Who wouldda thunk it! Stated in proper English, this has been the reaction of the vast majority of commentators and observers that I have read or spoken to over the primary season. At the beginning, I viewed both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as candidates that had virtually no chance of becoming the nominee of their respective parties. The question was whether they could make a credible showing and why each entered in the first place. For Trump, it appeared to be his insatiable desire for publicity. For Sanders, it appeared to be a chance to forward his agenda, especially when the competition against the expected presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, left a significant opening.
Obama had proven that a candidate could win without major financial support or a reliance on major donors. Crowd funding offered an alternative method for raising considerable funds. Further, Obama had also shown that “star” quality counts – as Justin Trudeau also showed in Canada. The star quality can be varied, but its presence could enormously boost one’s campaign. And it could be constructed. Hillary never succeeded in doing so. Both Bernie and Donald did.
Who would have known when Bernie debuted as a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in 2015 that he would develop star quality? He announced his candidacy on 30 April. During his fifteen months of campaigning, he grew from a stumbling and somewhat awkward candidate to one who – at his peak – employed 1,000 paid staff and tens of thousands of volunteers as he attracted larger and larger crowds with enormous energy and conviction that allowed him to break fundraising records. Bernie’s star quality compared to Donald Trump’s was the more unusual.
Like Donald, Bernie appealed to nostalgia. A different imagined past than Donald’s, but a constructed past nevertheless. No portraits of anti-war protesters. No pictures of Southern governors setting dogs on black human rights workers. By the time Bernie’s ads began to appear for the Iowa caucus on 1 February, when he was nine months into his campaign, the message had become clear and unequivocal. As he denounced the big banks, railed against the 1% in boring repetition, and called for a Canadian-style universal health care plan and free university education, the core emotional appeal was not socialism but the small town innocence of an earlier and more rural America.
His video on 1 February 2016 told the story. An American flag on the side of a shed presumably in snow-covered Vermont. A pale yellow general store in small town America. A port with red-painted fishing vessels. A daughter hugging her mother in a park and smiling – no generation gap here. A woman feeding her cows from a pail and then a shot of a male farmer inspecting his cows in old-fashioned barns – no large scale industrial farming here. But though rural and small town, the appeal is not restricted to there even if founded on such images.
The video includes a picture of a large city, of two young people at work on computers, then a girl with a wool cap, long brown hair and a scarf at what looks like a modern coffee shop with an “authentic” older feel and look. A couple at a work station and another with a child of about one and a half – woman with scruffy hair and man with scruffy beard – sitting at a dining room table that could date back to the fifties. A bearded grandfather walking in the snow with a ten-year-old girl in gloves and an open blue jacket against a backdrop of what could be 1960s suburbia – she is presumably his granddaughter.
Then back to the farm – haying in this case – then a small outdoor dancing event with a sign “Bernie for President” in the background, and a bearded-man wearing an old-fashion white summer hat and his partner, with a peak cap, in the foreground. Again, wherever the video was taken, the feeling is for small town America. And thus far, the images have all been of whites. One would not know that a significantly large minority of Americans are black and Hispanic. Then young teenagers with very serious looks appear in the foreground with two girls – with long brown straight hair, no make-up, one with her arm around her companion and the other holding her hand – both looking very serious and almost worried.
Then Bernie, with his smile and white hair as an impersonation of Larry Davis before Larry Davis impersonated him, appears greeting voters – again all white – on a field of grass. Then worried workers and a crowd of youth holding up Bernie Sander’s signs – “WE LOVE BERNIE.” Then a row of girls, led by one that could possibly be of Filipino descent, the first non-white after over half the video had passed. The girls were high fiving a row of older folk going the other way – this is a movement in which young and old have joined hands even as they travel in different directions towards the future – or, at the very least, clapped hands.
Then another video of a farmer in a field gathering up leftover hay by hand as a very young boy in a blue parka carrying a little black lamb strides in the foreground and the scene is followed by three generations of farmers. One might be led to believe we were living in 1960 before there was an enormous growth in productivity on farms and there were still fears that we would run out of arable land, before the tremendous growth in national let alone international markets for farm produce, and before the rising influence of consumers on agricultural production. Bernie’s economic policies are more nostalgic American than socialist, harking back to a time before the structure of farms and farms households had so radically changed, harking back to a time when the institutions that farmers hated most were banks and they secretly cheered as Bonnie and Clyde robbed those banks. Bernie may have verbally been calling for “revolution,” but it was a revolution in the classical rather than the modern sense, a revolving back to what once was rather than a brand new utopian future.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than half of Americans lived on farms, and farms employed about half the work force. Fifty years later, mechanization had come to farming as had large-scale specialization. But you would never know that by watching a Bernie video. The leisure is there but not the industrialization and specialization. There is no mention of the radical increase in productivity in the latter half of the century that made the improvements in the first half look like tinkering. Farming counts for a very small percent of the GDP of America and fewer and fewer Americans live on farms as urbanites create farms in the cities, esteem local foods, and crowd organic food markets on weekends.
