The fear of a Bernie Sanders nomination, let alone a Bernie Sanders administration, came as all the deepest fears do, suddenly and sharply. It didn’t seem long ago — who am I kidding, it feels like a fucking century ago — that the Democratic Party was warily content to tolerate his reentry into a presidential race. “What could go wrong?” Democrats gritted to each other. “He’s pushing 80, Elizabeth Warren has none of the establishment baggage of Hillary. And then there’s always Kamala, Cory, or even Mayo(r) Pete, right? And if all else fails, a President Biden might just be senile enough to sign whatever we tell him to sign.”
This made perfect sense. Bernie seemed mostly to be running on the fumes of his 2016 phenomenon campaign. His poll numbers weren’t really changing; and he had a heart attack. But then contenders thought to be quite serious (Gillibrand, Harris, Castro, Booker) started dropping out. Warren faltered in explaining her ambitious but complicated proposals and closing her “likeability” gap. The “Squad” in the House all endorsed him. Then came some polls showing Bernie increasing his position, sometimes even leading them.
Now Bernie is every liberal’s nightmare: an obviously sexist, plausibly racist, plausibly transphobic charismatic demagogue who, if elected, would turn all of America into Jonestown. This fear reached its highest pre-primary intensity just last week when Joe Rogan told Bari Weiss and his legion of evidently Neanderthal fans that he liked Bernie Sanders enough to consider the possibility of maybe voting for him.
Many tremulous Democrats look at Bernie in total and see a radical Brooklynite reflection to the orange fist of Queens. Seeing those elderly outer-borough accents go against each other would be carnivalesque if you’ve invested a lot of your energy and intellect trying to bend reality to The West Wing. It unnerves them still more that there are others who find this pairing not just inevitable but necessary.
I’m prone to side with the latter group. I seem to have more in common with them personally and culturally, or at least with the ones on Twitter. Consider it a variation on Chris Arnade’s not very nuanced and somewhat condescending but for the moment useful “front row kid/back row kid” thesis. We are, in crude political terms, part of the back row. Like them, I see the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as hopeless and panicked. Preferring to serve “the right side of history” than any constituents, they are slipping in influence and losing the moral high ground with it. I’m not confident any of their preferred candidates can achieve the one thing they are most clear on wanting to achieve: defeating Trump (if they cannot remove him first). The desire to see “libs” owned is not a productive one, but it becomes more potent the more desperate said “libs” get. Right now they’re pretty desperate as Bernie is evincing the crossover appeal that makes for successful electoral politics. I don’t see “Bernie would have won” as an empty slogan; but my interest is not so much rooted in the prospect of President Bernie Sanders as it is in the potential of the Sanders coalition whether he wins or not.
Much of Sanders’s appeal, I think, is rooted in his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in which he was elected to four consecutive two-year terms from 1981 to 1989. There is good reason for this. Sanders’s time as mayor was nothing if not active, applying, in the words of The New York Times, “an amalgam of economic pragmatism, political savvy and a dash of his own brand of socialist theory.” The arc of his mayoralty is well known. Despite early opposition from entrenched city administration, a moderate city council, and distrustful business interests, Sanders had a knack for making collaborators out of enemies in his many projects to attract businesses, improve city conditions, promote affordable housing, and keep all economic benefits from going lopsided. (Though critics do like to point out that the number of families in poverty rose 42 percent by the end of his tenure.) For instance, the struggle to keep a once-desolate lakefront from becoming a luxury property ended as a “people’s waterfront” with public beaches, a bike path, a science center, and a community boathouse. It is so integral to Burlington that Sanders announced his 2016 campaign in front of it.
But even more significant, for me anyway, was 242 Main.
I’d heard of 242 Main in high school as being a regular venue for punk bands touring up the northeast. In the late ’90s, Burlington’s own Drowningman was practically the house band. What I didn’t know was that Mayor Sanders, through his Youth Office run by his now-wife Jane, helped create the space. It was part of a major initiative to reach out to the local young, which included, according to Vice, a “public access TV show run by kids; opening a sliding-fee scale daycare that’s still running; helping the elderly with snow shoveling; and starting a newspaper run by teenagers that published stories on issues ranging from teen suicide to the school budget.” 242, converted out of a disused public office, was significant for being an all-ages, substance-free youth center that was run by teens and young adults and which helped undo a prohibition on live music in public spaces. The original venue closed in 2016, but the 242 Main program is still in place. 242 Main, in Jane O’Meara Sanders’s words, “was something that the community of young people said that they wanted, needed, and were willing to take care of. They didn’t ask us to give them anything — they asked us to provide the opportunity.”
