My feminist Sanders fixation: I'm a woman of color, my candidate is a white man

His decency, his socialism, his Vermont -- am I crazy to think America needs a lot more of all of that?

Published March 13, 2016 11:29PM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders   (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

In a classic "Seinfeld" episode, George Costanza relates how his father, Frank, created his own winter holiday, "Festivus," an alternative to the consumerism and the cultural hegemony of Christmas. In this parodic (and screamingly funny) approach, there are no presents but a communal  "airing of the grievances," the tree is replaced by a utilitarian aluminum pole. Frank responds to rotely uttered "Merry Christmas"es by screaming "Festivus for the rest of us!"

#FeeltheBern is our presidential "Festivus for the rest of us!"


The rise of Sanders and Trump's candidacies points to a watershed cultural moment, with large numbers of Democrats and Republicans forming a cohort of the angry and disenfranchised, struggling to be heard in a system that increasingly requires money and power as an admission ticket to the table. Trump fans get a human megaphone, who says reliably shocking things that get him on TV, paired with Bernie Sanders, one of the longest-serving and consistently progressive politicians.  

What they do share is a take-it-or-leave-it brashness, the opposite of pandering, that the media sloppily categorizes as "populism" (can you own a gold-covered plane and still be populist?) that speaks to the yearning for transparency, authenticity, convictions.

We are at a moment unthinkable a decade ago, when the two political parties were cut and dried: The GOP was the party of business and social conservatives--particularly Christian fundamentalists--the Democratic Party the party of the "little people" and minorities. Now, both candidates are outliers in parties that have become unrecognizable.

The party of Lincoln is tilting scarily toward fascism and violence,  while the  Democratic administration has brought us Hillary Clinton's State Department, which not only gives the finger to climate change concerns by actively selling fracking globally, it has also fomented the coup of a democratically elected president in Honduras so frightening in its machinations, one can't help thinking of Kissinger urging Nixon to overthrow the democratically elected Allende in Chile.  

We want desperately to believe that our elected officials will act in our best interests, as they are the guardians of our tax money, even as they blow that money  on a war that we don't ask for, create trade agreements that benefit corporations while sending good manufacturing jobs overseas. We are basically told we have to commit acts of environmental racism, poison our water through fracking, spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on non-working fighter planes that could have otherwise been traded for a $600,000 mansion for every homeless person, we let them maintain a strange farm subsidy system that ends up giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to "farmers," aka sitting members of Congress who enact these subsidies in the first place.

There is hope, however. Jeb Bush's nasty, brutish and short $150 million campaign, bankrolled by 1 percent oligarchs like the Koch brothers, fizzled out. Hillary Clinton's campaign, which runs its own media machine (the Blue Nation Review--owned by David Brock, Clinton strategist and coiner of the phrase "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" to smear Anita Hill) and similarly infused with cash from corporations, lobbyists and mega donors galore, should have made her an unstoppable nominee.

This is where our Festivus miracle, what I'm calling #BernieMagic, comes in.

Bernie Sanders came out of the gate refusing money from corporations as well as super PACS--the unlimited money allowed by Citizens United, a ruling both Clinton and Obama decried but also ("We have to") availed themselves of during their respective campaigns.

Early on, I responded to Bernie's online solicitation for a small donation by sending $25. I affixed my BERNIE SANDERS FOR PRESIDENT bumper sticker to our apartment door, to some gentle teasing. But so weary of spin, how could I not support a politician who's been so steadfast with the issues, saying the same things about income inequality since he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the '80s? How could I forget his lonely "no" vote on the war in Iraq? His (now prescient) reasoning that our troops would suffer, Iraqis would suffer, we'd open a door to Islamic extremism--delivered to a near-empty room as passionately as if the place was full? So now that he was actually running for president, I felt each little donation was an investment in my future, my voice, even though my puny amount felt a little bit like I was trying to get a rocketship off the ground by tying a balloon to it.

But here we are, 4 million individual donations later--the average donation, $27. Each donation a balloon, the rocketship has achieved liftoff.

And, like water into wine, my BERNIE SANDERS FOR PRESIDENT sticker has turned from an ironic eccentricity into the real deal.

