From The Intercept
IT MADE FOR a tough juxtaposition. Late Monday night, CBS News reported that Bernie Sanders had just done exactly what many critics have long called on him to do: He asked his supporters to dial back the personal attacks on rivals in the Democratic primary and focus on substantial policy differences.
"We need a serious debate in this country on issues," Sanders said. "We don't need to demonize people who may disagree with us. ... I appeal to my supporters: Please, engage in civil discourse." He pointed out (rightly) that "we're not the only campaign that does it. Other people act that way as well." But he added, "I would appeal to everybody: Have a debate on the issues. We can disagree with each other without being disagreeable, without being hateful."
Then, early the following morning, the Hollywood Reporter sent out a press release about its new cover story with the subject line: "Hillary Clinton on 2016, her new doc and Bernie: 'Nobody likes him.'"
Inside were excerpts from a stunningly destructive interview in which Clinton obsessively picks every scab of the 2016 primary race and refuses to say that she would endorse Sanders if he wins the nomination, the very thing establishment Democrats falsely claim that Sanders did in 2016 (in fact, as the New Yorker reported, he campaigned tirelessly for her, sometimes doing three events a day).
Within seconds, that 2016 primary feeling flooded my bloodstream. Screw what I had planned for the morning none of it felt as important as firing off a volley of rage tweets about Clinton, her staggering absence of self-awareness, and her outrageously revisionist history.
But I did something else instead. I blocked Twitter, chatted with my son about why he's such a Bernie fan ("He will beat Donald Trump"), and started writing about being on the Sanders campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire over the last couple months. Because among Sanders's steadily growing base of supporters, the mood is about as far from rage tweeting as you can get. In fact, despite the senator's reputation as a finger-waving grump, the more time I spend with the campaign, whether in small meetups or huge rallies, the more I am struck by the undercurrent of tenderness that runs through all these events. Surprisingly enough, the force that is bridging what at first seem like huge divides between multiracial urbanite Gen Z-ers and aging white farmers, between lifetime industrial trade unionists and hardcore climate organizers, between a Jewish candidate and a huge Muslim base is a culture of quiet listening.
This crystalized for me last Sunday in Manchester, New Hampshire, when I met with about 15 volunteers who were heading out to knock on doors on a frigid morning. Huddling in a strip-mall campaign office next to a Subway and a Supertan, they were reviewing the messaging that is proving most resonant with voters. That Bernie will fight for us because he always has. That he has the courage to take on the billionaire class. That he has a path to victory because of the unprecedented grassroots movement that the campaign has built.
After the official part of the meeting, one of the volunteers took me aside. Making the case for the candidate and the policies is important, he said, "but what I have found is that the most important thing we can do is listen. People need to share their stories. That's even more important than talking."
Canvassers and organizers across the country report the same thing: that once a space for listening (as opposed to lecturing) has been opened up, the stories start pouring out. About how the loss of a family member to cancer was compounded by being hounded by medical debt collectors. About the deep fatigue and full-body stress of working three jobs and still struggling to make ends meet. About a student debt that ballooned so fast, studies had to be aborted, along with any hope of earning enough to pay back the creditors. About feeling unsafe walking the streets in a hijab and missing family members blocked by Donald Trump's travel bans. About skipping necessary treatments and critical medications for lack of funds. About fear of having children in the face of climate breakdown. And so much more.
After these intimate stories have been shared, people are more open to hearing how the movement that the campaign is building could make their lives better with bold policies from Medicare for All to erasing college debt to a $15 minimum wage to a Green New Deal.
If this sounds less like conventional electoral campaigning and more like old-school political organizing (maybe even consciousness raising), that's because it is. As Ruby Cramer observed in an excellent report for BuzzFeed News in December, the campaign's animating mission whether in the field or on digital platforms is to convince millions of Americans that, contrary to what they have been told, their pain is not the result of a failure of character or insufficient hard work. Rather, it is the consequence of economic and social systems precisely designed to produce cruel outcomes, systems that can only be changed if people drop the shame and come together in common cause.
Sanders, Cramer writes, "is imagining a presidential campaign that brings people out of alienation and into the political process simply by presenting stories where you might recognize some of your own struggles. He is imagining a voter, he says, who thinks, I thought it was just me who was struggling to put food on the table. I thought I was the only person. I thought it was all my fault. You mean to say there are millions of people?"
This is one of the fascinating ways that the campaign's slogan "Not Me. Us ." has gradually taken on a life of its own, with new layers of meaning added as the project matures. When the slogan was first unveiled, it seemed to mean something narrow and specific: This campaign was not about voting for a messianic leader who would fix all of our problems for us. To achieve the scale and speed of change that Sanders is pledging (and that we desperately need), the people currently supporting his campaign, with small donations and volunteer work and eventually votes, will need to stay organized and keep pushing for change on the outside, just as they did during the New Deal era.
The slogan still carries that meaning. That's why it matters that Sanders is endorsed by some of the most courageous and militant trade unions and grassroots organizations in the country, from the United Teachers Los Angeles to the Dream Defenders to the Sunrise Movement. These organizations have already shown themselves willing to stage strikes and engage in disruptive protest to win tangible victories for their members, and they can be counted on to keep building and exercising that kind of disruptive power after the election.