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Opinion

Opinion: The Democratic debate confirmed it — we’ve entered the ‘Bernaissance’

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia
Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are seen being broadcast on television monitors in the media room during the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday in Atlanta.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

My feelings for Bernie Sanders took me by surprise.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was firmly my candidate. There were reasons. For one, I was in the zone of the first female president. That seemed like something meaningful. Mock it, sure; I’m trying to tell the truth about how I felt then. For another, burning the whole place to the ground didn’t feel quite so urgent. Yes, President Obama had his issues, but I remembered George W. Bush, who had capital-I Issues. Clinton seemed the more electable candidate, and I was under the mistaken impression then that polls meant more than throwing a handful of glitter in the air and seeing where it lands.

Add to that Sanders’ refusal to cede the race for so long — divisive, I thought — and the patronizing, vicious manner of some of his supporters. I get their frustration now, sort of, as my own politics have moved to the left these last four years. But I also learned how hard it is for people to internalize what you’re saying when you’re yelling at them. I never heard those supporters — who, it should be said, are a tiny, albeit loud, sliver of his base. Instead, their nastiness helped turn me away from their candidate.

And so my own “Bernaissance” happened slowly and then all at once this fall. A beloved Bernie supporter took the time to air his thoughts about why this is the right time for his candidate — gently. So I listened.

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I had counted Sanders out in 2020 because of his age, mostly. It was also hard to get motivated around the points he was making; he’d already made them, vigorously. He had none of the sheen of newness that can seem like promise. But as he accrued endorsements from organizations, unions and advocates I respected, I started to think, “huh.”

Of course, once I started hearing him, he was everywhere. A piece he wrote integrating his own history into his views on anti-Semitism, Israel and Palestine moved me, all the more so for striking a balance so hard to land.

“Let me say a word about myself, unusual as it may seem,” Sanders said in his closing statement at Wednesday’s debate — pointing to an interesting part of his personal narrative, his relative lack thereof.

Politicians have their shticks. Amy Klobuchar has told that story about fundraising off her ex-boyfriends at least 100 times. But Sanders talks about himself rarely. Instead, he talks about us — big us — and not in the baldly manipulative way so many politicians do. (Remember Beto O’Rourke turning every Tom, Dick and Harry he met for five minutes on the campaign trail into some glib, faux heart-wrenching story about what makes America.)

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Sanders talks about what we could do. What he imagines for us. And he extends that “us” beyond his voters to the undocumented and those who have been lost in a DACA loophole. Sure, you could see these gestures as angling for the Latinx vote. But he doesn’t really angle. He says he’s gonna tax people. He says he’s gonna overhaul healthcare immediately and completely. He’s mad, like, all the time. He is truly not here to make friends.

I don’t see this kind of purpose too many other places on the Democratic debate stage. Maybe a passing glimmer in Cory Booker, sometimes. In Elizabeth Warren, also, often. But there are a number of things Warren has said and done — for instance, saying we wouldn’t raise taxes to fund healthcare — that my intuition tells me doesn’t make sense. And because she’s brilliant, she should know they don’t make sense, which makes that worse. It turns the future into a game.

Our intuition is as important in this moment as the pseudo-science that tells us who is and isn’t electable. As Rebecca Traister ably pointed out, we literally do not know who’s electable. (All this being said, I’d vote for Warren in a heartbeat; I’d far prefer to play her game than President Trump’s.)

If Bernie is playing a game, he’s been playing it his whole life. And while his age concerns me — only a fool could not be bothered by electing a 78-year-old man to an ideally eight-year job — he has young people behind him. At the college where I teach, the majority of my students are Sanders supporters.

Last week, covering a Joe Biden “rally” in downtown L.A. that fewer than 100 people showed up to, my students spent all day trying to get a college-aged Biden supporter on the horn. They couldn’t find one by press time.

Biden might poll well, and Democrats might hold their nose and vote for him, but the hundreds of thousands of young people who actually go door-to-door and drive general campaigns will not work for him around the clock unpaid. They will not sacrifice this piece of their lives to bat for someone from the past, who was terrible even when he was there.

You can be old at 35 or young at 75. Biden is old at old; half the time he can’t finish a sentence and the other half I wish he hadn’t. But Bernie has energy.

He and his supporters gathered on a scorching unshaded high school basketball court at a rally in El Sereno last weekend. Hearing him address nurses and teachers and undocumented Americans with such vitality, in the midst of such a vital campaign, just weeks after a heart attack, was moving. “No half measures,” he insisted at the rally. “We don’t have decades,” he said about the climate crisis Wednesday night. Sanders has a sense of urgency that matches this moment and thoughtful policies — his devotion to which has been proven over the course of decades — to match that drive.

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Live long enough and you’ll see your people fall; if you’d asked me 10 years ago whom I most admired, I might have said Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t wave signs for anybody anymore. But on that hot Saturday afternoon, I heard Bernie. Wednesday night during the debate, I heard him. And when my students talk, I hear them. They want someone who will fight for them.

They deserve that.


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