I use this Christian imagery purposely, to counteract the prewritten corporate narrative that Hillary is the candidate we need to unite behind to defeat Trump. Au contraire, the crossover voters we need are the evangelical Christians and Catholics who formerly voted Republican but are now faced with a multiply married, strip-club-loving Planned Parenthood supporter who also violates Thou Shalt Not Lie by being, according to the New York Times, the biggest liar on the campaign trail.

Bernie's long history in public service has shown a steadfast integrity that is catching the eye of the electorate used to being manipulated, lied to, taken for granted. Bernie's bedrock values (more than 90 percent of those voters who prized "honesty" went for Bernie in New Hampshire, according to exit polls) are a natural fit with  evangelical Christians who don't rely on fear-mongering and racism to determine their votes.

In fact, Dwight Longnecker, a priest and former evangelical, counsels that it may actually be pro-God to vote for Bernie:

'If...his opponent–someone who supported abortion AND torture AND indiscriminate bombing of civilians AND indiscriminate deportation of immigrants– (like Trump) then a vote for Sanders could be the lesser of two evils.' 

For me and many others, this election is not about choosing among the candidates; Bernie Sanders is my choice. I, along with my brethren, paid our $27 donation in our unironic "citizens united" to BYOB--Bring Your Own Bernie--to the table. I am categorically uninterested in being made to toe the line for a party that branded itself as "for the people" yet whose head is now lobbying for payday loan companies whose sole function is to prey on poor people so disenfranchised in our system that they can't even afford money.

Nope. How can I do that when we have a candidate who wants not only break up the predatory big banks but to bring banking to the people. Bernie Sanders has a brilliant idea--widely supported--for citizens to conduct simple banking transactions at the U.S. Post Office.

Similarly, instead of allowing banks like Goldman to profit off hardworking people's mortgages, why aren't we taking a closer look at Bernie's land-trust model in Burlington, which got people owning their homes and with a 10 times lower rate of default because the system was set up to help homeowners succeed, not for banks to profit.

Evangelicals, including those who have helped push Trump to victory in the last three GOP contests, might want to take another look at the guy cleaning the House (of Representatives) of scurrilous moneylenders, undeniable echoes of what another Jewish guy did for his house, centuries ago.

As the Trump rallies take on more and more of a Hitler Youth vibe and as the Democratic Party veers further and further from the populism that once made it the party of progressives and minorities, voters need a place to go, and the more they hear about Bernie Sanders, the more they appear to like him. Before Super Tuesday, the pundits warned that a loss in Oklahoma--a Southern agrarian state--would highly suggest Bernie's appeal was a limited, regional one, especially with Hillary having beaten Obama soundly there in 2008. But Bernie came from far behind and won--thereby suggesting that a Southern state with deep roots in evangelical Christianity is open to the appeal of the democratic socialist. In fact, "many party members saw Jesus as the first socialist."

This isn't me, but an encyclopedia entry from the Oklahoma Historical Society. "Socialism" is the boogeyman also being flung around as the so-called reason we must unite around Hillary because Bernie is tarred by this label. However, perhaps eight years of Republican red-baiting of Obama as socialist has helped people see what democratic socialism is: a system that retains capitalism but also works to serve and protect the "little people." Do you like to drive on an interstate highway? That's democratic socialism! In fact, in the Iowa caucuses, more people identified as socialists than capitalists.  


As Oklahoma goes, likely so goes the nation, suggested Nate Silver. Despite the accomplishment and experience Hillary brings to the race, trustworthiness is generally not the first character trait associated with her by voters, even supporters (and do we need to watch Bill Clinton likely violating voting laws by hanging out in and obstructing polling places, the media once again lamely telling us it does look bad but is probably--technically--legal).

I spoke with Sandy Rouse, who runs the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and she canvassed a bunch of Vermonters for their Bernie stories. They ended up all revolving around Bernie basically showing up when he was asked, engaged, interested, committed. Meeting schoolchildren (not exactly a valuable voting bloc) in his Senate office with enormous respect--asking them questions, reminding them to thank their teacher; he shows up for civic events then eats his brown bag lunch sitting on a curb. He did then, he does it now. I had a Facebook friend post from a tiny waiting room in a local airport "...this guy looks just like Bernie Sanders. Is it?" This friend didn't know about the hashtag #SandersonaPlane, which highly suggests that if elected, he's not going to use our tax dollars to, say, immediately go overboard with the extravagant redecorating, as some presidents have in the past.

