As a persona, Bernie Sanders is a stock character drawn directly from the agitprop literature of the ’40s and ’50s: He’s that frumpy, tweedy Marxist firebrand who leans on the podium with a finger perpetually raised, haranguing us about the evils of monopoly capitalism and political cronyism. As a standard-issue New Deal democrat in an Orwellian age, Sanders’ royal “We (the People)” is, ironically enough, a distinctly working-class entity, which is the only reason his message seems revolutionary right here, right now.
When Bernie Sanders, the person and the politician, showed up rather suddenly in Springfield last week, he was greeted with a devotional fervor that both amplified and muted the realpolitik of his message. The collective romance among Bernie supporters paints him as the late-coming savior — a crusading Magoo-Christ whose cantankerous grandfatherly growl is a welcome respite from the typical dinner table bullshit. This allure is inextricable from his populist appeal, as revealed by the preponderance of young bohos hollering when the 74-year-old candidate stumped for the federal rescheduling of marijuana (a decibel-bursting response that far exceeded the cheers for campaign finance reform or breaking up the banks … ah, Oregon …).
But is the real meat of Sanders’ message being overshadowed by the inflation of his celebrity? Maybe, maybe not. The person who smiled least at the Springfield rally was Sanders himself, who — beneath the bullet points of his campaign, which include wealth inequality, rampant student debt and, graciously, the disenfranchisement of the Native American community, a humanitarian cause with almost zero political capital — continues to harp on the participatory rigors of representative democracy. In an era when U.S. citizens seem to have forgotten that we, quite literally, are the government, the deepest truth about the Sanders campaign might be that this isn’t about Sanders at all.
Sanders is canny in his simplicity, which includes a staid and humorless (though hardly un-witty) delivery that mimics the apostolic reversals of the Sermon on the Mount. In this sense, then, Sanders is indeed Christ-like, if by that we mean given to a justice in which the last shall come first, the first last. When he stopped after the rally at Kesey Square to shake hands with the hoi polloi, he finally cracked a big smile — the smile of an old man who remains slightly abashed by the fever of his reception.