I Want to Believe: Contemplating the Meaning of Bernie Sanders in Iowa

I Want to Believe: Contemplating the Meaning of Bernie Sanders in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa—As soon as the doors opened for Bernie Sanders’s Iowa caucus concert with Bon Iver on Friday night, Hailey Oswald and Vinni Omolon, two 18-year-old friends from Waukee High School, scampered to the front of the stage, smiles pasted to their faces. As Cardi B played in the background, they told me they were both were excited to caucus for the first time, and especially for Bernie. “I’m ready to be an adult,” Vinni told me. He was wearing a Bernie campaign t-shirt he had bought at a rally for Bernie in Des Moines in 2016, when he was 14; the friends had found out about the concert through a post on Bernie’s Instagram account.“I have really strong opinions about what I believe,” Hailey said, her braces glinting. “The fact that people can’t go to the doctor because they don’t have the money for it.”

“It’s a human right!” Vinni chimed in.

Hailey and Vinni said they’re unique among their friends, most of whom aren’t planning on caucusing. They live in a fairly well-off neighborhood, and they both felt that their peers, many of whom are old enough to caucus for the first time, were apathetic.

“It sucks,” Vinni said.

“I’ve been trying to motivate them,” Hailey added. “It’s really important for young people to step up.”

Bernie’s campaign is trying to do that too—to dial up a movement to excite young people and those who typically feel excluded or turned off by electoral politics. Friday’s concert was just one of a series of events with acts designed to appeal to a millennial or younger audience—not just the caucus concert with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but Vampire Weekend, and the LA-based band Las Cafeteras. If Bernie wins the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, as it’s increasingly looking like he will according to the most recent polls, it will be due, in large part, to his campaign’s ability to turn out people who don’t typically show up: young people and Latinx voters and low-wage workers—people who are the future of the Democratic Party, many of whom were in attendance on Friday night, and who were ready to throw down for—as Bernie surrogate Nina Turner repeatedly described him from the stage—“our senator,” or—as a sticker being handed out proclaimed—“Tío Bernie.”

It’s a cliche at this point to say that Twitter isn’t the real world, but few in the audience cared about or had even heard of Bernie Bros or the exhausting Twitter sniping about Hillary Clinton, or Joe Rogan. Crystal Jewell, a 24-year-old cognitive psychology and neuroscience graduate student at Iowa State University who came draped in a faux fur coat, merely blinked at me, her eyes wide, when I asked her if she had heard of the Bernie Bro stereotype. “No,” she said, seemingly confused by my question. When I asked 39-year-old Sara Zaragoza, who was there with her girlfriend, if she had any thoughts about Bernie Bros, she similarly had no idea what I was talking about. “Too much drama on Twitter,” she noted. The observation would prove to be true once again later that night after Rashida Tlaib booed Hillary Clinton while on stage with Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal, a moment that was barely acknowledged by people in the concert hall but seized upon by people on Twitter like rabid dogs thrown a hunk of bloody beef. Sara, a caregiver, was more concerned, she told me, with Medicare for All and legalized marijuana, as someone with PTSD. She cared about the realities of her life, not political posturing.

All candidates to a large degree are a vessel for people’s dreams and aspirations (and in some instances, their fears), less a living, breathing human prone to making mistakes than a projection. But no candidate inspires as much devotion as Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren has her plans and her pragmatic progressivism, Joe Biden has the same feeling of security of an old threadbare coat that’s far past its wear-date, but Bernie! Bernie isn’t just a politician to his supporters: He’s going to take them to the Promised Land.