242’s opening in 1986 was a stroke of good timing. It was the year Black Flag broke up and the year before Fugazi formed. The former had helped forge the network by which the American indie rock scene communicated and traveled; the latter perfected the civically engaged punk that 242 sought to engender. Though scenes were more connected than ever, a punk bands’ resources were still based in their immediate community. Fugazi being highly sensitive to this arrangement, sought to help bring as many resources back in. As such, they became masters of the benefit show, having raised up to $250,000 in their 15-year history for DC-area women’s shelters, homeless programs, AIDS and gay community centers, free health clinics, abortion rights groups, and youth programs. Other bands in other cities and towns did the same, instilling the notion, contrary to conventional rock wisdom, that a small or midsized locality can be cultivated rather than left behind for a larger one after a formative period. Indeed, opened the same year as 242 was 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, CA, another legendary touring venue that also housed local acts like Green Day, Operation Ivy, Samiam, and Neurosis. They also (for a time, anyway) took in Jawbreaker after the band had flamed out in Los Angeles.
While Beto O’Rourke and his supporters bent over backwards trying to show (unpersuasively) the overlap between his formative punk years and his political project, Sanders had already demonstrated that overlap with tangible results. His mayoralty, like the punk scene, was one of bridging community needs with the high ideals he brought to the office. And like the punk scene, it had to contest with an obstructionist establishment, draconian ordinances, and just basic political realities. Rather than reject or antagonize the opposition outright, as the stereotype goes, each sought to engage as best they could for the most optimal results. In his rather vague interview for the New York Times endorsement, which he didn’t get, Sanders gestured that he’d never work with Mitch McConnell (as if working with him was possible for any Democratic president to begin with); but this runs counter to his mayoralty, during which he worked with Republicans to establish the Community and Economic Development Office “to seize power from the Planning Department, an obstructionist agency controlled by the old guard.” This collaboration was made with a professed shared goal of “economic growth,” but Sanders used it to put affordable housing projects in place. One such project, the Champlain Housing Trust, still works today.
Before this piece becomes too choked up in idealism, about which I am greatly embarrassed, there are two objections to this argument worth airing. One is the purely political/ideological objection that comes from both sides of the spectrum. From the center-left side is the reminder of the conflicts that arise between state and local government, particularly when the former is conservative and the latter progressive. A city may propose whatever it wishes but which will be made possible or impossible by overriding “political norms, not legal structures.” From the right is the insistence that progressive state and local governments have become so politically correct and rights-thirsty that they’ve given the homeless and mentally ill free rein and rendered public safety an impossibility. A fair point. The challenges of deinstitutionalization in American cities have often overshot its good intentions, though the proposed solutions are so vague, if existent at all, that they hardly rise above apartheid for crazy people.
Then there is the wider cultural objection, which sees grassroots communal action as outmoded. 30 years into the digital age, communities are more amorphous and self-arranging rather than tied to place or circumstance. Culture is algorithmic and less concerned with context or creations as such. People are together even as they are apart. Things are not made; they are just there. The idea of a community center is one that belongs in films watched ironically. Physical retail, moreover, is declining in favor of digital services and home delivery. Fewer people have reason to go outside, and malls are quickly becoming landed ghost ships.
But objections are not discouragements. Indeed, the conditions they highlight are just those that propel bottom-up social action. They are either overlooked or unable to be adequately addressed by national government. If the Bernie coalition is as eclectic as the Democratic establishment and its orbiters apparently fear, a turn to the local would make more sense, not less. It must prove that it is more grounded in reality, more willing to listen, to invite participation from perceived outsiders, and to convey concerns and to exchange ideas meant to address them. For many, acting local means acting modestly. But ideas that seem modest in the abstract become much more significant in the concrete, like starting a community center, getting people to go to it, and keeping it open.
One of the criticisms laid against Bernie is that, like Trump, he is more than a candidate for office. He is a symbol (or rather, a symptom) of the corrosion of our social norms that cede civil power to the irate and the extreme. His followers are blinded by their grievances and easily seduced by his talent for echoing those grievances. Bernie, in short, is a false, malicious hero to the rejects and the unhelpful. I agree that extremism is gaining ground, if only because the times themselves are extreme and have been for a long time. But I agree moreover that Bernie, to the extent that he reflects the times at all, is more than a candidate. That could make him different things to different people, for me he is a catalyst. He’s someone that, win or lose, signifies the beginning of change rather than a peak or a conclusion. I realized this effect on rereading an article in Jesse Pearson’s Apology magazine about the influence of Black Flag on pastry chef Brooks Headley. “Black Flag offered a generation of punks, musicians, artists, and — yep — pastry chefs, a blueprint for how to be an independent creative person in the shadow of the normal world,” Pearson writes. “As Brooks succinctly puts it, Black Flag makes you want to fucking DO SHIT.”
Bernie the candidate could be safely set aside at whatever point in this election; but you, the supporter, will still be there. It’s only a matter of going where you are needed.