With as many as ten thousand gathered at the University of Michigan for the rally leading into Tuesday’s key primary, the gathering was unmistakingly a Sanders rally. There were the “Eat the Rich” teeshirts and the “Make Fascists Afraid Again” signs. One former Michigan students wore her handmade “Socialist Butterfly” jacket. Popular lead singer James Grace sang of the “breaking the walls” and the “American way . . . a burning crucifix and white supremacy.” However, there was also something not in abundance at Biden rallies: youthful hope. It was not just the overwhelmingly young audience, but also older voters who seemed to rekindle a passion left long behind by decades of political compromise and concessions. This is no campaign. This is now a movement and that should worry the hell about the Democratic establishment.
After writing about attacks on Sanders and his “Bernie Bros” by Biden, various supporters suggested that I come to a rally and judge for myself. That opportunity arose on Sunday at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Before the rally, I met with Arden Shapiro who would help introduce Sanders at the event. She is the descendent of a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and that Sanders is the only genuine person running for change in society. She and Hazel Gordon, a trans gender Michigan student, viewed the other politicians, including Joe Biden, as all cut from the same corporate cloth and impediments to change. While they said they would vote against Trump regardless of who is the nominee, it was not a commitment that many would make.
Both Arden and Hazel dismissed the allegations by Biden and said that it is ridiculous to hold any candidate responsible for every single supporter among millions. Arden and Hazel are credits to both the University of Michigan and the Sanders campaign. They see Sanders as a logical step to jolt the establishment and force real change.
Sanders has not found his element. He is the element for these supporters. I met a young family from Michigan with a young child caring a sign for “Uncle Bernie.” They simply said that they saw no choice but a radical change. Like Arden and Hazel they saw people suffering from untreated conditions and locked in cycles of poverty.
However, there was a feeling of reality crashing in from all sides. Everyone was talking about the full court press by virtually every establishment figure in Michigan to stop Sanders here, once and for all. It has only deepened the view that “the establishment” arbitrarily used party identification but ultimately worked together against real change.
It was hard not to be elevate by the energy and hope that Sanders (and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez) released in this crowd. In over 30 years as a professor, I have never seen students so enraged and excited. Yet, one could not help but feel like a craven cynic at points as the rhetoric soared far beyond any plausible reality. It is not that Sanders cannot win the nomination. He has gone further than anyone would have imagined for a lifelong Socialist with unbending principles. However, Sanders himself at points fueled delusions of dynamic changes. For example, he pledged that on the first day he would unilaterally legalize all marijuana in all fifty states. Putting aside that this is precisely the type of executive abuse and circumvention of Congress that the Democrats that denounced by Trump, it is also not legally possible. Even if Sanders could negate all of the federal drug laws, he cannot alone negate the drug laws of 50 states. Pot may not be a federal crime but it would still be state crime unless Congress preempted all drug laws. There is a great deal Sanders could do – just not that. Such finer points were lost in the moment. Sanders was selling a revolution and this was not the time to raise such points of law. It was like trying to tell Parisians that the backdoor of the Bastille was actually open when they were storming the walls.
That feeling deepened when Ocasio-Cortez reminded the crowd that Jesse Jackson (who endorsed Sanders that day) won the Michigan caucus in 1988. However, omitted from the thrilling prospect of a progressive repeat was that Jackson crashed and lost on the first ballot to Michael Dukakis. Yet, Ocasio-Cortez who fired up the crowd was making a secondary and more poignant point. Jackson was crushed by a unified establishment that “panicked” after Michigan to stop him. She warned that the same forces were fielded against Sanders. That point was echoed by Sanders himself who mocked Biden and his “billionaire backers.” Make no mistake about it. The open effort to stop Sanders has only reaffirmed the view of many of these voters that the Democratic establishment is not a solution to the problem. It is the problem.
The most important thing that Sanders has is what I found missing in some young Biden supporters: passion. Not passion for the election. The two students that I spoke to were passionate about defeating Trump. They were just not that passionate about Biden who they described clinically as someone with the organization and broad appeal to win. After the improvisational jazz of the Sanders students, it sounded like a Gregorian chant.
I left the rally with great affection for these Sanders supporters. We often talk about the need to get students involved. While I disagree with many of Sanders’ proposals, I have always respected him as an individual and agree with him that the establishment has proven either unwilling or incapable of addressing serious problems in our society. Watching this highly diverse crowd join together at this rally was a powerful experience to witness. You do not have to agree with Sanders to find these supporters rejuvenating and inspiring. They are exactly what the Democrats need but exactly what the party is alienating by this unified front against Sanders. As I recently wrote, the Sanders supporters are being treated like barbarians at the gate for the Democratic party. The problem is that they are increasing adopting the same view in their relation to the party.
Here are some of the pictures from the rally: