In a small office inside an old theatre in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders' supporters gathered to share their highlights and challenges after a day of knocking on doors.
"I'm feeling grateful," said one, before relaying a story about a surprisingly friendly interaction with a Trump supporter.
Others said they were feeling energized and inspired, despite a low response rate after hundreds of knocks and hours out in the February drear. "Just talking to one person who thanked me for being out in the field made it all worth it," said another.
The moment one person said they were feeling cold, organizers leapt into action, tossing hand-warmers to the shivering canvasser.
The New Hampshire primary was in one week. Some organizers had been in the small office for months, others had been working steadily since 2016, and still others were canvassing for the first time, but the energy in the room was palpable and warm and beautifully chaotic and fundamentally communal, much like a lot of Bernie Sanders' campaign. That has something to do with its success.
As Sanders has steadily risen in the polls, major media outlets have been forced to examine his campaign and the massive base of supporters—many young, social media-savvy, and passionately fired-up about their 79-year-old patron saint—that have propelled them to this place. Some portray his supporters as a battalion of belligerent young white males; others insist that Bernie's base is the most diverse of all; still others view them as lazy, entitled kids.
Doubters have been forced to interrogate that last opinion, because it's clear that Sanders' campaigners are anything but lazy. Sanders' campaign has garnered the highest number of individual donors of any candidate, amassing $1.3 million after discovering that a super PAC planned to air a negative ad about him. He raised nearly $100 million in 2019, topping Pete Buttigieg by some $25 million without the help of major corporations. His supporters are fervently keyed in, texting, tweeting, and—as it became clear in that New Hampshire room—getting out into the streets, taking the time to talk to people.
So what's behind Sanders' sweeping, grassroots appeal? And who are his supporters, really?
The easiest answer to this question is that there is no single answer. Bernie Sanders' supporters are working-class Americans, disaffected progressives, starry-eyed optimists, frustrated pessimists, devil's advocates, and God-fearing moralists. They are not a monolith. In that way, they might just represent the actuality of the American people—in all their contradictions, devotion, and passion—better than any other base.
"Not Me, Us" and the Fight Against American Hyper-Individualism
Miss Toni took a while to open the door. She was wearing a blue onesie covered in hearts, and her room was filled to the brim with records and posters from the 1980s. When she finally was able to open the door, a flock of birds fluttered away from her porch and took to the sky.
She told us she was already a Bernie supporter and began shakily filling out the sign-up sheet we gave her. She was registered to vote by her deadname (the male name she was given at birth), but she asked us to refer to her as Miss Tami. She had been an activist in the 1960s, she said. Bernie felt like the closest thing to bringing back the spirit of those days.
We also met a gun-owning Republican from Hawaii who, after hearing about Bernie's support for ending student debt and his dedication to ending the spirit of xenophobia in America, pledged to lend his support for Sanders on Tuesday.
Among the Trump supporters we met, their number one reason for supporting him was always the economy. "Me and my daughters are doing well."
"It would be nice if everyone could do as well as you and your family," we said. He shrugged. By the end of the conversation, he was genuinely smiling when he said, "I'm still voting for Trump. But I hope you guys keep going."
If Sanders does win the Democratic nomination, the economy will be paramount to the ensuing debates. While the currently strong American economy mostly exists thanks to Obama-era policies, and while many economists project that we are headed for a recession, it is true that Trump protects the Wall Street interests that continue to ensure cutthroat capitalism's success in America and around the world. These very successes are what have led America's income inequality levels to approach Depression-era extremities.
Sanders represents a synthesis of radicalism, anticapitalism, and a realistic understanding of the threats that America and the world are facing. To many, he also—contrary to the entire Bernie Bro narrative—represents human compassion. His campaign slogan, "Not Me, Us," is a refreshing antidote to the egotistical and self-absorbed nature of politics and neoliberalism in America. It's a reminder that—like the best stories, or the best policies—Sanders is just a vessel for something much greater, a catalyst for a dream.
