GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA – Seven hundred and fifty-five miles separate Marshalltown, Iowa and Greenville, South Carolina.
Sixty-nine days have passed since I watched Bernie Sanders speak to an overflow crowd of nearly two hundred and fifty in a cramped UAW hall, all the while battling an aged speaker system his gruff Brooklyn accent would eventually defeat. Yesterday, the crowd in Greenville, traditionally a Republican stronghold, was in the thousands.
What a long way this campaign has come.
Be it the crowd, the enthusiasm, or even the simple means by which the organization has coagulated its base and tuned its mechanics–whether that’s the overwhelming number of volunteers toting clipboards or the walls lined with signage and pro-Bernie messages–this has the feel of a growing movement.
All around the country Sanders has been filling arenas and events with impressive crowds. In Arizona it was 11,000. 15,000 in Seattle. 27,000 Californians packed the Los Angeles Sports Memorial Arena earlier this month and before that 28,000 came to Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.
And despite constant criticism and skepticism from media outlets, not to mention a pervading opinion that Sanders’ meteoric rise is temporary and will amount to a historical afterthought, the people keep coming.
All five of the TD Convention Center’s parking lots are filled. There are streams of people, families, strange bedfellows–southern businessmen and tie-dyed septuagenarians chatting in the late morning sunshine–making the trek across the roads and down embankments on their way to one of the three congested entrances. A series of BERNIE 2016 sign-wielding volunteers guide the column of still-arriving vehicles down the boulevard and to the parking for the nearby airport, the gravel lots already choked full.
They are the predictable stock.
Liberal arts professors still grasping for the Sixties promise of societal revolution.
Artisanal craftspeople who’d be more comfortable at the Saturday morning farmer’s market or taking shifts at the local co-op.
Poet radicals, some wearing Che Guevara shirts and some yet wearing shirts with Bernie Sanders’s face replacing the insurgent’s.
The freaks and geeks who’ve been waiting decades for the socio-economic institutions of this country to so far imbalance the scales that everyday Americans will finally, finally even hear the case for socialism.
And judging by the people in attendance, the time is now.
Waiting for the candidate the hall, filled to the brim with late-arrivers squeezing in from the sets of double-doors, the talk is of two things: Donald Trump and socialism.
Of the former: when will the ludicrousness end? When will the country wake from its collective fever-dream and expel Trump like so much questionable food?
Of the latter: “When did socialism get to be such a bad word?” I hear a woman remark in the crowd.
“You know,” her companion, sporting Birkenstocks and a straw hat adorned with FEEL THE BERN buttons, “I couldn’t even tell you.”
Among the many conversations that’re blending and bleeding together, there’s talk that the country has transformed into something the Founding Fathers wouldn’t recognize, an oligarchical system that serves the biggest of banks and wealthiest of men. For the attendees, Bernie Sanders’s talk of a political revolution isn’t just rhetoric, but an invitation to a full-scale rebellion.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” I hear a woman nearby say. She’s wearing a black shirt with a spotty print of Sanders yelling into a microphone. “I just have a feeling,” she continues, “that this is our guy.”
The entire purpose and drive of the Sanders campaign is to evoke the feeling that Bernie is our guy. Here is, finally, the one politician who has never strayed from his principles or bothered to play the game. Here is the man who isn’t concerned with the usual niceties and business that modern politics demand. He has one issue–the frightening and ever-growing inequality between the haves and have-nots–and refuses to engage in the tricks of the trade, including SuperPACs, high-rolling donors, and media glad-handing.
Bernie Sanders is simply an ideologically pure candidate who cannot, and will not, be bought and sold.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of what some pundits refer to, tongue firmly planted in cheek, as “evolving.”
One of the hardest parts of running for national office, particularly in the era of twenty-four hour news coverage, is the incorporation of new sound bites and policy matters in a stump speech that has been honed and pruned within an inch of its life. Some orators are naturally gifted–say, President Obama or Bill Clinton–and make the fresh subjects feel as if they’re points of discussions or simply off-the-cuff assertions, as if the speaker is realizing, in real-time before the audience, a development regarding a matter of national concern. The worst–Hillary is, if not the absolute worst, way near the top–come off as insincere or, even worse, opportunistic.
Bernie is somewhere in the middle of that pack. His speeches are strongest when he’s chewing the fat of inequality and putting, in plainspoken and passionate language, the plights of the working and middle class. In Iowa it was as if a terminally frustrated old man had wondered into the hall to say his final piece before he retired to the wilderness in an attempt to get away, at long last, from the inequities of modern life. A wild haired prophet come to deliver unglad tidings.
