‘Anybody here got any student debt?’ asks Bernie Sanders halfway through his speech at a rally in a small university on Monday. He then starts conducting a fake auction. ‘What are some of the numbers you got? You? 35,000. You? 55,000? Who else? A young lady here… 100,000 dollars. You win! I don’t know what you win, but you win!’ The students all hoot and chant. ‘Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!’ Sanders cracks an avuncular smile, then starts talking again about how rich the rich are.
It’s hard not to like Sanders. It’s hard not to ‘Feel the Bern’, as the mantra goes. He is 74 years old, and angry at the injustice of the world in a lovable old-codger way. The kids like that. The combination of his age and his affability, more than anything else, is the reason he is beating Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Nomination. It’s why he trounced her in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Clinton, 68, is also old. But people don’t like her. She can’t match Bernie’s retro appeal.
Bernie is a socialist progressive, yes, but he’s old-school. Young people compete to sound Bernier-than-thou. Jamal, a twenty-something half-Libyan from Vermont, takes pride in telling me that he first heard Sanders speak when he was ten years old, at a reggae festival. ‘This guy was talking about legalising weed and stuff,’ he says. ‘And I was like, wow, this guy is something else.’
Sanders’s appeal is enhanced by an -ironic appreciation of his outdatedness. His politics are so unmodern it is funny. He doesn’t do spin, not in the 1990s Clinton-Blair sense, and he would never dream of occupying the -centre ground. He has been raging against the same monsters — Wall Street! The corporations! The military–industrial complex! Big Pharma! — for more than 50 years, and he’s still going. I meet a spotty Trump supporter who tells me how much he likes Sanders. ‘He’s got integrity, which is kinda cool,’ he says.
Does this remind you of Jeremy Corbynism? There are a lot of similarities. Sanders and Corbyn are genuine radicals — far to the left of the established parties they want to lead. Both are seemingly unelectable, yet somehow keep winning. Both excite social media and tap into the great anti-politics trend; the worldwide revulsion at the billionaire class and the political elite. A number of Corbyn campaigners have reportedly crossed the Atlantic to canvass for Sanders — although I couldn’t find any.
Back in September, David Brock (Hillary Clinton’s creepy-looking spin man) tried to tar Sanders by linking him to Corbyn. That misfired. Americans aren’t fussed about Westminster. If anything, associating Sanders with the internationalist left bolstered his appeal as an authentic anti-capitalist. Better that than Hillary, who took $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for three speeches.
At a rally in Nashua, I try to ask -Sanders if he is a friend of Jeremy Corbyn, but his -minders bustle him off. So I ask Jane O’Meara Sanders, his wife, instead. ‘Who?’ she asks. Jeremy Corbyn, I repeat. ‘Oh yes,’ she says, nodding vaguely. ‘He’s a good man. He’s an intelligent man.’ So if Sanders is conspiring with Corbyn to overthrow liberal capitalism, it’s fair to say he hasn’t let his spouse in on the plan.
The comparison between ‘The Bern’ and ‘Jez’ should not be stretched. Unlike Corbyn, Sanders has a sense of humour. He uses sarcasm effectively. Nor is he preoccupied with stopping neocon wars. Sanders seems to think banging on about foreign affairs is a distraction from the cause. He told pro-Palestinian hecklers at a town hall meeting last year to shut up.
Sanders is more a left-wing mirror of -Donald Trump, the other great surprise of this year’s US election, who also triumphed on Tuesday night. Trump and Sanders stress that America is broken. They trash their country’s education system, its infrastructure, its healthcare. Americans love them for doing so. Trump says America is terrible but he can fix it because he is Donald Trump. Bernie says he can fix it by taxing the rich. Both are adored because their followers believe they can’t be bought: Donald because he is too rich; Bernie because he’s too principled.
Sanders and Trump are miles apart on immigration, as you’d expect. Trump says he’ll build walls to keep out Mexicans and ban all Muslims. Bernie says he’ll take executive action to put illegal immigrants on the ‘path to citizenship’. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton bores people by talking endlessly about feminism and gay and minority rights. Bernie touches on those subjects, but his big point is economic injustice. When he does talk about minorities, he sounds uneasy. He talks about ‘the black community and their white allies’ and ‘the gay communities and their straight allies’. In June, when urged to embrace the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, he snapped: ‘It’s too easy for quote-unquote liberals to be saying, “Well, let’s use this phrase.” We need a massive jobs programme to put black kids to work and white kids to work and Hispanic kids to work.’
The Hillary camp seems to think -Sanders’s lack of overt political correctitude is a weakness to exploit. Bill Clinton caused a row this week by saying that Bernie’s online male fans — the ‘Bernie Bros’ — were -sexist trolls. Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state speaking for Hillary, suggested to a crowd in New Hampshire that women who supported Bernie were betraying feminism. ‘Remember,’ she said, ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’
But if the Clintons think wheeling out another elderly power-woman can guilt-trip younger women into backing Hillary, they are mistaken. According to the NBC exit poll on Tuesday, Sanders won 80 per cent of the vote among millennials.
Bernie is thrashing Hillary among under-50s of both sexes, just as Obama did in 2008. It must be terribly painful for Clinton to experience again this youthful movement against her, especially since this time the voters are choosing an older white man instead. But it’s hard to see how, as a former First Lady, who everybody knows has significantly more corporate donors than anybody else, she can do anything to counter the angry mood of the times.
That said, Hillary looks less vulnerable than in 2008. There is a sense even among ardent Bernie fans — Trump fans, too — that it’s all a bit of a joke. Even as they celebrate his New Hampshire triumph, many young Democrats seem to accept that in the end they’ll have to swallow hard and vote for Clinton.
But until then, the trendy buzz is all about Sanders. As one girl outside a bar in Manchester puts it: ‘Right now, I’m totally Feeling the Bern!’