Can you feel the Bern yet?

By Jack Apollo George

The first debate between democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential election took place on Tuesday night. Before we went to press the College Democrats were expecting around 100 people to show up.

Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sanders is the candidate who seems to have the most support with college-age students, especially here in Vermont. The Middlebury Students for Bernie group has over 300 likes on Facebook and was one of the first chapters of his national student support campaign.

Of course, Bernie Sanders is the Junior Senator for Vermont and was previously Vermont’s sole congressman and before that was mayor of Burlington for eight years. It is of little surprise that he is something of a local favorite. But there is far more than a sentiment of pride that makes him so popular here.

His campaign for the democratic nomination has been characterized by huge audiences attending his rallies (11,000 in Tucson, AZ 26,000 in Boston, MA) and a commitment that his funding comes from “not the billionaires”. A self-described socialist, who has held all offices as an Independent. He has long been at the fore-front of socially progressive issues, having been a civil rights activist during his college days in Chicago. He also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, the second war in Iraq and was a keen supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

In this week’s spread we will track his connection to the college as well as consider his resonance with our student body.

In October 1986, Dwight Garner ’88, then writing for the Campus (now a literary critic for the New York Times) sat down with Bernie in the Crest room at the College. Sanders had made the unplanned stop at Middlebury in between interviews. When offered a coffee by a college employee he refused it unless it was “on the college.”

Garner wrote: “He was drinking cranberry juice, after passing on the coffee. He wanted to discuss young people in Vermont. So did I.“Students have to realize that they’re going to have to fight to defend their rights,” he said. “When the people in charge realize that you’re not going to fight they’ll start eating away at you. They’ll do things like take away your right to consume alcohol.” … Many of these same young people, who generally agree with Sanders’ views, have trouble with the act that he is a socialist — indeed, the only socialist mayor in America. Where, he was asked, is the line drawn between a liberal democrat and a socialist? He cut his answer with blunt scissors: “There is a general ignorance of what the term ‘socialism’ means,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create a society in which all people have the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives…”

“The democrats don’t touch issues like wealth and power,” he says. “Nobody does. But we’re not going to be afraid to touch these issues. For example, how many people know that 50% of this country’s wealth is owned by 1% of its population?… We’re the wealthiest nation in the world, and all of our people should have a decent standard of living. We deserve that.” Sanders concluded his interview with Garner by saying “I think we have a real shot. I think that people want to be proud again of the moral choices their government is making.”

Almost all of what Sanders said that day is still directly relevant to his campaign today and his contemporary speeches echo this. During the announcement of his running for the presidential candidacy back in May of this year he stated:

“Today, we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world but that reality means very little for most of us because almost all of that wealth is owned and controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. In America we now have more income and wealth inequality than any other major country on earth.”

The similarity is obvious. It is this consistency, a trait that earns him respect from all sides of the political spectrum, which is an attribute that especially endears him to young voters. Speaking to The Campus, the College Democrats’ Communications Director Julian Gerson ’18 said “Bernie is exciting because for a lot of students it is the first time they’re going to vote. The great thing about Bernie is that he says what he’s going to do so clearly. Whereas other politicians make sweeping statements, Sanders has that substance. He does tangible things and that’s important for a lot of kids.”

Similarly, the co-president of the College Republicans Hayden DuBlois ’17 also highlighted how important this aura of honesty was; “there is a perspective that he is consistent, someone who has repeatedly throughout his career held the same progressive liberal positions, which has generated him a lot of respect and enthusiasm.”

While such consistency and openness is attractive it is does not answer the question of whether he is popular enough amongst the wider set of Democratic voters, let alone in the nation at large. “It’s easy to target the 1% in Vermont,” said Gerson. Andrew Plotch ’18.5, also of the College Democrats pointed out that whether Sanders “would win that 4% of independent voters is what every top-ranking Democrat is asking.”

Gerson continued “he represents a subset of democratic values, but I don’t think he reflects the entire party base. He appeals to a younger voter who is disenchanted with conventional government and he’s doing a good job of playing up that perspective.”

This sentiment that Bernie is grabbing a lot of attention but ultimately may be unelectable at the general election is good news to Republicans: “I love it,” said DuBlois. “The more he stays in the race, the more damage he does to Hillary. If he gets the nomination then I don’t think Republicans have to worry very much.”

Hazel Millard ’18, the co-president of the College Democrats thought that the strength of Bernie’s campaign lay in his “focus on socio-economic issues”. Indeed even DuBlois recognized this: “Republicans need to be talking income inequality more. I do give Bernie credit for bringing this up on a national level.”

Though clearly a successful activist who has garnered a lot of attention, he is not free from criticism. On the left, there are worries that he is not too progressive on the issue of gun control, a topic which Millard suggested reflected the nature of Vermont more than anything else. In another point, DuBlois reminded us how, in 1990, Sanders tried to avoid paying the employer’s share of Social Security Tax and was made to do so by the state Department of Employment and Training.

So perhaps he isn’t perfect and maybe he will have a hard time convincing the democratic electorate that he could win a presidential election, but it is certainly an exciting time for politics on our campus. Our local senator and one of the most progressive politicians in the country is in contention to be on the presidential ballot.



 

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Can you feel the Bern yet?