On Jan. 24, 2020, at a Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa City, America feels like it’s rushing toward something no one knows, but everyone fears.
It’s just 10 days before the Iowa caucuses, the Senate is one week into its impeachment trial. The next day, basketball star Kobe Bryant will die a helicopter crash, and the day after that the New York Times will report that former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book confirms that the president withheld military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of the Bidens. The world feels impossible to understand. And that’s why everyone is here, to find something else to believe in.
Bernie Sanders can’t be at the rally because he is stuck in Washington, D.C., for the impeachment proceedings. So, how do you hold a rally for a candidate who isn’t there? You stack the speakers with star power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congresswoman from New York, will speak to the crowd. And Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker is here too. Singer/songwriter Mike Posner is there too. People are excited and sling coats over the back of their chairs before they sit down.
Sanders calls in and delivers a monologue about climate change and health care. It’s the usual stump speech we’ve all heard since 2016. And the sound is distorted over the speakers, there are awkward pauses, and soft giggles from the crowd.
When the call is over, filmmaker Phillip Agnew takes the stage. He asks everyone in the room to hold hands. It’s a room full of white Iowans who can barely be convinced to clap on beat at a rock concert, but he wants them to hold hands. People laugh. But they do it. All 822 people in that room awkwardly reach out and hold hands all across the auditorium. Agnew tells the audience to squeeze each other’s hands if they’ve been assaulted, if they’ve known hunger or fear. He asks them to squeeze hands if they want a revolution.
And then, he has everyone lift their hands and repeat after him. “With these hands we will rebuild our communities. With these hands we will free our people … With these hands, we will have Medicare for all. With these hands, we will have college for all ... and with these hands, we will elect Sen. Bernie Sanders as the next president of the United States.”
It’s a pledge that Nina Turner, Sanders’ national co-chair, usually leads, but tonight Agnew has the job. Arms are raised, heads are bowed. It feels like church. It feels like communion. It feels like conversion. It feels like hope.
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It also feels silly. Just minutes after Agnew, musician Posner takes the stage. After singing some songs, he launches into what seems to be spoken word poetry about his dad. It sounds like dark, dark Dr. Seuss.
Politics are emotional. We saw that in 2016, when the emotionally volatile Donald Trump was elected. Trump’s policies are not rational. They are barely even consistent. But the anxiety and fear and anger he embodied for his supporters wasn’t nothing. A Trump rally is a seething pit of anger. Reporters are screamed at. Chants call for immigrants and congresswomen of color to go home.
There is anger here tonight too. Michael Moore rants about the New York Times not giving Sanders an endorsement, but his speech falls flat on an exhausted audience who have been through almost four years of rage. Rage from the administration, rage at the administration. It’s Agnew’s talk that draws people in. And Ocasio-Cortez’s empathetic speech calling for a better America.
Emotions can unite an audience in purpose. But they can also close off minds. A 2014 study found that when people viewed stressful images before being asked questions about their political views, their responses were more strident.
The study’s authors concluded, “We found that the anxiety we generated was powerful enough that people couldn’t simply turn it off, it carried over to unrelated domains and actually influenced people’s political beliefs, particularly their attitudes toward immigrants. This is all the more important as political campaigns become more adept at stimulating and manipulating the emotions of the general public.”
Sanders is now leading Iowa in the polls and it’s easy to see why. His events, his campaign, is a swirl of feeling. There still is lingering resentment from 2016, when Sanders felt robbed of the nomination. There is hope. There is frustration. It reflects the complex reality of what many people in America are feeling. It can be toxic. Any journalist who experienced harassment in 2016 at the hands of “Bernie bros” online will tell you it still exists.
But tonight that anxiety is being channeled into a fervor for revolution. It’s hard to square the two parts of America, the raw and beautiful, the nasty and hopeful. But they are all here in this room that night. All holding hands.