Adventures in Bernieland: Meet the People Who Think Sanders Can Save America

The Vermont senator whips up the populist excitement.
Updated on

Supporters cheer while holding up signs during the official kickoff to Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Burlington, Vermont, U.S., on Tuesday, May 26, 2015.

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

A few hours before the rally where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would formally announce his bid for president, a hundred-odd potential supporters gathered in a circle. They took up much of the park outside city hall, where in 1981 Sanders had taken office as the first socialist mayor of Burlington. Charles Lenchner, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who had started the new (and unofficial) People for Bernie, asked the crowd to speak freely. Then he gave it a try.

"Everyone who's afraid of the word 'socialism,' please take a step in," he said.

He waited a moment. A few legs wobbled, a few heads turned, but nobody took a full step.

"This is great!" laughed Lenchner. "I think we're gonna take a page from a famous political consultant. We're gonna turn every perceived weakness of this movement into a goddamn strength."

Bernie Sanders has that effect on people. If progressives could design a presidential candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton, he would not be 73 years old, white, male, and from a small blue state. Yet every Sanders win has been an impossible-looking triumph. He calls himself a "democratic socialist," a term that's supposed to lose you elections. That description is hardly controversial in Europe, and Sanders frequently cites the EU nations as models for how America should reform itself—another idea that's supposed to lose you elections.

Sanders does not lose. He won his two Senate terms with 65 and 71 percent of the vote. He won Chittenden County, home of Burlington, by 50 points. In Burlington, as Sanders finalized his announcement speech, some young supporters wore vintage T-shirts declaring how they had helped him win those races. Some older supporters wore Bernie for Mayor buttons. One even wore the slogan "As Goes Burlington, So Goes France," coined by Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau when Francois Mitterrand followed Sanders into power in 1981.

Bernie Sanders inspires legitimate political fandom, something Democrats looked to be done with after two terms of President Barack Obama. Like former Texas Representative Ron Paul, another septuagenarian with defiantly baggy suits, Sanders has watched a political movement build beneath him. Unlike Paul, who cast libertarian votes from a House district, Sanders has an example—Burlington—to cite whenever someone doubts that his politics can govern.

"Ron Paul's campaign was an example of something created by entrepreneurial activists," said Lenchner. "We're hoping the same thing can happen with Bernie."

Paul inspired slogans and kitsch that he never would have brainstormed on his own. Sanders's own campaign launch was celebrated by a number of Vermont artists, who had never delved in politics before "Bernie" (nobody calls him "Senator Sanders") decided to run. When the announcement date was official, artist David Klein assembled a diorama starring Sanders and his dog, Beanie. "It could become an icon," he half-joked in an interview. Artist dug Nap (lowercase "d," like kd lang) created a series of posters, Gouache on board, somewhere between campaign agitprop and outsider paintings.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 5.12.19 PM
Dug Nap

"The thing that attracts me about Bernie is that he's very passionate about what he believes in," said Nap. "I don't claim to know all the issues, but I agree with a lot of where he's coming from and I think we need a change in this country."

Sanders had inspired songs, too. Julia Davis, who'd moved to a Vermont farm just a week before the campaign launch, celebrated with a song about her political here. "You know that I loved Hillary for quite some time/ well that time is done," sang Davis. "She's just another vessel of lies, backed by Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch and the rest of Wall Street —oh no." The lyrics, Davis told Bloomberg News, were brainstormed when she imagined a conversation between herself and a Sanders newbie or skeptic, "without any jargon."

The members of Bernie Nation have a few things in common. They are generally, but not entirely, on the left. To them, there is nothing particularly radical about a politician calling for expanded Social Security, "Medicare for all," higher tax brackets, free college tuition, taxing carbon, and breaking up the largest financial institutions. (It helps if you live in close proximity to Francophone Canada.) 

