When some 4,500 people venture out to a conservative New Orleans suburb on a sweltering Sunday night to cheer on a self-described socialist, it’s safe to say that something’s going on here.
Bernie Sanders, the New York born, 73-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont, has emerged as a populist sensation on the Democratic presidential campaign trail, and has drawn similarly large and fired-up crowds at events across the country. Sunday’s rally at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner answered one lingering question about his candidacy: It showed that Sanders’ message, almost singularly focused on growing financial inequality, resonates even in the country’s reddest corners, at least among some people.
As many in the pumped-up audience gleefully noted, it also served as an implicit rebuke to a home-grown presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who kicked off his own campaign for the GOP nomination last month at the same venue. Although Jindal once represented the area in Congress and even lived nearby, his event, held on a weekday afternoon, took place in a smaller room and drew about 1,000 supporters.
But that was just lagniappe for this crowd.
Sanders’ nearly hourlong speech was really a rebuke not just to Republicans but to fellow Democrats who haven’t gone as far as he proposes to tackle “grotesque,” “immoral,” “unsustainable” and “un-American” levels of income inequality.
In a way, you could compare Sanders’ popularity to the rise of Donald Trump on the Republican side (hear me out). Both are connecting with the base’s anger and sense that party elders are not listening to them. And both are clearly making their respective establishments nervous.
In fact, while it’s possible that I missed someone, I didn’t spot one local Democratic politician in the large crowd. (Sanders did speak at a Louisiana Democratic Party fundraiser the night before, where organizers also played video greetings from Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, and state party chair Karen Carter Peterson retweeted some of the policy pronouncements from his Sunday speech).
Yet unlike the clownishly unpredictable Trump, Sanders is a serious player, and he stays relentlessly on message. His speech connected to the crowd not because it featured soaring, Obama-style lyricism but because it was so unapologetically blunt.
Sanders called for nothing short of a “political revolution” that would refocus government on workers. Some of his proposals are pretty mainstream, such as his support for a higher hourly minimum wage — $15 is his goal, more than double the current $7.25, which he called a “starvation wage” — as well as paid maternity and sick leave, just like other industrialized countries offer, and pay equity for women. On a more systemic level, Sanders also pushed for more regulations on big banks, declared that “too big to fail” equals “too big to exist,” and vowed to only appoint Supreme Court Justices who would overturn the Citizens United decision that allows the sort of unlimited political contributions that, he said, have turned American politics from a democracy to an “oligarchy.”
Some are more out there, such as free tuition for public colleges and public financing of political campaigns. All, though, address his underlying assertion that the system is rigged in favor of big-money interests and against regular people. At one point he issued a flat-out warning to “billionaires.” “You cannot have it all,” he said.
His message actually echoes a popular strand of conservative economic populism, although the policy prescriptions widely diverge. Party leaders on both sides are listening, and trying to keep up. Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic favorite, has certainly focused more explicitly on inequality since Sanders emerged as a force.
It’s worth noting that the rally didn’t draw a cross-section of Democratic voters. Sanders’ audience Sunday night was largely but not exclusively white. In Louisiana, some 31 percent of voters are African-American, and they overwhelming vote Democratic. You could certainly still argue that he’s a niche candidate.
One thing was clear after Sunday night, though. This niche is a sizable, committed and noisy one. It’s no wonder that Sanders has gotten everyone’s attention.