I’m a bit of a political nerd – though not an expert, by any means – and Bernie Sanders’ campaign is fascinating. I’m registered as an Independent, but I lean liberal on most issues, so his race with Hillary Clinton has been something I followed with a lot of interest, and I was hoping that attending Sanders’ rally would help me make a decision. I was also hoping that I’d be able to get a decent blog post out of the rally, because really – I want y’all to vote.
Attending Presidential Candidate Rallies As a Student
A bit of livetweeting might have kept you informed, but after getting in line around 9:30 on Saturday morning, my lovely roommate and I waited until doors open and the line started moving at 11:00, and then three more hours until we reached the doors at 2:00. Sanders was scheduled to speak at 3:00. It was a long, long day, capped off by me spending an hour and a half on my toes and still not actually being able to see the candidate, but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re curious as to what an actual campaign rally is like, read on.
I was weirdly disappointed.
So, compared with the Chicago campus’s Donald Trump rally, this one was tame – probably a good thing, but when I say tame, I mean almost docile. There was no chanting in line, no cheering, no debating, no protesters. The loudest people in the crowd were the vendors, hawking “Feel the Bern” shirts, buttons, and even kippot – Jewish skullcaps. Classy.
Even inside, the crowd was quiet, with only a little chanting of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” happening during the hourlong wait, and none of it lasted more than twenty seconds or so.
Three hours after doors open I’m in and waaaayyyy back. pic.twitter.com/AAOlUI0oQB
— Megan Schaefer (@megan_schaef) March 12, 2016
The lethargy was maybe most apparent when speakers took the stage. Whether it was the mayor of Urbana or Sanders himself speaking, there was a half second pause after certain phrases while the rallygoers decided whether they were supposed to cheer, boo, or laugh, and then took up the appropriate cry. Everything felt prompted and slightly stilted.
The speakers were widely varied
A local government nominee, the mayor of Urbana, an (the? It was unclear) NAACP president, a congresswoman from Hawaii, local voting center volunteers, a major union spokesman, and the president of the campus Illini for Bernie club preceded the man of the hour. Their speeches were mostly rousing and inspiring, although the union rep went on a rambling, meandering speech about collective bargaining that definitely didn’t make much of an impression on the college-student-heavy audience.
The man, the myth, the legend
Sanders himself is funnier than I expected. Because he was on a barely-raised platform in the middle of a gym, I couldn’t really see him, and most of my glimpses were of his arms, up and moving as he described his ire with the super-rich, his desire to end institutional racism, his frustration with Clinton’s Wall Street ties, and his conviction that a record voter turnout (like the one in Michigan) would secure a Sanders victory in Illinois. (He lost.)
Sanders is running as a dark-horse candidate hellbent on political revolution, billing himself as a new breed of politician. But his speech was just another stump speech with a policy void. He made it clear that he intends to close the income gap, insisted on his dedication to ending racial injustice, championed climate change as scientific fact, and praised the benefits of affordable higher education. But aside from a brief mention of a $15 national minimum wage, he didn’t mention a single actual policy he planned to implement to reach those noble goals.
Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I expected his speech to give me some clarity on how he plans to get it all done. I was certainly hoping he’d explain why he was a better choice than Clinton. But aside from joking about her Wall Street connections, Sanders barely mentioned his current rival, focusing most of his attacks on Donald Trump. He took shots at an easy target in a room full of people who, for the most part, supported him or his party – I can’t imagine what he expected to accomplish by talking trash about Trump, aside from bolstering his already-roaring popularity with the college crowd.
As it stood, he didn’t convince me. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about him or his campaign, and walked away with more questions than answers. What I did appreciate was his commitment to getting the vote out. Towards the end of his speech, he reminded the crowd that political change doesn’t happen when you elect one man to office. It happens with consistent and conscientious voting over time – which seems especially important for Sanders, who, if he wins the general election, will likely need a completely overhauled Congress to pass any legislation.
So I did vote. But, undecided as I am between Sanders and Clinton, I picked up a Republican ballot at last Tuesday’s primary and put in my votes for John Kasich, who, at this point, is the only potential Republican nominee that I feel is acceptable. And despite pro-Sanders protests in Chicago last week and a huge turnout of Sanders supporters at U of I’s polling places, Bernie lost Illinois.
But hey, I’m glad I went.
The experience was not what I expected, and after six hours on my feet, the end portion on my toes, my legs, at least, were feeling the Bern. And while the crowd was a lot quieter than I expected, it was also full of incredibly kind people, all of them ready to talk shop at a moment’s notice. I expected to feel pressured and excluded when I mentioned I wasn’t actually a Sanders supporter, but people seemed curious as to what held me back, and listened with genuine interest to my explanations without trying to push their beliefs on me.
What I will say is this: Whether he’s conforming to the political game or not, Sanders has been a powerful force in this race. He rose up on the strength of his convictions, proving that you don’t need corporate connections or big money to at least start a presidential bid. The populism and grassroots organization around his campaign are inspiring, especially in the face of Citizens United. His no-nonsense demeanor and refusal to sling mud (beyond the occasional one-liner at his opponent’s expense) is admirable. And his down to earth nature makes me really, really like the man.
Either vote or don’t complain about the government. pic.twitter.com/xk0r7W2fon
— Megan Schaefer (@megan_schaef) March 15, 2016
Will he get the nomination? I genuinely doubt it. Would he be an effective president? Certainly not with the current Congress. But Bernie Sanders has done a lot of good in this race, and I’m excited to see the political thinkers he inspires.