In Israel, Bernie worked on a kibbutz. He has no love for Israel as a start-up nation that files even more patents per year than America with thirty times the population, and, next to Israel, America is the leader in innovation. At the end of the sixties, only 4% of Americans were employed in agriculture compared to 41% in 1900. At the end of the sixties, agriculture constituted a mere 2.3% of America’s GDP. But you would have no clue this was the case watching a Bernie video. Nor the fact that the vast majority of the very small number of farmers have jobs off the farm.
In the video, you see Bernie again, gladly handling a very large crowd of young people. Then the slogan two-thirds of the way through the video – “They’ve all come to look for America.” The message is clear. America – the America we knew – has been lost. America is, at heart, rural and small town. America is clean cut. American youth and older people are united. And they all love “the Bern.” Most significantly, America is at heart white. But it is the song that accompanies the video that is most telling, the Simon and Garfunkel 1968 hit, “America.” What could be more nostalgic than a time when young lovers could hitch hike from Saginaw, Michigan to Pittsburgh, and all “walked off to look for America”? A song which echoes an earlier great Simon and Farfunkel hit, “Homeward Bound.”
That, in a nutshell, was Bernie’s message. Not, “We want to make America strong again,” but we want to take America back to the sixties when there was purity, hope and love in the air and America smelled of hay and goat’s milk as young lovers traveled across a newly paved America supposedly headed into a promising future, but have instead landed in the present. The message is clear. America went astray when it became involved in the Vietnam War, when it left its roots, when it travelled towards a globalized and multicultural village.
This does not mean that Bernie is a bigot and racist like Donald. Not at all. But he is clearly nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, purer, cleaner America. For he was a Jewish boy who left Brooklyn for Vermont. Most of all, the song resonates, with clear harmony even as the boy sings as his lover, Kathy, sleeps beside him on the grass, “I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why.” In the sixties, in Bernie’s version, life was full of angst, foreboding as one counts cars on the New Jersey turnpike. In Bernie’s world, there is no rejoicing that the New Left led and won the campaign against the testing of nuclear weapons, only a sense of impending loss and a desire to recover what America once had, before America had started to decay and its broken spirit robbed youth of their hopes and their faith in humanity.
We had a visitor arrive at our house yesterday evening. He had come from LA to become the director of photography on my youngest son’s first feature, which goes into production this weekend. I asked him about the primary in California the day before. He said he was still a Canadian and could not vote, but that he and all his friends were Bernie supporters. Would they vote for Hillary? None of them were diehards, he replied. They loved Bernie, but all of them would vote for Hillary. They may be nostalgic, but they are far from stupid.
Wall Street does not just stand for big money and corruption. It is now an icon for when and how America went wrong, when it sold its soul to the big financiers and money manipulators as inequality increased and the infrastructure of America that had been built crumbled. A month after the Iowa caucus, Bernie charged back to his birthplace, New York, not Brooklyn but Manhattan, and not Harlem but Wall Street. He went directly into the home of the hedge funds and called for jailing bankers and breaking up the large financial institutions. This was a Wall Street created by Hollywood. Bernie insisted that “financial fraud became not only the norm but in many ways the new business model.” This was as big a lie as Donald Trump ever told.
Though I am not intimidated by banks like Stephen Leacock was, and though I do not love them like Hillary is portrayed as doing, they are not the devil incarnate. I studied the situation of the 2008 financial crisis and published on it. Bill Clinton, in surrendering to the Right and reducing the regulatory controls on banks – an initiative that Canada did not follow – opened up the path to small boiler operations and other financial schemers. They even used a few of the larger bank’s greed for larger and larger profits regardless of risk. This activity brought on the crisis, even if the opening for the fraud could be traced back to an algorithm created by a graduate student from Canada’s Waterloo University in 1999.
Bernie was not after the New York vote. He was after the votes of youth who face insecurity, who enter life burdened with debt from their education, who face urban life when the price of homes have gone into the stratosphere relative to earnings. He was after the votes of small towners who have always suspected the city – especially New York. He was not after the votes of one out of every nine New Yorkers employed by the financial sector or anyone else related to the industry that pays $12.5 billion in taxes to New York State.
Bernie was not after the voters who trace their intellectual descent to Alexander Hamilton, a father of the American constitution and grandfather of the American Federal Reserve. In the 1931 film, Alexander Hamilton, George Arliss, who wrote the drama on which the film was based, plays this illegitimate child who would become one of America’s greatest political leaders. Hamilton grew up in the West Indies among Blacks and attended a Jewish school because he was a bastard denied entry to the Protestant school on that account. It was he who undermined his enemies, including his blackmailer, Mr. Reynolds, who tried to exploit his sexual peccadilloes with Mrs. Reynolds; Hamilton confessed. By confessing and telling all to an American public, he set a precedent for an American public that has fed off public confessions by public figures ever since. But most of all, Hamilton loved cities and despised the hypocrisy of rural romanticism, particularly that of Thomas Jefferson (a sleazebag in the film). He loved the marriage of capital, innovation and industry that was responsible for America’s greatness.
