Bernie Sanders counter-intuitively went to right-wing fundamentalist Christian Liberty University to give a speech. Bear in mind that Liberty University was founded by the villainous Jerry Falwell, and is hardly what anyone could call a bastion of progressive values. The event, in my view, was awkward, with Sanders’s applause lines that usually inspire roaring, thunderous responses reduced largely to golf-claps. The most frustrating moment for this viewer was when Sanders took questions from the audience, which were pre-written and read by the moderator, and one neophyte undergraduate asked the Senator how he reconciles his championing of the weakest members of society with his pro-choice stance, because, after all, the fetus is the most vulnerable member of our society of all. Thunderous, thunderous applause.
I won’t go so far as to call this speech a mistake. There are good reasons to do it. It shows that Senator Sanders walks the walk when it comes to his belief that people across ideological divides need to have constructive and respectful dialogues. When he pulls this old saw out on his stump speech among the more usual suspects, it will have additional resonance because, after all, he gave this speech at Liberty University. Also, it is probably not unimportant to speculate that perhaps the good Senator actually believes in the ideal he espouses and truly does believe in promoting dialogues across ideological divides.
What I am saying is that it was really painful to watch. Perhaps it was one of the most brilliant, savvy, maverick moves to make. God knows Hillary Clinton is not going to touch Liberty University. But seeing the good Senator in the midst of what, in my view, was palpable, barely disguised hostility, was cringeworthy. Being lectured by an undergraduate student body on the plight of the unborn, as if Sanders had never heard about the Holocaust Against the Unborn before and had to be schooled, frankly made me angry and disgusted. Sanders retorted, certainly, a lot of people agree with you— well, guess what. A lot of people agree with him too.
What I would be really curious to know, though, is the political theory behind going. He got the invite. He doesn’t have to go. But he did. We’re flies on the wall at Sanders campaign headquarters. What are they saying about whether or not to go? What are the upsides from a practical realpolitik point of view? What are the downsides?
It is possible that there might be some sort of Reverse Bradley Effect, in which all these kids who come right out of Saved Central Casting all applaud the “Bernie We’d Like To Take a Moment To Talk To You About the Pro-Life Movement” question on cue, all golf-clap when Sanders mentions the Pope and says that he’s not such a bad fellow (which, of course, went over like a lead balloon), and all remain mum when Sanders makes the case that economic disparity is a Biblical moral issue— and then secretly go into the primaries and pull the lever for Sanders. That is possible. There is a saying about coalitions— if you’re in one, and you’re comfortable, then your coalition is not big enough. Sanders does not need to win over the majority of the Liberty University crowd. He can’t, and he won’t.
But he could peel off just enough independent-minded kids in the crowd who actually do respond to his message about the plight of the poor, who actually think, you know, racism is a pretty bad thing, and who think that maybe some of their friends at public universities ought to catch a break. In the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, he needs decent showings. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire both, and makes just a decent showing in South Carolina, a state with a fundamentalist Christian base to be sure, then the game is changed. We have a horserace, and the corporate mass media will not be able to deny it.
Ultimately, I don’t know if the appearance at Liberty University will do anything for Senator Sanders on a purely electoral basis. But I do know one thing. People in Virginia and the Carolinas will be talking about Bernie Sanders tonight. And that ain’t all bad.