Behind the empty podium on stage, there are rows and rows of black, white and brown kids seated neatly on folding chairs 10 across and six deep, a small army. They’re quiet, eerily so, young Democrats drawn from across this part of the state to give the event its full gravitas. In front of the podium there are 300 or so audience on folding chairs and a hundred or so in the bleachers. About a quarter black, three-quarters white, and everyone seems to know each other. “Watchew doing here?” “Oh, we just came to see, just come to see.” “Frank’s down there, Judy too.” “Oh I see him.” “He’s got his Trump badge on!” “Oh, I hope he ain’t going to make trouble.”

Hundred or so in the bleachers, 500 in all is not a bad rock-out, not a great one either, for Bernie Sanders’ first appearance in the south. The Florence Civic Centre, some ’70s breeze block hall, looms a little cavernous with all that empty space. They wouldn’t have booked it unless they thought they could half-fill it, I thought, looking around at the rows and rows of empty seats, people being gently herded forward by the marshals. They would have got a big restaurant or similar so it looked crowded, stuffed to the gills. There’s the feeling you don’t want in leftish sort of circles, the feeling of the draughty church hall. Every time you see Trump on TV, it’s like he’s addressing some sort of riotous party in progress. Here there is the sense of duty, duty, duty. Do we ever get away from it? Seems unfair.

The thought is interrupted by the music cutting out — cool, good stuff, I have no idea what it is, it worries me that I only know the Republicans’ tunes — and Cornel West comes onto stage. Ooooh, good move. Someone to introduce this most un-southern of men in the only state with a majority black population. There are cheers, but not huge cheers, with the distinct feeling that not everyone knows who he is. West is in his usual all-black suit, hair less wild and springy than usual, jive walks on, to Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World, like a Crumb cartoon in motion.

“South Carolina! Are you ready to get on the looooove train!”

Oh yes, Cornel, we’re yours already. Take us on the love train. “I have known brother Bernie as a friend for many decades, and he is a man of integrity, passionate for justice.” Sorry ‘”passionyanayate for justiyice!”. It’s a measure of the fractured politics of America that this sort of introduction-cum-character reference for a northern white guy has to be done, vouching to say, we can trust this guy.

He’s MCing, keeping it short. He introduces a couple of black college students, talking about not being able to make it without state assistance, wouldn’t have made it out of school, etc. It’s all rapid fire, in and out and then Cornel is back, and it’s “Brothuh Bernie Sanders …” and Sanders, the original harried white-guy, after a clumsy hug, makes his way to the mic.

“Let me start by doing what I don’t normally do and be a bit personal with you.” This is about as southern as this old Brooklyn Jew is going to get. He’s 74, weathered and liver-spotted in the blue suit he always wears, a halo of white hair and a slight stoop. He looks like an overworked public defender. Brooklyn-born — “We weren’t poor, but money was always a problem. Always a problem” — part of the Jewish left and the civil rights movement. His current style is a harking back, since he relocated to Vermont in the early ’70s, when it was a drop-out destination for the counter-culture. There he became mayor of Burlington, the largest city, then the state’s congressman, then its senator. He was never a Democrat, always running as an independent, and calling himself a “socialist”.

Since he announced his candidacy, Sanders’ gatherings have gone from a few hundred to thousands, to up to 30,000 in stadiums across New England and the north-east . In Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states, he’s now pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton, leading by up to 10 points. Team Clinton (or at least a pro-Clinton super PAC) is now so freaked they’re starting some nasty attack stuff — linking Sanders with Hugo Chavez because he arranged for Vermont to get some of the cheap heating oil that Citgo, Venezuela’s oil company, was distributing to the US poor (the sheer poverty, and death toll from cold winters, that prompted Venezuela’s gift, is rarely discussed).

What had started as a left-progressive campaign to simply turn up and give an alternative has become — what? A full bid? Something less than that. An attempt to move the party leftward? Something more than that. But this first step into the south is a sign that the campaign now believes it can take on the whole country. South Carolina is the third primary in the land. The Democrats will never win it in the election, but the party itself has a strong liberal wing, principally because they’re the only ones who’ve stuck around. Southerners will go for Democrats, but they have to be of a certain type — Bill Clinton is the template or his gonzo adviser James Carville (now working for the Hillary Clinton campaign). Bernie Sanders, well, Bernie Sanders, oh dear, Bernie Sanders sounds like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

“Why do these people, the media, why do they keep talking about people’s hair? Politics has to be about serious issues, serious issues.” Once you’ve heard it, you can’t unhear it. You can’t unsee it, either. The white-haired Brooklynite, the rusted-on leftist, giving a broadside on the erosion of conditions in America, sounds like one big kvetch. “What are these Republicans doing they want us in the Middle East? They’re crazy. I don’t even know what they’re doing.” It’s meant to be denunciatory. It sounds like the voice of outraged exasperation at collective human stupidity, a throwing up of the hands. Luckily most of these people have never seen Curb Your Enthusiasm. But many of them have never seen anything like Bernie Sanders either, and while he’s killing with some, the hardcore, he’s going over less well with those new to the process — who are mostly the dragged-along, the cajoled, the “you’re coming. You’ve got to see this guy.”

