Just as Donald Trump has captivated a section of American society with his furious rhetoric, the Democratic outsider Bernie Sanders has ridden a wave of support on the left with his strident calls for a fairer, more caring America
The crowd outside the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis, Missouri, is riled up. Inside, Donald Trump is talking about immigration, or rather about the “big, beautiful wall” he wants to build on the Mexican border.
Every time someone walks out wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, the protestors outside boo and jeer. One woman throws up both her middle fingers and hollers “Fuck Trump. Fuck you, you racist bigots.” Trump’s voice thunders out over the loudspeaker. He is wrapping up: “We’re going to win, win, win.”
In the crowd is Tonya Jones, an African-American real estate agent who grew up in inner city St. Louis.“It’s all poor white people voting against their economic interests,” she says. “You don’t have to be an economist to know if the wealth stays in the top 1 per cent, that’s not going to stimulate the economy.”
People she grew up with, poor and disenfranchised, have joined “the very people that stigmatised them”, seduced by the Republican candidate’s appeal to the displaced anger in low-income communities. This, she says, breeds racism — a fear that resonates here perhaps more than anywhere in the US. Missouri was the birthplace of Black Lives Matter, the social movement sparked by the 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white policeman, in the nearby city of Ferguson.
Brown’s killing highlighted the apparent impunity with which police forces across the country were able to act against black youth, showing the gaping inequities in American society. Trump’s rise is in part a reaction to the same economic disenfranchisement.
Jones is backing an alternative vision — that of the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Sanders, the junior senator for Vermont, screamed out of the political fringes to emerge as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, standing on a platform that has captured a growing revulsion for the fetishisation of profit and the coziness of the relationships between politics and big business.
Appealing to millennials and the middle class
Sanders has consistently advocated for progressive reforms to education, taxation and the regulation of the financial sector, and his campaign has captured much of the same momentum as Trump’s, tapping into the discontent among middle class and millennial voters who face a future with constrained job prospects, a rising cost of living and thinning social safety nets. Economic growth has largely seen money flow to the top, which has fed into a housing crisis as high-earners snap up real estate.
A lot of young Americans are incensed with business as usual. While Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is criticised by the left as a political insider with a track record of shifting her views, Sanders has been consistently espousing progressive tax policies and free, easily accessible education for years.
“Bernie is fucking real,” says Adina Marrashe, at a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina that hosted a Bernie Sanders Livestream address. Marrashe recently quit her job working as a wilderness therapist — using outdoor pursuits to provide relief for kids with behavioural disorders — because she says it became more about making money than helping the children.
Marrashe is an archetypal Sanders supporter, a millennial who fits somewhere between the hipster and hippie subcultures and believes that activism and public campaigning can make America inclusive again. They are the people driving Sanders’ campaign, which has been fuelled by the same online activism and organisation that built large-scale protest movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.
Like Trump, Sanders has not financed his campaign with money from special interest groups; unlike Trump, he does not have vast sums of real estate cash to lean on. Instead, he has perfected the crowdsourcing that propelled Barack Obama’s candidacy, taking in over 4 million individual donations, averaging just $27 (£19) each.
They come from people like Frank Golbeck in San Diego, California. He recently gave $15 to the campaign. It is all he can manage. He left the navy a few years ago to start a small mead distillery, Golden Coast Mead, and he has all of the struggles of a small business owner to contend with — although he also donates 1 per cent of his profits to charitable causes.
“My Bernie knowledge is minimal beyond I support him,” says Golbeck, who claims to have disengaged with the news cycle, but is enthused by Sanders’ humanism. “The government should exist to set the rules of the game so people can have a dignified life no matter what lot they were born into,” he says.
Bernie Sanders’ surprise run has, it seems, awakened America’s idealists and given them a political outlet. However, for all of the hope in this underserved constituency, its electoral power is unproven, and it faces resistance from another breed of young person — the politically apathetic, self-described libertarian, caught up in a poisonous mix of distrust and anger, who thinks the nation cannot be saved. People like David Bailey, who owns a small media company in Nashville, Tennessee. “I don’t vote. It’s pointless,” he says. If he thought there was any point, he would vote for Sanders. “Although I also kind of support everyone voting for Donald Trump, just to burn this country down.”
Illustration: Tim McDonagh