Sen. Bernie Sanders has been to Town Hall in Manhattan for three campaign visits — once in September as his campaign ramped up, before he had Secret Service protection. Once in January, heading into the Iowa caucus where he proved himself a real challenger. And again last week, in the twilight of the race.
Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee. Sanders has even said he will vote for her and do anything he can to take down Donald Trump.
So why does he continue to hold campaign events, playing out the dreary schedule? And who comes out to them, waiting in a line stretching toward Times Square to see a second-place candidate?
As Sanders started his speech, the balcony of Town Hall was mostly empty. Yet by the middle of his screed, there was no room for excited supporters to hop over seats or get the best iPhone view. When he got to the heart of it, to the words —“Never, ever lose your sense of outrage” — there wasn’t a seat to be taken.
Later that night voters in Britain would make the weighty decision to leave the European Union, throwing perceived caution to the political winds and braving a venture into the unknown because anything seemed better than this.
And people wonder whether things will calm down by November.
Let Sanders be Sanders
Ironically, Sanders is particularly suited to this stage of the campaign.
Loosed from the strictures of candidacy, he can talk about his movement and major issues without being dragged down by details. He can agitate for platform changes and threaten a progressive revolution — urging his supporters to think local, to run for office, to begin making change.
Sanders’ campaign said on Friday that some 20,000 people have signed up on his website to either run for office or support those who are, since his call to do so in mid-June.
Yet he acknowledges the slow work of grassroots progress, from his own experience.
On Thursday, he admitted falling asleep in the middle of the one city council meeting he'd been to before becoming mayor of Burlington. But he urged his supporters to learn about the local structures around them — the fire department, the parks department, the cops.
It seems certain that there will be a generation of activists and organizers and local politicians coming out of the Sanders movement — that movement is already happening, with Bernie support groups rallying around local candidates such as Debbie Medina for State Senate from NYC.
But it seems equally as likely that many will find the local, the dirty, the slow, as unsatisfying as Sanders warned it can sometimes be. Not every Bernie bro wants to serve on a community board.
Bernie Sanders, American prophet
So what will happen to that group? Those angry, fed-up, politicized supporters?
They have a right to be angry, and Sanders has developed a keener and keener touch for tapping into that anger.
At Town Hall last week, Sanders talked about crisscrossing the country and seeing inequality firsthand. A homeless man lying on an NYC street. Bleak conditions on a South Dakota Indian reservation. McDowell county in West Virginia where life expectancy for men is a full 18 years less than wealthy Fairfax County, Virginia, a six- or seven-hour drive away.
There is religion in Bernie Sanders that isn’t going anywhere quickly. Now in the twilight of his campaign, he feels free to let loose and it can be messy. Sanders can display a Trump-like tendency to extemporize and rely on signifiers, as in a strange transition last week that criticized fracking before turning to the “beautiful” young Latinos in California fighting deportation.
But those signifiers struck a chord in the primaries and will continue to do so in a world where activists on the right and left sneer at the status quo — not just Trump voters decrying PC culture but Democrats refusing to leave the floor of Congress for even a minimal gun control bill.
Terry Grace, 71, was one rallygoer among many at Town Hall who was perfectly in sync with Sanders’ continued fervor. She took out a small notebook to write down choice lines, stood to cheer the breaking up of banks and the eradication of superdelegates. When Sanders said “yuge,” she tilted her head back and howled the word back at him. “Yuuuuuuuuge.”
When it was all over, she told her neighbors that they’d just witnessed something extraordinary.
“I think Bernie is America’s new prophet,” she said.
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