‘The fire is spreading’: Bernie Sanders is the Katniss in Nevada’s Hunger Games
As if it was straight out of your square uncle’s cockeyed fever dream, one of the six Bernie Sanders offices in Las Vegas, Nevada, sits in a decrepit strip mall, provocatively rubbing up against a weed dispensary. Well, not exactly a dispensary in the traditional sense. The website for the Higher Power Cannabis Church describes “a congregation and members that seek inspiration and insight from all major world religions … Through our shared search for a HIGHer power, we have come to believe that cannabis is a miracle plant with many therapeutic and medical benefits.”
The strip mall, which faces the campus of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on the opposite side of a bustling thoroughfare, was mostly dead, save for a few skateboarders, lunchtime patrons trying to get food at a nearby taco shop, and two stragglers smoking cigarettes outside of the recently shuttered, cheekily named Cheers Bar & Grill. At this Cheers, no one knew my name and I was happier for it. The cannabis church received no parishioners that I noticed, despite their website listing daily hours of 11am to 7pm.
The Sanders office, though, was full of life. Young, eager kids cycled in and out, carrying stacks of paper and door hangers. I noticed a birthday cake on a table in the back of the office. As someone who finds it near impossible to turn down a slice of cake, I asked if we were going to cut into the damn thing while I was there. “No, she’s not here yet,” I was told. “But there’s coffee cake.” I politely declined. Coffee cake and birthday cake have as much in common as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump , the two candidates who have thus far reenergized the moribund American electorate.
I didn’t actually come for cake, though it would have been a lovely bonus on top of my stated objective to learn more about the political revolution being fomented by Senator Sanders, the unassuming democratic socialist from Vermont. For a portion of the politically aware public, the Sanders supporter might as well be a dog with nipples where its eyes should be – wholly alien, irrational and difficult to look at. Rightwing pundits mock the tent revival qualities of Sanders rallies. Hillary supporters lash out at the so-called “Bernie Bro” phenomenon – supporters who quibble misogynistically with Clinton and her surrogates. Older voters can’t quite wrap their brains around the idea that an avowed lefty who refuses to take campaign money from business interests would be able to challenge the ascendant Clinton dynasty. To them, the idea that a bunch of kids would gather in an office across the street from a university and next to a glorified head shop in the middle of a deserted shopping center from the 1970s is expected and laughable.
But that’s the story that’s always told when insurgent candidates marshall the forces of youth action. Hillary scoffed at Barack Obama as late as May 2008, her campaign arguing that he didn’t have much of a shot to win the general election against war hero John McCain. Young people are fickle, says the conventional wisdom. Look at George McGovern’s quixotic anti-war efforts against Richard Nixon. The youth vote has been historically powerless against the “silent majority” in this country, but in the modern political landscape, no one is silent for very long.
The Sanders field office I went to is certainly a chatty place. People commiserate and joke with each other. Open containers of snacks are casually left out amongst the precinct data and get-out-the-vote materials. The infamously irreverent Men Who Bern beefcake calendar is proudly displayed on the wall next to a work station. In many ways, the office resembles a college dorm. Lots of traffic in and out at all hours of the day and plenty of philosophizing and genuine optimism. One volunteer, Andrew McQuinn, told me that during breaks in their work day, the group plays the Jeopardy home edition to unwind.
McQuinn, 27, moved to Vegas from Seal Harbor, Maine, with his partner and volunteers for Bernie as many days as he possibly can. When I met him, he was composing a letter that he hoped would help him get a full-time job with the campaign. He’d quit one of the three jobs he carried to pay off his $35,000 in student loans, deciding to devote more time to the Sanders revolution. “My other jobs are on call, so if I have to, I can miss a day to help out here. On my days here, I’m phone banking. My highest was 170 phone calls in a day.”
That’s about the gist of the campaign in Nevada right now. Because it’s a caucus state like Iowa, the most vital part of the day-to-day operations of a Sanders field office is convincing registered voters to attend a caucus. It looks like mundane work, but these are true believers. Bernie got through to them in powerful, lasting ways. McQuinn had never been active in politics before he joined. “Obama was the first candidate I voted for. Until this campaign, I never … the only political thing I did was campaign to get gay marriage legalized in Maine. Other than that, I’m not a political person at all. I went from not having any time to volunteer because I was juggling three jobs to spending all my free time here and making 50 phone calls. It’s like an addiction.”