In South Carolina, the possibility of actually Winning This Damn Thing has come into full view. Before Sanders ever stepped on the podium, he was preceded by his new national press-secretary Symone Sanders, a twenty-five year old social justice activist and supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has made a recent trend of interrupting Sanders’s rallies. Hoping to kneecap any potential interrupting before it got started, she spoke at length of Sanders’s civil rights’ achievements.
In addition, Sanders has coopted the platform of Black Lives Matters in whole and now dots his stump speech with references, sometimes naturally and sometimes awkwardly, to their stances. One of the biggest applause lines of the afternoon was when Bernie, banging the podium while he called for equality, recited the names of those African-Americans recently killed by police, a demand the Black Lives Matters caucus made during one of their actions.
Perhaps less dramatic was Sanders’s latest topics: Supreme Court nominations based on stances regarding Citizens United and a less-than-specific plan to replace ailing infrastructure. The focus of the speech has changed from all-economics-all-the-time and has developed into the more nuanced and familiar tone of a politician capable of reaching high office.
The evolution of Sanders reminds me a lot of Rick Santorum’s rise in the wake of 2012’s surprising Iowa caucus. Though it wasn’t yet obvious that he’d beaten Romney, the presumptive frontrunner, there was something growing in Santorum after his shocking upset. His speeches became clearer, more focused, and with every appearance he began to grow into the role of Serious Contender. There was a magic to that Santorum campaign that occasionally catches with candidates, particularly fringe upstarts, when they begin to see the momentum building.
There’s a danger though in such an ascension. In some campaigns the evolution challenges the candidate to become a better version of him or herself, to push themselves to fulfill the promise of The Leap, while in others, let’s say Dukakis or, shudder, George W. Bush leading up to the 2000 Election, it entices the contender in directions they never would’ve considered before and oftentimes leads them to personal ruin or damnation.
In Iowa, while addressing a ragtag assortment of Midwest radicals and unionists, Sanders spoke of winning the presidency as if the contest itself were an afterthought, a less important goal than just saying the important things aloud. In Greenville, the presidency is front and center, the job a means to an end of finally leveling the playing field.
“It is immoral to give tax breaks to the wealthiest corporations and citizens when there are children hungry,” he declares, his gruff voice fading with every word. “It is immoral to ship jobs and factories to China when there are people struggling here at home.”
And then, in a pivot he’s refused to make in past speeches, he resets the conversation and paints economics as a “family values issue,” the attention firmly on GOP opponents. He fills in his own autobiography, mentioning his wife and children and grandchildren, a piece of personal story he’s avoided since his entry into national politics. Then, when the speech is over, his wife Jane O’Meara Driscoll, joins him onstage and the duo waves at the crowd as “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” blasts over the speakers.
Much like his friend and fellow-Vermonter Howard Dean, Sanders has chosen, until now, to campaign alone and without the aide of his partner, a choice that has, at times, cost him in the polls. Male politicians regularly appear alongside their wives to both shore up the female vote and “soften” their image, something Dean needed in the weeks leading to his disastrous Iowa showing as reports painted him as being “too angry” and “unstable.” Dean refused, and I’m guessing Sanders did as well, because he saw it as a type of pandering unbefitting a serious candidate. Jane’s appearance Friday, and in subsequent events, is another move that I’m sure firebrand Sanders isn’t particularly thrilled about, but I’m sure he’s more than happy to jump through hoops as long as polls keep showing him gaining on, and occasionally leading, Hillary Clinton.
They’re winning moves–the adoption of Black Lives Matter, the slick rhetorical tactics, and the embracing of the politics of the personal–but where is the polish leading?
Two months separate “Bernie Sanders: Political Rebel” and “Bernie Sanders: Actual Contender,” begging the question: which Bernie Sanders will be looking at two months from now?
Waiting by the escalator are another dozen or so volunteers. They’re directing the people who’ve been inspired to sign up at the tables nearby for E-mail alerts and opportunities to help the campaign. Already the lines to the table wrap around the corner and resemble more the line to get in in the first place than the one to leave. One woman approaches me with a clipboard and a sign-up sheet and when I tell her I’m good she gives me a sticker.
“Put this on,” she tells me, “so they know I talked to you.”
I take it, apply it to my shirt, and then remove it a few feet away.
Before the escalator, another volunteer, another sticker.
“This is the system, huh?” I ask him.
He holds a roll of them. His shirt has an outline of Sanders’s trademark wildman hair and his academic glasses. GIVE ‘EM HELL, BERNIE! They’re on sale by the hundreds downstairs, available in white, blue, black, red, and pink. “Yep. Take a sticker and we know we’ve got you.”
To be kind I accept and pocket it as I take the first step down.
Bernie Sanders – Caricature by DonkeyHotey