The message of the Sanders campaign increasingly sounds less like conventional electoral campaigning and more like old-school political organizing.
It made for a tough juxtaposition. Late Monday night, CBS News reported that Bernie Sanders had just done exactly what many critics have long called on him to do: He asked his supporters to dial back the personal attacks on rivals in the Democratic primary and focus on substantial policy differences.
“We need a serious debate in this country on issues,” Sanders said. “We don’t need to demonize people who may disagree with us. … I appeal to my supporters: Please, engage in civil discourse.” He pointed out (rightly) that “we’re not the only campaign that does it. Other people act that way as well.” But he added, “I would appeal to everybody: Have a debate on the issues. We can disagree with each other without being disagreeable, without being hateful.”
Then, early the following morning, the Hollywood Reporter sent out a press release about its new cover story with the subject line: “Hillary Clinton on 2016, her new doc and Bernie: ‘Nobody likes him.’”
Inside were excerpts from a stunningly destructive interview in which Clinton obsessively picks every scab of the 2016 primary race and refuses to say that she would endorse Sanders if he wins the nomination — the very thing establishment Democrats falsely claim that Sanders did in 2016 (in fact, as the New Yorker reported, he campaigned tirelessly for her, sometimes doing three events a day).
Within seconds, that 2016 primary feeling flooded my bloodstream. Screw what I had planned for the morning — none of it felt as important 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.
If this sounds less like conventional electoral campaigning and more like old-school political organizing (maybe even consciousness raising), that’s because it is. As Ruby Cramer observed in an excellent report for BuzzFeed News in December, the campaign’s animating mission — whether in the field or on digital platforms — is to convince millions of Americans that, contrary to what they have been told, their pain is not the result of a failure of character or insufficient hard work. Rather, it is the consequence of economic and social systems precisely designed to produce cruel outcomes, systems that can only be changed if people drop the shame and come together in common cause.
Sanders, Cramer writes, “is imagining a presidential campaign that brings people out of alienation and into the political process simply by presenting stories where you might recognize some of your own struggles. He is imagining a voter, he says, who thinks, I thought it was just me who was struggling to put food on the table. I thought I was the only person. I thought it was all my fault. You mean to say there are millions of people?”
To achieve the scale and speed of change that Sanders is pledging, the people currently supporting his campaign will need to stay organized and keep pushing for change on the outside.
This is one of the fascinating ways that the campaign’s slogan “Not Me. Us.” has gradually taken on a life of its own, with new layers of meaning added as the project matures. When the slogan was first unveiled, it seemed to mean something narrow and specific: This campaign was not about voting for a messianic leader who would fix all of our problems for us. To achieve the scale and speed of change that Sanders is pledging (and that we desperately need), the people currently supporting his campaign, with small donations and volunteer work and eventually votes, will need to stay organized and keep pushing for change on the outside, just as they did during the New Deal era.
The slogan still carries that meaning. That’s why it matters that Sanders is endorsed by some of the most courageous and militant trade unions and grassroots organizations in the country, from the United Teachers Los Angeles to the Dream Defenders to the Sunrise Movement. These organizations have already shown themselves willing to stage strikes and engage in disruptive protest to win tangible victories for their members, and they can be counted on to keep building and exercising that kind of disruptive power after the election.
But as the campaign has gone on and the base has grown, the slogan’s meaning has become more layered. “Not Me. Us.” is now also the first-person voice of that worker or student or senior or immigrant who previously had been suffering in silence and solitude, blaming themselves, and who now sees that they have more company than they ever dared to imagine. Now it also means: “I thought it was just me. Now I know it is us.”
The next step is to convince this emergent “us” that it is powerful, capable of winning a very different kind of society. That is no small task. I’ve often noticed that plenty of people arrive at Sanders rallies looking pretty worn down — by overwork, by debt, by fear, by the daily barrage of Trump crimes and outrages that pound all of our nerves and yet never seem to provoke any real accountability. With an administration in the White House performing impunity all day long every day — even in the face of a historic impeachment trial and the obvious urgency of climate breakdown, and with an armed far right marching in the streets — the possibility of deep progressive change can feel like a fantasy.
I think that’s part of why Sanders talks for a good long while at those rallies, even when it’s his third event of the day and he would surely rather call it a night. It takes time to move a crowd through the arc of emotions — from naming the problem to remembering how big the “us” actually is, to mapping the plan for how we are going to win, to really feeling in our bones that this impossible thing might just happen. In a culture expert at the art of isolation and disempowerment, it takes real effort to persuade a group of beat-up people that they could be part of ushering in a radically different future.
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.
If there was one moment when this power began to be unleashed, it was the Queens rally with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in October, when Sanders exhorted everyone in the 25,000-strong crowd to look to someone in their midst, someone they did not know, “maybe somebody who doesn’t look like you, who might be of a different religion, maybe who come from a different country. … My question now to you is are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
Would they fight to end student debt, even if they had no debt? Would they fight for the rights of immigrants, even if they are a citizen themselves? And so on.
As the overwhelming response to that rallying cry attests, people were more than moved — they were altered. And it’s worth examining why. 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.”
This is yet another meaning “Not Me. Us.” has taken on: “I am not only for myself. I am also for you, and us.”
