Tag Archives: Democratic convention

“Feeling the Bern”

March 25, 2016

Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. Our little group, friends after sharing the miserable ordeal outside, scraped through by the skin of our chattering teeth, but the doors soon closed on thousands more.

As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!” The roar got louder. “It sounds to me like the people of Vancouver and the state of Washington are ready for a political revolution.” Clearly they were, along with millions of other Americans across the country, who have been rallying in such astonishing numbers to the political phenomenon that is Bernie Sanders.

While the headlines and pundits focus on the truly frightening Donald Trump, Sanders has been going about his business, undeterred by numbers that show him with little chance of wresting the Democratic Party nomination from the well-connected Hillary Clinton. He pursues his quixotic quest with no sign of flagging enthusiasm, urging the crowd to register and show up for the coming caucuses to determine convention delegates for the State of Washington.

© Rod Mickleburgh 2016

© Rod Mickleburgh 2016

Now it was our turn for the Bernie Sanders Socialist Revival Hour. The rally in Vancouver showcased just how much the Sanders campaign and its captivating slogan “A Future to Believe In” remains full of vigour. A pleasant but otherwise nondescript, mid-sized city just across the Columbia River from Oregon, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Vancouver is hardly a hotbed of political activism. Yet people began lining up at the crack of dawn for Sanders’ early afternoon appearance. “There are a lot of people I never thought would show up for a political rally (here],” one soaked, early arriver told a reporter. Indeed, that has been a feature of the Sanders campaign from the beginning. Many of those flocking to his side are first-timers from outside the traditional political spectrum. Millennials, in particular, were everywhere in the sea of Gortex and hoodies that stretched in all directions outside the school. “Maybe we can start a revolution,” said the young nursing student ahead of us in the rain-lashed line.

And maybe they can. Later that day, 25,000 showed up to hear Sanders in Seattle, another 10,000 in Spokane. Campaign organizers have now audaciously booked Seattle’s 45,000-seat Safeco Field for another mass public gathering. So far, Sanders has scored victories in 11 primaries and caucuses, securing a total of more than 900 delegates. Not bad for a Noam Chomsky-loving, self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where, until recently just to be branded a liberal was considered political death. It’s really quite amazing.

Few, maybe not even Bernie Sanders, saw this coming when he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The general consensus was that we were looking at a coronation, that there was an anointed candidate,” said Sanders. He paused. “Well, ten months have come and gone, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case….” The fired-up crowd erupted in a frenzy of sign-waving and cheers.

As the primaries pile up and the convention nears, Sanders has not watered down his radical rhetoric and progressive policies one bit. There is no move to the mushy centre in search of undecided voters. His targets remain the billionaires, Wall Street speculators, multi-national drug companies, the corporate media “who talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people”, “militarized” police forces… The list is lengthy. His platform is pitched at the young and the powerless, low-wage earners struggling to make a living in a land said Sanders, where corporations pack up and move, if they can make even a few dollars more somewhere else. The “real change” the United States needs is unlikely to come from “Secretary Clinton”, he bluntly asserted, with her millions in campaign donations from Wall Street and trusts that include the fossil fuel industry and big pharmaceutical companies.

He laid it all out in a direct, forceful 45-minute speech, short on humour and niceties, long on all the ills of American society and, in the words of Lenin, “What Needs to Be Done.” Wild applause greeted every point he hammered home.

Like an old-time blues shouter, Sanders asked: “Are you ready for a radical idea?” The “Yes!” was deafening. “We are doing something extremely unusual in American politics,” he confided. “We are telling the truth.” And what is that truth? Sanders didn’t mince words. “The truth is that the ruling class of this country is so powerful that a handful of billionaires believe that with their billions they have a right to win elections for the wealthy and the powerful…But we say ‘no’ to the corporate billionaires on Wall Street. We are a democracy, and we are not going to allow billionaires to take it away from us.”

