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In Iowa, Bernie Beckons to the Kids, and They Love Him Right Back

Sanders supporters say if their guy doesn't win, 'We'll take to the streets.' The Tyee is there.

Doug Ward 3 Feb 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Doug Ward is a freelance writer who was previously a reporter with the Vancouver Sun.

DES MOINES, IOWA — Ben Zolf worked the crowd of thousands of young people Friday night, as they waited in a suburban events hall to hear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and indie pop band Bon Iver. The 23-year-old student urged people to sign up for one final door-knocking campaign in Iowa with caucus day only three sleeps away.

Zolf isn’t from Iowa. He isn’t even American. He’s a political philosophy PhD student from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. But he’s part of the enormous youth army Sanders has attracted to his campaign, people primarily under 30 who have flown in from California or New York, driven over from Indiana or Pennsylvania, reserved a place on a special Sanders bus ferrying campaigners from Chicago, supposedly 1,700 in all who have arrived to campaign for him.

Zolf, wearing a Bernie cap and a Bernie Beats Trump t-shirt, carried a stack of canvass sign-up sheets. He’s been living here in an AirBnb for weeks on his own dime and plans to volunteer for Sanders next in Nevada. Around him at the Sanders/Bon Iver event were various Gortex-wearing youth, some pondering the "Eat the Rich" t-shirts on the merch table.

Zolf said he was inspired to come to Iowa because of Sanders’ call "for the kind of public institutions I grew up taking for granted in Canada. I think Americans are much more left wing than they are given credit for."

"Plus, my dad was sick of hearing me talk about American politics over family dinners and said that I should put my money where my mouth is and I thought, you know what, I will."

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Ben Zolf arrived in Iowa from Kingston, Ontario, inspired by Bernie Sanders’ call ‘for the kind of public institutions I grew up taking for granted in Canada.’ Photo by Doug Ward.

The demographic difference between the various camps is striking in Iowa, the site of today’s first-in-the-nation state vote in the process of choosing a Democratic presidential candidate. An Emerson poll here estimated that 44 per cent of Democrats under 50 support Sanders, the 78-year-old self-described socialist, with 10 per cent for the other lefty, Elizabeth Warren. No other candidate reached double digits.

Rallies and canvassing offices produce a mix of varying shades. Former vice-president Joe Biden’s group is the oldest, with many seniors coming out to hear his message about how character and experience matter. Warren and Pete Buttigieg attract some slightly younger people, though still many from the gray-haired set. Amy Klobuchar’s crowds are middle-aged, well dressed, but slightly younger still.

Only the Andrew Yang faction seems to rival the Sanders campaign’s high millennial factor, but the young people there are quite different — instead of the overalls, plaid shirts, and the inevitable toques of the Sanders types, Yang’s young crowd is filled with tech and engineering students and professionally dressed types who look like they’re at a conference for people running start-ups.

It’s that kind of generational difference that has led the Sanders campaign to believe that its hardcore millennial base is a demographic hammer that could give their poll-leading candidate a decisive edge over Biden in today’s caucus. Sanders has told his young canvassers that if the turnout is huge, larger than ever before, he will win. If the turnout is nothing extraordinary, someone else will.

The Sanders youth cohort believes it has one other advantage. It’s mostly not part of the traditional Democratic base or power structure. That’s something aspiring volunteers have drummed into them when they show up to canvass. After, they are encouraged to share their experiences of inequity, outrage or oppression when it comes to health care, climate change, housing, student debt or some other burning topic. They’re reminded that they are fighting a corporate, neoliberal hierarchy and the only way to win is to bring in people who have never voted before. We’re going to change American history, they’re told, before being given access to a list of addresses to tackle with a stack of campaign material.

It’s a "children’s crusade" atmosphere that allows for no compromises. When interviewed by Italian media about what he would do if Sanders isn’t chosen as the presidential candidate, one young man from New York said: "We’ll take to the streets."

That’s a stark difference from the surrogates or candidates at the Biden or Warren or Klobuchar campaigns who tell story after story about how some former Trump or Republican voter they’ve met has said they’re willing to vote Democrat if it’s someone reasonable (like Biden or Warren or Klobuchar). 

The Democratic Party is a big tent party that ranges from Sanders to billionaire Michael Bloomberg. In Canada, Sanders and Biden probably wouldn’t be in the same party. Sanders would be in the New Democratic Party, part of its more Naomi Klein-ish wing, while Biden would be a Liberal. Sanders’ youth-driven ascendancy here in Iowa and elsewhere has freaked out many in the party’s more moderate and perhaps larger wing.

These more moderate Democrats and many liberal pundits fear that the Sanders campaign is engaging in progressive overreach, delusional wishful thinking and peddling policies — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, decriminalization of illegal border crossings, a ban on fracking — that won’t sell in the crucial battleground states. They also say there’s zero evidence that Sanders can mobilize millions of new and infrequent voters, including youth, Latinos and independents.

Biden supporters believe — or at least hope — that older, more moderate voters, will dominate the Iowa caucus meetings today in auditoriums, gyms and cafeterias around the state — not the young Bernie Believers.

Iowa could be a test run for Sanders’ claim that he can ride to victory on an unprecedented wave of new, mostly younger, voters. Gen Z and millennials, Sanders supporters say, add up to the largest potential voting bloc in the U.S.

