It was a well-timed coincidence that I was able to take my exchange semester to the United States in the midst of the strangest presidential election in years. But while the world is talking about the soundbites of Donald Trump, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student on campus that has not taken notice of the rise of Bernie Sanders.
When most old white men are associated with maintaining the status quo, you might be forgiven if your passing glance at American election results has left you puzzled as to why Sanders, a 74-year-old Jewish man from Vermont, has grabbed the attention of youthful voters across the USA.
Offering a policy platform of democratic socialism – in a country where using that particular ‘S’ word is political suicide – Sanders has promised free college tuition, reform of Wall Street institutions and an increase of the minimum wage. His supporters have backed his efforts to build the bridge between politicians and those in society whom are often marginalised by the system.
Having previously served as an Independent for Vermont in both houses of US Congress, Sanders decided to switch his affiliation to the Democrats in the hope that he would have more of a direct influence from the inside of the party. Even though this move was smart politically – with the last non-Democrat/Republican President elected in 1848 – the radical agenda of Sanders did not have many experts predicting success in the 2016 race.
And that’s where the curiosity surrounding this campaign has been aimed at. Surpassing all expectations so far, most of America is wondering about how Sanders (and his #FeelTheBern social media tag) has inspired young people in this election like no one has before.
Across campus, it is very easy to see the visual impact that Sanders has had with students, with placards replacing Greek sorority letters in windows, and bumper stickers adorning countless cars in the giant parking lots.
And one of the biggest visual statements of the Bernie Sanders campaign was the fraction of time in the limelight that student Remaz Abdelgader shared with him.
The moment that sealed her vote came at a Bernie Sanders town hall event at George Mason University, where she studies Conflict Analysis & Resolution. At a time where many of the future candidates were using anti-Muslim rhetoric to sell their message, she felt the need to attend this rally and question the state of bigotry in the United States.
“As I was sitting there listening to him speak, I was so motivated and so emotional. I was legitimately ‘feeling the Bern’!” she said.
“Then I just felt prompted. I was thinking ‘You know what? It’s time. This question needs to be asked’. I just looked into Bernie’s eyes and thought that he just had to pick me.”
As you can see in the clip, the reaction to Remaz’s question was thunderous, with the crowd applauding and Sanders inviting her to share the stage with him, even offering a hug.
“It was raw. Genuine. So unexpected. It was human. It humanised me.”
Sitting down to talk with me in the crowded campus food court, her enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign clearly cuts through the noise. Remaz is the epitome of how young people are mobilised politically when they care enough to act, whichever side of the spectrum they might associate themselves with.
While voting in America is still a choice rather than a requirement, it’s students who have taken the time to be involved that have been the backbone of this political revolution.
However, far from being a ‘true believer’ from the very beginning, the Vermont Senator won her over with his ideas for America.
“At first I was attracted to Ben Carson… After I heard him speak I realised that… he was making some really dangerous statements.
“He was speaking in terms that equated Islam and mainstream Muslim Americans to be synonymous with terrorists.
“I care a lot about issues of social justice and social inequality, so I started looking into Bernie Sanders and watching his videos. I think it was (through) a Facebook post!”
The momentum of Sanders’ campaign struck a chord. Remaz began to feel a vibe emanating from him more than any other candidate in the race, especially when it came to issues of people of colour.
For many students, the fact Hillary Clinton has come from privilege, and seems to care more for her own political interests, has driven them away from her campaign. Referring to herself as a Muslim feminist, I wanted to know why Clinton had not had the same appeal to Remaz as Sanders had.
“Three years ago, I heard (Clinton) and her daughter speak – and I’m a huge fan – but I just couldn’t connect with her. She can’t vibe with me.”
And that has been the biggest problem that Clinton has had across the race in comparison to her rival. While comfortably leading the Democratic election so far, Clinton has been consistently outpolled by Sanders in the under 30s numbers, with recent figures suggesting 76% of Democrats in that age group would vote for him.
Clearly it’s the shift toward humanising politics that students across the USA want to see; a step in the direction of care. If future politicians make significant change through the collective voice of the people, then Remaz Abdelgader and students across America will feel like they have won their revolution by supporting Sanders in 2016.
Despite all the unexpected support for Sanders, the reality of the Washington machine is kicking in, with the sun starting to set on his bid for the White House.
While the Democratic party offers delegates for all state and territory elections as a proportional outcome to the vote gained, the superdelegates – who represent the establishment of the party – have clearly marked their intentions for Hillary Clinton to go on to win the nomination, putting her into a firm lead overall.
Whilst Sanders has gained many votes from the public by coming from outside the party system, this has also cost him at the superdelegate level.
Many people that I have met during my stay in the United States still complain about the party primary systems not being truly representative of the intentions of the general public, and Sanders said he will try to flip superdelegates away from Clinton in a late bid to win.
After the April 26 primary results, Sanders has a delegate deficit of over 800 to Clinton, and would need a miracle to win the nomination from here. While he has promised in the past to see his campaign run through until the last poll, he may well soon drop out of the race entirely.
However, this political revolution was always a product of the people behind the man, particularly youth voters, and the mantle will now lie on the shoulders of other Democrats who can grasp Sanders’ ideas and effectively run them through Washington.