls poorly with racial minorities and with female, and that this will especially hurt him in the Southern states that hold primaries after New Hampshire.
In a taped dispatch from New Hampshire, Sanders's voice opened the night with an impassioned speech that not only railed against the "billionaire class" and the influence wielded by the One Percent, but likened the grassroots opposition to billionaires to the Civil Rights movement, women's suffrage, and the fight for marriage equality. Each pause was filled by thunderous applause from the sold-out audience.
At this point, it might be worth discussing the Bernie Bro—a gangly, vaping specter that hangs over his campaign. Many observers have pointed out that a certain kind of Sanders supporter—usually affluent, almost always white, college-aged, and male—has taken his aggressive proselytizing support of Sanders past the point of persuasion and into the realm of bullying. Recently, the narrative of the "Bernie Bro" has come under scrutiny for not representing the entirety of Sanders's supports—but the Bernie Bro certainly exists, and he is certainly telling your sister that she would vote differently if only she knew what was good for her.
To wit: Within ten minutes of taking my seat Friday night (and after learning that I was a reporter), a white guy with an earring seated next to me gestured vaguely at the black security guard who was facing us. "The blacks and Latins," he told me, should realize that Sanders will be "way better for them."
But the Bernie Bro is eternal and cannot be pinned to Sanders alone—my clueless neighbor was roughly 45, and he later told me he had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. It served as a reminder that while the Bernie Bro is absolutely a real person, he has probably existed for decades: the Ron Paul Bro, the Michael Dukakis Bro, the George McGovern Bro, the RFK Bro, and so on, back through modern elections. The Bernie Bro might have started listening to music with his first iPod touch, or he might have seen RHCP on tour after 1985's Freaky Styley.
The Sanders candidacy is not an academic one, in which policy wonks cross their arms and frown while someone more charismatic snatches up delegates. The movement is deeply populist, as evidenced by the cross-generational roars for "Otherside" or energy independence. Most people I spoke to at The Theatre were as impassioned and confident in their conviction for Bernie as any Donald Trump supporter, if perhaps less vitriolic. I also spoke to many fans who, despite being decked out in Sanders garb, spoke highly, or at least fairly, of Clinton—a refreshing counterpoint to the blunt, reductive, or harassing arguments that one sometimes sees online, and that Clinton's campaign aides have tried to use to characterize Sanders supporters as a whole.
After the Chili Peppers finished their hour-plus set, and the attendees poured out into downtown LA, there was undoubtedly a kind of electricity among the crowd. Broadway and 9th Street were dotted with the blue Bernie 2016 caps that had been placed meticulously under each chair in the audience, right on top of giant Bernie 2016 placards. But as great as the RHCP set was—the band had leaned heavily on post-2000 hits, and an endearingly messy cover of David Bowie's "Cracked Actor"—the band can't take all the credit for the mood.
From the time I walked past security at the beginning of the night until the time I returned to my car in a $20-lot eight blocks away, most of the people I encountered had trouble containing their excitement about Bernie Sanders. Some of them were insufferable. Many were unfailingly gracious and nice. But everyone was one overpriced Modelo and a mention of single-payer healthcare away from jumping over the balcony and into the revolution—the smiling, disheveled, more-or-less polite revolution.
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