Below is my column in USA Today on the significance of March 10th as the likely critical blow to Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the presidency. That was the day — 100 year ago — that Eugene Debs, the last major socialist presidential candidate, lost his bid for freedom. He would run his final presidential campaign from jail. Sanders seems to have fallen to the Eugene Debs curse not just in terms of the calendar but the response of the establishment. Liberal icons like Louis Brandeis would join in condemning him to prison and his presidential campaigns were harassed by a wide array of political and police forces. For Sanders, the only thing that has changed is the threat of criminal prosecution. The united front against his campaign remained the same.
Here is the column:
“That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.” That quote could have come from any of the number of Bernie Sanders supporters that I interviewed Sunday at his “yuge” rally at the University of Michigan. The statement however was about a man who last ran 100 years before Sanders: Eugene Debs. Not only is Sanders the obvious political successor to Debs, but the future of his candidacy may rest on the decision on Tuesday — the very anniversary of the final demise of Eugene Debs.
As the candidate for the Democratic Socialist Party, Debs was an ardent believer who led a national movement against the capitalist establishment. He was a dangerous man precisely because, when he spoke, others believed what had long been denied was possible to achieve. For his convictions and his following, Debs was arrested for sedition and, with the help of a shockingly complicit Supreme Court, he was convicted and sent to prison.
Alan Haber in the rally
Thankfully, Sanders is not facing prison for his principles, but he is facing the same type of concerted attacks from establishment figures. That is why I decided to attend Sanders’ rally at the University of Michigan on the eve of a primary that Sanders badly needs to win if he hopes for an upset in the Democratic race. What I saw is precisely what that Debs supporter described: palpable and contagious hope among as many as 10,000 supporters packed before the library at the University of Michigan.
I walked along lines that stretched around the campus to hear Sanders. In the crowd, I spotted one older man with a SDS button. The Students for a Democratic Society was a student organization for radical change in the 1960s whose national secretary was a young man named Bernie Sanders. The elderly man turned out to be Alan Haber, the first president of the SDS. Haber told me that Sanders was the only candidate who was not owned by corporate interests. Like Sanders, Haber has remained unbowed and undeterred through decades of struggle. Now his former SDS colleague is still in the running to be the Democratic nominee for president. What was unimaginable seems tantalizingly close to reality for both Sanders as well as Haber and millions like him.
In speaking with supporters in Michigan, you could not fail to get caught up in the sheer energy and passion of the crowd. This is not a political campaign, it is a movement. That is what his supporters believe that Biden and the Democratic establishment are united to prevent. However, Biden will have a tough time getting many of these people to the polls after bashing Sanders as a socialist supported by thuggish “Bernie Bros.” Haber said that he would reluctantly vote for Biden over Trump but his wife Odile Hugonot Haber was not sure she could get herself to pull the lever for Biden.
It was a view repeated by many. Sanders has extended the horizon of what is possible for many. And these people are not buying the usual compromise of the “art of the possible.” It was notable that the biggest boos in Sanders speech from the crowd came first at the mention of ICE and then at the mention of Biden and his “billionaire backers.”
Many supporters have been fundamentally changed by Sanders and his ideology of Democratic Socialism. One such supporter wore a self-made jacket showing Bernie and a cat with “Socialist Butterfly” emblazoned across the back. She said that she became a socialist after hearing Sanders in 2016. She also balked at the notion of supporting Biden and the establishment.
Sanders may be the candidate that Debs wanted to be. Their rhetoric is strikingly similar. Roughly 100 years ago, Debs told similar crowds that “I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.” Sanders for his part mocked the establishment figures and billionaires lined up behind Biden and against the Vermont senator. He declared himself unabashed and unbowed to the thrill of the crowd.
Tuesday could not be more symbolic for Sanders. It is not just the “mini Super Tuesday” that could break the momentum of his campaign. It is also the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Debs v. United States, a decision viewed by many of us in the free speech community as one of the lowest moments in the history of the Court.
In the case, the Court upheld the conviction of Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917 for opposing World War I. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous Court that included the great civil libertarian Louis Brandeis. The Court dismissed the obvious protected speech under the First Amendment. In directly addressing the jury, Debs repeated his opposition to the war as the product of capitalism and corruption. The Supreme Court said that that was enough since the words had the “natural tendency and reasonably probable effect” of deterring people from supporting or enlisting in the war. Debs would never fully recover from his prison stint even after Warren Harding later commuted his sentence.
Voters will go to the polls on the anniversary of that decision to determine the fate of a man who has followed and eclipsed Debs in a way that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. His critics have declared him too old, too feeble or too radical. But for his supporters, Sanders is also one thing that Biden is not: authentic. To paraphrase the Debs supporter, he is simply the “old man with the [Bernie] eyes.”
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley