On a September morning in Rockefeller Chapel, raucous, triumphant cheers echoed through the hall as Bernie Sander’s speech came to a close. The audience replied with a fervent standing ovation. A young man in the front row held up a colorful portrait of the speaker. Someone in the back shouted, “We love you, Bernie!”
After Bernie Sanders’ rousing speech, a few questions from the audience were permitted. Perhaps the most important question came from a student of the College who asked how Mr. Sanders hoped to execute the ambitious policy proposals he had just spoken about at length. This question reflects not only the sentiments of many Democrats at Chicago, but those of many Democrats across the nation, who are frustrated with Hillary’s hesitant rhetoric and Bernie’s melodramatic rhetoric.
Now, after the first Democratic debate, I can’t help but wonder to what extent, if at all, the debate has ameliorated Mr. Sanders’ electability issue. However, the debate has certainly done two things for Mr. Sanders: it has increased his popularity even further, yet it has revealed that he is still vague on how he hopes to implement his policies. Because these trends appear to cancel one another, the question has to be asked: What has Mr. Sanders really gained from his appearance at the first democratic debate?
First, the question of his popularity. According to the Washington Post, which examined the effect of the debate on the candidates’ popularity in terms of Google searches and tweets, Bernie Sanders is far in the lead. Mr. Sanders was searched on Google at almost twice the rate of the second-most popular candidate, Jim Webb (who arguably only gained popularity because of his pleas for more time). Furthermore, 56% of Twitter mentions featured Mr. Sanders, whereas only 44% featured Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Sanders debate presence was successful, defending himself adequately from Mrs. Clinton’s charges while calling attention to his own unique policies. As a result, not only do more people know the name “Bernie Sanders”—more people are aware of the issues he cares about (that is, if we are to accept that more Google searches and tweets correlate to increased popularity). The Washington Post subsequently declared Bernie Sanders a winner of the Democratic Debate alongside Mrs. Clinton (and Denmark, which was mentioned favorably several times in the first half hour of the debate).
But what exactly will Bernie Sanders gain by being crowned the unofficial winner of the Democratic Debate? Does this declaration make him any more electable? More people may know his name, but still more people know Mrs. Clinton’s name.
Furthermore, increased popularity for Mr. Sanders does not necessarily translate into increased support for him: even after the debate, college students (and voters in general) have unanswered questions about how Sanders would actually bring about the enormous change t he promises for the country, especially in what is likely to be a Republican-controlled Congress. . His lack of a clear answer, both leading up to and during the debate, has unsurprisingly produced a feeling of uncertainty among voters. His best attempt during the debate: “I believe that . . . the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together.”
During a podcast interview with David Axelrod, Director of the Institute of Politics, Mr. Sanders provided a similar explanation—and also took the time to criticize President Obama for failing to create such a revolution.. Mr. Sanders stated, “I don’t have any illusion that I’m going to walk [into Congress] and . . . say, ‘Hey guys, listen, I’d like you to work with me.’ Ain’t gonna happen. I have no illusion about that. The only way that I believe that change takes place is when . . . tens of millions of people are gonna have to stand up and be involved in the political process the day after the election, not just the day before the election. What Obama did . . . was run a brilliant campaign, but I think that campaign has to be maintained in an unprecedented way . . . I can’t do it alone.”
But we as voters are understandably unsure of the advent of this “political revolution.” According to Mr. Sanders, to vote for him is to have faith in the “tens of millions of people” who he says will stand by him. This dedication and faith may be unwarranted. I am already feeling the immense excitement I’ve had for Bernie Sanders over the past few months begin to trickle away. This is in large part from hearing the same lines over and over again from Mr. Sanders, which, at least to me, become less and less inspiring each time—especially when they aren’t followed with a specific plan of action. And for those who are still excited about the Sanders campaign, it’s worth keeping in mind that there is still another year before the election. Can the excitement for Mr. Sanders increase any further (remember, he needs “tens of millions of people”)? Can it even remain steady?”) It is worth asking if excitement for Mr. Sanders can increase (remember, he needs “tens of millions of people”), let alone remain steady.
In addition, we should ask how momentum for Mr. Sanders will fare in the face of Mrs. Clinton’s outstanding performance at the first debate. While Mr. Sanders did a satisfactory job on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton truly shone on stage. She managed to espouse a number of Mr. Sanders’ most prominent positions, including standing up to Wall Street. She criticized Mr. Sanders for not being tough enough on guns. She questioned Mr. Sanders’ logic that the United States should try to resemble Scandinavian countries with higher qualities of life (“We are not Denmark… We are the United States”). And she even managed to redeem her public image through Mr. Sanders’ support (“I think [Mrs. Clinton] is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [her] damn emails”). If Mrs. Clinton can continue performing this well, then support and momentum for her campaign is likely to rise—at Mr. Sanders’ expense.
Mr. Sanders’ “political revolution” is also a tough sell to Democrats when the stakes include a radical Republican in the Oval Office spewing appalling rhetoric and building Great Walls along our borders. So should Democrats simply bank on high voter turnout both before and after the election, as Mr. Sanders does, to get Mr. Sanders elected and to pass his policies while he is in office? Shouldn’t we expect the same low turnout among Democrats as in recent years? Can 2016 really be as different as Mr. Sanders claims it can? As supporters of Bernie Sanders, are we just being wildly optimistic? Is it a fantasy that we would all just like to take comfort in believing in, that we have been unashamedly basking in since the rise of Mr. Sanders’ popularity?
Back during the debate, when Anderson Cooper asked Mr. Sanders to clarify on the term “political revolution,” he replied, “What I mean is that we need to have one of the largest voter turnouts in the world, not one of the lowest. We need to raise public consciousness.” Immediately following this, then-fellow candidate Jim Webb neatly summed up what may very well be the reality of the situation: “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come.”
The image featured in this article was taken by Michael Vadon. The original image can be found here.