Sanders is hardcore. Accustomed as one is to this leftist sort of event where the dimensions of one’s defeat and impossible challenge are laid out for 40 or 50 minutes at the time, with only a last, almost grudging concession that there might be a possibility of things being made less worse — but what about the rest of ’em? The political discourse here is so redemptionist, so based on the idea that faith may bring deliverance, that I seriously wonder if they will be able to take this roll-call of inequality, wrecked lives, folly and despair — with relatively little uplift. “What I’m trying to do is raise issues, raise issues.”

Of course, many of them have to live it, but that is not quite the same thing — were it so, America would be in open revolt by now. Sanders offers an acknowledgment of how terrible things are without any real guarantee that things will change, and that’s a hard sell. The core crowd love it, though, love the call to action. With a wave of the hand — looking a little as if it were drawn up by fish wire from the roof — Sanders shuffles off, and it’s over, in 70  minutes, and people start streaming towards the exits. Have they been sold? Are they convinced? Sanders has given none of the uplift that is held to be the reward for coming to a political meeting. Nor could he even begin to do so.

Sanders has the political rationalist’s exasperation with people not getting that the way things are now is stupid, it’s just stupid. Which sounds like Trump. But Sanders has a concrete argument about how to change it — although few answers abut how to fund public health, free tuition and tax credits for the poor while also defraying the deficit. Trump doesn’t either — Trump has anti-answers — but he’ll tell you that it’s so easy that it isn’t even worth talking about, and his crowd will go off thinking everything’s going to be all right. Can the left ever advance without a genuine left populism, something that talks in the simpler language of being ripped off and deserving better, of the duplicity of being sent to foreign wars?

We’re not going to find out this time round. Sanders will live or die in this context, staking his political life on the intelligence of the half of the country on his side of politics. Should it all fall apart, people may conclude that they have to find someone willing to speak with the same visceral feeling and immediacy of the right. Has he connected with the audience? As they stream out, I look for something other than the usual suspects, local black activists and the small contingent of white hipsters. To be honest, it’s slim pickings. The lumpyish couple next to me, in faded band T-shirts and Walmart jeans, turn out to be not poor workers but computer science teachers at Conway, a university town about 30 miles down the road. “Vote for Bernie? Of course we will! We’ve got to do something to break this duopoly. Vote for Hillary? In the election? Of course we will!”

Outside, near the concession stand, Darryl, late 20s with his young son, and in a cannabis-themed head-shop T-shirt, was enthused: “I’ve never seen anything like it before! He is telling the truth, man! Like why shouldn’t we get a bailout? Y know it makes sense to say we should all get a minimum wage!” Would he vote for Bernie? “Oh, well, I don’t know, I guess, I mean, I’ve never voted in my life, I might do that. My friends bought me here.” He nods over to them, unquestionably a group of black Democrat activists. He’s their stoner friend they got along. They’ll need to get him along in the primary, and even then he might go for Lincoln Chafee. Or Hillary. Or Trump.

Finally, as the foyer’s thinning there’s a group of four, young adult kids and parents, tanned and reddened skin, neat, not expensively dressed. The white middle (i.e. working class). What brought them along? “Oh, we’re solid Democrats, always have been.” Are any of your friends? Laughter. “Ohhhhhh no. South Carolina is a very conservative state.” Do they argue politics with them, could they convince them about Sanders? “Oh, they wouldn’t even- I can’t-” says Dan, the dad. “Look, they can’t handle a black president is the long and short of it.” “They’ll vote for Trump, but if Bernie suggests a minimum wage …” What do they do? “Oh we’re from Conway. I teach at- ” Hmmmmmm. They’re an outdoorsy professional family. There goes the white proletariat. The crowd Bernie needed even to do well in the primary simply wasn’t there. He got a bigger roll-out down the road that evening, 3000, but even that is a tenth of what he’s been getting elsewhere. The Sanders show will have a good early showing, but nothing like the Republican follies. Clinton will kill it here and then storm ahead, offering a pretty raw choice for even the minimally progressive voter. Keep on rocking in the free world.

Peter Fray

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