If someone had told me a decade ago that Bernie Sanders would not only be running for president in 2016 but that he would have a good shot at winning, I’d have pinched myself to wake up from the nightmare I was having. I was a freshman in college living near Burlington when Sanders was elected to the Senate, and the thought of this bumbling old grifter having a national following was so far outside the realm of possibility that it didn’t even register.
It wasn’t Sanders’ hair-of-the-dog socialist ideas that made it so unlikely. The man is as suited for national politics as Kim Kardashian is for a purity ball. His voice is permanently stuck in rant mode, he rambles like a senile grandfather at a family reunion, and he looks like he believes bathing is capitalist oppression. If Sanders lived in any state other than Vermont, his political career would consist of doing the chicken dance on college campuses while begging for Green Party ballot access signatures.
But no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. With a week to go before the Iowa caucuses, Bernie Sanders is closing the distance in the polls, notwithstanding his already huge lead in the New Hampshire primary. Sanders’ success has the Hillary Clinton campaign in emergency, break-glass mode, and the DNC is pulling out all the stops to make sure the Ice Queen gets her crown.
It doesn’t make any sense. For all his vapidity, Barack Obama was at least a youthful, eloquent public speaker. Get rid of his tailored suits and pour some Wild Irish Rose down his throat and you could easily mistake Bernie Sanders for a Times Square bum ranting about the Illuminati. How could he marshal enough support to dethrone Hillary?
I got the answer by attending Monday’s Sanders rally at Iowa State University in Ames. Schadenfreude is to me what China white is to a homeless junkie, so I entered the auditorium expecting to get higher than the Pope. Instead, I left feeling a weird sympathy for everyone who’s feeling the Bern. Much like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders is tapping into a massive problem in America: the economic ruination of young people. His solutions are Communist insanity, but the loyalty he inspires and the issues he addresses are real.
I got to the rally ten minutes before the doors opened, and in a completely unexpected move, I was seated almost immediately. Sanders’ supporters were about 500 strong, but the first floor of the auditorium filled quickly: by the time the man himself arrived, I’d have pegged the crowd at around 2,500. My nose stuffed up as I entered the building, quite possibly as a defensive measure.
Demographically, the Bern victims fit into two groups: college kids and old hippies, both largely white. I saw only two minorities, a couple of black girls in the stage seats. The girls were more attractive than Hillary’s feminist backers: for example, a redhead with Sanders’ name splayed across her massive rack kept leading the crowd in chants of “That’s why Bernie tells them no! Super PACs have got to go!” A jittery flower-power type stepped on my foot as he clambered into his seat; he profusely apologized, saying he had Parkinson’s, and that I should “enjoy [my] youth while [I] have it.”
When Sanders arrived, he received a standing ovation, the only other candidate I’ve seen aside from Donald Trump to get one. The content of his speech was a complete 180 from Hillary’s. While Clinton focused almost exclusively on social wedge issues such as gay and transgender rights (and, strangely enough, HIV), Sanders’ emphasis was on economics, namely student loan debt, health care, and campaign finance reform:
Bernie is still the unhygienic red diaper baby I remembered from my college days, but he has an odd charm going for him. Sure, that bum in Times Square ranting about the Illuminati is crazy, but he adds flavor to the neighborhood. Sanders also lacks Clinton’s obvious psychopathy: it’s clear he sincerely believes the nonsense spewing out of his mouth.
But the real item of interest for me was the crowd. The college dweebs getting Berned out are legitimate victims of a rigged financial game. Much digital ink has been spilled regarding the student loan scam, which I don’t need to regurgitate. Beyond having to rack up five figures or more in debt to get a shot at entering the middle class, youth unemployment and underemployment have rocketed to their highest levels in decades. While it’s true that many of these kids have made dumb financial decisions—shouldn’t have majored in Arachnid Sexuality, dear—they’ve been pushed into making those bad decisions by their parents, teachers, and other authority figures.
Essentially, America’s youth are a lost generation, who are doomed to penury barring some kind of massive economic realignment. Is it any wonder they’re cottoning to Sanders’ retro-seventies politics? We can criticize them for being stupid, but we can’t criticize them for being anxious about their futures. Much like how working-class Whites are supporting Trump because of the massive bullseye Obama has painted on their foreheads, college-aged Whites are backing Sanders because they’re tired of the university system making them bend over and grease up.
While I’m not going to put money on it just yet, Bernie Sanders could easily pull off a win in Iowa and take the Democratic nomination. Hillary may have the media, the DNC, and the super PACs on her side, but Sanders’ supporters have two things that no one can buy: passion and loyalty.
The Bern ward is packed to capacity and the inmates aren’t leaving the asylum any time soon. Time to break out the ointment.