When most progressives think about Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, the first thing that generally comes to mind is his ambitious policy platform, with just one example being the senator’s comprehensive Green New Deal legislation, which greatly expands on the Congressional resolution put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in February of this year. At the same time, even sympathetic reporters often miss the campaign’s other great strength: its people.
No other candidate in the Democratic primaries has relied more on individual citizens to build momentum for his candidacy and this people powered approach is stated best by the campaign’s slogan, “Not me, us”. This approach is especially visible at massive rallies like his campaign relaunch at Queensbridge Park in New York on October 19th, where 26,000 people turned out to hear him speak and receive the endorsement of Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who spoke passionately about how her participation in his insurgent 2016 campaign inspired her successful run against the odds to win her seat in Congress last year.
Evidence that the Vermont Senator has made a mostly unexamined impression on millions of his fellow citizens can also be found in the sheer number of small donations pouring into to support his run for the U.S. presidency. In fact, the Sanders campaign has already broken previous records, many of them set by the senator in 2016, in terms of individual donations at this stage of the Democratic primary process. With over 4 million donations thus far, he’s already where he was after the Iowa caucuses in 2016, which are still more than 60 days away during the current cycle.
As his campaign manager Faiz Shakir was recently quoted as saying in terms of the campaign’s grassroots funding, “Working-class Americans across the country are chipping in $3, $18, $27, or whatever they can to help elect Bernie Sanders because they know he is the only candidate who will fight for them and take on corporate greed and corruption.”
Contrast Sanders’ citizen-based financial support to former Vice-President Joe Biden’s mainly large donor fundraising that raised just $15.2 million in the last quarter, which ended in September, in comparison to the Vermont Senator’s $25.3 million over the same period.
One notable weakness for Biden in this regard is that many of his well-heeled supporters have already given the maximum amount allowed by law. One gets around for this, as explained by Politico when Biden’s dismal fundraising record was made public, is for his campaign to rely more on super PACs, where individuals (and corporate interests) face no limits on what they can give.
If nothing else, Bernie Sanders has shown that American workers are far more powerful than the donor class if a candidate comes along to galvanize them (and fights alongside them when he’s not running for office, as the senator has done on picket lines around the country since 2016). Besides, Democratic primary voters should remember that the former vice-president has promised his wealthy donors that nothing will fundamentally change for them under a Biden administration, hardly inspiring stuff, regardless of who the current president is.
While the enthusiasm of his supporters is a key ingredient to Sanders’ growing strength in polls, both nationally and in early states like New Hampshire, one of the things that makes Sanders campaign rallies and town halls so consistently compelling are his four campaign co-chairs, who rouse the crowd with powerful speeches of their own and flesh out his messaging, often speaking directly to communities that are ignored by more centrist candidates.
They are: former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, Representative Ro Khanna of California and Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen.
Although Rep. Khanna and Mayor Cruz are less available to appear at public events, when they’re on the stage they offer unique perspectives on why they support the Vermont senator. In the case of the San Juan mayor, aside from her bravery in standing up to the current U.S. president in the wake of Hurricane Maria, she is in a unique position to help him appeal to the many recently displaced people from Puerto Rico who have fled to the mainland, especially in the key state of Florida, and who will now be able to vote in both the primaries and the presidential election.
Ben Cohen has made many appearances on the trail introducing the candidate and is a uniquely useful surrogate in that, as someone who has known the Vermont senator for many years, he’s able to do something the candidate has never really seemed comfortable doing himself: talking about Sanders the person and his history of consistency in fighting for ordinary citizens.
Although Sanders has surrounded himself with really exceptional people, including these other campaign co-chairs, Nina Turner, who is perhaps one of the greatest orators in the English language today, is able to make the senator’s case by drawing on her own experiences as an African American woman and is probably one of the main reasons why the candidate has such strong numbers with younger African American voters.
While you really have to watch it to get the full effect, Turner’s speech in Queensbridge Park is worth quoting at length as her approach contrasts well with the Vermont Senator’s, “I do want to say that I’m mad as hell, and I do know that I’m a black woman, last time I checked. I know that sometimes people talk about the Angry Black Woman, but I can tell you something: if you ain’t mad as a mofo about what’s going on here, something is wrong with you. Mad with a purpose.
So as an Angry Black Woman, we’re taking applications. You all can be mad as hell with us. Mad about a system that allows CEOs to make money hand over first while other folks have to grovel for a living. Mad about the fact that we don’t have leaders who won’t equivocate in standing up for the people. Mad that folks are living out on the streets. Mad that people are too afraid to go out and see a doctor because they can’t afford it. Mad because our babies need to be educated and our teachers need to be paid.
But we’re going to get glad because we’re going to use this energy and this synergy to help Senator Bernard Sanders make it to the White House — when we all get to the White House. Are you all ready for that?
So I need you to do something for me. Raise one hand for yourself and another hand for somebody else. Dr. Maya Angelou once said that we have to have the courage to stand up for ourselves and the courage to stand up for somebody else…
…And with these hands, we will elect Senator Bernard Sanders the next president of the United States of America.”
Adding to powerful voices like these, Sanders has also received three important endorsements from members of what’s come to be called the Squad, progressive Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (Ayanna Pressley, who is also considered part of this group, is the congresswoman for Massachusett’s 7th district, and has endorsed Elizabeth Warren, who represents her state in the Senate).
While each of these 3 women represent parts of the country that have been left behind and have unique qualifications that can be put to good use by the Sanders campaign, they are not surrogates in the traditional sense, as we saw when Sanders and AOC used their positions in Congress to unveil a Green New Deal for housing plan that is both wiser and more radical than anything proposed in decades and could turn out to be important not only in American but in global terms given time.
These allies also put the lie to the often cynical accusations that dogged the 2016 Sanders campaign in regard to marginalized communities and gender equality. One problem that Sanders did face then was a campaign apparatus that had trouble scaling up from its Vermont roots, but as we have seen over the 2020 campaign so far, these issues have been addressed and Sanders is building what might be the most diverse coalition of supporters in the ongoing Democratic primary process.
As Nina Turner often says on the campaign trail, “You will know the tree by the fruit it bears.” The fruit of Bernie Sanders’ labors are not just in the realm of policy, they’re also in the people who support him.