Sitting by myself in a dive bar on South 1st street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a recent Tuesday I’m two drinks in and arriving at a feeling I don’t encounter nearly often enough — the feeling that I’ve found my people.
The televised first Democratic Presidential Debate of the 2016 election cycle is starting on the screen above the bar, with dramatic introductory graphics and overcooked music courtesy of CNN, and now Sheryl Crow is singing the US national anthem.
I’m at a debate watching party organized by the supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House and while I can’t vote for Sanders — green card holders are prohibited from voting in federal elections — I can do two of the next best things; I can put my money where my mouth is, and I can turn up. Witnessing first-hand the outpouring of grassroots support for Sanders is the most energizing thing I’ve experienced in American politics.
I’ve spent much of the past five years finding my US comfort zone, but tonight for once it’s easy. I’m surrounded by twenty-somethings, plenty of women, even a few folks who are closer to my own age. I am usually cautious when talking about politics to people I don’t know, but here I’m reeling off my inner monologues aloud, to complete strangers, and they aren’t treating me like a crazy person.
The energy and enthusiasm with which Sanders’ progressive vision is being greeted is exhilarating. The phenomenon of his support amongst the young has been exhaustively analyzed; however I believe it’s the message, and their receptiveness to the message, rather than their age difference, that matters. Sanders wants America to work, better than it does now, and there are so many people, including me, who feel the same way.
In 2009, when my husband and I started the green card process back in Australia, Barack Obama was in the process getting elected, thanks largely to a well-organized, grassroots campaign. We had high hopes for an Obama presidency to coincide with our time in the USA, but we knew the odds were against him, and we certainly didn’t trust the system. People kept writing Obama off, until he won the election.
So President Obama moved in to the White House just as we were selling our Sydney house and preparing to emigrate to the US.
By the time we arrived, in May 2010, the positivity of the Obama Administration’s ‘first 100 days’ agenda was palpable in New York City. Obama and his team were staring down the retrograde forces that had held sway in the previous administration, and the new President was setting a high bar by being bipartisan, resetting the tone for political debate in a country that had been on a race to the bottom in so many ways.
But 2010 was also the year the Supreme Court decided to let corporations spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns, the so-called Citizens United legislation. Unprecedented spending has now thoroughly corrupted an already dysfunctional campaign finance system. The Tea Party has steadily risen in power and influence within Republican ranks as well as in Congress, and the result is horrifying. Shutting down the government over the debt ceiling (as the Republican-dominated Congress did in October 2013), repeatedly mounting legal challenges against the Affordable Care Act, attacking voting rights in Alabama and elsewhere; the catalogue of woe caused by the radical right keeps expanding.
But there is pushback against the nihilistic trajectory that the so-called Grand Old Party has tried to put the country on. America is waking up to the possibility of a different narrative. Politics doesn’t have to be a “food fight”, as Sanders described the Republican debates. Americans are starting to see broader possibilities, rather than adopting the ever-narrowing tunnel vision of the far right.
The fact that one of the Democratic Presidential candidates at the debate is an ex-Republican speaks volumes. Lincoln Chafee’s best answer on debate night was in response to a question about why he left the Republican Party: he said the party left him; that there’s no room for a liberal moderate in the GOP.
Faced with this tug-of-war battle, the correct response is not to give ground, or loosen the grip on the rope. Democrats, and moderate Republicans, need to drag the debate back to a center ground where a democracy can function. Toward a democratic socialism, in fact.
Sanders’ opponents try to use the word socialism against him — but he reminds listeners that he wont partake of the “casino capitalism” that has caused so much of the inequality that is the reality of the USA today.
One of the best, and most talked about moments of the Democratic debate is Sanders saying he, and the American people, are sick of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails”. People in the bar cheer and holler and it’s electrifying.
Later, pundits will wonder why he supported fellow Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, why he treated her like a human being. But they refuse to understand who Sanders is and what he is doing.
Friends continue to say to me ‘Bernie Sanders won’t get the nomination’. ‘He can’t win against Hillary’. I reply ‘He can’t, until he does.’
Anything that has never been done before cannot be done, until it is done. If people turn up and vote for Sanders, he will get in. America is a ‘can do’ country, not an ‘It can’t happen’ place, so why not this vision? Why not this future?
Bernie Sanders is the only candidate not taking advantage of Citizens United. He’s the only candidate who calls himself a democratic socialist. He has integrity and he speaks many truths that this country needs to hear.
Sanders could be the next progressive president of the United States.