PITTSBURGH _ The crowd is young, and they’re loud, just as you’ve heard. They also appear to be mostly white. Young and white, sometimes retired and male, and still mostly white.
After Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” and Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” proved that even Bernie Sanders doesn’t get that every song about America isn’t patriotic, the man of the early hour and long lines took to the Pittsburgh stage at around 11 AM. Some people have to work instead of see Bernie. Eight thousand people didn’t.
Security was brusque, and volunteers were chipper. The woman in charge of the press conference seemed to be nearing the end of a frayed rope. Sanders himself was in business mode. Union representatives sat beside him and introduced him at the press conference, and the only person who mentioned something besides trade was a union rep named Ryin Gaines, who said the drug war was his other issue.
Sanders answered only a few questions at the presser, which seeme to be the trade-off for letting in any old journalist, including college reporters and an enthusiastic high school reporter who got scolded by a dour Secret Service agent–is there any other kind?–for taking the Secret Service guy’s photo.
At the rally proper, things were wild with signs and “We love Bernie!” and “Here we go Bernie/here we go!” chants. A sampling of Sanders supporters revealed a diversity of political avenues, both to and from Bernie, if it comes to that. This excludes the Hillary Clinton-style older, female demographic who appeared to be in short supply.
The one thing they all had in common? Hot damn, they trust that ranty old Brooklynite. And though his rah-unions Pittsburgh press conference wasn’t thrilling, and his trade policies do get downright Trumpian sometimes, the 8,000 chanting, screaming fans at Pittsburgh’s David Lawrence Convention Center had their reasons to yell. Sanders’ rally speech was good. It was full of impossible economics, but it was delivered by a human.
It was good if you ever had a flicker of fondness for, say, a Rep. Ron Paul type of candidate who professes to keep it real, and must care if he’s ranting this much.
As one of his fans observed, Sanders gets slagged with the one-trick pony candidate slur, but his speech did not reflect that. It was a rambling, passionate, well-written speech that always went back to “economic justice.” In 1960s fashion it shamelessly referred to various minority groups as our “brothers and sisters” and included a great refrain of “this campaign is listening!” The refrain was for those groups who, no sane person can deny, have not been listened to throughout history.
Sanders is the guy who remembers Native Americans exist, that ten years ago the progress on gay marriage would have seemed like a dream, and who doesn’t get nasty but is willing to keep on hammering the point in that he knew the war in Iraq was bunk, and Ms. H. Clinton took her damn time in getting to that realization. But who are these people yelling, and booing, depending on the subject? Who are the folks propelling Bernie to primary wins like yesterday’s in Wisconsin? Let’s take a closer look.
Bernie is Their First Love
From 19-year-old college student Emily Black to 83-year-old swing dancer Chico Butler, and right up to 29-year-old cancer survivor Tara Walters decked out in Bernie-themed leggings, and 33-year-old stay-at-home mom Shannon Condella, who discovered Sanders through Saturday Night Live, many Bernie fans told me they didn’t pay attention to politics before this man and this election.
Butler has never voted before because the Korean War veteran–who handed me a DVD about his life, showed me pictures of him swing dancing and called Playboy “a sexy newspaper!”–believes no politicians before cared enough about returning black veterans and their benefits. Butler, who has also been volunteering for the Sanders campaign, said he has been fighting for 40 years to get what is owed to him, and he still isn’t done.
Back when she was 17, college student Black never expected to vote “because it doesn’t even matter.” But then she found Sanders, and she clicked with his views instantly. He’s empathetic, she said. “He’s open-minded and progressive. He doesn’t change.” Enthusiastic and confident, Black’s final words on the matter were, “I just want Bernie Sanders to be my Pap!”
Sometimes it’s “Bernie or Bust,” often it’s pained faces and indecisiveness, sometimes it’s hell, no, we won’t vote for Clinton
People found at the Sanders rally called themselves Democrats, and a few said they were comfortable with being called independents. Several of the men said they either used to be Republicans or they had voted for Republicans in the past. Everyone seemed keen on not giving Republicans votes, except an odd Democrat duck named Weston Phillips, 27, who said he would take John Kasich over Hillary Clinton if it came down to it. Kasich is moderate and “classy” and hasn’t crawled into the mud to the extent that other candidates have.
Most of the ladies said they would go hang their heads and vote for Clinton. John Sullivan, 61, said he’d buckle down and support Clinton as “the lesser of two evils.” Some rally goers think Hillary is OK–though, according to Black, it is unfeminist to vote for her because she’s a woman–but she was never praised without qualifications. Walters and her Sanders-themed outfit planned to write him in if necessary.
Veteran Butler is entirely disinterested in anyone but Sanders. And 35-year-old Sanders campaign volunteer Evan Selnekovic, a former Navy guy who backed John McCain way back in 2000 and was semi-optimistic towards and semi-disappointed in Obama, said, “I can’t in good conscience vote for Republican-lite,” so even if Sanders asks his supporters to support Clinton, even if Sanders doesn’t make it, Selnekovic is going to write him in. Selnekovic also dismissed the occasional cries of misogynistic “Bernie bro” fans as Clinton’s old tricks, noting that they were called “Obama Boys” back in 2008 when she was fighting him for the nomination.
