A weekend with Bernie

He’s a socialist, anti-Wall Street senator from Vermont who’s drawing bigger crowds than Trump. Why America is suddenly paying attention to Bernie Sanders.

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U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves as he arrives to speak at a campaign event in Eldridge, Iowa, United States, August 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young – RTX1OFBJ

(Jim Young/Reuters)
(Jim Young/Reuters)

A weekend at president Bernie’s begins in the sweltering gymnasium of a small-town New England junior high school, where the socialist son of an immigrant paint salesman is tossing up rainbows and earning high Marx from the crowd.

Fervent, flushed and fanatic on the topics of corporate wealth and public health, the orator hoarsely roars for 90 solid minutes to a whooping crowd of about a thousand white people wearing “Let’s start a political revolution today!” buttons (plus a single young African-American man who is seated as a cynosure in the front row of the stage). He scathingly invokes the word “billionaires” 13 times, earns a dozen standing ovations and singles out for especial excoriation the poor Walton clan of Arkansas, who grew a storefront empire called Wal-Mart from a single backwoods five-and-dime.

For Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an angry, upstart, yet suddenly viable candidate for the White House, nothing exceeds like success. “The Walton family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 per cent of the American people,” Sanders seethes, to wild roaring. “That is profoundly wrong. This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class: You can’t have it all!”

This late-August speech in Salem, N.H., is classic Bernie—a sweat-drenched harangue against “the greed and illegal behaviour of Wall Street,” a vow that “war must be the last resort, not the first resort” and an invocation of “a people’s campaign where people say, ‘Enough is enough, this country belongs to all of us, not just a handful of millionaires and billionaires!’ ” He has been hollering identical views to the hollow halls of Congress since the Green Mountain State first sent him to Washington in 1990. But this summer, proletarians across America are listening.

“I will never understand why millions of middle-class Republicans continue to vote against their own best interests,” sighs the former member of the Young People’s Socialist League. “They should be voting against a party whose main purpose in life is supporting billionaires!”

As the overflow audience hollers its approval from the Woodbury Middle School gym and the corridors and lunchroom beyond, Sanders, who turns 74 on Sept. 8, vows, if elected, to implement a Canadian-style, single-payer, government health insurance system, to create 13 million “decent-paying jobs” by launching a $1-trillion public-works program, to break up the country’s largest banks—“If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big to exist!”—and to pay for it all with a punitive tax on what he calls “Wall Street speculation.”

“Burn, Bernie, burn!” the Salem audience bellows in response.

“This is not utopia-dreamy!” their idol cries, still astride the same pink horse that he has been riding since he was a kid in Brooklyn, N.Y., 60-odd years ago.

“This is democratic socialism!” exults a woman named Maria, amid the Salem crowd. “Bernie is going to be the next president of the United States!”

As recently as two months ago, the idea that Sanders of maple-syrupy Vermont might ooze into the Oval Office instead of Hillary Clinton seemed preposterous. Here was the presumed first female president, with hundreds of millions of dollars in Wall Street and side-street contributions in her handbag, a widely adored (especially by African-Americans) first gentleman by her side and a CV so impressive that even Republican candidate Marco Rubio acknowledged that “If this election is a resumé competition, then Hillary will be the next president.”

Meanwhile, at the nadir of barely five per cent polling was the nominally independent Sanders—this cycle’s big-business-bashing incarnation, in a way, of perennial third-party candidate Ralph Nader. Sanders, a former pamphleteer, propagandist and mayor of Burlington, Vt., was polluting his own neutrality by seeking the Democratic Party’s imprimatur while histrionically eschewing corporate cash of any kind. (By late August, he had raised $12.5 million from 400,000 individual supporters, an average of about $31 per pledge.) Sharing the boondocks with him was Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor whose left-liberal platform is barely distinguishable from Sanders’s, without all the shouting and all the cheers.

