Below is my column for BBC on the Sanders campaign and my recent discussion of the election with over a dozen of his supporters at the University of Michigan. Biden is being portrayed as the effective nominee after last Tuesday and at least one Democrat is suggesting the cancelation of the remaining primaries. However, polls show a distinct lack of excitement about Biden as a candidate. His express selling point is that he is better situated to defeat Trump. That leaves an obvious vacuum on positive passion that was so evident at the Sanders rally that I attended.
Here is the column:
Standing in front of the library of the University of Michigan on Sunday, Bernie Sanders could be excused if he paused a moment to reflect on the estimated ten thousands of cheering supporters.
It was 60 years ago at the University of Chicago that Sanders began what he later described as “the major period of intellectual ferment in my life”.
Sanders joined the Young People’s Socialist League and other organisations and organised his first protest. He could only marshal a force of 32 students to occupy the administration building, but he ultimately prevailed. Sanders spent much of his life fighting for big ideas with small crowds.
Now, he has not just the numbers but the movement that he always dreamt of. Indeed, he is the movement. While some might not want socialism, everyone in this crowd desperately wants Sanders.
Watching from the edge of the massive crowd was one person who knew all too well what Sanders may have been thinking as he stood before this university crowd. Alan Haber smiled while holding fliers for Earth Day, wearing a tiny pin that simply read “SDS.”
The initials stood for The Students for a Democratic Society, a radical student organisation from the 1960s. Hader was its first president. Although others grew more moderate or conservative with age, Sanders and Hader continued to organise and agitate and wait for the crowd that might eventually form.
Those crowds got smaller and smaller for decades. Now the crowd was finally here and waiting for the first major presidential candidate in our lifetimes to call himself an unabashed socialist.
Most of Sanders’ supporters would not be born for decades when he stormed the UChicago administrative building. However, they identified with this 78-year-old radical in a way that Joe Biden can only dream of. Before the rally, I found two students setting up the stage hours before Sanders would emerge.
Arden Shapiro and Hazel Gordon are precisely why the Democratic establishment is so worried about this movement – and so seemingly incapable of tapping into its energy. While they would vote for Biden if forced to in an election against Trump, they see Sanders as the only true and clear voice in the race.
Arden said that she was “really angry” about the level of corporate control in our system perpetrated by both parties. A trans woman, Hazel said that she saw Sanders as the only person truly fighting to help people secure medical insurance, particularly mental health coverage.
Hazel said that she viewed Biden as taking the side of corporations and did not support anything she believed in. Arden would later help introduce Sanders at the rally and called on her fellow students to bring five friends to the polling places to secure a win in Michigan over the establishment.
Others were even more direct. There were the guys distributing “Eat the Rich” T-shirts. Another supporter carried a sign reading “Make Racists Afraid Again”. Those images unnerve many traditional Democratic voters who see this movement as potentially careening out of control.
Sanders has never done particularly well with people of his own age. Many of those who once joined his causes in the 1960s are now worried about their 401k accounts and social security payments. Sanders had to wait for a new generation and they are here in droves. The problem for the Democratic party is that they are including leaders like Biden in their fight against the “establishment”.
Indeed Sanders drove home that point in his speech where he denounced Biden and his “billionaire backers” for trying to kill this movement. The only reference in the speech that drew greater boos than Biden was a reference to ICE raids.
For them, the future lies with Bernie and younger voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who electrified the crowd. Whatever happens Tuesday, Sanders has found his audience and they are not going away. Sanders has shaped a rising generation that does not recoil from the term “socialism” and believes, as he did, that compromise only invites betrayal.
Every establishment figure now appears lined up against Sanders and over a dozen people told me that the concerted effort has only angered them more with the Democratic party. While half insisted that they would reluctantly vote for Biden if needed, half were not sure or outright refused to support Biden.
In other words, many are likely to stay at home. They are ready to storm the White House, the ultimate administrative building, for Bernie but not willing to walk into a polling place for Biden.
One former Michigan graduate wearing a homemade “Socialist Butterfly” jacket with Bernie’s picture on it said that she became a socialist after listening to Sanders in 2016. She is back again in 2020 with the same commitment. She still “feels the Bern” but feels nothing for Biden.
The Democratic establishment is hoping that the hatred for Trump will fill that void, but the co-ordinated effort against Sanders is only reaffirming the view that it is the establishment writ large that is the problem.
Jonathan Turley gives legal analysis for the BBC and is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. He was called as a Republican witness to testify at the Trump impeachment hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.