Despite the USA’s deep-seated history of red-baiting and anti-communism, Sanders is thriving with a socialist message that hasn’t changed all that much in the 40 years he’s been preaching it, a perennial lone wolf on the left. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, people are listening and lapping it up. He has tapped into some of the working-class anger that has propelled Donald Trump to his current, scary prominence. The difference is that Trump’s poisonous brand is exclusive, while Sanders’ message is resolutely positive and inclusive. He wants a fair deal for everyone.

Sanders ploughs forward, undeterred by the legion of mainstream critics. “I’ve been criticized for saying this, so let me say it again,” he told us, drawing a rare laugh from the audience. “Every country in the world guarantees health care to all its people. Yet 29 million Americans still have no health insurance. Many others are being forced to pay huge sums for their coverage, while the drug companies keep ripping us off,” Sanders said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. Medicare for all!” The declaration drew one of the loudest responses of the day. “Bernie! Bernie”, chanted the crowd. The chanters included the woman beside us who had shared her umbrella during our lengthy wait in line. She had asked about Canada’s health care system, after telling us that full coverage for herself, her husband and two kids would cost a thousand dollars a month. So her husband is doing without. These are the people joining the Sanders crusade. Left behind by the powers that be, they feel no one cares for them but Bernie.

In Vancouver, they were almost all white, befitting the city’s demographics, and predominantly young, like the teenaged couple sitting in front of us who interrupted persistent smooching to raise their right hands in a fist whenever Sanders said something they liked, which was often. “We’ve received more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined,” trumpeted the junior Senator from Vermont.

Progressive promises piled up throughout his speech:

  • a nation-wide, minimum wage of $15 an hour.
  • a tax on “Wall Street speculation”
  • an end to “corporate tax loopholes”
  • an end to the War on Drugs (deafening whoops)
  • fixing a “rigged economy”, where the top one-tenth of one percent “has almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent”.
  • “comprehensive” immigration reform.
  • taking on the fossil fuel industry to combat climate change and enhance sustainable energy.
  • diversifying police forces “so they look like the people they’re policing”.

And finally, most popular of all, judging by the prolonged ovation it received: free tuition for all public college and university students. “Last I heard, getting an education is not a crime or a punishment,” said Sanders, to ringing cheers. “We need the best educated work force in the world. So why are we punishing young people with crushing debt by the time they graduate?”

Not since the hapless, 1948 run by Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party has there been such a radical, presidential platform from the left. Although it would undoubtedly be premature to write him off completely, Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democrat nomination. But he has tapped into a deep yearning for meaningful change among Americans struggling to survive, while the rich grow ever wealthier. No one seems frightened of the term “socialist” any more. As one of Sanders’ pollsters told New Yorker magazine, explaining millennial support for his candidate: “What’s their experience been with capitalism? They’ve had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you.”

Sanders has already forced an increasingly worried Hillary Clinton to tack left on a number of issues, and he is showing signs of cutting into her strong support among Afro-Americans. According to the latest Bloomberg poll, “feeling the Bern” has now totally erased Clinton’s once enormous lead in popular support, and the two are in a dead heat. The remarkable journey launched by that old leftie codger has a ways to go yet.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.


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‘There’s Something Happening Here …

‘There’s Something Happening Here…But What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear…’
–Buffalo Springfield, 1967

October, 2015

Forty-seven years ago in the United States, the Democrats found themselves going into their Presidential nomination process rather at sea. The incumbent Democratic President had said he would not run again and a number of potential candidates were vying to take his place. The most notable was someone who had broken with his party Establishment and opposed the party’s position on an unpopular war. On the Republican side was a candidate who had run 8 years before and lost, along with some potential opponents of his.

In the end, the Democratic ‘machine’, read: Establishment, prevailed in a Pyrrhic victory at the convention. It nominated the sitting Vice-President, all the while hearing the sounds of a furious opposition rioting outside. In the end, the Establishment’s candidate went down to defeat by the once-defeated Republican candidate.

Does this sound familiar? Does it look like a mirror image of today?