But by Labour Day, buoyed by the surviving Boomers of the Woodstock/Grateful Dead/Hell-no-we-won’t-go-to-Vietnam tribe and canonized by debt-saddled collegians for his pledge to slash student-loan interest rates and to offer a tuition-free public university education for the generations to come, Sanders was surging ahead of Clinton in voter-opinion surveys in New Hampshire, where the first primary contest will be held in January. Still to be heard from was Vice-President Joe Biden, who was mulling a candidacy that would render the contest even more frantic and fun.

From coast to coast since July, Sanders has consistently been attracting the largest crowds of any candidate of either party, easily eclipsing Clinton’s paltry peanut galleries. He has even been out-drawing Donald Trump, the Republican with whom he shares an apparently magnetic appeal to the masses, despite the gaping differences in their ideologies and bank accounts.

“He’s still comrade Bernie, up there screaming at the capitalists,” says Walter Block, one of Sanders’s childhood pals from Brooklyn, now a distinguished (but not left-wing) professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. “He’s fun to watch. He has a lot of presence now, but he already had a lot of presence in high school. He’ll clean the floor with Hillary in the debates. Once he picks up a few black votes, Bernie’s gonna kick her butt.”

If there is an epicentre of Bernie-dom at its most devoted, it may be the Brattleboro Food Co-Op in that pretty little city on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. Here, in a gleaming new supermart governed and staffed by its own shopper/members, a visitor finds a magnificent salad bar, every conceivable flavour of kombucha and a young woman named Vicky Senni, the store’s outgoing education and outreach specialist and the incoming southern Vermont field coordinator of an organization called Let’s Grow Kids. “I met Bernie at a rally we had here against a nuclear power plant in 2012,” Senni recalls. “I must admit I was a little star-struck.”

“Him being our senator makes me feel like things could happen here that couldn’t happen in the rest of the country,” she goes on. “It’s a small-enough state, and we have Bernie as our senator and he’s a socialist, and that lays the groundwork for so many things—for early-childhood education, for health care as a human right.”

Bernie Sanders is no stranger to quaint little Brattleboro. For more than a decade, he has been a regular participant in the town’s annual Strolling of the Heifers, the quintessentially Vermont milch-cow counterpart to Spain’s running of the bulls.

“Are you a socialist?” Senni is asked.

“When you say you’re a socialist, people think you’re a communist,” she answers. “But if my only choices are Democrat, Republican or socialist, then yeah, I’m a socialist. But Bernie’s campaign is about everybody. I think if our young people are voting and paying attention, we can become the majority.”

Senni is paying more than attention—she owes thousands of dollars in outstanding university loans, at a rate of eight per cent per annum. And she understands that fulfilling all of Bernie’s promises “would mean an increase in taxes when people can barely pay their rent.”

“Bernie seems so angry all the time,” a visitor notes.

“There’s a reason he’s angry,” Senni responds. “People tell me I’m angry. People tell black people they’re angry. People tell women—feminists—they’re angry. People talk about anger as if it’s a total turnoff and it shuts the conversation down. It should open it up!”

In Brattleboro and nationally, the counterpoint to Bernie-love seems to be Hillary-loathing. At a shop called Everyone’s Books (“Cards, books, periodicals for social change and the Earth”), a customer named Peter Falion sums it up: “I don’t know any other politician who talks to you about a personal problem and ends up with his arm around your shoulder like Bernie does,” Falion says. “If Hillary did that, she’d have her hand in your back pocket.”

“Why not Hillary?” Senni is asked, back at the co-op. “We know where Hillary’s money comes from—corporations and super PACs,” she replies. “Hillary does not have our interests in mind. She won’t even tell us where she stands on the Keystone pipeline. I don’t trust Hillary—how can you?

“We know we’re in a bubble here,” she says. “We have no diversity—our membership is at least 99 per cent white. But we have Bernie as our senator, and hopefully as our next president. This is the most sane place I’ve ever been.”

Two of the voters in the audience at Woodbury Middle School are Jan Habinowski and Ben Cohen. Habinowski is a retired nurse and a proudly independent voter. “I’m shopping for a candidate,” she says as she enters the gym. “I’m not just looking for a two-word slogan.”

