My 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:
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 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.