The crowd outside is thundering. I peek through the curtain and 27,000 people are engulfed in mania, chanting Bernie Sanders’ name, waving homemade posters, and appealing for change. I catch the eye of a student who looks like the 18-year-old me, his eyes bright and his heart afire. The scene rings of hope and optimism. It screams youth.
Maybe it was because I skated or listened to weird music – or maybe because my skin was tawny and I was a middle child – but I always identified with the underdog. Attending black panther rallies in high school, animal activist marches, eventually applying to law school and signing up for the NLG. When Obama entered the picture nearly a decade ago, he offered a new ray of promise: Someone to bridge the generation gap, the racial divide, and maybe most of all, traverse political ignorance.
President Barack is one of the greatest to ever do it, but it can be argued that the very commitment he rode in on eventually dissipated with tenure. Obama’s campaign was perhaps the most remarkable. He captured the imagination of young people nationwide, galvanized them into the process, and converted an unfathomable generation to political familiarity. His time during office, however, speaks otherwise. Those raised fists and ardent cries eventually closed and hardened in the face of joblessness, crushing college debt, and voter apathy. The dream wasn’t lost. More disappointing, we saw through the reverie.
It’s 2015 and the race for presidency is underfoot. While the Republicans weather polarity, riven between a circus of candidates and a media corporation that can’t decide between exploitative ratings and journalistic integrity, the Dems have their own storyline playing out on the Left.
With all eyes on Trump, many liberals have felt secure with former First Lady Hillary Clinton bearing their flag. The Clinton name beckons fond memories of a pre-9/11 state. Plus, the idea of a female President is warming. As I embark on my own exploration of the process, last week I was invited to greet and listen to Hillary address a small audience of 200 guests in Scooter Braun’s backyard. Wine glasses clinked and lush dresses swayed in the evening as celebrities caroused on lawn furniture. Free popcorn. Tom Hanks. Nosy helicopters buzzing overhead.
By the time Hillary had extracted herself from the Kim/Kanye selfie, the crowd was anxious and ready. They wanted to meet the next President of the United States. Hillary introduced herself as a new grandmother and from that point forward, most every issue (especially her Four Fights) tethered back to family, her granddaughter, and the nation’s future. I mean, this was pretty sharp, considering most in the crowd were young parents. Early Childhood Education was paramount. 80% of our brains are developed before the age of three and the government should accommodate preschool and pre-Kindergarten enrichment. Next, restoring value in hard work. Corporations are responsible to the workers (and will be rewarded for being so). Meanwhile, employees are incentivized to work harder – for starters, a higher minimum wage.
Hillary, to me – well, to many – has always felt icy. While Bill has played the rabble-rousing, saxophone-tootin’ Animaniac, Hillary often gets painted as the crabby neighbor scolding you to slow down, “This is a neighborhood!” Although I believed every ounce of her promise to install half-a-billion solar panels by the end of her first term (and the reclamation of American leadership), I still found it hard to penetrate the mechanical professionalism. Hillary is a damn good politician and a stalwart leader. This woman means business. She is plagued, however, with a marketing and branding issue – the modern, Instagram equivalent to what Nixon underwent with a televised 5 o’clock shadow. There’s nothing viral about Hillary Clinton. She speaks in mesmerizing, delineated speeches, not ReTweetable sound bites. The social media generation is not the info-hungry Internet generation. Today, young people thrive on emotionality, urgency, and a call to action. If Hillary wants to capture their minds, she must also win their hearts.
The next day, I get a call from my friend Mark Sperling. He asks me if I’m attending Bernie Sanders’ rally at the LA Sports Arena on Monday night. You know, Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. The one who fought segregation in the ’60s, for gay marriage in the ’80s, stood against the Iraq War and decentralized banking, which prompted the recession. You know, the other guy who quietly entered the race on the Democrats’ side a mere 4 months back and has since, lassoed the spotlight – even if the mainstream media refuses to showcase the anti-corporate, self-described democratic socialist, longest-serving independent in congressional history (who needs the media when you have social media?). Talk about a marketing problem. Silvery, agitated, and more of an impassioned uncle than a Shepard Fairey stencil, Senator Sanders is not what America would typically cast in the starring role (His name is BERNIE).
As Hillary makes the rounds amongst the elite, Bernie’s swept the floor. And over the last week, the pendulum has swung with consecutive record-shattering turnouts, all leading up to Sanders’ big splash in Los Angeles. I don’t know how this has happened, but Luis Calderin, the guy who manages the senator’s youth and culture vote, invites me to join a pre-rally meeting with Bernie. I assume it’s a larger gathering, maybe I’ll get to ask a question if I’m lucky…
It’s 5pm and the lines are snaked around the block. I park in a private lot behind the building and am escorted down a driveway to a dim locker room backstage at the Sports Arena. I walk in and realize it’s just me, Sarah Silverman, a couple folding tables, and the drummer for The Doors, John Densmore.