What he enjoys less is the pavement-pounding of canvassing – the physical act of going out and engaging with voters in person. In the late afternoon, right before a light sprinkle fell on the city, we drove out to the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, a community still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession and the housing crisis. After about 30 minutes of driving in my rented Hyundai into the gaping nothing that exists off the strip, we arrived at a housing development that felt more like a dilapidated version of an outdoor mall like the Grove in Los Angeles or a flimsy Disneyland attraction. The streets had names like Bursting Nova, Starburst and Shatz. The homes, neatly arranged in symmetrical rows, were virtually identical. The park benches and ample public space made it seem as though this was supposed to be a utopian gated community, but the only people outside during our canvassing visit were unsupervised children. When adults did appear, the looks they gave made it clear they didn’t welcome outsiders. I could see why canvassing was not McQuinn’s favorite job.
The Sanders campaign uses an app to organize and receive voter information from its volunteers in the field. Prospective voters are divided into five categories: 1s are strong Bernie supporters, 2s are leaning Bernie, 3s are undecided, 4s are leaning Hillary, and 5s are strongly for Hillary. We focused on 1s and 2s, for the sake of getting those who have already made up their minds to make the trek to caucus. Even the 1s and 2s might tell you to piss off. McQuinn told me that a percentage of people who end up on their voter rolls fill out their pledge forms without knowing who or what they’re claiming to support. After a few fruitless knocks, we turned to try another prospective voter, but as we were giving up hope, the door opened ever so slightly. A woman in a Cleveland Browns sweatshirt peeked her head out while screaming at what I can only imagine was a child. “I told you to stop that. Shut up!”
“Hi, ma’am. My name is Andrew and I’m working on behalf of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I’m wondering if Joe is home.”
“No, he’s not available right now.”
“OK, well, sorry to bother you.”
We left, allowing her to go back to barking at her child in peace. Some houses, protected by tiny gates, we marked as inaccessible. Our one minor success was a tall, bald, slouching man named Harold. To me, he resembled Bull from the 1980s sitcom Night Court, but I didn’t verbalize that to McQuinn, since I was certain he’d never seen Night Court. Harold told us he donated $70 and has a Bernie refrigerator magnet but can’t get time off to caucus because of his job as a security guard. Even though employers are required to offer an opportunity to vote, some jobs don’t lend themselves to absences.
I drove us back to Las Vegas and McQuinn told me he’s usually working for Bernie from 11am or noon to 8pm, putting in a full day’s work for nothing but the satisfaction of trying to make a difference, even in the face of the kind of apathy or inconvenient responsibility that we just witnessed in Henderson. Not everyone has the chance to give their lives over to a political movement, but that’s why politics is a game for the young. Another volunteer, 18-year-old Katie Wilcox, originally from St George, Utah, has all the time in the world to be idealistic. Her nose ring and sense of fashion made me think she was the type of person to scoff at the idea of joining anything, but she avidly went to high school football games and craves the sort of belonging that campaigns offer.
“I liked going to the games and being involved. You feel a part of something. Everybody wants the same thing. They want that win for their school and they’re all cheering for the same thing. When someone scores a touchdown, you look to your friend and say, ‘Yes, we did it.’” When you’re young, you want to belong somewhere. I certainly did. Acceptance and camaraderie were what I craved and that led me into politics, sports fandom, and Star Trek conventions. It doesn’t seem to be all that different from what the Bernie supporters I met are going through today, even if politics is ultimately one of the most divisive pursuits our country offers. I’m weary enough to avoid political conversations as much as possible in social situations, in order to prevent the kinds of pointless debates that occur on social media every second of every day. Wilcox, though more than a few years younger than me, is starting to see the same problem. “Politics has that stigma that it doesn’t matter, that it’s just a horse race. It’s dirty, and no one wants to talk about it. Like your older uncle brings up politics, and you’re just ‘ugh.’”
But what makes people like Wilcox and McQuinn want to wade into the admittedly filthy waters of American politics? “The issues your peer group cares about are going to get overlooked if you don’t do something. If you do something, other people will see you do something and they will follow,” she tells me.
“We know young people don’t like to vote, and I think Bernie’s the kind of candidate who encourages young people to vote, because he supports issues young people care about. They see that a candidate recognizes what they want, like free college tuition and healthcare, because we’re all, like, broke. We can’t pay for things because tuition keeps going up and wages keep going down. We’re struggling..”
What Sanders can do that Clinton still struggles with is connecting with the frustration and helplessness of a slice of the liberal voter base. Much like her contest with Obama in 2008, it appears very difficult for her to inspire the starry-eyed idealists. That might be because she’s just been around, given so many speeches, and been in the spotlight for so long that she can’t ever hope to be the sort of avatar for deep, existential longing that Sanders and Obama have been able to be for voters younger than 40.
