Weep the Revolution
The real story, of course, was the tears.
They came hard and fast, seemingly everywhere. Mostly from young women, obviously, but among many older women as well, and more than a few men. The words — Bernie’s words — were there all right, washing over these visual images of profound sorrow. In the cold light of morning, however, the words are so much background noise. The words are a Randy Newman score accompanying a sweeping panoramic shot of older, worn actors (Sissy Spacek perhaps, or a stony-faced Michelle Pfeiffer sans makeup and kept hair) witnessing the bankers’ bulldozers razing the family farmhouse circa 1934. The tears, on the other hand… The tears are a stream, a river, a vast sea of crushed dreams, the liquid equivalent of having your heart ripped out on live television by the single person you trusted to Fix Everything For Us.
Later, as the hall emptied, came the interviews.
There is the nose-ringed sprite from California whose face adopted a mask of stoic anger. So attached is she to the inevitability of the Revolution that she still seems convinced that when the balloons drop, they will by fate’s hand cascade around the white shock of bird’s nest that is Bernie Sanders’ crown. There is the young African-American woman who desperately wants to heed Bernie’s endorsement, but instead finds herself betwixt and between. Relationships, she reasons into the microphone shoved into her face, are a two way street and so “we’ll see” — opening the door just a crack to see if Hillary is willing to reach out to her. This morning, perhaps, she sits waiting for a call from the former Secretary, or maybe a Welcome to the Neighborhood basket. Even an invite to Hillary’s next open house party might cement things.
Finally there is the woman from Bernie’s own backyard of Vermont, a woman who is full in equal measures of youth and fury and righteousness and piss and vinegar. Her simmering declarations to the MSNBC reporter are as untethered from reality as her punches are from being pulled. They disrespected Bernie Sanders by putting him on last rather than first, she seethes. (She appears incredulously unaware that, as on the SXSW MainStage, in Conventionland being last is both an honor and promise of primetime viewership.) The young Berner sees too the obvious conspiracy of surrounding her beloved People’s Gladiator with in-the-bag-for-Hillary sycophants like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Keith Ellison, and Jeff Merkley. It’s a statement that gives pause to those of us at home, as we wonder how someone can be an Official Delegate of a candidate and yet still know exactly zero about said candidate’s actual campaign or endorsements. You can almost taste the MSNBC reporter’s repressed cringe as this young woman makes one ill-advised observation after another. Her entire interview is a hot, steaming mess.
I understand this young woman from Vermont, though. Just as I understand the African-American woman and the nose-ringed sprite from California. Just as I understand those that chanted “We Trusted You!” to a soft-spoken Sen. Warren. Just as I understand the scores of conventioneers standing silent, their maws duct-taped shut with black on blue admonitions of betrayal. Just as I understand the hundreds upon hundreds that stood listening in rapt adulation to their feisty champion, as the seemingly infinite reservoir of tears slipped down their faces to stain their Feel the Bern tee shirts.
There is something magical about being young and part of a Revolutionary political movement for the first time. It’s a heady, intoxicating cocktail of possibility, rectitude, and power. It’s that nerdy fantasy you’ve had since you first entered adolescence — the one where you take up the mantle of Greatness, handed down from those political heroes and artists who adorned your postered bedroom wall — and having that fantasy held out toward you by unseen hands, tantalizingly just out of grasp of your outstretched fingertips. It’s that diamond-hard faith you have in the notion that all of human history has been leading up to this one moment, the indubitableness that Father Time has been patiently awaiting you, your friends, and your new, perfect ideas, that he might finally retire from recording the Books of History. It is the soul-quenching rarity of filling your spirit with light, with life, with hope. It is, in short, the extraordinary and herculean miracle of being young and alive.
My personal Bernie Sanders was a middle-aged firebrand by the name of Jesse Jackson.
Jackson came to my college to speak during my freshman year, at a moment when I was desperately looking for some type of modern Che Guevara to rise from my red and black tee-shirt and lead us somewhere… different. Ronald Reagan appeared to have conquered all, and for a young far-lefty there was much of that conservative victory that stung: the signaling of war before peace, the newly minted Moral Majority, the proclamation from the Secretary of the Interior that he intended to ravage our national forests since, he was pretty sure, Jesus would be returning at any moment anyway and destroy everything not Raptured.