Hamilton is buried only a block away from the New York Stock Exchange and Bernie came to New York to bury his prodigy. Bernie was not looking for support from an electorate that chose Michael Bloomberg – an entrepreneur who became a billionaire by developing monopoly control on information, particularly financial information, without which the security industry would collapse- as its mayor. Bernie, like Aaron Burr in 1804, came to New York to challenge the heirs of Hamilton to a duel and to slay the financier dragon.
He fought like a lion but he failed. In California’s primary on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton won 55.8% of the vote and 260 delegates compared to Bernie’s 43.2% and 206 delegates. When I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., Hillary had been leading 60:40 with about 40% of the vote counted. Bernie, in his speech, predicted the difference would narrow and he was correct. But not enough that Hillary would not end up with enough delegates to crown her as the presumptive Democratic candidate, without counting superdelegates. Nate Cohn and Toni Monkovic’s dialogue (“Superdelegates Sink Bernie Sanders, Will He Sink Them?”) in Monday’s New York Times was just nonsense. Yet the rumours continue that the system was rigged because the superdelegates had declared early, were not selected by the people and overwhelmingly supported Hillary. California’s primary smacked Bernie down hard.
It is true that Hillary did not earn enough elected delegates to put her over the top. She won 2,203 to Bernie’s 1,826 and she needed 2,383 delegates. Can anyone argue that in an open election she would not also have won a majority of superdelegates since she only needed 180 of the 622 superdelegates to win. She won 574 to Bernie’s 48. The significance – experienced Democrats have much more faith in Hillary than in Bernie, both to win the election for the Democrats and to be a better president. Further, the reality is that she has won 55% of the elected delegates. The rumours matching Donald Trump’s of an election system designed to beat outsiders like Bernie and Donald is just a load of crock and part of the paranoia of modern politics where widespread acceptance of conspiracies abound.
The popular vote tells the real story. Bernie won only 42% of the Democratic voters but he received a higher percentage of delegates because he won in small caucus states, based on much lower voting, where there were caucuses rather than votes cast by the Democratic members or, in open states, by Democrats and independents. His romantic nostalgia worked with them. Hillary was the choice of the people and of the party.
But the reality is Bernie did far better than expected. Further, he shifted Hillary’s campaign significantly to the left where she too now espouses a minimum wage of $15, lower costs for higher education, universal health care, the reinvigoration of the American economy, more safeguards against the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing that famous artery in New York City. Hillary has, however, never gone against expanded free trade as both Donald and Bernie have, and has never renounced humanitarian intervention abroad even as Obama proved to be more cautious about that prospect than she has been. Bernie, like Donald Trump, regards all foreign involvement as a misuse of American resources and firepower.
When Bernie made his speech late in the evening on California time, everyone waited eagerly to see if he would concede defeat and rally behind Hillary Clinton. Hillary had earlier held out a hand of reconciliation to him and certainly in her policy statements has swung in his direction. But Bernie insisted not only that he would continue as a candidate through the Washington, D.C. primary but to the convention in Philadelphia in July since, theoretically, the superdelegates were not committed until they voted. More importantly, he was the leader of a movement and wanted his people to have a significant role on the committees defining policy. Any hopes that he would concede before Philadelphia were misplaced. Bernie and his supporters will continue raging against “the dying of the light” even though most are young millennials.
However, the public imagery is bad, worse for Bernie than for Hillary. He comes across as an old grouch or as driven even more by the politics of resentment than was suspected heretofore. Like Donald, Bernie, though he certainly did not disparage, virtually ignored Black and Hispanic voters as targeted groups, appealing to them only as common members of a class. When Hillary really targeted identity politics herself in her post-California victory speech, it was as a feminist, and she used Bernie’s appeal to nostalgia by referring to the beginning of the women’s movement in America in the nineteenth century, the fact that her mother was born when the constitution was amended to give women the right to vote, and to her personal wish that her mother had been here at the pinnacle of her achievements thus far when the most important glass ceiling in America had been broken. But it was ultimately a tale of progress using nostalgia as a literary device.
Most of the talk by Clinton supporters has been about giving Bernie time to adjust to his loss, believing, I think erroneously, that he will fold right after the Washington, D.C. primary. But he won’t. He does not need to regain his bearings. He never lost them. And he should not. For he leads a movement of which the quest as the presidential standard bearer was just the leading edge to a campaign rooted in nostalgia that was much more substantial. Further, now 18-33 year olds believe they can influence Washington policy. That is his primary objective, and he believes there is plenty of time for Democrats to beat Trump.