“Are you a billionaire yourself?” she is asked. She isn’t.

“But without a few millionaires and billionaires, who would fund our hospitals, endow our charitable institutions and universities and our national parks?” Habinowski reasons. “Sure, a lot of them weren’t good guys, but they put their money to good use. You can’t just go by their pocketbooks. There are some pretty nasty poor people, too.”

Cohen is not a nurse. He is the Ben of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and a long-time acolyte of his fellow adopted Vermonter, Bernard Sanders. “Why is Bernie so mad at Wal-Mart?” Ben is asked after the speech.

“Wal-Mart is just a symptom of a larger problem,” he answers. “The American dream is that you can do better than your parents did, and that dream is destroyed today.”

“Shouldn’t we break up Unilever, too?” Maclean’s presses. Unilever is a European conglomerate that bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2001 from Cohen and his founding co-churner, Jerry Goldstein, for $323 million. “All he’s talking about doing is breaking up the big banks,” Cohen replies.

“People thought we were crazy when we started putting dough in our ice cream,” Ben and Jerry argue in a recent email to Sanders’s supporters. “Let’s get the dough out of politics.”

“Once you make money the equivalent of speech and you let the wealthiest corporations buy politicians, the people they represent are essentially disenfranchised,” Cohen expounds now in the middle-school gym. “The role of democracy is to set a level playing field. The role of democracy is to put limits on capitalism.”

James Madison High School is a stalwart edifice on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, the same boulevard that once led to Ebbets Field, the former home of the Dodgers, back when the borough and Bernie Sanders, class of 1959, were young.

This school has nurtured an extraordinary constellation of American achievers over the decades—from senators Sanders and Charles Schumer of New York to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Judy of television jurisprudence; from William Gaines, the co-founder of Mad magazine, and singer Carole King to four Nobel laureates, comedian Chris Rock and many more.

The tiled halls are quiet on an August afternoon. There is a photo of Bernie Sanders on the school’s wall of distinction, and a handful of maintenance workers are readying the school for autumn’s children. A woman named Veronica Palmieri, officially titled secretary to the custodian, is in her office. “This guy Sanders is pretty good,” she says. “He’s for the middle class. He doesn’t have as much money as those other people. I could see myself voting for him.”

“Why not Hillary?” she’s asked. It’s getting to be a familiar line of inquiry on a weekend at president Bernie’s.

“I would never vote for her,” Palmieri says. “I don’t trust her. Too many lies. Look at her lies about the emails now.”

Fifty-plus years ago, the senator-candidate whom Mother Jones calls “a wild-haired socialist from Vermont” was a lean middle-distance runner for James Madison High School, and a good one, too. His father, who had found a job selling paint on Long Island after escaping pre-war Poland, and his mother, who would sicken and die when Bernie was in his teens, were not intensely interested in politics. But a grandfather had been an ardent socialist, and, as one teammate from the track squad remembers now, so was almost everyone else in the neighbourhood.

“In Brooklyn, everybody was a leftie,” Block, the professor, says. “The rabbis were lefties. The community leaders were lefties. Bernie and I were both socially progressive lefties. We caught it from the atmosphere.”

Block would find a cure for his progressivitis. But Sanders would remain exactly what he was in Brooklyn, what he was even before he moved to Chicago and then Vermont—a believer in certain certainties, who could not, and still cannot, fathom why his dearly held ideas of economic equality are shared by so few.

“There’s a great chasm between Bernie and a libertarian like me,” Walter Block says. “He’s a commie. He wants to double the minimum wage and make college free, things like that, which I think is appalling. But I’d rather have him than Hillary—she’s a crook. I think Bernie will give Donald Trump a run for his money.”

“Do you really think that someone so far from the mainstream can be elected president?” the anarchist is asked.

“Yes, he could,” says Bernie’s buddy. “Today, he is the mainstream.”