Nobody is worried about Sanders’ ease with the word “socialist” though they think other voters might be
Everyone who was asked about the big-S word waved it off. Many of them wanted to make damn sure to stress that the word democratic came first. Black said that firefighting is a socialist program and people clearly prefer their homes not to burn down. Twenty-six-year-old Steve Maatta, an assistant at a consulting firm who took the day off to visit Sanders, thinks the squirreliness about the word is right-wing goofiness. “There’s socialist governments with socialist policies in different countries all over the world right now, and it’s working fine,” he said calmly. Stay-at-home-mom Condella agreed and said she liked the socialist part of Sanders.
Other folks Feeling the Bern aped this positive feeling. Europe is doing fine, right? Socialist is a scaremongering word. Twenty-two-year-old Chrystal Gettler, clad in a Bernie wig with a fake bird nestled in it, has recently gotten into politics. And that means more than just flashy presidential stuff. She managed to pay attention to the Pennsylvania Senate race, which is something this political reporter from Pennsylvania 100 percent did not do. However, the whiff of slightly worrying naivete was on on her when she agreed that socialism can involve a corrupt leader. However, “This is why I think that socialism is a good thing, because the leader being Bernie in this case would absolutely do a wonderful job.”
“It’s not your grandfather’s Soviet Russian Army socialism. This is Social Security. This is the interstate system, the post office.”
They’re sure of one thing. As Selnekovic put it, “It’s not your grandfather’s Soviet Russian Army socialism. This is Social Security. This is the interstate system, the post office.” Sanders could be FDR, JFK, or other presidents that most of the US holds in high esteem. He’s not, in short, Joseph Stalin, and there’s no reason to alert Sen. Joe McCarthy. These people are comfortable with a U.S. that might resemble Europe a little more. And more daringly, maybe that U.S. already is closer to European than Republicans are arguing. Maybe the Sanders fans just admit it.
How does Sanders compare with other candidate who inspire, shall we say, passion?
A few rally goers agreed that Sanders’ and Trump’s protectionist trade policies were not dissimilar. Teacher Jerry May, 30, said he used to be a Republican and that he had watched a program in which a surprising number of people said Trump was their second choice to Sanders. May agrees that “they both have a lot in common, in that they’re outsiders trying to change the system.” However, he is “going to go with the one that leads me to fight for people’s rights, not against their rights.” Condella, who used to be an independent, said Trump’s campaign is “like a social experiment almost, but it’s on a whole country.” A few people supported Obama back in the day, but nobody owned to being a starry-eyed fan or trusting him completely.
“I’m going to go with the one that leads me to fight for people’s rights, not *against* their rights.”
The point about Sanders, though, is that he’s nice, so the feeling is we can trust him. He rants, and he’s serious, but he doesn’t have that John Kasich whiff of condescending. And Sanders fans do seem pretty damn nice themselves. After the crowds had left, and the journalists were allowed out of their pen at last, I met the 33-year-old mom Condella in the bathroom.
Condella, a gently pretty woman clad in a black and white striped sweatshirt asked how I liked the rally. I noted that I was press, and she said that I had to be neutral then. I said no, no, I hate them all, but Sanders was harder to hate than a lot of candidates. “Right!” Condella said. He reminded her of Larry David.
This Larry David cue meant I had to steer Condella towards an official interview. We sat on a bench outside the bathroom as the convention center finally emptied. She introduced her 12-year-old son, whom she said had Asperger’s. He chimed in once or twice while his mother spoke, noting that the line was long but Sanders said all the right things.
Condella’s political attention was piqued by Showtime’s campaign trail show “The Circus.” However, not until she found an SNL skit starring Larry David was she inspired to really check out Sanders. With friendliness, and sleep-deprived self-deprecation, Condella clutched her can of Red Bull and tried to explain the appeal of Sanders.
“I know he said today about being more like other countries in certain ways as far as their judicial systems and jails,” she said. “I like that he isn’t all for war … It feels like he treats everyone equally, no matter if you’re somebody living on the street, or if you have a high-paying job, he seems like–I feel like that’s honest. Whereas a lot of politicians, they may say that, but I don’t necessarily believe that to be true.”
Condella thinks Sanders has a trustworthy face. She likes his wife, Jane. But she has plenty of other thoughtful enough reasons to think he’s worth a shot.
It can be uncomfortable to see people say they “love” politicians, or to see them act as eager towards the politicians as the politicians themselves are about their promises to fix America–especially when we’re talking presidents. Presidents are powerful creatures, but not good fairies who can incant America into running as smoothly as a machine. They’re disappointing, they’re dangerous, and they’re corruptible.
However, Sanders is not the blank slate Obama mostly was. Bernie Sanders has been in politics for decades without appearing to be covered in slime. He may end up inspiring a Ron Paul-like youth movement, or his mad Democratic coup may end up at least making it past the convention. Either way, supporting him is a gamble. All of this is a gamble. The Sanders fans are just enjoying the game more than the rest of us.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Ryin Gaines, and incorrectly referred to Evan Selnekovic as Kevin.