For some that night, like the fan in a Black Flag-inspired Bernie campaign t-shirt who had driven all the way from Minneapolis with his girlfriend and who showed me a tattoo on his arm of a Bon Iver lyric in Justin Vernon’s handwriting (“Pry it open with your love”), the performer was the main draw. But for most, Vernon’s unintelligible crooning was just an added perk. Bernie was the real celebrity. “I’m not a big Bon Iver fan,” 20-year-old Steven Vargas told me. Vargas was there with a group of friends, including Crystal Vela, a 19-year-old with long black hair and a silver barbell pierced through the top of her nose. Both Vargas and Vela plan on caucusing for Bernie; Vela had helped phonebank for Bernie when she was 16 and a high school student. “It feels surreal to actually be able to vote for him,” she said. Crystal’s mother is incarcerated, and she was struck by how Sanders spoke about prison reform. “I’ve never heard or seen a candidate speak so profoundly about it,” she said.

Bernie wasn’t there that night—he was stuck in D.C., but he called in to speak to the audience. “We are putting together a multi-racial, multi-generational grassroots movement which is prepared not only defeat Donald Trump, but to transform our country,” he barked to cheers, his disembodied voice booming. “We love you, Bernie!” one woman yelled out. “I agree with Bernie 100 percent,” another told me.

At one point, the crowd began chanting Bernie’s campaign slogan, “Not me, but us.”

At one point, the crowd began chanting Bernie’s campaign slogan, “Not me, us.” I teared up, because I am a softie who cries at the drop of a hat, but also because it’s true. The campaign isn’t about Bernie, not really—everything that he wants, and that his supporters want, will depend upon the hard work of millions of people, work that will extend beyond just showing up at one caucus or voting in a primary or even volunteering for his campaign. Still, I was struck by how so many are pinning their hopes on one man, a sort of hero worship that seems at odds with the brutal reality of politics.

It’s a story about Bernie that even Bernie’s surrogates push, which isn’t exactly surprising—he’s running for president after all, the epitome of the extremely weird idea that a singular individual can and will cure all of our ills. Bernie will “end the madness,” as Michael Moore said on stage Friday night; he “is going to guarantee that America for us,” Ilhan Omar promised after talking about the need to fully fund our schools, to stop endless wars. Electing Bernie, for so many of his supporters, is shorthand for the future that millions of us, myself included, are desperately wishing for. Perhaps I’ve been too scarred by the false hope of the Obama years, when so much optimism and excitement and energy quickly curdled and went sour after candidate Obama became President Obama, and he abandoned the grassroots campaign that had powered his victory.

As I left, I found myself thinking of the pitfalls of lifting up a politician as a savior. Maybe I’m too cynical. But I also found myself wanting to believe.

The next morning, I made my way to the home of Dartanyan Brown and Paula Egan, two local activists who have turned their house into a canvassing hub for the Sanders campaign. A young campaign staffer sat hunched in the corner of the living, typing steadily on his laptop, a box of hand warmers at his feet. Paula, an artist, was in the kitchen, making eggs and toast for the steady stream of volunteers like Bea Stern, a grey-haired, bespectacled 63-year-old from New York’s Hudson River Valley who had hopped on a plane and would be in Iowa for the week to volunteer. “My mom is 95 so she couldn’t be here, so she gave me her air miles!” she told me.

One of the underappreciated strengths of Bernie’s campaign is the deep pool of volunteers it can draw on from his run four years ago—Bea had volunteered for Bernie in 2016, and when she got a call from the campaign this year asking her to knock doors in Iowa, she jumped at the chance. “I think he unites people. He doesn’t divide,” Bea told me. “In 2016, I really realized—and this sounds really corny—but how much love there is in this campaign.” (As she spoke, there was a reminder that Sanders is running a hard-nosed campaign—as one volunteer prepped another to head out, he told them if they met someone who didn’t already plan to caucus for Bernie, to only leave caucus info with Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard supporters, who are more likely to pick Sanders as their second choice.)

Dartanyan, a jazz musician and educator who goes by Dart, pulled up a video of Killer Mike, the rapper and Bernie supporter, on YouTube. “Watch this video, you’ll get fired up,” another volunteer told Bea.

