Bernie Sanders finds his revolutionary rhetoric resonating in conservative Iowa
Bernie Sanders is on his third speech of the day, drenched in sweat, and losing his voice from calling for the overthrow of America’s “billionaire class”.
“Brothers and sisters, you are not living in a democracy; you are living in an oligarchy,” the leftwing Democratic presidential candidate tells an audience of Iowa supporters enthralled by his stinging attack on campaign finance and corporate lobbying. “People fought and died to defend American democracy and I will be damned if I am going to let them take that away from us.”
In theory, Sanders’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 2016 breaks all the rules of modern politics. He is angry, dishevelled and making no attempt to soften his message for the tiny handful of TV cameras that have shown up.
This unabashed “democratic socialist” from Brooklyn via Vermont, which he represents as an independent US senator, talks about class, corruption and the pathological greed of the rich. Yet the middle-aged, midwestern audience greeting him here in one of the most conservative states in the country cannot get enough of it. “Welcome to the political revolution,” Sanders says to another loud cheer.
The large, adoring crowds are not new. Sanders first captured national attention this summer by filling venues with up to 20,000 supporters in liberal bastions like Portland, Oregon.
A succession of opinion polls showed him catching and then overtaking the establishment frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the early primary state of New Hampshire – injecting sudden drama into a race that most pundits had initially decided was barely worth following compared with the excitement of the enormous Republican field, currently dominated by businessman and TV personality Donald Trump.
But what is new is the sight of Sanders challenging Clinton in Iowa, the first state to choose a candidate – in caucuses held on 1 February – and the scene of her humiliating defeat by Barack Obama in 2008.
In a shock poll this week conducted in Iowa for the Des Moines Register , Sanders moved to within seven percentage points of the former secretary of state, on 30% to her 37%. Only recently, Clinton commanded impregnable leads in Iowa of more than 50 points.
Clinton is still comfortably ahead in national polling , but the prospect that she could, conceivably, have to recover her campaign momentum after losing both the Iowa caucus and then the New Hampshire primary in quick succession is a deeply troubling one for her.
For Sanders supporters, here is evidence, perhaps, that he has appeal beyond the liberal coasts and union strongholds that have hosted his big rallies to date. That progressive base is deceptively niche, and has briefly fuelled the hopes of past Democratic firebrands such as Howard Dean, only to see them burn out on the prairies of Iowa.
But Sanders campaign aides say the Iowa poll was the best news they had received for months, and a satisfying retort to those who claim he only does well in New Hampshire because it neighbours his own state of Vermont.
Whether Sanders, who turns 74 on Tuesday, has the staying power to take not just the tiny number of delegates on offer from these early-voting states, but also the large numbers from big population centres like New York and California is another matter entirely.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say his success so far was not in the Democratic party script.
As with the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest for Britain’s Labour party, Sanders is forging a powerful alliance of younger voters and older activists with an economic message that appeals across the country.
His speeches talk of how “the redistribution of trillions of dollars into the hands of the very rich”, has left the top one-tenth of one per cent owning almost as much wealth as the bottom 90% of Americans.
“The great middle class of this country, once the envy of the entire world, has been disappearing for the last 40 years,” Sanders tells another enthusiastic crowd in the Iowa college town of Grinnell.
Indeed, some of his ideas for fixing this broken American dream echo Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s – most notably a $1tn investment in public infrastructure, which Sanders claims would create 16m new jobs.
Other ideas draw inspiration from modern industrialised countries, including establishing America’s first system of paid family and medical leave, universal healthcare, free college tuition and public funding of elections.
All would be a radical departure for the US, and additional proposals to break up Wall Street banks and overturn free trade deals would no doubt cause consternation in corporate America were Sanders ever elected to the White House.
But, crucially, he argues that none of these ideas are extreme by international or historical standards – only in comparison with the unfettered turbo-capitalism that has taken root in recent US history.
“These are not radical ideas,” insists Sanders. “They are understood in virtually every major country on earth.”
They also go down surprisingly well with middle Americans, many of whom feel so badly left behind by the current economic recovery that only bold steps will do.
“More and more people are waking up to the fact that middle-class people are really struggling,” says Tom Gross, a 58-year-old former power plant worker from nearby Amana who travelled to the Grinnell rally. “This is the middle of the country, you’d think it would be hardcore conservative, but he’s turning out the people.”
His partner, Carmen Grimm, a 57-year-old pharmacy technician, also sums up the Sanders appeal to millennials and their parents.
“I have two sons and part of what Bernie speaks to me about is how concerned I am about their ability in today’s economy to pay off their student loans,” she says. “How they will ever – not even really get ahead – but just do a little more than stay afloat.”
Plenty of other candidates are making similar pitches, but few manage it as authentically as Sanders.
“Bernie is Bernie, he’s down to earth and he’s not for special interests,” explains Chris Uhlenhopp, a 67-year-old former labourer at the nearby Maytag appliances factory, which once employed 2,000 people. “I won’t go from Bernie to Hillary,” he adds. “I’d stay in bed if we had Hillary [on general election day].”
This attitude is helping Sanders match Clinton’s prodigious fundraising and party machinery in Iowa.
While the former New York senator is attacked for her wealthy fundraisers and historic links to Wall Street, Sanders proudly boasts of persuading 400,000 small donors to give him an average of $31.20 each, and has signed up 100,000 campaign volunteers.
During his swing through the state on Thursday, he stopped to open a new campaign office in Ottumwa, packed to overflowing with wide-eyed students and grizzled party veterans.
A key part of his stump speech at such gatherings is to point out how Obama went wrong by not converting his own grassroots campaign network into a post-election movement that could effect lasting change.
“No president, not the best you can imagine, can do it unless we have millions of Americans involved in a strong grassroots movement,” Sanders tells the Ottumwa campaign workers.
“Real change – whether it is the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement or the environmental movement – real change never comes because some guy sitting in the Oval Office says: ‘Oh gee, I think that’s a good idea.’ Real change only happens when millions of people stand up and demand their human rights.”
Like Obama, Sanders believes he can overcome scepticism that his policies are not mainstream enough by focusing on voter turnout rather than the centre ground.
“When people say ‘politics is crap, I’m not going to get involved’,” he urges campaign staff, “you tell them that if the Koch brothers are prepared to spend $900m on this campaign maybe they understand something that everybody in America should understand: politics is real, it will impact every person’s life and if we do not get involved they will control what goes on.”
But while the Obama message was packaged in a slick, charismatic campaign that employed modern political methods, Sanders revels in his self-confessed “grumpiness”.
With a thick Brooklyn accent so gravelly it sounds like he swallowed a bag of pebbles before coming on stage, he tells the crowd in Burlington later that night that he is less about change and more about revolution.
“The American people are sick and tired with establishment politics, sick and tired of establishment economics and sick and tired of establishment media,” he says as a freight train hoots hauntingly in the distance. “They want to see a government in which the American people and the middle class are represented rather than big money interests.”
And despite the overwhelming consensus in Washington that his campaign will ultimately flame out much like that of Dean, when Sanders talks about what he will do when he is in the White House, there is a feeling in the crowd that this is not such a laughable idea.
“When we stand together we win because there are a helluva lot more of us than there are of them,” concludes the Vermont insurgent. “We have a very simple message to the billionaire class: you cannot have it all.”
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