Bernie isn't a political panacea, but he does best represent voters who want America to be more inclusive, a change from it being the richest nation and yet one of the highest in the developed world in child poverty. His authenticity has attracted a diverse crowd of writers, artists and musicians supporting his campaign; he is unequivocally the only candidate who is the subject of an admiring Allen Ginsberg poem.

My unscientific collection of Vermonters' stories combined with my years of curious and admiring Bernie-watching left me with an impression that writer Ezra Klein described as "an undeniable decency to him that you don't often see at this level of American politics." That is, Sen. Sanders reflexively puts the interests of those who rely on him--no matter how "small" or obscure--first. Orly Munzing, who runs Strolling with the Heifers, a Vermont farm-advocacy project whose parade Bernie marches (strolls in ) every year, told me how one year, traffic was backed up; Sen. Sanders leapt out of the car and jogged on the highway the two miles to Brattleboro so he wouldn't be late.   

Even in the self-interested space that is Twitter, years ago, Bernie started following me on his @SenSanders account, from which he occasionally directly tweets (as opposed to @BernieSanders, which is run by staff). Tickled, slightly starstruck, I did not follow him back, just to see what would happen, because politicians follow you all the time to try to gin up more followers (some politicians--Mitt Romney--even buy followers; Trump has been accused of making fake ones). Even progressive @BilldeBlasio followed me then dumped me three days later when I didn't do the quid pro quo. But while @SenSanders' five-figures worth of followers has exploded to 1.5 million, he still looks at mostly the same bunch of non-partisan people doing interesting things, like my friend and writer-colleague Dr. Anna Reisman, whom I noticed he followed at about the same time--he's clearly not in it for the follow-back.

For those of us who BYOB'ed to the table early, there's plenty to go around and we're happy--no, ecstatic--to share a candidate that voters of many persuasions can get behind.

As a woman, a feminist, a person of color, this is a big deal that my candidate is a white man. But I'm also someone who has studied economics and worked for years at Goldman Sachs, and I don't agree with the idea that Goldman showered Hillary with money so that they could sit politely and listen to her talk about the glass ceiling. This was a company, by the way, that let analysts expense their strip club outings and also used pictures of centerfolds as a joke (a joke!) to introduce incoming young women employees. If you want to have a longer debate about why getting $675,000 for those three speeches is problematic, or why we need to bring  back the Glass-Steagall Act (thank you, FDR), I'm here for you.

I understand that most Americans probably don't vote by studying 1933 banking law, but Americans are starting to realize that while they are working to feed their families, powerful people are quietly profiting off things that shouldn't be monetized--and that basically, no one's minding the store. Many American voters want someone--someone honest--to mind the store. One of the odd pro-Trump arguments is that he's so wealthy, he can't be swayed by monied interests. But then would you trust someone who's "too" wealthy to understand anything of what an ordinary working America goes through (here's what his NYC apartment looks like)?

Bernie, on the other hand, has an instinctive understanding of his fellow Americans (possibly from his time being a carpenter?) and his character has him doing the same thing when no one's looking as when they are. As the candidates attempt to woo millennials with expensive musical acts, he has, all this time, quietly been the only one of the presidential candidates who pays his interns.

How could I not be charmed to learn that he traveled all the way to my rural and not-easy-to-get-to hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, to talk to high school students, steelworkers and Native American activists? The only thing that could have been better would have been to have Bob Dylan, fellow hometown-sharer, doing the music.

To be true people of faith, of any faith, we must look toward possibility--which includes the possibility of Festivus and #feeltheBern miracles. I am not the only one who needs a president who will face the challenge of climate change, who wants to focus on education and not war,  who'll work to leave an earth for the next generation (I hear you, millennials!). I don't expect to agree with all his plans, but I do rest assured knowing he will be working for us, that our change-found-in-the-seat-cushion donations, our phone banking, our Facebook sharing has indeed brought our voices to the table, and he will make sure the table is always large and welcoming.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophycisist, spends his days fathoming the endless wonder of the universe. And yet even he came back to our big blue marble earth momentarily to declare in a Super Tuesday tweet:

Who would Jesus vote for? To him walls, wealth, & torture are non-starters, so probably the Jewish New Yorker from Vermont.


By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her next novel, "The Evening Hero," is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her on Twitter  @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.

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