A half-hour before a Bernie Sanders rally Saturday night in Iowa, a line snaked around the nearly 900-seat Ames City Auditorium, but no one else was being let in: The theater was full.
Inside, the Grammy-winning indie rock band Portugal. The Man was playing. Rows of people were assembled on risers behind the musicians, waving Bernie signs. Sanders fans, most of them young, crowded the aisles; The Iowa State Daily reported that 1,400 people had crammed into the auditorium, with another 400 in an overflow room. The air buzzed with the intoxicating collective energy unique to social movements on the rise.
Sanders has a reputation for focusing on class to the exclusion of all else; as David Frum put it in The Atlantic, “ ‘Left but not woke’ is the Bernie Sanders brand.” On the ground in Iowa, however, it is not the brand of his campaign. Sanders isn’t just running the most economically left campaign; he’s running the most unapologetically left campaign, period. And it’s surging, with Sanders leading in recent polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
It’s no longer far-fetched to think that he could be the Democratic nominee.
When the band was done, three indigenous women took the stage to pay respects to the Native Americans forced off the land that became Iowa. Filmmaker Michael Moore came on and described Donald Trump as the endpoint of a country founded “on genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” (The next day, at a campaign stop in Perry, Moore called women’s underrepresentation in Congress a form of “gender apartheid.”) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke, saying, “I’m here because Sen. Sanders has actually committed to breaking up ICE.”
There are no moral or intellectual comparisons between Sanders and Trump, but there are structural similarities between the Sanders campaign and the one Trump ran in 2016. Trump thrilled conservatives with his unembarrassed embrace of far-right figures disdained by mainstream Republicans. He inspired alienated men on the internet to mobilize behind him. Party elites wanted to stop him, but his solid core of support allowed him to romp through a fractured field.
The parallels with Sanders are obvious. He’s running a campaign steeped in the ethos of an anti-establishment left, and benefiting from elite Democrats’ failure to coalesce around someone else. He has an enormous online following, with legions of trolls intimidating Democrats who seem to stand in their way. An outsider who long refused to join the party whose nomination he’s seeking, he appeals to people who distrust most political institutions, the mainstream media very much included.
Obviously, Trump won, so there’s something to be said for aping some of his strategies. But the Sanders juggernaut still scares me. As Ezra Klein recently pointed out in The New York Times, the brute demographics of American politics make Democrats more electorally dependent on centrists than Republicans are.
Right now, several polls show Sanders beating Trump, and a few show him beating Trump in some swing states by more than anyone else. Still, I’m terrified that those numbers won’t survive endless attack ads about Sanders’ radical past.
There will most likely be spots showing the 1985 Sandinista rally Sanders attended in Nicaragua, with the crowd chanting, “Here There and Everywhere/ The Yankee Will Die.” The country will see Sanders, speaking after a trip to the Soviet Union, effusively praising its state-sponsored culture.
The economic inequities that Sanders rails against are very real, but most Americans — including most Democrats — say the economy is good, and a fortune would be spent to convince them that Sanders would crash it. Socialism may be newly current among the young, but polls suggest that it’s still anathema to the old.
But Sanders supporters have plenty of reasons to discount these anxieties. Polls are on their side. Their movement feels exhilarating, the fulfillment of their most fervent political hopes in view. Centrist predictions about which candidates are viable have failed over and over again.
“We keep hearing this argument about electability, or nominating safe candidates, and we keep losing,” said Derek Eadon, a 36-year-old former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party who endorsed Sanders this month.
Eadon, who was previously with Julián Castro’s campaign, didn’t take Sanders seriously in 2016. Two things changed since then. A painful nerve disease forced Eadon to become intimate with the absurdist horror of America’s health care system. And he said he saw Sanders expanding the electorate. “His ability to keep bringing in new people, and people that have not been involved before, is just such a strength electorally,” said Eadon.
This is the paradox helping to fuel Sanders’ rise: The more he attracts people who are heedless of traditional electability concerns, the more electable he looks.
Last week, Dalhi Myers, a conservative-leaning African American elected official in South Carolina, switched her support from Joe Biden to Sanders. Despite her affection for Biden, Myers, a member of the Richland County Council, had grown concerned by what she saw as an absence of grassroots enthusiasm for him. “I look at the Sanders campaign and what they’re doing to motivate people on the ground, and it’s working,” she told me.
No one knows if all this excitement will translate into the votes Democrats need. And no one knows if Democrats can win without it.