Naomi Klein describes how she overcame her initial infuriated reaction to Hillary Clinton’s savage attack on Bernie Sanders, the news emerging just after Sanders had appealed to his supporters to dial back attacks on other candidates. She says that we should all take a deep breath and avoid Clinton’s attempt to disrupt the Democratic primary for who knows what reason.
Within seconds, that 2016 primary feeling flooded my bloodstream. Screw what I had planned for the morning — none of it felt as importing as firing off a volley of rage tweets about Clinton, her staggering absence of self-awareness, and her outrageously revisionist history.
But I did something else instead. I blocked Twitter, chatted with my son about why he’s such a Bernie fan (“He will beat Donald Trump”), and started writing about being on the Sanders campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire over the last couple months. Because among Sanders’s steadily growing base of supporters, the mood is about as far from rage tweeting as you can get. In fact, despite the senator’s reputation as a finger-waving grump, the more time I spend with the campaign, whether in small meetups or huge rallies, the more I am struck by the undercurrent of tenderness that runs through all these events. Surprisingly enough, the force that is bridging what at first seem like huge divides — between multiracial urbanite Gen Z-ers and aging white farmers, between lifetime industrial trade unionists and hardcore climate organizers, between a Jewish candidate and a huge Muslim base — is a culture of quiet listening.
This crystalized for me last Sunday in Manchester, New Hampshire, when I met with about 15 volunteers who were heading out to knock on doors on a frigid morning. Huddling in a strip-mall campaign office next to a Subway and a Supertan, they were reviewing the messaging that is proving most resonant with voters. That Bernie will fight for us because he always has. That he has the courage to take on the billionaire class. That he has a path to victory because of the unprecedented grassroots movement that the campaign has built.
After the official part of the meeting, one of the volunteers took me aside. Making the case for the candidate and the policies is important, he said, “but what I have found is that the most important thing we can do is listen. People need to share their stories. That’s even more important than talking.”
Canvassers and organizers across the country report the same thing: that once a space for listening (as opposed to lecturing) has been opened up, the stories start pouring out. About how the loss of a family member to cancer was compounded by being hounded by medical debt collectors. About the deep fatigue and full-body stress of working three jobs and still struggling to make ends meet. About a student debt that ballooned so fast, studies had to be aborted, along with any hope of earning enough to pay back the creditors. About feeling unsafe walking the streets in a hijab and missing family members blocked by Donald Trump’s travel bans. About skipping necessary treatments and critical medications for lack of funds. About fear of having children in the face of climate breakdown. And so much more.
After these intimate stories have been shared, people are more open to hearing how the movement that the campaign is building could make their lives better with bold policies from Medicare for All to erasing college debt to a $15 minimum wage to a Green New Deal.
As Klein says, this is what the Sanders campaign slogan of “Not me. Us” has meant, asking people to think in terms of solidarity with one another.
And yet that is what is happening on the campaign trail every day, which is the true threat that the Sanders movement presents to the political and economic elite. Countless numbers of working people are starting to actually believe that they could exercise transformative power, simply by escaping the various structures isolating and dividing them. It is an awakening, in the truest sense of the word — the collective construction of a new group identity in real time.
I think it might be because, while a great many Americans are asked to kill and die for their country, they are almost never asked — across divisions of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and nationality — to stand up and fight for one another. And if we did that, if we were able to escape the idea that our only job is to ferociously fight for ourselves or, at most, our own narrowly defined identity group, it would irrevocably alter the arithmetic of power in this country. As the artist and author Molly Crabapple told the crowd at a Sanders rally in Conway, New Hampshire, on Sunday, “You know what beats the politics of hate? The politics of solidarity.”
The fact that Sanders’ draws support from across all demographics, and especially among young people, shows that with the right message, people can overcome divisive issues of identity.