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Checking in From Bernie World

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

They call it Town Meeting day in Vermont. The concept is a leftover from a simpler time. In the bigger towns, it’s really just election day. Unlike the rural hamlets and villages where residents actually hold a meeting, there are no debates, no show of hands and no shaking one’s head when the neighbor starts talking some point he saw online or in the newspaper. Just voting with mostly paper ballots and markers.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders decided to speak at the fairgrounds near Burlington, VT. after the polls closed. Those grounds are a couple of miles away from my place so I figured I’d go on up there. I’ve heard Sanders speak at rallies when we were organizing the first union at the University of Vermont–his speech didn’t change much in content but it boosted worker morale when management was making threats that certainly counted as unfair labor practices. I’ve also heard him at Labor Day picnics and talked with him in Burlington’s downtown. We say hello when we are on the same flight to Washington, DC. There’s were other more confrontational interactions after he came out in favor of bombing people in the disintegrating Yugoslavian nation. In fact, after sitting in his office with a couple of dozen other antiwarriors, we argued with him and a fellow from the 1999 version of the Democratic Socialists of America at a town meeting.

Anyhow, times have changed since then and Bernie Sanders is a popular candidate for president of this crazed republic. I thought I should check out the rally. At least I would be among predominantly friendly people.

So, on Tuesday evening just before the polls closed in Vermont, I got on the bus to the fairgrounds. It was packed with young people on their way to the rally. They conversed excitedly while keeping an eye on their phones and occasionally tapping the screen to reply to a text or get a news update. By the time the bus made it to the fairgrounds, Sanders had been projected as the winner in Vermont and Biden was on his way to victory in Virginia. I walked with the crowd onto the muddy fairgrounds; the melting snow enhanced by a steady drizzle had turned the parking lot into mud. It is Vermont and there is a season here known colloquially as mud season, after all.

The hall where the rally was being held is usually used for trade fairs throughout the year and product displays during the fair held there every August. It is cavernous and lit by hundreds of fluorescent lights. After going through the security routine at the door, I entered the main room. A guy behind me asked the security guard if they had found any guns. She told him no and added that the main thing they were finding that wasn’t allowed in were vape pens. Each person who had to leave a pen or backpack behind was given a ticket so they could retrieve their items on their way out. Cannabis is legal in Vermont, so vape pens are standard outfitting for many residents.

I would estimate that a thousand people were already inside when I arrived. The crowd would peak at around two thousand. It was the first political rally of any kind that I have attended where beer was for sale. In fact, it was a top-notch local craft brew called Fiddlehead. Sales were brisk before and during the musical set from the Maine band The Mallett Brothers who were joined by local heroes Phish members Michael Gordon and Jon Fishman. Although the acoustics were terrible in the hall, I was able to discern that their opening song was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” The band played for forty-five minutes or so and featured Gordon’s teen daughter singing lead and harmonies on a few of the tunes. Meanwhile, the visage of Wolf Blitzer glared from a very large television screen hung on a wall off to stage right. CNN graphics threw numbers into the audience while other talking heads appeared to be providing what they probably considered profundities about the election returns. It was fairly obvious from early on that it would be a decent night for the Democratic Party’s right-wing. The South was going Biden’s way and even the northeast was giving him more credit than he’s ever been due. Friends of mine who are emotionally involved in the Sanders campaign and the hope it represents were texting me. Their texts expressed sadness and anger. I had to remind them that the freaking campaign season has really only barely begun. Even though it seems like it’s been going on forever.

The electoral process in the United States is unnecessarily long and convoluted. It reminds me of a season in sports. To me, it most closely resembles going through a Major League Baseball season without the joy of watching a game. There are essentially two parts of the baseball season. There are two leagues and the first part of the season is known as the regular season and goes on for 162 games. It involves playing the same opponents multiple times. Mostly, each team plays other teams in their division and whichever team wins the most overall games in each division wins that division. Two other teams with the next highest number of wins become wild card contenders. Then comes the postseason wherein a formula designed to give the advantage to the teams with the best record—the five remaining teams in each league play each other, eventually winnowing the number of teams down to one in each league. Those two teams then play each other in a best-of-seven World Series. The winner of that series is the champion until the next World Series is over the following October.

Maintaining the analogy, that puts the current Democratic electoral process about one-third of the way through the season. As any baseball fan knows, the outcome of the season is rarely certain for their team. It is usually full of ups and downs; different teams slide in and out of first and second place in each division and the division leader at season’s end is not always the team that led the division over the summer. It’s an old baseball adage that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. This is true in Democratic Party politics, especially this year. As for the GOP, Donald Trump is like a team that can’t be bested record-wise by any team in its league. His competition is not worth noting. He will be the GOP team in the final contest of the election season.

I was at a family gathering a couple of weeks ago. Although politics is not a general topic of conversation at these events, it does come up. Now, my family is large. Our gatherings number in the several dozens. The political conversations I do have are revealing. When one lives in a progressive bubble-like Vermont, they tend to forget that the rest of the nation thinks differently. What I found remarkable at this most recent gathering was the seriousness with which people were considering Bernie Sanders as president. Even those in-laws and siblings (all-male, a few military vets and a couple small businessmen) who tend towards the rightwing side of things not only said they appreciate his campaign, but believe that his call for universal health care and free education beyond high school were great ideas. Their qualms about supporting him stemmed from an uncertainty about the socialist label he is hung with. I also sensed that they were afraid of immediate change and preferred something incremental, like restoring the ACA with a public option before going to single-payer. This openness to these ideas is new and seems to reflect an understanding that the super-wealthy are screwing us all. The female members of the family—my sisters, sisters-in-law and my nieces—were all behind either Sanders or Warren. I know this is anecdotal, but it is the change in the males’ attitudes which is worth noting. The Trumpist assault on the working people of the US has sharpened the contradictions, as the leftists like to say.

Back to the rally. After a few more speakers and a brief wait, Sanders finally took the stage. His speech was short and to the point. He noted the different circumstances he was now campaigning under and pointed out that he had two major opponents. The first and foremost is Donald Trump. The second is Joe Biden. Noting that Biden is the billionaires’ choice and that Bloomberg is actually a billionaire, Sanders cast himself as the candidate of the working class and told the audience that he is confident he and his movement will win in November.

I have not openly supported a candidate for US president since 1972 when I supported George McGovern. I’m not gong to start now. However, the fact that Sanders’ positions on most of the important issues in the US are positions which the other candidates have responded to not by dismissing them but by slightly modifying them, represents a shift leftward in establishment politics. The trick, then, is not to get hung up on the electoral fate of the candidate espousing those positions, but to organize around those issues. Then, even if the system does its dirty work and rejects the social democratic candidate, the fight for the issues that the candidate is running on will continue. I think Bernie Sanders understands this. It’s important that his supporters do too.

(As I got ready to submit this, I heard Bloomberg dropped out. So, his money will now go to moderate and right-wing Democrats. The billionaires are having their drivers circle their limousines. The Sanders campaign is also sharpening the contradictions, albeit in a different manner than Donald Trump. The icing on the cake is that we don’t have to see those obnoxious Mike Bloomberg commercials anymore).

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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