March Madness could just as easily describe the current presidential election cycle as it could the upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament. The anxiety, the excitement and the blind hope that your team is going to come out on top are as much a part of the political process these days as they are a sporting event. It is politics as spectacle – politics as entertainment. I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night as I awaited the results of the Democratic primaries in FL, MO, IL, OH and my home state of NC. Bernie Sanders is one of my idols, the one person dead or alive that I would get dinner with, and as such, over the last few weeks I have become wrapped up in the nail-biting-come-from-behind-underdog story of his campaign. You could hardly write a better script. Last night however, alone in my room in Germany, away from any crowds and watch parties, I was left to wrestle with my emotions as the results came in below my albeit extreme expectations of a Bernie blow-out. I was forced to avert my eyes from the spectacle, the wonderful narrative arcs, the unexpected wins and the heartbreaking losses, to accept the reality of the moment: Big wins for Bernie would have felt good, but creating real change isn’t about the feel good storyline. It’s about getting millions of people involved in the political process and demanding that their voices be heard.
This is not the first time I have fallen into consuming politics as entertainment. In 2008, I was 17 and missed voting by a couple of months, but like many people my age, the election of Barack Obama was a thing of magic. As a senior in high school, it was an incredible time in my life and the first time I was truly captivated by the political process. I will not soon forget the watch party my mother and her group G.A.S.P. (Girlfriends Against Sarah Palin) threw in Raleigh. There was live music, kegs and the amazing story of the young, charismatic Barack Obama taking the White House by storm. As I watched the US elect its first black president on the back of ideals of hope and change, it was impossible to not feel optimistic about the state of US politics. This time the spectacle’s storyline had ended well for me. My team had won and life as an Obama fan was easy.
Any feelings on Obama’s presidency aside, the 2008 election is what got me more interested and active in politickin’. In the last 8 years, I have voted in every election I could, marched on the NC State Capitol building and may have honestly never felt more angry than when NC elected Thom Tillis. The euphoria of Obama and the anger over Tillis become distinctly less sharp overtime, but while the emotions fade and we move on to the next exciting nerve-racking piece of entertainment, the political consequences are real. Where the show ends for the political fairweather fan, the work for the elected politician begins. We check out and wait to be spoon fed the next compelling storyline, when instead we should be organizing and making sure that next time around our voices are heard.
My senior year of University I took two courses that had an extreme impact on me. In one course on consumer culture I read the book “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” by John Lanchester. The book described in-depth the events of the 2008 financial crisis and the mechanisms that spurred it on. In the other course, on climate change, I had an irate professor show ‘conservative’ models of extreme US desertification over the next 50 years instead of conducting a proper exam review. My friends will remember that at the time I had both classes on Wednesday and that I would often end the day with a minor nervous breakdown. Since then I have managed to level out a bit, but ultimately what I learned in both classes created a schism between me and the mainstream political world. Whatever most politicians were debating paled in comparison to the looming threats of another global financial crisis and potential climate disaster. The political spectacle with all of its posturing and loudness seemed like a sham.
Needless to say, this year I was surprised to find myself once again wrapped up in the show, but when Bernie Sanders came around it felt was like he was speaking directly to me. How had I never heard of him? My favorite author Matt Taibbi was a huge fan and I quickly became engrossed. I was amazed too that his message was and continues to resonate with so many people. I donated to the campaign and up until moving to Germany at the end of 2015, I was volunteering in Charlotte. I imagine, because of the distance, I have become less invested in the results of the NC primary. All the same, the emotions feel heavy. Even after yesterday’s losses, I believe in Bernie and I can still imagine him as President. I often describe him to people as my hero and I mean that sincerely. The man has been fighting for what he believes in with little fanfare for over 40 years. Whether you agree with him or not that is something to behold.
The results of yesterday’s primaries did, however, bring at least a temporary halt to the spectacle – to Bernie’s cinderella story. It felt like watching Austin Rivers make that winning shot against UNC. It gave me that sinking feeling in my stomach that you get two thirds of the way through a film where things start to go south for the protagonist. But the separation of the spectacle from reality is necessary. Bernie’s campaign is not about giving the American people a story about a good old fashioned by the skin of his teeth win. It’s about giving real people a voice in an era of bought-and-sold politicians where regular voters have become more and more disenfranchised. It’s about reminding all of us that we don’t have to buy into a force fed narrative every four years, that we can actually elect a candidate that stands for what we believe in.
Win or lose, come May I am confident that Bernie will have already changed the face of American politics. He has instilled in me a new belief that the American experiment can be changed for the better. That things are not as hopeless as they sometimes seem. There are real problems facing the United States and the world and Bernie has shouldered many of them for the last 25 years when they were scarcely on other people’s radars. So keep your hope alive, but more importantly stay active. A change is going to come, but like Bernie says it’s not going to come from him, it’s going to come from us.