McQuinn is such a fervent Bernie man that he linked his preferred candidate to another revolutionary figure. “I compare it to the Hunger Games , with Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire. Bernie Sanders is the man on fire for the United States, and the fire’s spreading. It started with a tiny flame, but it turned into a forest fire all across the country.”
But didn’t Katniss find herself being manipulated by both sides, eventually becoming disillusioned with the system and going off to be a farmer who suffers from PTSD? “No matter what, power will get to your head,” he responded. So, is Bernie going to have power get to him if he wins?
“No, he’s too down to earth. He’s too humble. I feel like he’s my neighbor. With Hillary Clinton, I feel she’s wearing a mask and waiting to take off the mask and reveal who she really is. Because she’s been bought and paid for by millionaires, she’s able to hide behind this illusion that she’s presented to us. There’s just too many of her values that I don’t agree with. The way she’s supported corporations like Walmart and Monsanto, and was against gay rights and for Doma, and then once it becomes convenient, pushes away what she supported 10 years ago so it doesn’t make her look bad.”
McQuinnis hardly the stereotypical Bernie Bro – he’s sensitive, empathetic, and is a gay man – and yet his rhetoric toward Clinton is strong and unequivocal. Earlier, I asked Wilcox about Bernie Bros. Does she feel any twinge over bypassing a potential first-ever female president? “I don’t think you should vote for someone on the sole factor that they’re a woman, that America needs a woman president. America needs the right woman president.”
She doesn’t give much credence to the idea of the rampantly misogynistic Bernie Bro, at least not within the official campaign structure. “When people ask me about it, I tell people, Bernie runs a positive campaign.”
McQuinn rejects the entire notion of identity politics, saying: “If we had a candidate against Bernie Sanders who was a gay male … I’d like to see a gay man as president, but if they do not share the same values and want the same things for the country that I want, that I see in Bernie, I would not support them. For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, gay, straight, male, or female – you have to have a certain set of values and present yourself like I can trust you.”
Whatever you might think about Sanders supporters, they lead with their convictions, even if race, gender, religion and class have and will continue to dominate this election cycle.
I wrapped up at the office and drove out past a never-ending cascade of 24-hour liquor stores, gun ranges and fast-food outlets to a Latino-focused Bernie phone bank hosted by a diminutive civil rights activist named Jackie Ramos who seemed quite comfortable being the life of this particular party. Unlike the Sanders field office, the phone bank event was swarming with press, all eager to get the story of Bernie’s outreach to the sizable Hispanic population in Nevada, which helped Hillary win the state by five points in 2008. Most of the volunteers at the field office were white and the stigma attached to Sanders’s campaign is that it’s too monochromatic, that his base is not diverse enough to win the western and southern states projected to go to Clinton next month. This event was about optics, and the campaign enlisted the help of Mexican actor and broadcaster Marco Antonio Regil. I had no clue who he was other than a very handsome man in a suit who looked a bit like retired basketball player Rick Fox, but the Hispanic phone bankers were all in awe of him. Ramos dipped away from my attempts to interview her in order to take, by my count, at least five selfies with Regil before she finally answered my questions.
“Is this Anna? Hello? Is this Anna? Anna?” Regil made a good show of phone banking for the assembled stringers, but couldn’t nail down this particular call. “She just started saying the F-word,” he said after hanging up the phone. “I think she was high. She was for recreational marijuana, for sure.” Perhaps she was a regular attendee of the Higher Power Cannabis Church and accidentally signed up for the Bernie Sanders mailing list.
Before heading back to my hotel, I asked Ramos – post-selfie – about whether or not identity and ethnicity matter to her in this election, considering Bernie’s struggles to mobilize minorities in the next round of primary states. “I love everybody.” What about Hispanics who are Rubio or Cruz supporters eager to elect the first Latino president? “If that’s what they feel, go for it. As long as they know what they’re doing. Just be educated.” No matter what the fate of the Bernie Sanders campaign, its legacy will be that of a movement that sparked the imagination of citizens that otherwise would have gone ignored by the typical candidate. Back when I was at the field office, I asked Wilcox if she was involved in this election just for Bernie or because of her own beliefs.
“I think this is about my own personal values, and if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, I think the things that he stands for have encouraged us to keep pushing for this political revolution. After this, I might decide to major in political science and be a part of this for the rest of my life. You meet such amazing people. It’s really a great way to experience life and fight what you believe in. I think it inspires other candidates for future elections to do what Bernie is doing.” Her words got me thinking that since college is so expensive, maybe young people should substitute higher education for a year working for a political campaign. At least in the case of the Sanders campaign in Nevada, the only thing separating college from politics is a wide boulevard, a strip mall, and a weed church. Oh, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loans.
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