Looking for America in Bernie Sanders

Bernie SandersMy friend Kristen McHenry recently wrote about, That Oddly Existential Bernie Sanders Ad. It reminded me that I had wanted to write about the spot. When I first saw it, I cried. Now that’s not terribly surprising, given that I’ve written before, On Sobbing and Being a Blubbering Fool. But the ad is amazingly effective.

The song, Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” is the perfect choice. And the spot gets 15 seconds in before we see a Bernie Sanders sign, and then the man himself is incidental. But it turns suddenly different at the line, “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve all come to look for America…” Part of this is because they cut from the early quiet portion of the song, right to the end when it is most energetic. Then we see Sanders and his wife walking into an event and the sound of crowd rises. I’m not much for joining things, but it’s hard not to stand up and shout, “I want to be part of that!”

The commercial was designed for the Iowa caucus. And I assume most of the footage is from that state. And I have to say: it is really white. The state is 91% white and less than 3% black. It really is a hell of state to start our only national election. But I would assume that the Bernie Sanders campaign will continue to use the ad outside Iowa, and I assume they will cut a little diversity into it. I understand Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument against Bernie Sanders, but what I think Coates fails to understand is that Sanders might be interested in shaking things up, but he’s also interested in winning. Sanders’ not being more radical on racial issues and having a pretty white commercial for Iowa are pretty much the same thing.

But the question is, “What is the meaning of the Bernie Sanders spot?” I’m with Kristen, it isn’t about nostalgia. She thinks it is about “our growing sense of alienation and loss of identity.” I think she’s definitely onto something there. But it’s clear that the identity to be found is not some sense of conformity. Looking for America is an odd kind of thing because we are all different. What binds us together must be something more nebulous. America is not a people but an idea. This is how I put it in my comment to Kristen’s article:

It has various images of different kinds of people — all of them Americans. And they are all coming together because they all believe in that idea of America that we were taught in grammar school. We just want to have our barbecues and go to our kids’ school plays and tinker in the garden or the shop or on the computer. We are bound together in wanting to live our lives as we see fit. And it isn’t big government that is stopping us (as the Bundy freaks would have us believe). It is an unfair system that doesn’t allow all of us to share in the fruits of this nation.

I am tired of — angry about, even — this idea that the sum total of my civilization can be quantified by the GDP — or even worse, the wars we’ve “won.” To me, the ultimate symbol of America is YouTube where people of great talent and little post their videos. They express themselves in all their idiosyncrasies. Yet we live in an economic system that not only doesn’t provide proper compensation, but also no sense of security. It’s as if our greatest cultural desire is to make the lives of ordinary Americans the same as the natural world where the strong thrive and the weak die.

I like Hillary Clinton. But I’m with Robert Reich:

But what about the “pragmatic” Hillary Clinton? I have worked closely with her and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s clearly the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have.

But the political system we now have is profoundly broken. Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have because he’s leading a political movement for change.

That’s as good a textual description of that video as anyone could make.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “Looking for America in Bernie Sanders

  1. There are common traits that bind us together. We believe we can do something even when all hope is lost. That is the one unsurprising thing to me about Sanders taking fire like he has-Americans are unbelievably optimistic abut life. Sure things suck now but we can fix it. We can make it through to something better.

    We also are pretty good at the whole food thing. Or at least at the whole ridiculously silly food thing.

    • Yes, the American “can do” attitude. Despite my gloomy disposition, there is much of that in me too.

  2. It’s a good ad. When you described it, and before I saw it, I was hoping it included the line just previous to “counting the cars” — “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” (And, reading her post just now, I see Kristen agrees with me.)

    Your comment to her is quite right. (And Coates is quite right when he points out that making that dream you describe possible in Scandinavia hasn’t stopped racism from exploding there lately, but that’s a debate for another time.)

    Ultimately what I like about the ad is it’s positive without singling out any specific type of what an “American” is. (Well, there are no derivatives traders.) It doesn’t distinguish between farmers and urbanites. It’s not “us” against “them,” the way a similar GOP ad might highlight soldiers and churches. And that’s exactly right.

    How the hell did little vanilla states like IA and NH become so politically important, anyway?

    • I would say that many of the racial problems that have crept into Scandinavia are do to neoliberalism having crept into Scandinavia. Economic insecurity makes people fearful. Fearful people look for scapegoats. I’m not saying that’s all that’s going on, but it is a big part of it. And it isn’t surprising when the society gets more diverse just as people’s economic fortunes become unstable.

      • That’s a huge part of it. There’s also the fact that Scandinavians pay a lot in taxes. Which benefits poorer Scandinavians more than wealthier ones (in the narrow view; obviously it benefits them all.) But because history and tradition prevent Scandinavians from taking a poop on poorer Scandinavians to get tax cuts, immigrants are the scapegoat of choice. My tax money’s being wasted on THEM.

        Personal anecdotes are worthless, but the last time I was in Denmark, it was the suburbanite social climbers buying vacation homes who were the giddiest racists. Rural people were the ones decrying racism. From that, I’d say this is a Tea Party-style movement. But very limited sample size, so I can’t say.

        Again, discussion for another day. Coates is right; it’s sad that the most liberal viable Prez candidate we’ve had in my lifetime is fairly silent on racism. That’s on us as a society, though, not our candidates. The last Prez candidate I know of who made racial injustice a centerpoint of his campaign was George Romney, and Nixon destroyed him. (A lesson “makers and takers” Mitt certainly learned.)

        • It’s actually the opposite here. The Tea Party (and studies back this up) are generally people who live far away from “those people.” They remind me of Borat’s attitude toward the Jews: scared to death but having never seen one.

  3. “I am tired of — angry about, even — this idea that the sum total of my civilization can be quantified by the GDP — or even worse, the wars we’ve “won.” To me, the ultimate symbol of America is YouTube where people of great talent and little post their videos. They express themselves in all their idiosyncrasies. Yet we live in an economic system that not only doesn’t provide proper compensation, but also no sense of security. It’s as if our greatest cultural desire is to make the lives of ordinary Americans the same as the natural world where the strong thrive and the weak die.”

    You nailed it there–it’s the savage idea of individualism–that if something bad happens to you, and you don’t have enough savings to pull you through, you’re screwed, and too bad. It’s terribly destabilizing to know that one stay in the hospital can literally bankrupt you for life.

    • Over the years, I’ve come to see that most things I took for granted politically were at best not worth taking for granted. I’m particularly bothered about this notion what is “natural” — as if our greatest need is to create a civilization that isn’t civilized. It sounds crazy, but that is what a lot of thinking comes down to. It is what libertarians think: we need the law of the jungle, but with everyone respecting each other’s rights. There’s a word for that: naive.

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