There is another layer of meaning the slogan has taken on, this one more ephemeral. Over the past three long years, it has become a political cliché to say that the task is not only to defeat Trump, but to defeat the broken system that made Trumpism possible. But what does that mean in practice? Some of it surely has to do with reining in the outside political power of the ultrarich. Some of it, no doubt, has to with confronting the racism and misogyny Trump so powerfully marshals for his advancement.
But defeating Trumpism also means confronting forces that are harder to pin down — like the hypernarcissism cutthroat individualism that Trump so perfectly embodies as a reality show star made famous by firing people for sport, encouraging contestants to step on each other’s necks to get ahead. A man who now rules the country according to the same forces that torment his own psyche, a never-ending sense of personal grievance and a bottomless need for more power and wealth.
This is why, after Trump was elected, I started calling for all of us to “kill the Trump within,” whether it was our Twitter-addled attention spans, or the absurd idea that we are all individualized brands in a marketplace rather than people in communities — or that sees other people and even other movements as rival products competing for scarce market share. And of course, the Trumpiest part of us all may be the one that can’t resist joining a mob to shame and attack people with whom we disagree — sometimes using cruel personal slurs and with an intensity set to nuclear.
At the time, I speculated that if we de-Trumped in some of these ways — perhaps resolving to spend a few more hours a week in face-to-face relationships, or to surrender some ego for the greater good of a project, or to recognize the value of so much in life that cannot be bought or sold — research suggests that we would also become a lot happier. Which will come in handy since miserable people aren’t likely to stick with the kind of movements we need to build in order to achieve any of this systemic change, movements that do not have a finish line in sight and, indeed, will require of us a lifetime of engagement.
This, I think, is the most radical meaning of “Not Me. Us.” Because without this shift from a culture of hyperindividualism and unending interpersonal competition, we have no hope of achieving the bold policy transformations we need. The campaign — out on the doorstep, in union halls and high school gymnasiums and breweries — has become that kind of space, a place for hundreds of thousands of people to escape the nonstop self-promotion and self-obsession of our Trumpian times. To become a little less “look at me” and a little more “feel the power of us.” Particularly for his many young supporters, raised to be terrified that they will fall behind if they do not frenetically maximize their productive output and constantly perform the most marketable version of themselves, “Not Me. Us.” has become an invitation to imagine another path to a good life: through the collective, generational mission of rolling out what Sanders has called “the decade of the Green New Deal.”
Because without a shift from a culture of hyperindividualism and unending interpersonal competition, we have no hope of achieving the bold policy transformations we need.
This is why social media will always be a double-edged sword for the Sanders campaign. Without Twitter, Facebook, YouTube (and now TikTok), the senator would have no way to do the kind of things that his campaign pioneered in 2016. Those platforms are what allow the campaign to communicate directly with its base and beyond, bypassing media gatekeepers whose anti-Sanders bias has been so exhaustively demonstrated. Social media is how those powerful moments at rallies and speeches go viral, alongside the videos telling stories of everyday hardships carrying the message that “you are not alone.” These platforms (and others) are also how many people find out about the organizing meetings where they will share their own stories face to face and ramp up their commitment to the campaign.
But they are not neutral pathways simply connecting people. These platforms are for-profit data extraction mills ruled by black-box algorithms that are designed to maximize “engagement” (aka conflict) in ways that are almost the precise inverse of the cultural shift the campaign is attempting to achieve.
Twitter is a case in point. Even as the campaign on the ground fosters a culture of radical listening, Twitter’s character limit lends itself to short, declarative certainties, not openness, uncertainty, and certainly not curiosity. Even as Sanders asks us to “fight for someone you don’t know,” Twitter’s algorithms goad us into brawling with one another over every perceived slight. And even as the campaign encourages us to put “me” on the back burner and find the biggest possible “us,” Twitter (and Instagram and Facebook) are designed for us to flaunt and curate an idealized version of ourselves that is too often going to make somebody else feel like crap.
There is certainly a place for righteous rage in the Sanders campaign — indeed rage at myriad cruelties that flow from bottomless greed is one of its core animating emotions. Sanders supporters also have every right to call out rampant double standards in how the campaign is treated, whether by the press or the Democratic National Committee (and these sorts of callouts often win fairer treatment).
But Sanders is also right to ask his supporters to avoid attacks on political rivals that feel ad hominem, personal, or just nasty (and I admit that I have failed to control my tone from time to time). Plenty of the attacks are well earned, but that hardly matters. Because once an ugly mood starts to go viral, it has the power to overshadow an entire political project. And that’s a big problem because it drastically undercuts what is most special and least understood about this historic campaign: that it is giving thousands of people permission to be kind to strangers and thereby build a movement so large, disciplined, and determined that it will make those truly deserving of our collective rage quake.
That, in summary, is why I stopped myself from rage-tweeting yesterday and wrote this instead. When I went back online to check in on how that inescapable platform had reacted to the tough juxtaposition of Sanders’s call to “cool it” with Clinton’s nasty provocations, I saw that #ILikeBernie and #NobodyLikesHim were both trending. There was some anger in there, sure, but for the most part, the hashtags had inspired a torrent of heartfelt stories filled with the fearsome power of us.
Not me. Us. That’s how we win.
Postscript: I have endorsed Bernie Sanders for president and spoken at campaign events, but contrary to some reporting, I am not an official campaign surrogate.