“Damn!” Dart said after the video played. “It’s really good.” Paula came into the living room, and showed me a photo of Bernie himself in their home on New Year’s Eve last year, speaking to a group of young volunteers. “Dartanyan and I got to walk about three blocks with Bernie. It was amazing,” Paula said. Over the past few weeks, people have trooped through their doors from states around the country to canvass for the campaign. One couple had even cut their trip through southeast Asia short to come doorknock for Bernie. “They flew in from Tokyo!” Paula told me.

Dart and Paula had gotten involved in local activism after moving to Iowa in 2016. Dart, whose mother was from the state, had lived in the Bay Area for a time but was born in Des Moines in 1949 and spent his youth in the city. “Being a black kid in Iowa, that was itself a sort of political statement,” Dart told me. His family’s first home had been seized through eminent domain as part of urban renewal efforts that decimated black communities in the 1960s and ’70s, including the vibrant Center Street neighborhood where his family lived. Still, he remembered the Iowa of his youth as a fairly progressive state.

But when he moved back home, he was alarmed by what he saw. “The African American and the cultural communities here have taken it in the head and it shows in almost every area of life,” he said. “And the fucking Democrats are so shit here that they can’t get any fight going. The public good, whether it’s schools, health care. They gave it away.”

Earlier in the week, I had met with Iowa Citizen for Community Improvement Action Fund organizer Jack Reardon. The group had endorsed Bernie at the end of 2019, as well as in 2016, seeing Bernie’s campaign as an opportunity to organize people long after the caucus is over. As Jack put it to me, “The day after the caucus, we can hear the campaign buses roll away pretty quickly. Electoral politics by nature is such a transactional game. All of these people from out of state come in, they give people a lot of hope and energy around a candidate, and then burn people out making phone calls and knocking doors. And the next day they leave and never contact people again.” But the Sanders campaign was doing something different, from what they had observed (and despite the noted missteps of the Sanders-backed Our Revolution following his presidential run in 2016). “He’s building permanent infrastructure,” Jack told me. Sayles Kasten, the Iowa director of the Sunrise Movement, whose founders were inspired in part by Bernie’s campaign in 2016 and whose members in the state were busy canvassing in the lead-up to the caucuses, told me something similar. “I believe Bernie is our generation’s shot to elect a president that will be a Green New Deal champion,” he said. “But just as importantly, in the process of electing him we can create a youth movement that shifts the political consensus toward policies that puts the needs of marginalized and everyday people first, not the super wealthy.”

Both Dart and Paula are members of CCI, and had voted to endorse Sanders this time around. They were impressed by what they saw and heard through the endorsement process: they pointed out how Bernie was the only candidate who had agreed to join the group on a bus tour of factory farms. “I just know how consistent he’s been,” Paula said of Bernie. “He doesn’t pander.”

“That’s right. He ain’t in it for the grandeur, he ain’t in it just to pander. He won’t fold, and he never slanders. That’s Bernie,” Dart added.

While Paula admired Elizabeth Warren and agreed with her much-vaunted plans, “It’s like it’s all her, it’s not us,” she said. “Which candidate is going to listen with us and co-govern with us? That’s it,” Dart said. “For me, Bernie is like that house that you want to buy, and everything’s already in there for you. You don’t need to worry about the plumbing or the foundation, it’s all ready to go,” he added.

I thought of all the young people who have found so much to believe in through Bernie’s campaign. I thought of what Bea, the volunteer who had flown to Iowa from New York, had predicted would happen with a Sanders victory. “I think there will be huge numbers of people who come out of the woodwork,” she said, before heading out to doorknock.

The hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and what it counts on to win the Democratic nomination and beyond, is that Bea is right. But whether or not he wins, the future depends not on Sanders or his possible presidency. What will happen to the energy and excitement around Bernie and his presidential campaign, which has swallowed up millions of dollars and countless hours of people’s time, once the campaign is over? Figuring that out, as it always has been, is on us.

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