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For my activist friends, it may be disappointing to learn that Emma Goldman never actually said, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” But in discussing her aspirations for her life and politics, she did write, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”
When I started this essay, hoping to explore the connections between that statement and Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, it was filled with facts, history and policy. But then I had a refreshing encounter, the kind I’ve had many times in the past four years. It spoke to Bernie’s “electability,” but also to something people don’t write about enough—his authenticity and humanity. The encounter said more than a list of policy positions could, even as it concerned the universal right to “beautiful, radiant things.”
The experience began with one of those mundane and frustratingly time consuming tasks, waiting for a repairman to fix a broken dryer. When George finally arrived, he noticed my many Bernie signs and laughingly said, “I guess you like Bernie.” I replied, “Yes, I can’t deny it,” which started a long conversation about Bernie, this election and 2016. George made it clear that he wasn’t a Democrat, and he wouldn’t commit to voting for Bernie. But he couldn’t stop talking about him.
George kept repeating, “He’s an honest man, he really cares about people, it’s a shame he was cheated last time.” He said he believed all the other Democratic candidates were just mouthing things they thought people wanted to hear. He seemed to think of Bloomberg’s candidacy as something of a joke, but he also noted how terrible it is that Bloomberg is trying to buy the election.
But the most fascinating thing was the glow in George’s face when he was talking about Bernie, and the connection he and I made during the conversation. In the midst of the toxicity of this election, the onslaught of stale, conventional wisdom from the pundits and the many angry posts from all sides on social media, I was experiencing a surprisingly warm moment with a stranger, probably a Republican, while talking about a candidate many people think of as polarizing.
I have had many similar conversations in the past four years with Republicans and independents, people who revile most politicians and will never vote in a Democratic primary, but who often express eagerness to vote for Sanders in the general election.
I think that is because Sanders is far from a typical politician, one of the reasons so many people, particularly “working class” people, feel an affinity with him. He doesn’t attempt to smooth out the rough edges or gloss over the truth. He simply speaks passionately about the struggle for true equality, the cause that has animated his entire life. However, as he recently told the apparently disapproving New York Times editorial board, “Look, I don’t tolerate bullshit very well.”
That lack of what might be called “politesse,” the loud voice and frequent gesticulations while talking (my husband once said that for Bernie speaking was an aerobic activity), are clearly off-putting for some. I notice that many of my writer friends, even those who are progressive, appear to harbor a vaguely defined revulsion against Sanders, a reaction that in some cases seems quite deep and visceral.
Many of those friends are attracted to Warren’s well articulated policy discussions, which I admire as well, to Buttigieg’s sometimes long-winded meditations on what sort of society we should become, even to Bloomberg’s paternalistic outlook on how much better he and others like him could “manage” the government.
But when I talk to waitresses and house cleaners, to cashiers in stores and drivers of taxis, to nurses and K-12 teachers, I get a very different reaction. Usually our conversations about Sanders begin with their exclaiming, “I love Bernie!” Even when they are dubious about some of his policy prescriptions, they seem to want to vote for him.
And the explanation? In 2016, as I first started canvassing for Bernie, I was startled by something. When I spoke to people in lower income neighborhoods, person after person would say to me, in almost the same words, sometimes with their voices breaking, “It means so much to finally have someone speaking for me.”
That refrain has haunted me for the past four years. It says so much about what has been happening for decades in this country. The affluent elites, the people on cable news and the people who ask for votes, have become increasingly disconnected from those who drive trucks and tend to the sick and clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash. Many are unaware of the low pay and daunting challenges most K-12 teachers face, even teachers with multiple post graduate degrees who come from the once comfortable middle class.
For those embattled people, our society has not been working for a long time, something very few politicians seem to understand. But the truth is the society has not been working for most of us for a long time. It’s just that those of us with a bit more cushion in life, with the time and background to pick up a book of poetry or go to a concert, are better able to hide from the desperate reality of life in America.