If you never had the pleasure of seeing Jesse Jackson speak to a crowd in his prime, then my-oh-my, trust me that you will never know what you missed. We say in these modern times that this person or that person is a great orator, but this is an error we make because there simply are no great orators left from which to compare. Jackson might well have been the last we’ll ever see. His speeches were fiery mixes of rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, philosophy, history lessons, and calls to action. Unlike everyone at this year’s conventions, Jackson knew how to speak in multiple volumes. In one moment his booming baritone would rail at the Gods from the mountaintops. In the next, his silky whisper would make the crowd lean in conspiratorially, as if Jesse was letting us — just us, just the thousand people gathered here today — in on a Secret of the Universe that every other corrupt politician would hide away from us as surely as Olympus did fire.
I was eighteen years old when I saw him speak for the first time. I never stood a chance.
Working on his campaign over the following year or so was nothing short of glorious. There was never a question in my or my colleagues’ hearts — never a single sliver of doubt — that Jesse Jackson would first be the Democratic nominee and then the President of these here United States, single-handedly overturning the Establishment’s apple carts of discord. Such was the electric spirit that flowed through us that we never once doubted that, short of the Crooked Establishment cheating Jesse, he could possibly ever come up short.
My memory of the 1984 Democratic Convention, thirty-two years later, is as crystal clear and as permanently lodged in my brain as is my wedding, the birth of my sons, or the death of my parents.
There was no Internet then, no cable news, no political talk radio. Everything that we knew as we sat in front of that RCA 14-inch black and white television was a scant mixture of a few New York Times op-eds and our own flawed, circular reasoning. There were only two reasonable possibilities as to what would happen, of that we were sure. Jackson would either contest and rightfully be handed the nomination he had been cheated from winning, or he would use his magnificent oratory skills to condemn the Establishment on live television and announce the birth of a new, shining Third Party of the People on the hill.
His enthusiastic endorsement of Walter Mondale was more than a shock; it was a fist to the gut.
Looking back, of course, I now know that the endorsement was always what was going to happen. That speaking on stage that night, armed with a greater degree of power and influence than he’d had a year prior, as he pledged his support for Mondale was always the true end goal. Just as, years from now, that young woman from Vermont will know that Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton was always going to happen. It’s a tough nut to swallow, but as with all Pandora’s boxes it comes with a blessing that she is still too close, too young, and too inexperienced to fully comprehend: It will not have been for nothing.
The simple truth is that by their very definition political “Revolutions” in democratic societies never really succeed. For good or ill, the will of the mainstream always prevails in the long run. Worse, those who run the Revolutions from above are well aware of this truth, even as they coax their faithful to believe otherwise. Revolutions in Democracies are built to lose. The only question going in is whether they lose quietly or spectacularly. Still, it’s a very important question.
Because what a Revolution can do is influence the mainstream. A Revolution can take its great and bold ideas and push them deep into the mainstream’s consciousness. Revolutions can, if they are lucky, become mainstream. Thus does Jesse Jackson’s plea to include gays and lesbians in the great “quilt” of liberalism eventually become this “thing that I think we’ve always done.” This does William Buckley’s quiet, sly poking eventually become the seeds for Reagan’s Morning in America. Thus does Annie Arniel’s Quixotic political dream of suffrage lead not to just the 19th Amendment, but to a society where its repeal is all but unthinkable. Thus does Ross Perot, a funny little man most of America mocks, manage to transform the non-issue of the federal deficit into a campaign stump-speech staple.
Which, to a Revolutionary spirit, can admittedly be a somewhat depressing thing. Part of the great pleasure of being counterculture, after all, is… well, being counter culture. A Che Guevara tee-shirt in a capitalist, consumer-driven society is a sexy uniform of the cool class. In a socialist-in-power society, however, it’s as lame as a shirt advertising the delicious, refreshing taste of Coca-Cola. Most of us who have taken part in a political Revolution, if we are being truly honest with ourselves, were inspired by the Revolution itself. A post-victory world? Not so much. Yeah, Bernie’s agenda being adopted into the party platform is nice and all, but that’s not really why we all came to the party. I know this, because I have been there.
And so I do indeed feel for those who so unabashedly shed tears last night. In a way, they are me. Or at least they are a younger, purer, more unscathed version of me. I was not part of their Revolution and I do not stand with them now. But make no mistake: I am of them.
And were I a ghost, I’d have spent all of last night spiriting about the Convention Hall, from teary face to teary face, whispering softly into ears.
“Despair not,” my specter would insist. “This isn’t over. Never forget how this pain feels, right now, in this moment; carry it with you for the battles ahead.”
“But above all, be proud and stand tall. Because even though you can’t see it yet, by every indication you’ve won the day.”
[Image: Screen shot from YouTube video.]