Today it is the Republicans who are in disarray, their party divided between the Establishment and a large group, estimated at being almost half of the Republican ‘base’, being unable to agree, not only on legislation, but on the very ability of the Government to manage itself. The party is divided over whether its major foreign policy initiative of the past 15 years, war in the Middle East, was right or wrong, and whether the legislative/executive processes devised in the Constitution should be disobeyed or upheld. A rump of the party in the House of Representatives has driven their Speaker out of office, and opposed his potential replacement, in part for trying to govern with minority Democratic support.

The three leading Republican candidates for President are all from outside the Establishment, have no prior political experience and they seem to be unconstrained in deviating from most of the standard policy positions put forward by the party. Those who are experienced candidates find themselves relegated to the sidelines in the polls.

Now, remember those ‘hippies and yippies’ running from the Chicago police in 1968, in opposition to the Vietnam War? Let’s pretend they averaged 22 years of age. Now, 47 years later, they are almost 70. Then and now, they were almost all white and mostly male. Then, the activists were to the left of their party; today’s activists, largely men and women of the same generation, are on the right. Then, the criticism was that democracy was being subverted by the military-industrial complex; today it is that democracy is being subverted by illegal immigrants, abortionists, the Supreme Court and a supine or dictatorial (depending on your view) President.

Barring some run of luck, the Republicans will end up nominating either a real maverick from outside the Establishment or will win a Pyrrhic victory and produce an experienced candidate. The Democrats will likely nominate a once-defeated female potential candidate, who should win the general election in 2016.

What is happening here?

First and foremost, this a story about the largest ‘generation’ of Americans in history. The Baby Boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964. They are 51-69 years old right now—let’s say 60 on average. As they have gone through life, this generation’s sheer size has affected everything in politics. Whether it is school overcrowding, housing demand, stock market performance or medical/ethical programs such as abortion rights (pro then; anti now), pressures on government have changed as they have aged.

Second, the country seemed to them to be going awry in both the 1960s and the 2000s. In one time, the tension with a strong and aggressive Soviet Union, a growing and frustrating war in Vietnam that was taking the young Boomer men away from the country and the signing of a couple of civil rights acts that fundamentally altered the voting preferences of the South, led to domestic conflict between Boomers who were promoting a ‘legal revolution’ to enfranchise blacks, keep themselves out of wartime service and expand their own freedoms and their elders who saw these as being ‘soft on communism’ and anti-patriotic.

Forty years later, a black is President. The long war in the Middle East, while consuming more treasure than soldiers, is facing doubt and opposition at home, including that of the President. The near-collapse of the economy in 2008 has seriously damaged Boomer homeowners and constricted retirees incomes.

Those Boomers who were leftist activists in the Sixties used their youth and energy to develop techniques on university campuses to get out the vote, which they transferred to the South. The march to Selma, the antiwar demonstrations all across the country, the Woodstock festival and the demonstration outside the Democratic convention in Chicago showed their power.

Forty years later, other Boomers, now older, reacted against economic and financial rescue policies either by opposing the temporary virtual nationalization of the financial commanding heights or by calls to prosecute the financial leadership of the country. Second, they were upset about the rise in importance of minority communities and their political leaders and had a fear that the country was slipping from their hands. The fighting in the Middle East continues into a second decade and is both confusing in its shifting political alliances and in its inconclusive quality. Its origins had to be defended, since they were tangled in the destruction of the World Trade towers in New York City, but its later prosecution by others could be scorned.

In the end, the rise of overlapping activist groups on the right; the Tea Party, the evangelical and other conservative Christians, the neocons who wanted justification for the war in the Middle East and those un-reconciled to the political rise of minority politicians and voters—amongst others—have come together to oppose compromise with their version of America. It has resulted in enthusiasm for hard-line aspirational candidates who promise to push their, and only their, agenda. I doubt this can lead to electoral victory, but, at the least, they can tie up the process just as effectively as did their other, younger selves (metaphorically speaking) in 1962-69.

Given that the young Boomers’ pressure in the late 1960s led to Nixon and the ‘end of the Sixties’ on the Kent State campus, the betting has to be that the revenge of the old Boomers in the middle 2010s will not be realized. How this frustration will play itself out will be the subject of a lot of action and reading material in the next few years.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

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Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern Americawww.theyankeeroad.com

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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