When I crossed paths with a Democratic Party campaign consultant in Austin last March, I suggested he come out to the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall to hear Bernie Sanders, adding that the Vermont senator was pondering a run for the presidency. "You gotta be kiddin' me," the political pro snorted. "Bernie Sanders? Let me tell ya, his chances are slim and none, and Slim don't live in Bernie's precinct. First of all, no one south of Greenwich Village ever heard of him. Second, who's gonna vote for some old senator from a tiny state of Birkenstock-wearers damn near in Canada?"
So that scoffer was a no-show, but we really didn't have room for him anyway. We had expected about 200 people -- the capacity of the hall -- but nearly 500 Texans showed up that night to hear the undiluted populist message of this senator "no one ever heard of."
Austin was one of the first stops on a cross-country trip that Sanders was taking to assess whether an unabashedly progressive, movement-building presidential campaign could rally any substantial support. If he ran, he intended to go right at the moneyed elites who've thoroughly corrupted our politics and rigged our economy to squeeze the life out of the middle class. But, would anyone follow? Were people really ready to do this, and could a 74-year-old, notoriously brusque Vermonter with a conspicuous Brooklyn accent be the one to spark such a modern-day American revolt? He wasn't sure, and even if it might work, he assumed it would be a slow build.
I was to introduce him at the Austin event, and as we worked our way from the parking lot, waving to an ebullient overflow group gathered outside the union building, shaking hands with people standing all along the hallway and up the stairwell, then squeezing through the jam-packed crowd in the auditorium -- I said to him: "Something is happening here." He nodded and said in an astonished whisper, "Something is happening."
That was a precursor to what would soon become the "Sanders Sensation," a spontaneous, unusually vibrant grassroots uprising that has already shattered the Democratic Establishment's holy myth that corporate centrism and super PAC money are the only means to victory. Stupendous crowds are streaming into arenas all around the country to hear Sanders' fact-studded speeches (which are more like ardent tutorials on democracy than rah-rah stump speeches). Not only are people signing up for his populist call to action, but hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts are also pitching in small donations (averaging under $30 each) to self-finance a viable, multimillion-dollar campaign that can go the distance.
For me, though, the great difference in this effort is that grassroots people themselves are taking charge -- not leaving it to establishment officeholders and party operatives to do the same old thing. From rallies of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people (as Donald Trump would say, these events are truly "Huuuuge!") to the local campaign committees that have sprung up across the country like hardy spring wildflowers, most of the faces are new, fresh, and excited.
Sure, many progressive old-timers are drawn to his maverick run, as are a cadre of experienced organizers, but the driving force of "Bernie for President" is coming from two encouraging sources: 1) An emerging rainbow of young people dismayed and disgusted by the greed and pettiness of today's "leaders" who are restructuring America into a plutocracy that callously sweeps the crying needs of the declining middle class, the poor, the planet, and the common good under the rug of laissez-faire Kochism; and 2) a potentially game-changing group of working-class mad-as-hellers who had disengaged from a governing system that has deliberately ignored working stiffs or, worse, cynically used them as political pawns to be demonized and disempowered.
Sanders' populist surge naturally intrigues a wide range of free-thinking, truth-seeking voters, but we are being warned by the Democratic hierarchy that the only way to ward off the Halloween horror of a Donald Trump-Ted Cruz presidency is to set aside our populist idealism this year and stick with Barack Obama-style, don't-rock-the-corporate-boat liberalism offering small-step reforms. That's not exactly a turn-on for the majority of people fed up with business-as-usual politics -- which is why so many Americans are hitching their populist hopes to Sanders' people-powered movement.