Canadian volunteer Zolf has little time for what he calls "centrist talking points" about youth not voting.

"Young people are notoriously bad at voting because politicians are only interested in people with capital. But Bernie is offering them a seat at the table," said Zolf.

"I would say the most motivated voters I’ve run into during my time in Iowa are voters between the age of 18 and 30. And I’m convinced they are going to vote — 100 per cent."

On the final weekend before the Iowa vote, which is being watched closely across America and the world, the Sanders campaign staged two free concerts featuring indie rock bands Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend in an effort to lock down the youth vote. Sanders’ embrace of pop music influencers in the final days of the Iowa campaign has been called "Bern-Cella," with some music media sites saying the big-name concerts rival the upcoming Coachella music festival in the California desert.

"These concerts fit with Bernie’s whole message, which is about giving people what they want," said Zolf. "These are popular bands and he’s a popular guy with popular ideas. His whole message is about putting power back into the hands of people."

Sanders events are bigger and louder than Biden campaign stops, which attract smaller, more subdued crowds. While Sanders rails against corporate fat cats, Biden focuses on Trump’s "culture of cruelty" and says the election is about character and values. His local big-name surrogates, when introducing him, praise his personal decency — and talk about how Biden’s own grief over the death of a former wife and two of his children has given him empathy for the suffering of other people.

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Joe Biden mingles in Iowa. Big-name supporters tend to speak of his character and experience. Photo by Doug Ward.

After a recent speech in a Des Moines suburb, Biden happily mingled with the crowd, touching and holding his fans, looking them straight in the eye, giving them his one-on-one attention. He spent a few minutes with former general John Douglass, a Floridian who has been campaigning for Biden for four weeks. Douglass said later he is convinced Biden can win in the battleground states, but not convinced Sanders could do the same. "Joe has character and experience. He will be a great commander in chief."

The Biden scene can come across as old school compared to the fight-the-power vibe among Sanders types who connect with the old socialist’s rhetoric about the need for systemic social change rather than tepid Obama-esque incrementalism.

At the Bon Iver concert, Sanders spoke to the crowd from Washington D.C., where he was held up by the Trump impeachment trial. In his now-famous Brooklyn accent, Sanders repeated stock phrases from his stump speech, saying that "we are putting together a multiracial, multigenerational, grassroots movement that is prepared to not only defeat Donald Trump but to also transform our country."

In interviews at the concert, there was little fear over reports that Sanders is the rival Trump wants and that the Republican disinformation machine will spend hundreds of millions of dollars red-baiting him, making him unelectable in swing states. 

They were all-in for Bernie, showing a commitment to a single candidate not found in the Democratic Party’s more moderate and perhaps larger wing, which is deeply ambivalent over who among Biden, Buttigieg, Warren or Klobuchar has what it takes to defeat Trump. While Sanders has steadily consolidated the party’s liberal-left, the rest of the Democratic Party’s universe is divided, which is why Sanders could win many of the earlier states.

The other left-of-centre candidate in the race, Senator Warren, was surging in the fall and almost seemed to be the inevitable nominee, but then began to slide, squeezed by Sanders on the left and the more moderate candidates.

Sanders’ opponents, along with the party’s traditional power brokers, argue that only a moderate liberal — not a socialist — can win over swing voters in the few blue-collar battleground states critical to victory because of the unfortunate math of the Electoral College. 

In several interviews at the concert, there was little worry about whether Sanders could win over white working-class voters or suburbanites in Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. Nor was there much concern over the political challenges of passing Sanders’ Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and the elimination of college debt.

For Sanders supporters, it’s enough that these policies are needed and morally correct — and that he is the only candidate committed to pursuing them. Anything less, for many of his backers, is the same old neoliberal corporatism.

"Bernie’s the only candidate who isn’t a corporate hack," said Josh Sebert, a 40-year-old cable company employee in Des Moines. "Pretty much all the others, Republicans and Democrats are beholden to corporations."

Sebert also believed that Republican ads attacking Sanders won’t work. "Democratic ads against Bernie haven’t worked. Every time Hillary attacked Bernie in 2016 his numbers went up. And when Elizabeth Warren attacked Bernie, his numbers went up."

Among the Sanders’ volunteers was Emily Isaacson, a 24-year-old community organizer from Chicago.

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Community organizer Emily Isaacson says for voters like her, 'risk assessment isn't an option.' Photo by Doug Ward.

"Me and all my friends have been coming down every weekend for the last couple of weeks," said Isaacson, wearing a t-shirt that read "Who Says Youth Don’t Vote."

Isaacson said that young people are drawn to Sanders’ consistency and refusal to bend, while older Democrats are more willing to settle for "what is better but not great." She acknowledged that many older Democrats are more risk-averse because of their experience with electoral losses. "To lose again and again and to feel like you just keep losing — it makes sense that some older people would operate from a place of fear. But for us, risk assessment isn’t an option."

She said young people are facing massive student debt, a housing market out of reach for most of them and an unstable job market with stagnant wage growth — not to mention climate change.

The Chicago activist said that she and her friends would back whoever is the Democratic Party’s nominee over Trump. "But the increasingly centrist politics of the Democratic Party don’t fire me up. That’s not what is going to get me to knock on doors in the cold to talk to young people on college campuses in the snow. And I don’t think it’s going to move everyday people."  [Tyee]

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