Sanders' Internet Army and the Limits of Tolerance
It's unfortunate that Bernie's campaign has been plagued by cruelty and disunity—and that these aspects of his base have been so heavily emphasized by the media. It's also true that some of Bernie Sanders' supporters can be cruel, and many need to learn to listen. If Bernie's supporters are serious about his campaign, they need to understand that shutting down discourse and rejecting all contention isn't the way to go about winning support.
But it's also true that in this America, people are dying thanks to medical bills they cannot pay, and students graduate into a world where they pay exorbitant amounts of money each month for years at a time in order to combat their student debt.
In light of this, the rage that many of Sanders' supporters feel at so-called centrists is born out of a deep-rooted desire to see real change instead of more of the same. It's a realization that trusting in the system and tolerating hatred is essentially the same thing as allowing them to continue.
It's also true that we're embroiled in a climate crisis, and kids are being born into a world of increasingly rampant natural disasters and apocalyptic scenarios playing out in real time, all while watching their politicians and parents do nothing. Bernie's Green New Deal is the most ambitious plan to address climate change of any candidate's; it also promises to renew the American economy, refurbishing our crumbling infrastructure by providing millions of new jobs in green, clean manufacturing. The strength of his plan has caused Sanders to gain the support of major environmental organizations across the country.
In a world where families can easily be crushed by a medical bill or a college admissions fee, Sanders' policies read like gospel for the disaffected. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, immigration reform, and an end to endless wars are plans that promise actual change, packaged in a promise that can be paid for with the money that the United States spends on wars and allows to burn holes in Jeff Bezos's pockets.
The gospel-like, lyrical, and consistent nature of Sanders' policies are at the center of his movement. Like "Make America Great Again," Sanders' policies appeal to the idea that politics is theatre, that the best politicians present a show and offer a vision, a possibility, a roadmap for a movement that will get people out of their homes and into the field.
Lighting the Fire
There's a video of Bernie Sanders in Vermont, teaching his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, how to use a wood-burning furnace. Sanders is wrapped in a coat, bent over a cast-iron stove. "You want the flames from the small guys—are you recording me?" he says, stopping and then clarifying, "You want the small wood to be able to catch onto the big logs."
With his thick Brooklyn accent and his dedication to the task at hand, Sanders has intensely grandfatherly energy—but his statement also seems like it could suffice as his campaign slogan. He's a small flame, and when he began as a Vermont senator in 2016, he seemed to face impossible odds.
But every fire starts with a single spark. As the infamous poster that's a fixture in many dorm rooms reads, "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases from being shared." It's a quote from the Buddha, but it could also apply to the ripple effect that Sanders' campaign has launched.
Change is catching and intoxicating. The spirit of hope and unity and fire that lights Sanders' campaign is a balm against apathy and hopelessness, against racism and xenophobia and economic inequality. It's about what human society can achieve—what we should achieve—what we are morally obligated to achieve.
Still, many of Sanders' supporters are realistic. We are well-aware that even if Sanders is elected, it will still only be the beginning of a long, hard fight against deep-rooted economic inequality, corporate greed, and dangerous capitalism-driven climate disaster in America and around the world. We know that visions and dreams mean nothing if the work isn't put into achieving them—the long, endless nights and the decades spent carving out policies.
But it's impossible to even begin the work if the dream isn't there in the first place, and if the people who believe in the dreams aren't allowed in the rooms where the work is done.
Regardless of what happens in Iowa and on the campaign trail, even the most fervent Bernie Sanders supporters believe that cruel attacks are not the answer. Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of Sanders' biggest supporters—has stated that Democrats need to support whoever is elected in order to beat Donald Trump. If anything, we will need more unity and love and compassion for each other in the coming months than ever before.
We shouldn't have to compromise our values and allow people to die while others languish in the shade of the wealth and power they did nothing to earn, save being born in the right place.
Voting in Iowa closes at 7:00 PM CST in Iowa today, February 3rd. Find your caucus site here.
The opportunity to change your party affiliation in New York State closes February 14th.
Find out how to vote for Bernie in the primary in your state here.