As a writer, I never expected to fall in love with the 2016 election. As recently as 6 or 7 months ago, I fully expected that America was on a collision course with dueling oligarchic dynasties -- Bush 3 vs. Clinton 2 -- in a race where the (not unimportant) differences would be overshadowed by their similarities, including the fact that Wall Street would be happy with either one in the Oval Office.
Then a gruff, 74-year-old grandfather showed up to change everything. Like a lot of progressive-minded folks, I'd grown more aware in recent years of Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his cast-out-the-money-changers rants against income inequality, corporate greed, and billionaire influence in American politics. But I thought his entrance in the 2016 race was basically a protest move, nothing more. Then came the crowds, and the enthusiasm, which led to more crowds and more enthusiasm, which led to a surge in the polls, especially in New Hampshire and Iowa.
The Sanders surge stirred something within my 56-plus-year-old soul. When I was 9 years old and watched cops assaulting hippies in the streets of Chicago in 1968 -- my first true political memory -- I knew instinctively that I was on the side of the hippies. And I was sure -- in my pre-pre-adolescent naivety -- that someone from this surge of Baby Boomers in the American streets would one day lead this nation into an Age of Aquarius, a new era that would advance civil rights and personal freedom while putting the kibosh on foolish wars like Vietnam. But someday never came. The two Baby Boomer presidents turned out to be a Young Republican Yale cheerleader (Bush 2) and a didn't-inhale, middle-of-the-road triangulator (Clinton 1). The dream went unfulfilled -- until Sanders arrived at the end of his 50-plus year odyssey -- tousled grey hair, slightly stooped, voice grown hoarse.
By this fall, I had to hit to road to see for myself. I traveled to Sanders' rallies in places like Manassas, Va., where his fans had to pass a phalanx of protesters waving Confederate flags, and Boston, where 20,000 supporters filled every inch of a concrete convention hall or waited for him in a dark and frigid park. I went to rural Vermont to find the no-electricity "sugar shack" where Sanders retreated in the mid-1960s, and I went to the very-electric neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip for a climactic face-off against Hillary Clinton, with Bernie's name on the big video screen just as you might find Don Rickles or Wayne Newton. The result is my new e-book, The Bern Identity: A Search for Bernie Sanders and the New American Dream -- an Amazon Kindle Single.
I learned a lot -- some things that surprised me and some things that I'd suspected but needed to see for myself. I went to the Brooklyn neighborhood where Sanders grew up in a cramped, second-story flat off of Kings Highway, and I talked by phone with the candidate's older brother Larry from England, where he's a Green Party activist. Larry Sanders told me his little brother was the kid in grade school who couldn't tell a lie -- even if it got him in trouble. As he grew, it was other people's lies that drove him to activism -- his beloved Dodgers promising to stay in Brooklyn before splitting for L.A., the falsehoods that both Nixon and Kennedy told about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the Third World, and finally the lies from the Nobel laureates who ran the University of Chicago and who claimed, falsely, that university-owned housing wasn't segregated.
I also learned about the remarkable bond between a candidate who never altered his core political values over a half-century, and a new generation of voters who were craving the kind of authenticity that only Sanders -- with a real track record, not an agenda driven by pollsters or focus groups -- could provide. It was a bond that had its more modern roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement, with many veterans of that short-lived 2011 protest -- determined to see real social change and not just make a statement -- getting down with the Sanders campaign, especially after another popular liberal senator, Elizabeth Warren, didn't run. The result was those enormous crowds from Boston to Seattle.
There was one other thing: I learned that a lot of the mainstream media (to which I belong, by day) was missing a hell of a story. Indeed, if the Sandernistas that I met on the trail reporting The Bern Identity were bitter about anything, it was over the way that the media seem to be missing the historic nature of this campaign -- a senator calling himself "a democratic socialist" and winning so much mainstream support. "Does this look like an 8-minute story to you?!" a 30-something attendee at the Boston rally asked me, referring to a recent story on Sanders' paltry network airtime and gesturing at the sea of humanity. "These people are clamoring for someone to... to tell them the truth!"
Indeed, as the so-called "Summer of Trump" extended toward winter, the media's treatment of Sanders grew even more appalling. After all, a closer look at the polls suggests that more Americans wants Sanders to become the 45th president than want Donald Trump, and yet the short-fingered vulgarian of Manhattan real estate is getting 23 times as much network news coverage. Indeed, the Tyndall Report, which conducted that analysis, found that ABC had featured Trump for 81 minutes and Sanders for only about 20 seconds.
What's up with that? It's fair to note that Trump remains the frontrunner in a fractured GOP field, while Sanders continues to trail Hillary Clinton, at least nationally, in what has largely become a two-person race. Sanders' most ardent supporters say it's simply the corporate media trying to hold down someone who would shake up the status quo. Perhaps, but as a veteran journalist I think it's mainly because Bernie doesn't play the game. He maybe the first candidate of the post-Reagan era to actively shun the contrived soundbite of the day, as well as the photo op. Instead, he delivers The Lecture -- a 55-or-so minute overview of America's economic and social ills -- night after night...and the crowds love it even if the TV producers don't. Sanders' view -- wacky as it sounds in 2015 -- is that if you speak the truth enough, the masses will come around. And his refusal to play the game is what Bernie's partisans love about him.
In 1969, in his own Vermont newsletter called The Movement, Sanders wrote that "the Revolution is coming, and it is a very beautiful revolution." The next year, Gil Scott-Heron sang that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" -- and some 45 years later, it look like Scott-Heron was right. But does that really matter? I have no doubt that Sanders would love to shock the world and become America's 45th president, just as he shocked the world in 1981 by winning election as mayor of Vermont's largest city as a socialist just six weeks after Reagan's inauguration. But his real battle is the battle of ideas. With recent trend of Democratic presidential victories, and with the Democratic field moving to the left this year on everything from climate change to trade to criminal justice, you could say that Sanders is already winning.