Drew Nelles on Bernie and Coronavirus

On Tuesday, March 10th—the day of the Michigan primary—a friend and I went knocking on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort for Bernie Sanders. Stupidly, at the time, I barely noticed the growing trickle of news about coronavirus. Instead, to the detriment of my writing, schoolwork, and mental health, I was single-mindedly focused on the Bernie campaign. I’d gone canvassing in Iowa and Texas, in addition to Michigan; I’d spent hours phonebanking; I paid attention to almost nothing else. Of course, others had done much, much more—quit their jobs, flown to the US from overseas, emptied their savings accounts—but I was trying. I wanted us to win.

That day, although I was pessimistic, I tried to keep my hopes up. Ann Arbor, where I live, is prime college-town Bernie territory. After canvassing there in the morning, my friend and I headed to a working-class black neighborhood in nearby Ypsilanti, where, despite Biden’s advantage among African-American voters, most of the people we spoke with supported Bernie. We talked with one man who thought he couldn’t vote because of his felony conviction. When we looked up the law and confirmed that, in fact, all formerly incarcerated people in Michigan can vote, he announced he’d head right to Victorious Life Church and cast his ballot for Bernie. That moment reminded me why we were here. Bernie was, and is, the only presidential candidate who supports extending the franchise to everyone caught in the carceral system—not only felons and parolees but current prisoners, too.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I had watched the Iowa debacle and the disappointing Super Tuesday results in bars, surrounded by friends and fellow volunteers, but I wasn’t in the mood for that tonight. After doing life support at a polling station, handing out pizza and blankets to encourage voters to stay in line, I headed home. As midnight drew near, Joe Biden began his victory speech, having won not only Michigan but also Idaho, Mississippi, and Missouri. I closed my laptop and went to bed. 

The next day, Michigan announced its first confirmed cases of coronavirus and declared a state of emergency. The University of Michigan, where I’m an MFA student, moved all classes online. I’m writing this from my childhood home in Southern Ontario (I’m a dual American-Canadian citizen), where I headed once it seemed like the border might close, which it since has. 

Like a lot of people, I’ve found it surreal to watch the unfolding pandemic from the self-imposed exile of social distancing. But it’s been especially surreal to watch the Democratic presidential primary—the accursed process to which I have, God help me, devoted the past many months—enter a strange state of suspended animation. Biden and Bernie had a final debate last month, in which they stood six feet apart and spoke to an empty room. The moderators permitted Biden to lie about his record with impunity. Days later, he racked up another string of victories. After that—as many, many people noted—the Democratic presidential frontrunner basically went missing before suddenly popping up again. Bernie, on the other hand, has been hosting online coronavirus town halls, leveraging his vast small-donor base to raise money for charity, and proposing universalist alternatives to the GOP’s regressive bailouts. 

I’m not saying anything original or controversial when I point out how utterly bizarre all this is. The Washington Post recently reported that the Bernie campaign is pondering three options: keep the campaign alive but avoid attacking Biden; continue aggressively competing for the nomination; or fold. I want to stress the extraordinary nature of the first option, since it implies the possibility that, despite Biden’s sizeable delegate lead, his candidacy is so weak, his campaign so poorly run, and the circumstances created by the pandemic so unprecedented that anything could still happen. The Bernie campaign and the Biden campaign are both on autopilot, but Bernie’s autopilot is superior. His campaign can simply cruise on neutral and wait for yet another twist in a primary season unlike any before. While Biden goes into hiding and Democratic congressional leaders nitpick over means-testing, Bernie has emerged as the de facto face of the (sigh) resistance to Donald Trump’s disastrous, destructive handling of the pandemic. 

I’m so naïve that I believe any of this will be enough. In 2016, Bernie supporters at least got the catharsis of a decisive, more-or-less legitimate loss to Hillary Clinton. This time, it looks like we may not even get that much. Of course, given the sheer human toll of the pandemic, closure hardly matters. And I know the campaign isn’t over. Bernie is still running; the machinery is still moving; and self-isolation is the perfect time to phonebank, although, I’m ashamed to admit, I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. I know that I should keep pushing, that I shouldn’t give in to despair, but I’m tired and anxious and have recently started reading Revelations. It remains entirely plausible that Joe Biden—the man who, until a few weeks ago, had run for president three times without winning a single state primary; the man notorious for what are politely termed “gaffes” but might more accurately be called inappropriate touching, verbal threats, and cognitive decline—will own-goal himself out of the running. But it speaks to the insanity of our current moment that Bernie’s campaign strategy more or less hinges on that possibility. 

Someone on Twitter (the account seems to now be suspended) said that the Democrats, in nominating Joe Biden, were “sleepwalking into a woodchipper.” That turn of phrase has stayed with me. It feels like we are all, now, sleepwalking into a woodchipper, in stasis and yet lurching zombie-like toward some gruesome end. Even as the pandemic has vindicated nearly every part of Bernie’s platform (the urgency of Medicare for All, the importance of state intervention in the economy, the deficit myth); even as centrist Democrats have been forced into the awkward position of arguing that coronavirus testing and treatment should be free but, if you get cancer or HIV or mangled in a car wreck, you’re on your own; even as the global bungling of the coronavirus response looks more and more like a prophetic dry run for our response to climate change—even amid the sublime, almost unimaginable spectacle of all this catastrophe, it looks like Democrats will nominate the guy who vanishes for days on end and reassures his wealthy patrons that “nothing would fundamentally change.” Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating is up. I don’t take any pleasure in writing this. It makes me very scared, and very sad.

Published by Jamie Lauren Keiles


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