Rochester—The crowd that showed up to hear Bernie Sanders on Monday morning was the biggest the local hockey rink’s manager, Kim Davis, had ever seen. Some arrived the night before, camping out in the snow on lawn chairs to secure a place in line. By 6 am—four hours before Sanders was scheduled to appear—all the rink parking lots were full. When Hillary Clinton came through last Friday the local cable channel reported that “hundreds packed into the gym” for her speech. Three days later Sanders drew over 6,000.
Jeff Lofton was one of them. A young African American who’d just come off his shift at Walmart—“I had to stop at home to drop off my box cutter”—he works a second job at a nursing home to make ends meet. “I wanted to go see Trump, too. But I had to work,” he said. “I want to see things for myself before I make up my mind.”
By the time Sanders reached the point in his stump speech where he talks about how “people are exhausted. Tired of working 50 to 60 hours a week,” and reminds the crowd that 100 years ago the labor movement in the US began with the demand for a 40-hour work week—“And we’re still fighting for a 40-hour week!”—Loftus was nodding along. And when Sanders, who has sharpened, and personalized, his attacks on what he calls “the billionaire class,” called out the Walton family, who own Walmart, for paying their workforce so badly many are forced to rely on food stamps and Medicaid, demanding they “Get off of welfare and pay your workers a living wage,” he was pumping his fist in the air with the rest of the crowd.
Although Sanders criticized Clinton for accepting money from Wall Street—and pointed out that Goldman Sachs, the bank that paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for three speeches, had just the day before agreed to pay a $5 billion settlement for defrauding investors—never mentioned the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Alice Walton has donated to Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC. Instead, as he did in Buffalo the night before, Sanders gave the crowd a brief tutorial on the issues involved in the Verizon strike—which saw 36,000 workers walk off their jobs this morning—connecting their fight with the history of the labor movement. And as he does in every stump speech now, he followed that with an invocation of the civil-rights movement, “when brave people stood up together and decided to fight back against hundreds of years of racism.” Then he moved on to “the feminist movement, when millions of women stood up together,” adding, as he always does, “and I know every man in this room is going to stand with the women in their fight for pay equity.” Then, when the cheers died down, he reminded the crowd of the victories achieved by “the gay rights movement, who stood up, with their straight allies, to demand the right for people to love one another regardless of gender.”
On paper this may sound like mere genuflection, or virtue-signaling. But in the room it felt more like a revival—of a peculiarly, determinedly secular kind perhaps, but with the same mobilizing effect on its audience as any tent meeting. It made visible their own power—in this case the power to change, not themselves but society. By invoking radical history, Sanders is summoning up radical hope. “The American dream is that parents work hard so their kids can do better,” he tells his audiences, pledging “we will not allow the American dream to die.”