But Bernie Sanders clearly grasps the deeply corrosive nature of that reality. Although he has attained a position of privilege, he is one of those rare people who seems to actually empathize with the pain other people are experiencing, and to be driven by a intense need to alleviate that suffering.
An example of this drive is Sanders’ decades long effort to secure funding for community health centers. Contrary to the fiction about his achieving little in Congress, Sanders has been a very effective legislator, often attaching progressive amendments to Republican legislation. In the House, his amendments secured hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for health care. As a senator in 2010 he managed a real coup, expanding coverage for millions of Americans by adding 11 billion dollars for health centers to the Affordable Care Act.
Those community health centers have proven to be one of the most popular aspects of the ACA. Along with previously existing centers, they currently serve over 25 million people, people who can simply walk in the door and be guaranteed care, regardless of their ability to pay. Many Republican legislators have quietly requested additional funding for the centers, even while decrying the ACA in public.
Why don’t more people know about this? Unfortunately, the mainstream media is not very interested in reporting on substance. And Bernie has a odd characteristic that often frustrates those of us who support him—he is bad at promoting himself.
Elizabeth Warren rightly touts her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Joe Biden will tell anyone who cares to listen about his sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act. But those millions of people who are receiving affordable health care today because of the bargaining skills of Bernie Sanders? They will probably never know what he has done for them.
Here is another thing many people don’t seem to know about Bernie. A large multi-generational, multi-racial movement has coalesced around his candidacy. It includes activists who are deeply involved in the formulation of policy, bringing to the writing of Sanders’ platforms the lived experience of their own communities. The people working with the campaign comprise some of the most dynamic activists in the country, ranging from well known figures like Naomi Klein and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to emerging leaders like Philip Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders, and Stacey Walker, the first African-American to serve on Iowa’s Linn County Board of Supervisors.
I’ve met some of the activists who are supporting Sanders, I’ve held their hands at rallies, I’ve seen the light in their eyes when we discuss a more hopeful future. I have been moved by their warmth and generosity and deep humanity. This is one of the many reasons I resent the erasure of Sanders’ real supporters with the poisonous “Bernie Bro” attack, first promulgated by Clinton’s propagandists in 2016. Anger and aggression are not what I have experienced over many years in the Sanders movement, one that thanks to Bernie’s constant advocacy, never really stopped.
What I have experienced is a deep seriousness about policy (for those who doubt the range and depth of Sanders’ policy positions please look at the issues sections of his campaign and Senate websites), a passion to create a better world, and an understanding that doing so will involve very hard work, not just now but for years to come.
Many of us are eager to meet that challenge. For the first time in decades, we aspire to the kind of coalition Martin Luther King envisioned when he planned the Poor People’s March on Washington in the months before his death, a coalition that transcends the false barriers the crazed bigots and manipulative politicians have managed to erect between us. No one I am dealing with in the Sanders campaign thinks building that movement will be easy. But as MLK understood, it is the only way to create an America of true equality.
In a time of unprecedented peril posed by climate change, when the oligarchs tighten their control over society more every year, and demagogues all over the world are exploiting people’s fear and anger, it seems clear to me that we are at a tipping point. We can embrace a transformative vision of our society or finally cede all control to the wealthy and powerful. But I seriously doubt we can just return to “normalcy,” whatever that means to people.
My politics are quite different from Emma Goldman’s, but I deeply believe in every person’s right to political and economic freedom and at least the hope of “beautiful, radiant things.” This a very dark time, which is all the more reason to be bold and creative in our fight for democracy. Perhaps we can convince George to come along for the ride. I sense that he wants to. He only needs Democratic voters to think outside of the box and nominate our unlikely hero. Bernie and his movement are ready to embrace all comers. There is a great deal of work to do, and yes, there also will be dancing.
Copyright 2020 Kathryn Levy
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections Losing the Moon and Reports. She was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Poetry Project. She lives in Sag Harbor, NY.
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