Bernie Sanders’s first rally of his presidential run featured something that no other Democratic candidate can borrow, imitate, or adopt. It wasn’t a unique policy or a left-wing talking point: It was his own story.
The location of the Saturday rally, and the one that followed on Sunday, was meant to draw attention to Sanders’s personal history. The first took place at Brooklyn College, where he first went to college, not far from the “three-and-a-half-room apartment” he grew up in on King’s Highway. The second rally was in Chicago, the city where, as a transfer student at the University of Chicago, Sanders started his over 50 years of left-wing rabble-rousing as an activist protesting housing and school desegregation.
“I know where I came from. That is something I will never forget,” he said.
Sanders’s speech bore his now-familiar litany of policies and adversaries: the “starvation wages” paid by Walmart and fast-food companies, the Titanic wealth of the Walton family, or the minuscule tax bills paid by Amazon and General Motors. But Sanders—who once told The New York Times Magazine, “I do not like personality profiles”—also presented himself as more than a vessel for progressive policy ideas. Now that Cory Booker, who previously criticized the Obama reelection campaign for talking too harshly about Bain Capital, has co-sponsored Sanders’s Medicare for All bill and supports a jobs guarantee, Sanders might have felt the need to show that he’s more than his ideas.
“Coming from a lower-middle-class family, I will never forget how money or, really, lack of money was always a point of stress in our family,” Sanders said. “My experience as a child growing up in a family that struggled economically powerfully influenced my values,” he went on, describing growing up the son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant paint salesman who lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust.
“Unlike Donald Trump, who shut down the government and left 800,000 federal employees without income to pay their bills, I know what it’s like to be in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck,” Sanders said. “I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to buy luxury skyscrapers, casinos, and country clubs. I did not come from a family that gave me a $200,000 allowance every year beginning at the age of 3. As I recall, my allowance was 25 cents a week.”
The near-freezing rally at Brooklyn College was attended by a diverse, mostly young group of supporters that included stroller-rolling parents, Supreme-wearing twentysomethings, a woman wearing the “Bernie” sweater made famous by actress and model Emily Ratajkowski, along with older union members and Brooklyn College staff. Dozens of volunteers, hopping and moving to stay arm, ushered and guided the crowds in the campus’s snow-covered quad.
It was nothing like Sanders’s 2015 announcement—largely made to reporters outside the Capitol that spring—that kicked off his last presidential run. The subsequent mobilization of resources and people by Sanders both as a candidate and a roaming progressive activist in less than four years was a manifest demonstration of precisely why many Democrats have veered to the left in order to head off his campaign.
Those core supporters don’t care so much about Sanders’s biography, which suggests that the biographical turn is an effort to win over voters who saw him as a spoiler. Nearly everyone I spoke to identified either income inequality or health care as the issues that were pushing them to support Sanders from the start, and seemed at best unimpressed by other candidates’ taking on similar policies (although several expressed a fondness for Elizabeth Warren).
“Bernie has been more consistent,” said Zach Eisen, a videographer and Democratic Socialists of America member from Queens. “He’s shifted the paradigm.”
While admitting that there was an “emotional tug” from their shared Brooklyn roots, Liz Dorval, a social-media coordinator from Bensonhurst, said that Sanders’s history “fundamentally didn’t matter,” and that his focus on stagnant wages and high student debt “resonates with me.”
Lynn Cole-Walker, an adjunct at New York City College of Technology, said she supports Sanders because “this country has got to change” and “this is our last chance.” The challenges of income inequality and climate change were “both equal in my mind.”
Andrea Nandoo a 24-year-old marketing analyst who also sees single-payer health care as one of her core issues, said she liked Warren as well, but said Sanders was “more genuine” and that she doubted how committed Kamala Harris was to single payer.
In 2016 and still today, Sanders’s most passionate supporters, especially online, often insist that their affection for Sanders was solely the result of his policy positions. This reluctance to tackle awkward questions about representation and historical firsts—was it more important to have a socialist, or a centrist woman?—engendered a lasting bitterness from the 2016 Democratic primary that persists today.
Some supporters at the Brooklyn rally said they were still bruised by 2016. Cole-Walker said it was “completely unfair” and “totally rigged,” while Ernie Searle, a 67-year-old parking attendant at Citi Field in Queens with a handlebar mustache and a history of left-wing activism dating back to 1959, said that the primary process so disgusted him that he even registered as a Republican to protest the Democratic National Committee and that he “regretted” voting for Clinton in the general election.
Like anything Sanders does, the rally quickly became a flashpoint online between his supporters and Clinton loyalists who have transitioned into all-purpose critics of the senator. When a reporter from HuffPost posted a video of a multiracial but largely white reggae band playing before the speeches began, it was gleefully spread by Sanders critics who saw it as an encapsulation of his supposedly race-ignorant “brocialist” politics. A former Clinton campaign spokesperson said—incorrectly—on MSNBC that Sanders took 23 minutes into his speech to mention race or gender.
“I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination, I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation, and one of the proudest days of my life was attending the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Sanders.
While the personal history he put forth was essentially a potted narrative that skipped over 50-plus years of Sanders’s life in snow-white Vermont—including his entire time in elected office—it still offered something important to voters who didn’t show up for a rally 11 months before the Iowa caucuses: It told a story.
Unlike Obama, Sanders can’t easily weave his personal history into a narrative about the progressive development of the country. He can’t do what Clinton did, either, and embody the aspirations of a historically marginalized group that’s been excluded from power at the highest levels. In fact, Sanders projects reluctance; he can’t shake his lived-in crankiness even when talking about the parts of his life that would be appealing to Democratic voters who don’t identify as democratic socialists.
Still, adopting a more traditional campaigning style is more than a strategic choice to help win one election. It’s part of a long journey over more than 40 years, from a third-party gadfly to holding elected office as a socialist to serving alongside and working within the Democratic Party. Sanders knows where he comes from; he also knows it could pave his way to the White House.