On Tuesday, at the People for Bernie rally, all of those action items had a hearing. The rally developed along the lines of a classic Occupy gathering, with a volunteer leading a "People's microphone," in which activists repeated the words of whoever had the floor. It started rustily, with one student hearing her every "you know" and "I mean" echoed as she insisted that her peers were ready to organize if people reached out to them. 

"That was a test," said Winnie Wong, one of the Occupy activists who'd organized the event. "Let's try again!"

They tried again, then broke into groups, and momentum built as the activists agreed that a movement around a real Democratic Party primary could bring out people who never bother to vote. One man, long hair tumbling on his grassroots "Bernie" T-shirt, regaled a group about the work he'd done for Jerry Brown's 1992 presidential campaign, an insurgency that capped maximum contributions at $100. Another talked about Zephyr Teachout's surprisingly potent campaign for governor of New York in 2014, which embarrassed Governor Andrew Cuomo in his own Democratic primary. No prior campaign had been as promising as the one offered by Sanders.

"We may be disappointed," said Stephen Marshall, a receptionist who'd walked over from his office. "But we won't be as disappointed as we'd be with anyone else."

Several times, the people assembled in the park worried that the country would simply be ungovernable if no one tackled economic inequality. "We're going to have civil unrest if we do not deal with the obvious problems we have right now," said Lalita Karoli, who'd brought one of her daughters to join the rallies. "You've got kids who look at college and realize they're going to come out with $100,000 of debt—for what? Why even go, in order to fight for a job where you might make $9 an hour? I'm concerned that those kids will take to the streets."

At 3:30 p.m., after more conversations and some pizza, the dozens of activists left on the square gathered to march down to the Sanders event. They found a waterfront studded with bleachers and press risers, where the "zydeco, Cajun and Caribbean" band Mango Jam was setting up to play an hour or so of jams. A queue formed in front of a table of free Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Nearby, a hula hoop salesman sold $10, $15, and $20 toys—"Hoops for Bernie"—as couples danced and twirled to zydeco music.

Julie Sohn, who'd worked for city government under Mayor Sanders, confessed that she had not always been convinced of his ability. "I hated him before he was mayor," she said. "I've loved and hated him ever since. He was just so radical. Oh, my God, can you imagine? He wanted to put in after-school care—no one could dream of it.""

That was a joke. Now, she could not imagine supporting any Democratic nominee besides Sanders. "My dream ticket," she explained, "would be Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul. They both say exactly what they think."

After 4:30, the music quieted and a series of speakers started introducing Sanders. One of the first was Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist, who called the day's surprising and persistent heat a "great spill of solar energy over this beautiful city." He told a story about a hike that let him and his family look down on the great mountains of New Hampshire.

"Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson—maybe someday, Mount Sanders," said McKibben. "He always means what he says, and he says what he believes." 

How could Sanders play outside of Vermont? "My guess is that most ordinary people, exposed to his message, will like him just fine," McKibben said. "But billionaires have inordinate sway in the influence game, and they can recognize a real enemy when they see one."

Bernie Sanders was not the first political candidate to run on this theory. Plenty of insurgents had portrayed themselves as strapped—too honest for big money—but electable once voters realized there was a candidate they could trust. In his speech, Sanders ran through a complete social democratic agenda, from Keynesian jobs programs to single payer health care to new banking regulations. He was not trying to rebrand or repackage any of that; instead, he was betting that an electorate that never showed up had been waiting for someone to say all of this.

"He can do what Hillary Clinton can't do," said Tad Devine, Sanders' chief political strategist. "He can change the composition of the electorate."

When Sanders wrapped his speech, the PA system blasted Pete Seeger's version of "This Land is Your Land." Decades earlier, Sanders had talk-sung a cover of the song, and a recording had become an ironic viral hit. On Tuesday, the singing was handled by an audience of thousands, signing along as the senator shook hands and smiled at the people who'd decided to believe in him.


A video posted by David Weigel (@daveweigel) on


Correction: This story was updated for the correct spelling of Charles Lenchner's name.