Weekend at Bernie’s (in Boston)

It was a crisp Autumn day in the Seaport District. At the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center the progressive faithful were converging, as if to fulfill a sacred pilgrimage. Other cities got Pope Francis, but these folks were gathering for Mass at the Church of Bernie Sanders, and I was there to join them.

Living in a major northeastern city or college town means you are not unaccustomed to seeing the occasional picketer, protestor, or clipboard-wielding activist on a street corner on any given day. This is doubly true in Boston, and particularly when a figure like Bernie comes to town. A congregation of climate activists, vegans, socialists amassed – clipboards and signature sheets as far as the eye can see.

“Wall Street is dead, help us bury it,” declares one woman. The implications of this information, if true, confuse and disturb me. I want to protest, but cannot summon the words to properly address this purely rhetorical, if not deeply incoherent, mantra.

As I make my way into the building, it is instantly clear who Bernie’s core supporters really are. Not white suburban liberals or millennial college students, but in fact it is people with poor eyesight. Thick-rimmed glasses and round hippie spectacles abound. This is a trans-generational movement.

Once inside, we can see the convention floor downstairs through glass windows. Half the building is set aside for some sort of exposition of home appliances. The line progresses at a slow pace, with a vaguely Soviet feel to it. Sandernistas obediently wait while discussing the finer points of central planning.

We clear the bag check section without much trouble (who would really want to do harm to a Man of the People and second-tier presidential candidate, anyway?) Campaign volunteers are strewn about – even more clipboards. They ask for email addresses in exchange for a Bernie sticker, which is our ticket to the event. Not to worry, I RSVP’d online. “Feel the Bern,” the volunteer says.

We finally make it to the rally area, separated from the rest of the convention floor by a curtain with a giant American flag affixed on it. Moving closer is difficult because the room is filled with thousands of people. Alas, we can’t get very close to the front and must watch from a distance. A campaign worker takes the stage at 6:15pm – they are running late. Not good, not good.

He informs us that they are running late “because of you.” The unexpectedly large number of attendees posed some logistical issues. “So blame yourselves or thank yourselves” he says before departing.

Five minutes later he returns. “So I actually lied to you all, because we are going to get started right now.” Bernie’s campaign is truly masterful at managing expectations.

A second, higher-ranking campaign staffer comes onto the stage. She poses what she deems the media’s favorite question: “Is America ready for the first democratic socialist President?” However, this is not the real question, she informs us. It is actually: “Are you ready to hold the billionaire class accountable? Ready to make college free? Are you ready for a political revolution?” A resounding cheer. Yes, we are all ready. And certainly not for Hillary.

The opening acts come on stage. A leader from the National Nurses United decries the “international embarrassment” that health care is not a guaranteed right in America. Next, the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union keeps it local. He condemns Massachusetts Governor and Known Republican Charlie Baker for his privatization schemes, which of course are a scam to raise fees and make money for rich people. Sanders is a man not of words, he tells us, but of deeds.

And what a deed it is to be a Congressional backbencher for 24 years, with a grand total of three sponsored bills signed into law. He signs off by reminding us that the richest country in the world can afford Medicare for all and free tuition at public colleges. A bigger roar from the crowd. But we wait with baited breath, knowing Bernie will promise even more.

We hear from a nursing student from UMass Boston. She questions why our society forces her to pay off thousands of dollars in student loans when it is we who should be investing in her. Boo! Finally, a climate change activist from Vermont takes the stage. He subjects us to a heated emotional roller coaster. Republicans say climate change doesn’t exist, boo! Shell Oil has decided not to drill in the Arctic, hooray! Jeb Bush says all we want is free stuff, boo! Meanwhile, oil companies get government subsidies? BOO!

After the sideshows, it is time for our man Bernie to take to the stage. A full recap is difficult to provide, because he jumps from topic to topic so abruptly. Within the first few minutes he has gone from discussing campaign finance (“I don’t want a Super PAC, AND I DON’T NEED ONE!”) to voter turnout (“When nobody votes, Republicans win”), to income inequality and the “rigged economy.” This last phrase is a callback to his ideological comrade Elizabeth Warren. Cheers of “Warren for President” erupt from the crowd. I am confused.

Each new theme of this schizophrenic speech raises additional questions. He mocks Republicans for blaming everything on Barack Obama while forgetting about George W. Bush, whose “trickle-down economics” somehow caused the financial crisis.

After defending Obama in one sentence, he riffs about the widening wealth gap in the next – if only we had a Democrat in office to fix this! He even trots out erstwhile conservative talking points about the “real” unemployment rate being over 10%. Indeed, Bernie correctly notes that the current 5.5% unemployment rate does not account for record low workforce participation. So is he saying the Obama recovery has failed?

Bernie performs an interesting balancing act. He never criticizes the President – who is presiding over an economy that is abysmal to the poor – even as he promises a clean break from his policies. He lets out a rallying cry against TPP and brags about his past votes against NAFTA, CAFTA, and normalized trade relations with China, but blames these deals on corporate America rather than Obama or Bill Clinton. He throws out a consolation prize – “the Affordable Care Act is a good start” – yet decries the “international embarrassment” of health care not being considered a right. I wonder again: has Obama failed, or hasn’t he?

Perhaps it is unsurprising that a candidate refrains from bashing the leader of his (adopted) party. Yet despite running in a primary contest, he does not even mention his rival, instead aiming his fire at the Republicans. It is not just that he disagrees with them on every issue, he tells us, but he considers them an “international embarrassment” (note the recurring theme) for denying climate science. This is as opposed to his adopted party that rejects the science on GMOs, fracking, and alternative medicine. In his eyes, furthermore, the GOP believes that family values–“They just stay up at night worrying about families!” he says to laughter–means denying women control of their bodies. Even the vegans in the audience scarf down this red meat.

Meanwhile, Bernie’s cognitive dissonance doesn’t stop with his newfound party loyalty. He delves into multiple topics, tying them all to his broader economic themes. He decries massive youth unemployment (using the real rate of course: 33% for white, 36% for Hispanic, and 51% for black high school students) and complains that college graduates cannot find a job that pays according to their skill level.

At the same time he describes 55 year-olds who are afraid of losing their jobs to workers who are half their age and salary level. The kicker: he then demands a higher minimum wage (the arbitrary “living wage” of $15/hour, of course) and paid family leave for all (it is an “international embarrassment” that America doesn’t mandate that yet). There is nary a sign that he has considered how his proposed solutions will affect these problems.

Not only does he fail to consider the indirect effects of his policies, but he actively avoids the facts and history behind progressives’ favorite pet causes. He repeats the misleading claim that women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, and that we need a pay equity act (we have multiple). He asks why student loan interest rates differ from mortgage rates (Congress set student loan rates in 2001). He asks why we don’t invest more in education rather than incarceration, as if juveniles are imprisoned simply because we spend so much on prisons. The list goes on. Eventually, my friends and I decide to leave the rally and beat the rush.

Outside, the Sanders clipboarders approach exiting attendees, asking for donations, selling “Not for Sale” t shirts, and advertising Stand Up Comedians for Bernie. As we walk outside past the Lawn on the D with Bernie’s speech playing on big screens outside (“Guns should not be in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them!”), I am digesting the whole event.

You don’t often see a candidate as eccentric or straightforward as Bernie. I attended the rally to get a firsthand perspective, and maybe some entertainment. But it left me with one simple thought: My God, people want him to be President?