Wil Wheaton (Stand by Me) and Luis Calderin
Sarah Silverman and Mark Sperling
The room slowly fills with a few more people (Wil Wheaton is here?). I meet the small team that’s Bernie’s campaign staff, a motley crew of post-Obama campaigners and trusted friends from Vermont. With one guy, I talk about how late they were up preparing. Punk rock with another. It dawns on me that if Senator Bernie Sanders is elected President, this inner circle will continue on to run the White House. Luis used to drive marketing for Burton, and in a short few months, he’s changing the course of American history. How about that?
Bernie enters. No hullabaloo. No ballyhoo. He circles the room, shakes hands with the fifteen of us, takes the head seat and gets down to business. His hair is mussed, his shirt too big. His wife of 27 years, Jane, is cheerful and poised, homespun and hearty. It’s the yin to Bernie’s growl and glare. He rolls up his sleeves. There’s a lot of work to do.
Bernie seeks help. He needs advice. He wants to talk about how better to amplify his message. There’s momentum, yes, but how do we amplify? He asks us, because we’re “the creative ones.” Hands shoot up. Everyone fans out their ideas. There’s a lot of talk about social media influencers and fastening onto large Twitter followings. I totally disagree. You already know, I can’t stand this Marketing blather. “Social media is NOT the answer, Senator,” I profess, “It’s a tool. You’re the artisan. Your strength is your truthfulness.” He entertains me. “Social media is about Accessibility. Bernie Sanders is about Authenticity.” It’s not just about social media scores, it’s about educating, informing, and equipping the youth. That’s how you move people. That’s how you move forward.
He’s so earnest and coarse, that it’s hard not to believe every word he’s saying. Far from an oiled politician, he’s more the cantankerous firebrand that’s unaware of his age (or how he looks!). It’s refreshing to see how raw a politician can be. The Senator’s got more zeal than the thousands of college kids stomping their feet outside. I feel like even if he wasn’t running, he’d lock himself in the basement, trying fervently to change the world like a mad scientist.
There’s so much I can’t talk about (SORRY)(BTW, for over an hour, none of this is being recorded or documented). At some point, I press him on the broken college system. If a young person even gets in, they’re bagged with a lifetime of debt. Then, no jobs. We talk for an hour and the Senator rakes through our ideas over and over again. He exhausts our resources. When he feels like he’s done, he pushes back from the table and says, “Now, I need to write my speech.” We laugh, because he’s going on in 30 minutes. I don’t think he was entirely kidding. And this is why.
We’re taken to our seats. It seems like the entire world is here. The corridors are three layers deep of standing-room-only. This is the biggest concert I’ve ever been to and certainly the loudest. After a few guest speakers, Senator Bernie Sanders holds court. He hunches and grips the podium like he’s steering a massive ship. His voice is hoarse and exposed, he is almost lecturing – but not his audience – his opponents. The undulating crowd erupts and crashes together in waves. Everyone is here for a reason, everyone is searching for an answer. Bernie Sanders reaches out and connects. It’s religious.
And then, Bernie Sanders starts talking about truth. Luis taps my shoulder, “This part is new. He’s never said this before. That’s all you.” I look up at the screen and the Senator is addressing the importance of authenticity to 27,500 people. I can’t believe it. Later, he dives into his fight for free college tuition, for young people and jobs. Luis and I are laughing. This is truly insane.
You know what’s most unbelievable of all? Kids aren’t glued to their phones. Nobody’s Snapchatting the night away. In fact, the only people I see firing off selfies in the arena are middle-aged women fascinated with their Facebook comments. This is our nation’s future, the ones who’ve been labeled entitled, lazy, and social media drunk. They’re on the frontlines tonight, defining who will next lead this country, while their parents are drowning out their night with The Bachelor.
Believe it or not, I still don’t know who I’m voting for. But man, I like this dude Bernie Sanders. Hillary is a powerful and experienced leader though, and we need that. I mean, I’m down to go to some Republican rallies if anyone wants to join (totally serious). Isn’t this the point? We have 18 months to figure this out for ourselves. Conservative or Liberal, Red or Blue, politically agnostic or extremist, Do the research, learn the issues, and plant your flag. Voting is a privilege, not a right (some candidates are trying to make that devastatingly clear).