‘Tell your grandparents to vote for Bernie’: A call left unanswered

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 6:40pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

Senator Bernie Sanders lowered the microphone from his mouth to his hip, meandered over to the right side of the podium and looked out over the crowd packed into the Diag. The sun was just peeking from the tops of the Hatcher Graduate Library. Sanders stood there, holding his voice and his body still for nearly 10 seconds.  

He lifted his right arm, paused again, and unfurled one of his favorite lines:

“Nelson Mandela, one of the great heroes in modern history, said something that was very profound and appropriate for today. And he said, ‘Everything seems impossible until it is done. Everything seems impossible until it is done.’ ” 

He continued: “In other words, if we were here 70 years ago and somebody said, ‘You know what? The day will come that we’ll have an African American President, people would’ve said ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t be crazy, it’ll never happen. America is too racist a country. The day will come when gay marriage will be legal in America – ‘Don’t be crazy. That will never happen.’ The day will come when we have women governors and Senators all over this country — ‘Don’t be crazy. That can’t happen.’ ”

The crowd gained energy with each repetition.

Sanders went on to name major hurdles in this contemporary struggle for equality: Wall Street, insurance companies, drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, among other regular punching bags on the campaign trail.

“But, you know what, they are not the major impediment to progress,” he said. “The major impediment is the limitations of our own imagination.”

Sanders’s voice bellowed with a trademark fervor. The moment marked a tenuous one in the Sanders campaign, mere days after the axis on which his candidacy rested turned on its head. The Michigan primary, to be contested three days later, had suddenly heightened in urgency.

His speech came on the heels of an unexpected blow on Super Tuesday — one which saw former Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps improbably, lift his campaign from its depths to win 10 of 14 states. Biden won seven of those states by double-digit margins, including Virginia and Alabama, which he won by 30 and 47 points, respectively. Those margins helped boost his lead in total delegates to 82, and spurred his projection in the FiveThirtyEight Democratic Primary Forecast to an 89 percent chance to win a majority of pledged delegates. 

Sanders spent the days prior to Tuesday’s primary careening around the state, from Flint to Dearborn to Grand Rapids. It was announced only late Saturday evening that Sanders would be joined in Ann Arbor by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., undeniably his most popular surrogate among the Gen Z crowd. Together, they spent much of Sunday speaking to their plan: to reconfigure what is and isn’t possible in American politics through a resurgent, energized base of younger voters.

The symmetry of that relationship — the youngest member of Congress aligned with one of its oldest — conveys a degree of clarity about the democratic socialist movement and the sanctity of its moral convictions. It weaves a tale of resilience and longevity, perseverance and vision.

We hope this is the present, but it’s most definitely the future. Get on board or be left behind. 

“(Sanders) stands for what I think (is) right ... both politically and morally,” LSA freshman James Aidala, a leader among the Students for Bernie organization at Michigan, told The Daily. “I think that everyone should have health care. Everyone should have a wage that they can live off of, if they work a full 40 hours a week. So he just speaks to me on basically, you know, all kinds of levels, that he is somebody who can run the country the right way.”

What’s left unsaid in Sanders’s invocations of Mandela is that in order to truly reconfigure the structure of American society, Sanders — or someone of his ideology — must first ascend to those positions of power like the presidency. Idealism without requisite authority can only go so far.

Through that lens, Sanders’s 14-point loss three days later to Biden in Michigan, a bellwether state in both the primary and the general election, reflected an electorate increasingly unwilling to take those leaps. According to exit polls in Michigan, Biden won a majority of white voters and a majority of Black voters. He won among voters with an advanced degree and he won amongst those without a college degree. Ninety-four percent of voters said they’d trust Biden in a crisis. He won union voters. He won voters who said healthcare was their most important issue. The win was diverse and thorough.

And one statistic told the tale of the night and the entire cycle: Among voters under 30, 82 percent supported Sanders. Among voters 65 and over, 73 percent supported Biden. 

The former category accounted for just 15 percent of all voters. The latter made up 23 percent.

***

In the cool Ann Arbor air on Sunday, a protester walked around the Sanders rally holding a large sign reading “Every Socialist is a Dictator”. Clad in a top that said, “The Anti-Socialist Social Club”, he engaged some rally attendees in debate. 

Many Republicans today liken Sanders to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, pointing to their policies in Cuba and Venezuela. Among Democrats, the fear of electoral repercussions ignites a craving for pragmatism — a trait antithetical to Sanders’s zero-sum approach.

In a July 2019 speech at George Washington University, Sanders likened his democratic socialist vision to that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. In doing so, Sanders tried to counter the Republican portrayal of “socialism” as taboo, a tactic that’s been used for decades. Roosevelt did not define himself as a socialist but Sanders has self-identified as a democratic one for the majority of his career. During his speech, Sanders referenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor” a line used to dispute the depictions of him as a radical and emphasize the class disparity central to his campaign. Still, the long negative connotation of socialism in the United States begs the question as to whether Sanders can win the presidency — let alone the nomination — as a democratic socialist. Whether the stigma alone is too much to overcome.

But, perhaps spurred by Sanders’s national rise over the past five years, the tides of that perception are changing.

