Just six months ago, I was dreading the 2016 presidential race. After all, the Beltway pundits were all telling us the same thing, that it was a done deal -- the dual of the oligarchic dynasties, Clinton v. Bush, with Goldman Sachs and Wall Street poised to win either way.
Then, out of the blue, things got very, very interesting. And I'm not just talking about the Summer (and now the Autumn) of Trump, which is interesting, in the sense that it's interesting when millions of voters look toward a 21st Century brand of fascism. No, I was more fascinated by the rise of Bernie Sanders, who was initially sold by the punditocracy as a cranky "protest" candidate for the far left, until he started drawing crowds of 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, even 28,000 for his rallies -- including a lot of folks who'd long been put off by the possibilities of modern American politics until now.
As the summer heat faded, I wanted to hit the road and see this phenomenon for myself. And I wanted to learn more about just how Bernie Sanders did it. Simply out, how did someone whose idealistic dreams of revolutionary change were forged in the hot cauldron of the 1960s stay so true to those ideals for so long, when all of his contemporaries had dropped out, sold out...or just given up. This proved to be an adventure that took me from the battlefields of northern Virginia to the salty air of backwater Boston to the autumnal paradise of Vermont -- and finally to the neon sky of the Las Vegas Strip.
The result -- my e-book for the Amazon Kindle Singles series called "The Bern Identity: A Search for Bernie Sanders and the New American Dream" -- is now available. It's a quick read, reasonably priced (at $2.99), and hopefully as much fun for the audience as it was for the author. (If you've never read an e-book before, it's easy -- I'll tell you how at the end of this post.)
To give you a sneak peak, here are 5 things that I learned while writing "The Bern Identity":
1) One of the biggest influences on the young Bernard (as everyone called him then) Sanders was Arthur Miller's iconic 1949 play, "Death of a Salesman." It's said that the Sanders' dad Eli -- a Russian immigrant who struggled to make ends meet as a paint salesman, raising his family in a cramped second-story flat off Kings Highway in central Brooklyn -- cried when he saw Miller's tale of middle-class angst on the big stage. Later, Bernard saw it and had the same reaction -- and told friends it motivated him to flee from the bourgeois existence of an American everyman. A decade later, Sanders fled for the Green Mountains of Vermont -- echoing the outdoors-loving son of "Salesman"'s protagonist, Biff Loman.
2) The connection between Sanders' presidential campaign and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement is much stronger than the average voter realizes. This fall, I spent some time in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, a short drive from where Sanders grew up, with the organizers of People for Bernie, perhaps that most prominent of a string of grassroots organizations that's driven hundreds of thousands of people to the candidate's packed rallies and to make so many small donations. Many were veterans of the occupation of New York's Zuccotti Park four years ago -- determined to effect real change out of the Occupy movement that made The 99 Percent a household word and which seemed to fade too early.
3) Bernie's 1960s are not really the Woodstock experience as seen on TV. Sanders was born in 1941 -- five years before the start of the Baby Boom -- and the choices that he made in life reflected that. While the hypocrisy of racial discrimination and the Cold War drove him into radical politics as an undergrad at the University of Chicago from 1960-64, he had little use for some of the counterculture that was coming later in the decade. He once told a class on the 1960s at the University of Vermont: "I remember once going to party and there were as many people there as there were here, a large room, and… everybody was acting kind of strange and I found out that I was the only one in the room at that time who was not on LSD… the only person in the entire room who was not on acid."
4) The one things that seemed to really drive Sanders into a life of political activism was his hatred of lying and hypocrisy. I spoke by phone with his older brother Larry Sanders, who moved to the United Kingdom and became an activist in their Green Party, who said this about young "Bernard." "I thought he was a bit too honest," he told me, chuckling through his adopted Britain-meets-Brooklyn accent. "If a teacher asked him something, he would always give the full story, which sometimes got him into trouble. I tried to explain to him it wasn't necessary to go into detail." In 1960, as a newly arrived transfer student at Chicago, he watched the famed Kennedy-Nixon debates in his student lounge and was furious that both candidates weren't telling the truth about U.S.-Cuba relations. That led to his ultimate rejection of both parties.
5) The secret to Sanders' success so far has been making politics matter for people in a way that it hasn't mattered for many in almost 50 years. I was truly struck by this in Boston, where I watched a throng of 15,000 people -- plus another 5,000 in a park across the street because they couldn't get in -- stand on a hard concrete floor for hours to hear Sanders inveigh against income inequality and the sins of the 1 Percent. Then I found out that the last time there was such a large political crowd in Boston was in 1968 -- when 45,000 people came to see Eugene McCarthy and stand up against the Vietnam War and a wave of political assassination. Politics mattered then, before Chicago and Kent State and Watergate and all the cynicism, and the unvarnished, authentic voice of Bernie Sanders is bringing that feeling back for many.
Will that carry Bernie Sanders to the White House in January 2017? This last stretch of the Bernie Sanders marathon is all uphill. Hillary Clinton is a tough opponent for him; she has the enduring love of the corporate media, a reservoir of good will among key Democratic voting blocs from her husband's presidency and -- most importantly -- she has "adopted" many of Sanders' positions on trade, the environment and criminal justice. But for Bernie Sanders, the real fight is the war of ideas -- and that is the war that he's winning. "The Bern Identity" is my quest to find out how he did it.