Editor’s note: UNC professor Jonathan Weiler, an INDY Voices columnist, headed to the soon-to-be-frozen tundra of Iowa this weekend to be the INDY’s official Iowa Caucuses Correspondent™. His second dispatch comes from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he and 3,000 other people crammed into a convention center to listen to Vampire Weekend (and a certain Vermont senator).
On Saturday night, I went to a political event and a concert broke out. Or was it a concert where a political event broke out? Hard to say. But the Grammy-winning group Vampire Weekend was on hand both to accompany Senator Bernie Sanders on stage and to play a concert after he finished speaking in front a young, raucous crowd of perhaps 3,000 people at a convention center in Cedar Rapids.
The event was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., and it was a full two hours later before Bernie appeared on stage. The crowd was treated to an opening musical act, followed by speeches from the filmmaker Michael Moore, campaign co-chair Nina Turner, several members of Congress including Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar (who received perhaps the biggest cheers of the night), and the scholar Cornel West. Making people wait two hours for the main event was a puzzle, but the prospect of an eventual Vampire Weekend concert (and Bernie himself) appeared to keep the young-skewing crowd in its seats.
The themes were familiar: America is captive to a greedy oligarchy, in which the vast majority of new wealth creation is accruing to a wealthy few at the expense of everyone else. Meanwhile, America is neglecting the planetary emergency that is climate change, in part because we are in hock to a fossil fuel industry intent on maintaining the status quo at the expense of our future survival.
In one way or another, each speaker returned to these themes over and over. The legendary Cornel West deserves a word or two. I’ve seen him speak numerous times over the years (and, of course, his writing is widely known). He’s an insanely gifted orator and, as per usual, ranged widely over the world of culture and politics to marshall support for his belief in the possibility and necessity of a moral and spiritual revolution. In just a few minutes, we heard about Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, John Coltrane, MLK (of course), Bruce Springsteen, Nina Simone, Helen Keller, and more, many of whom, West assured us, also counted themselves as democratic socialists.
When Bernie finally took the stage, after his wife, Jane, introduced him, he was in fine form. In contrast to Yang, Sanders began by saying that job one is to “defeat the most dangerous president int the modern history of this country.” He described Trump as a “pathological liar” sitting atop a corrupt administration with no regard for the rule of law and someone who lacks a basic understanding of the constitution.
“Enough is enough,” Bernie repeated.
He outlined the case for why he is the candidate best positioned to beat Trump, in part because he will mobilize unprecedented turnout. The surge in enthusiasm in Iowa is only the beginning, Sanders said, of a nationwide wave that will sweep him to victory and Trump from office.
Sanders rehashed his agenda once in office: Medicare for all (it’s a “disgrace,” he noted, that we are the only rich country in which health care is not a human right accessible to all), free tuition at public colleges and universities, and cancelation of all student debt. Sanders received a particularly eruptive cheer when he promised that on day one he would legalize marijuana and expunge the records of anyone with a marijuana-based offense.
Sanders also promised other major actions on day one before pausing to acknowledge that it would, indeed, be a busy first day. Perhaps his best applause line of the night came when he asked the crowd, “Are you ready for a radical proposition?” After much hooting and hollering in response, Sanders promised that the “Sanders administration will believe in science.” That was the prelude to his riff on climate change and the Green New Deal.
In a moment of candor, Sanders reminded the crowd that if turnout is high, they will win. But if it’s not, he said, “We will lose.” Sanders is betting his campaign on a risky proposition—that typically lower-turnout voters will show up in record numbers, both in Iowa and nationally.
Regardless of what might come next, the mild weather in Iowa these past few days is about to take a bitter turn, with temperatures dropping into the teens, accompanied by snow, tomorrow night. The impact of a weather forecast on the political forecast remains to be seen.
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