In 2018, more Democrats had a positive view of socialism than had a positive view of capitalism according to Gallup, with 57 percent of Democrats holding a positive view of socialism and 47 percent holding a positive view of capitalism. But this shift in opinion among Democrats doesn’t translate to a shift among the public as a whole. In a 2019 poll, the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of Americans overall have a negative view of socialism, with 42 percent having a positive view. However, this is an increase since 2012, when 60 percent had a negative view of socialism and only 31 percent had a positive reaction — an increase likely owed to Sanders and his rise. 

The classic 18-29 age group has the most positive view of socialism, with 50 percent labeling socialism as either “very positive” or “somewhat positive.” This is the group Sanders courts most often. LSA sophomore Anna Nedoss, a leading organizer with Students for Bernie, detailed Sanders’s operation: a summer and winter school for training students in the art of campaigning. Both schools were aimed at teaching students how to organize their college campuses and build support for Sanders. The program was the only one of its kind in the Democratic field. 

As mentioned, Sanders leans heavily on those who buy into his brand of democratic socialism the most: millennials and the Gen-Z generation. Aidala chuckled when asked what democratic socialism means to him. 

Sorry, it’s just everyone keeps asking that,” he followed. “It’s to make people’s lives better. It is to help our most vulnerable wherever we can … you can call it what you want, but a lot of people could use health care and education right now. So if that's socialism, or that’s bananas, either way. I like both.” 

In each interview with a Students for Bernie leader, Marx and Lenin were not brought up. Socialism in Venezuela and Cuba was not held up as shining examples — no expropriation of land, no nationalizing of oil companies, no price controls. For LSA freshman Alex Nobel, another leader in Students for Bernie, it was simple and succinct: “My view of democratic socialism is government helping people, instead of corporations, putting working people ahead of the rich.” These descriptions of democratic socialism and its policies sound akin to Roosevelt’s New Deal policies — which Sanders would be happy about — rather than policies of politicians like Chavez and Castro.

But this heavy lean on young voters to advance the ideals of democratic socialism to the White House is unstable. During Super Tuesday, turnout among voters under 30 didn’t top 20 percent across the 14 states voting. That’s unworkable and is likely a major factor behind Sanders’s tepid Super Tuesday result. Sanders needs to add more voters over 50 to the bandwagon — voters that consistently turn up and vote. But that demographic isn’t too positive about socialism: 38 percent of 50-64-year-olds and 35 percent of those over 65 think positively about it. 

Seemingly, it’s the label alone that’s holding him back. The democratic socialism umbrella of policies includes such trademarks as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and free college. Those policies are widely popular among Democrats according to a Marist poll. Sixty-four percent say Medicare for All is a good idea, 86 percent say the Green New Deal is good and 76 percent like free public college, too. Yet Sanders, who is the only candidate left touting these policies, lost 10 states on Super Tuesday to Biden, who supports none of these policies. Ray, a longtime Ann Arbor resident, made plans to vote for Sanders: “I don’t think Bernie’s about socialism at all. I really, I very much doubt it. There's no way Americans would do socialism.” While Ray sees through the stereotype of the word and supports single-payer healthcare and free education for those who want it, the Democratic establishment doesn’t seem to think the rest of the public can — at least in numbers that could win an election. 

But that generational disparity still represents the central chasm in the Democratic Primary, a numbers game that leaves Sanders’s bet to turn out young voters in unprecedented, revolutionary numbers increasingly flimsy. The latest poll from Quinnipiac highlighted that gulf between older and younger voters. Nationally, 80 percent of those over 65 support Biden and 71 percent of those under 35 support Sanders. Based on turnout numbers, Sanders’s lone hope at reclaiming momentum and any feasible path to the nomination requires bridging that gap.

As rally-goers and pedestrians filed in and out of the Diag, some heading out of the chilly evening before the end of Sanders’s remarks, a voice yelled out above the fray with one parting message: “Tell your grandparents to vote for Bernie.” 

***

After all the pomp and circumstance of the last week — Sanders parading around the state for days, staking the future of his campaign on an upset in Michigan — NBC News called the state for Biden shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday night. Neither candidate offered a speech, precautions taken to combat fears over Coronavirus. 

Many prognosticators used Michigan as the final nail in the Sanders campaign’s coffin, some pronouncing the nomination of Biden a foregone conclusion.

It also offered an indirect indictment of Sanders, who defied the polls to win the Michigan Primary in 2016. 

In some ways, the bleak outlook makes the dynamics of Sunday’s speech on the Diag even more pertinent. Ocasio-Cortez, likely the future of the democratic socialist movement, pre-empting Sanders’s speech.

Standing near the steps to Hatcher Graduate Library, Ocasio-Cortez referenced a 1984 speech by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had recently endorsed the Sanders campaign. The younger cohort of students stood closer to the stage. Many of the older attendees held back beyond the fence, listening from afar.

“Michigan, we have goliaths in our country today,” Ocasio-Cortez said, amid fervent roars. “The goliath of the fossil fuel industry. The goliath of big pharma. The goliath of the role of big money in politics. These are powerful, powerful forces. And we are David. We are David. David, all of us, the little guys.” 

Then she offered a warning to the movement, one which superseded the here and now of Bernie Sanders and the presidential race.

“What David had to do before he confronted Goliath was to shed his unnecessary clothes,” she said. “... Because in order for us to grow, well rather in order for us to win, we have to grow. We have to grow. We must be inclusive. We must bring more people into this movement.”