For Bernie Sanders fans—and they are as much fans as they are supporters—the Vermont senator and rising presidential candidate’s appeal is his authenticity.
Nowhere is that more on display than at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, where Sanders delivered his usual bombastic progressive stump speech to the delight of the mostly youthful crowd. A diverse group of college kids from mostly affluent, liberal backgrounds snaked around the block outside Rockefeller Chapel, which is less humble prayer space and more Notre Dame de Paris.
To look at him, Sanders is an unlikely candidate for the hip crowd, but, for right now he’s their preference over Hillary Clinton who is trying so hard, too hard maybe, to capture Bernie’s intangible cool.
“I used to be very pro-Hillary and then switched over, and I think that what changed things for me was hearing Bernie’s message on the environment and on inequality,” said Nadia Perl, a University of Chicago student who watched Sanders speak there Monday morning. “And what he’s saying is very genuine, based on his personal experiences, and he’s had these views his whole life.”
“And they’re idealistic, sure,” Perl said, “but he’s not making compromises in his vision, which it seems like candidates like Hillary are doing.”
In terms of pure favorability among the 18-34 demographic, a recent Quinnipiac poll had Sanders ringing in at 47 percent favorable and Clinton at 48 percent. When it comes to whether they think they are honest and trustworthy Sanders is ahead by 10 points. Only 37 percent think Clinton is “honest and trustworthy,” with a whopping 63 percent saying she was not either. Meanwhile 47 percent say Sanders is “honest and trustworthy,” while 24 percent believe he is not (the remaining 28 percent said they don’t know).
Still, Sanders knows he must find a way to appeal to a broader group of Americans than his fans in Chicago on Monday if he wants to gather votes from anyone outside the liberal halls of academia.
But he’s confident he will, because, after all, he has the power of the people.
“They love it when voter turnout is low,” Sanders said of Republicans. He asked for help in getting out the vote, insisting that a high number of youth and minority voters would shift the political winds in his—and in progressivism’s—favor.
“I need you,” he said.
In an era of extreme political polarization, Sanders represents from a policy standpoint the antithesis to his far-right counterparts—a group of Reagan-worshippers currently mobbing the Republican Party with calls to basically undo all of President Obama’s marquee achievements and return America to a whitebread vision of ostensibly-shared prosperity. So on Monday, Sanders preached an extremely progressive message to his far-left choir at the front of the chapel, and for many gathered there his policy points and promise not to back down was met with the same fervor usually reserved for Tea Party evangelists.
“We will win,” he promised the crowd while channeling Vito Corleone, “because we are going to make them an offer they can’t refuse.”
“We will win,” he repeated, because he and his supporters have the power of the people—the little ones, not the big ones at the top of the economic food chain—behind them.
“When you have one family who spends more money than either political party,” he said of the Koch brothers, who Sanders said will spend $900 million in order to get their way this election cycle, “you are not looking at democracy, you are looking at oligarchy.”
He went on: “I do not exaggerate when I tell you that the foundations of American democracy are being undermined. American democracy is not supposed to be about billionaires buying elections.”
Sanders has something else that Clinton doesn’t. Remember those “gifts” Mitt Romney mentioned when complaining about losing 2012 to Obama? Well, Sanders has a bag full of them.
For starters, 12 weeks of paid medical leave for mothers and fathers “like the rest of the industrialized world,” Sanders said. From there President Sanders would go on to mandate a national minimum wage of $15 an hour, expand Social Security, increase funding for jobs programs and education and, of course, force publicly funded elections by not putting anyone on the Supreme Court unless they promise to undo Citizens United.
“I do not exaggerate when I say that it is undermining American democracy,” he said.
With so much to give, who will foot the bill? Simple: The people some Sanders supporters want to eat, according to the buttons pinned to their chests: the rich.
“Do not get sucked into this worldview,” he said, urging the crowd of bright-eyed idealists not to listen to Republicans who rail against government spending and constantly bring up that nagging $16 (or is it $19 now?) trillion in national debt hanging over all our heads. “We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the Earth.”
“Please do not tell me that in the United States of America, at a time when we are seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires,” he evangelized. “Don’t tell me that we have to have the highest proliferation of childhood poverty of any developed nation on Earth.”
So we have the money, Sanders continued, we just have to raise taxes on the top-tenth of the One Percent and the One Percent themselves, he said. It will be easy to do because that’s what “the people” want. All he has to do is get them to vote—in general—and for him over Hillary Clinton.
The crowd at the University of Chicago needed almost no convincing.
“Hillary’s really willing to get down and dirty, play political games and take money from Super PACs,” Eric Holmberg, a 21-year-old student at the school, told The Daily Beast. “Whereas with Bernie, he’s funding his campaign with individual donors. That’s something I can do, that’s something that I can be a part of. But she doesn’t want me to be a part of that.”
But Sanders does. He’s a man of the people.
“While they have the money, and they have the power,” he said of his opponents on both the left and the right at the end of his speech. “We have something that they do not have: We have the people!”