Courtesy Mark Trahant
Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally in Billings, Montana.

Bernie Sanders Brings Out the Crowds, What About Voters?

Mark Trahant

TRAHANT REPORTS—The Bernie Sanders campaign is all that is advertised: A rally that starts with the long lines of citizens who want to be there. Then, the Sanders message about a political revolution to restore the voice of the people in their government. There is also a protocol for Indian country that is now a part of the campaign’s fabric. Tribal leaders, representing every tribe in Montana, had a private meeting with the candidate to talk issues.

No matter who you want to be the next president, this is the way it ought to be done.

Well, at least on the part of the candidate.

But we have major problem with how this country conducts elections. (Previous: How does a country with a rigged, two-party system, reinvent itself as a multi-party democracy?)

Sanders himself pointed this out in a couple of different ways. First, his regular stump speech about the Citizens United case that opened up unlimited corporate spending in politics. And, how the Democratic Party favored Hillary Clinton before the voters had a chance to weigh in. “That’s not democracy,” Sanders said. “That’s the establishment defending its own interests.”

Mark Trahant

He promised “a long discussion” with many of the so-called “super delegates” after the primary season is over. Sanders’ plan is simple: Sweep the remaining states by large enough numbers to go into a convention with a lead in pledged delegates and then convert super delegates to his cause. Sanders said he and Clinton agree on one thing, that it would be a “disaster for this country for Donald Trump to become president.” So his pitch to those super delegates is direct: Every poll shows him doing better against Donald Trump than Secretary Clinton.

That may be. But, as Sanders himself said, even winning by a sweep in the states ahead is an uphill climb. Remember the Democratic Party awards delegates on a proportional basis.

Sanders pointed out that young people are among his greatest supporters. “What does that mean?” he asked, followed by this answer. “It means that our vision, a vision of economic justice, of social justice, of racial justice, of environmental justice. That is the vision for the future of our country.”

I was struck by that phrase in particular. “That is the vision” because it is not a shared one. Not more than a couple of miles from where Sanders was speaking, there is a railroad track lined with cars full of coal headed for export. While most of us want economic and environmental justice to fuse into a national plan, people outside of this meeting room are hoping to hang on to their jobs created and supported by the extraction of coal or gas. (This was especially reflected in West Virginia where a third of Democratic primary voters said they would support Trump in November.)

“That is the vision” must also include democratic reforms that go far beyond Citizens United. Yes, it’s a problem when Super Delegates have more say than other voters. But we also should be talking about why small states, such as Vermont, have a greater say in the election’s outcome than larger states. We also should be talking about making sure that tribes, as Constitutional governments, have real representation.

Sanders said he would like to make the kind of election reforms happen so that the United States has one of the highest voting participations instead of one of the lowest. In this primary only one state so far, New Hampshire, has had more than 50 percent participation by eligible voters. And in Hawaii, a caucus state, less than 5 percent of eligible voters participated. Add up the numbers and voter turnout in the Democratic primary has been just under 12 percent – and that’s the highest since 1992, but far less than 2008 when nearly 20 percent of Democrats voted. (Republicans are doing better in this metric: More than 17 percent have weighed in.)

There is no question that Bernie Sanders draws extraordinary crowds. But describing this as a revolution falls short when you examine how few people actually vote. The question is not “will Sanders be able to pull off an upset?” It should be what can we learn from his huge crowds … and how do we convert them into active, engaged citizens who act and vote? This problem of democracy, and its failure, is bigger than this election.

This is particularly true for Indian country. We need voters to turnout in high numbers. We need to defy expectations. That’s how democratic reform starts.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On @TrahantReports" target="_blank">Twitter @TrahantReports.

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