Like the Donald Trump phenomenon, there was a time, not long ago, that it seemed complete madness to consider a 74-year-old, Jewish, self-described Democratic Socialist, who is not even a member of the Democratic Party, as a serious candidate for president of the United States. But we are through the looking glass now, people. Somewhere between the 99% drum-circle and the tri-corner-hat-sporting TEA Party rancor we’ve got some wild cards here. And if I have learned one thing about the early weeks of presidential primaries, you do not ignore the zeitgeist. It is best to observe it from as far as you possibly can without completely detaching yourself. Study its habits. Understand its vagaries. Come to grips. Do not dismiss. Engage. This is how one approaches the 2016 candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Let’s face it, the little-known eight-year Vermont senator stumbled onto the scene this past summer in front of a gaggle of reporters and a couple of supporters to announce he would be a left-wing alternative to the otherwise centrist/moderate massive favorite, Hillary Clinton. This is despite the narrative (one I have been willing to subscribe to) that after the unexpected humiliation of 2008 and a stint as Secretary of State, the former first lady and New York Senator would once again take her mantle as Madam Shoo-In and this time, absent a rock star against her, coast to the Democratic nomination and await whatever Republican fodder was left standing for her to demolish.
But not even Sanders, an over 50-year veteran of action politics, both in and out of the system, could have imagined the type of ire from progressives the Barack Obama presidency has wrought. While the president has been taking heavy fire from the right all these years, a growing contention to his secret wars, the failure to close Gitmo, the slow “evolution” on marriage equality, the utter lack of legal action against the perpetrators of the worst economic collapse in generations, an anti-working class, anti-union trade deal with China, and a half-hearted attempt to address the messy immigration issue (not to mention record deportations) was brewing on his left. But that is only half of what put Sanders in the game.
Young people love socialism. I did. Loved it. From 1983 to the almost the end of the decade I was indeed a socialist. I registered as such. It got so bad that I was still receiving literature from socialist groups way into the 1990s. Then I started to get published regularly. And it is difficult to explain the kind of pure, almost religious fervor socialists exude when you do not write like a socialist. It gets ugly. Not exactly like leaving the mafia or the CIA, but ideologically it’s close. Nonetheless, I was openly an intellectual, pragmatic socialist, primarily because I was, or fancied myself an artist. I would have loved free education, and free health care, and a safety net to write my poetry and play my songs in my rock and roll band, and ignore all this “working for the man” nonsense. Then I got to Arthur Koestler and what I called the holy trilogy; The Ghost In The Machine (Thanks, Sting), The Act Of Creation and Suicide Of A Nation. I dare anyone under the age of 25 to absorb that stuff and not decry capitalism.
Be that as it may, kids love socialism. It is getting so now that young people at Sanders’ packed-to the-rafters rallies have openly told reporters they are socialist, not “democrat socialist”, as Sanders likes to frame it, but socialist. And I doubt a single one of them have heard of Arthur Koestler, or maybe even listened to The Police. But, you see, young people start movements. This is what they do. They look like they are coming and you are going and that is the cool thing about being young, where ideology is attached to you like a tattoo and means something more than just watching your wallet or a fear of change or a fear of national implosion, which is all the rage for the Trump “movement”.
But make no mistake; while Barack Obama’s historical campaign was instilled with a generational, cultural and certainly racial shift, this is pure “against” campaigning that Sanders had tapped into. He is against the greed of pure capitalism, the idea that it has winners and losers and the losers, of which there is an overwhelming majority, eat shit. And why should it eat shit when it is nine-tenths of the electorate? Why don’t the pharmaceutical companies eat shit, or the oil cartel, or the Wall Street speculators, or the silver-spoon, yuppie assholes?
Here is Sanders’ opening statement at a New Hampshire Debate on January 4:
“Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process. And they’re giving up on the political process because they understand the economy is rigged.
They are working longer hours for low wages. They’re worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top one percent. Not what America is supposed to be about. Not the fairness that we grew up believing that America was about. And then sustaining that rigged economy is a corrupt campaign finance system undermining American democracy, where billionaire, Wall Street, corporate America can contribute unlimited sums of money into super PACs and into candidates.
Our job, together, is to end a rigged economy, create an economy that works for all, and absolutely overturn Citizens United. One person, one vote. That’s what American democracy is about.”
That sounds pretty good. Sure. The economy is in fact rigged. Fairness is a joke. (But to be fair, unless Sanders is from Planet Ork, it has always kind of been a joke.) All this free college and free health care and taxing Wall Street is pie-in-the-sky and it is starting to irk the Democratic Party and their frontrunner, like Trump, and to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz is bugging the Republican Party establishment. But just like building a wall that Mexico is going to pay for or abolishing the IRS are pipe dreams for the right, Sanders taps into something visceral now. And if, like in youth, a campaign in the chilly winds of February cannot dream, then there is simply no point to democracy.
Alas, it is all but a dream. Once this thing moves down the road, candidates like Sanders and Trump and Cruz take their medicine at one point or another in the trek. Once in a blue moon a Barry Goldwater or a George McGovern emerges in a fractured time to make their stand and then gets crushed in the general election.
There is certainly something weird and binding about these “anti” candidates, especially Bernie Sanders. There is something lying dormant in the political psyche that has been awoken. What that is exactly, or what it proves ultimately, escapes me. I have, if you have followed this space lo these past 18 years, long since abandoned absolute political fervor. No one is sending me literature. I mostly like Koestler’s fiction now. So I shall stand at my post and observe from a safe distance, take notes, and comment verily on the fallout.
There is always fallout.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.