Why I’m backing Bernie Sanders for US president
In 2003, when I was teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina, I saw an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing a “going out of business” sale of Utica Linen products. The mill that had been making these linens was closing and relocating to Asia, where the company would be able to pay lower wages. When I saw that ad, I thought back 50 years ago to when that same company’s mills had first moved to North Carolina after shutting down operations in Utica, New York, my hometown. They did so to take advantage of North Carolina’s cheaper non-union labour.
What I remember most about that period wasn’t just how the factories emptied out, leaving parts of Utica looking like a ghost town, it was what the closures and loss of thousands of jobs did to my community and my neighbours. Those mills had defined life in Utica for generations. And then they were gone. The stress of mass layoffs created tensions that tore families apart. One third of the population was forced to leave in search of employment. In short order, Utica went from being a vibrant city to a depressed town with dilapidated neighbourhoods.
A few months ago, I endorsed Bernie Sanders for president of the United States. There were many reasons, but high on my list is that I never forgot what happened to my home town and so many other American cities across the Northeast and Midwest. Mr Sanders earned my support because he understands what bad trade deals and corporate greed have done to communities. While some politicians have paid lip service to the consequences of factory closings and the exporting of jobs to Asia, Mr Sanders is the only one who has addressed the issue forcefully and pledged decisive action to protect American workers and their communities. I realise, of course, that Mr Sanders isn’t going to bring back the Utica of the 1960s, but what he has done is shine a light on the corporate greed that continues to put companies’ interests ahead of their responsibility to be fair to those who have given their lives to build their businesses.
I have also been impressed with the way Mr Sanders speaks the unvarnished truth about other long-ignored critical issues facing the United States – issues such as income inequality, the corrupting role of big money in politics and the need for universal health care coverage. By demonstrating a fierce determination to raise these issues, he has made them a part of American political debate.
Equally impressive is the way young voters have responded to Mr Sanders. Early on, polls were showing that younger voters had grown disenchanted with politics as usual. Unwilling to just settle, they have been inspired by Mr Sanders’s passion and authenticity, and have become engaged in the process. Millennials have an instinct that can sniff out phoneys.
In the exit polls in state after state, Mr Sanders has overwhelmingly won the support of voters under 35. By a 70-point margin, young voters say that they trust Mr Sanders more than his competitor for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton. They see him as authentic and this has moved them to support his candidacy.
I have also been impressed by Mr Sanders’s opposition to committing US troops to fight in reckless wars, by his smart and courageous call for balancing concern for Israelis with concern for the Palestinians, and by the compassion he has demonstrated for the suffering the Palestinian people have endured living under occupation. On this critical issue, Mr Sanders not only has the best position of any candidate in the race, he has the best position of any major party candidate in decades.
This came through so clearly in this week’s Democratic debate in New York. When asked why he had accused Israel of using disproportionate violence, he stood his ground calmly explaining his position to the cheers of his supporters.
Finally, I am deeply moved when I hear Mr Sanders speak with a sense of awe at the trajectory his life beginning with his father’s immigration to the US and his family’s hard work to succeed, all leading to his run for the presidency. It is a classic American story that resonates in so many ways.
The fact that Mr Sanders carries this story with him speaks volumes about the man, how grounded he is, and the source of his commitment to fighting for immigrants and the needs of working people. In many ways, he is the embodiment of the American dream.
Early on, Mr Sanders’s candidacy was ignored by the press. Even now, his chances of winning the nomination are cynically dismissed. Through it all, this 74-year-old Brooklyn-born son of a Polish immigrant continues to rack up victories while transforming American politics for the better. As another New Yorker, baseballer Yogi Berra, once famously said: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Stay tuned.
Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa
Updated: April 16, 2016 04:00 AM