"Do not let the Trumps of the world divide us up," Senator and former Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders said last week as he spoke to 1,100 students at Johns Hopkins University's packed Shriver Hall (and hundreds more in overflow rooms via video monitors). In fact, Sanders insisted, America is not all that divided and there are a number of issues—raising the minimum wage, pay equity for women, tuition-free public universities—that an "overwhelming majority of Americans" support. "On economic issues we are not divided," he said.
Sanders was making his third stop on a 17-city tour promoting the book he released last week, "Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In." True to form, his readings, with one exception at the Barnes and Noble in New York City, are all slated for independent books stores or college campuses.
At the Hopkins event, Sanders read excerpts from his book, which began by quoting the media who dismissed his "fringe" campaign. "But we had made history," he said. "We received more than 13 million votes in primaries and caucuses throughout the country. We won 22 states, more than a few by landslide proportions. We won 1,846 pledged delegates to the Democratic convention, 46 percent of the total."
Some of Sanders' talk was familiar terrain; he explained how he differentiated himself on the political spectrum. "Very often I'm called a liberal," he said. "I'm not a liberal, I'm a progressive." He shares a strong belief in women's rights, gay rights, minority rights, and so is on the same page as many liberals when it comes to social issues. However, he said, "when it comes to economic issues, you can have many liberals who support tax breaks for the rich," or "who will not stand with workers when they go on strike." Progressives, he said, "understand we need to take on the ruling class and the moneyed interests."
Later, in a moment that was perhaps a nod to the audience of Hopkins undergrads who are paying more than $50,000 annually for tuition, Sanders urged the young people step outside the bubble. "What I also want you to understand, especially if you come from family with money and you may not know, but millions of people are suffering economically," he said, reminding students these Americans are "not bad people" but are working and struggling in our current economic system. Some of those people are Trump supporters, he said, and "most of them are people who are in pain and hurting."
Still, he insisted, "Trump gave a whole lot of promises; I doubt he will keep them."
He characterized the electoral college as a flawed system, noting that "at the end of the day Secretary Clinton will have ended up receiving 1.5 to 2 million more votes than Trump." But Trump ends up being inaugurated. "Is that a problem? I think it is a problem." He pointed out that Maryland is "totally irrelevant" to the candidates because it is one of the strongest Democratic states so no one wanted to waste time campaigning here. That is true of most states, he pointed out. "And this is weird," he said. "We've got 50 states in the country yet all of the money and time and energy went into 15 states [which means citizens in] two-thirds of the states are ignored… We have got to think a whole lot about an electoral system that has many serious problems."
The students in attendance, some of whom had been standing in line since 1 p.m. for the 7 p.m. talk, which was sold out, regularly interrupted with applause. Sanders, in person and in his book, noted their enthusiasm. Quoting from Harvard pollster Della Volpe who had studied his surprisingly competitive race, Sanders said this recent election was "changing the way millennials think about politics." Writing about Sanders, Volpe said: "He's not moving a party to the left. He's moving a generation to the left. Whether or not he's winning or losing, it's really that he's impacting the way in which a generation—the largest generation in the history of America—thinks about politics."
In fact, what Sanders did, or is doing when he speaks to young people, is somewhat subtler than that. It's not so much that he is telling them what to think as inviting them to think about politics, period. His invitation to engage in the process of seeking solutions or setting an agenda shifts the burden for change to them. He was quite direct about that when he spoke to the Hopkins students, even in response to a question about Donald Trump's victory and distraught students who wanted concrete answers to the question, "What do we do tomorrow morning?"
"I'll give you my thoughts but they are not any smarter or better than yours," Sanders said. "We are, as human beings in a democracy, as powerful as we choose to be." That's not mere rhetoric, he insisted. "The truth is, you are enormously important if you chose to exercise your strength collectively."
He was not vitriolic about Trump's election and, in fact, downplayed its significance. "Politics is not just about an election every two or four years, politics is what happens every day—and figuring out, how do we address those problems?"
For example, he said, a few years ago no one would have believed a minimum wage jump to $15 an hour would have been possible, but it is happening in cities around the country because of strikes and walkouts and collective pressure, "because people had the guts to go out and fight."
"Real change never comes from the top. You want change, you've got to fight for change," he told students. "You think you should graduate from Johns Hopkins burdened by $40,000, $50,000 debt? Mark my words, if a million young people marched on Washington and said we cannot continue to carry this outrageous debt, you will achieve that." Why? "Because the politicians will look out the window and say, 'Oh, my God, look what's coming! People are coming.'"
The students laughed, and then Sanders circled back to the question—what do we do tomorrow morning?—and was suddenly serious again. "I can't give you all of the answers," he said. "You have to figure it out yourselves." He noted that he had described in his book and on the campaign trail what he thought was the necessary agenda for transforming the country, but that students would, and should, have their own ideas about priorities.
"And people will disagree," he said. "That's called democracy. But you have to throw the issues out on the table."
One of the things he found frustrating about the election was that there was more focus on the people and personalities than the ideas. "You heard a thousand times more about Mr. Trump's sexual life or Ms. Clinton's emails than you heard about climate change or poverty or racism. What we have got to do, as a nation, is get beyond that."
Referring to his book, he said: "I did my best to tell you what I think are the major issues facing the country. You will have different ideas. That's great. But we need to get that discussion going."
He urged the students to do the hard work of thinking, debating, and then acting—collectively. "When we come together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish."
When Hopkins president Ronald Daniels asked whether he was planning to run for president in 2020, the students hooted and cheered. Sanders deflected. "My wife didn't even want me to run in 2016," he said. "Thank you for your support, but we have enormous issues facing us tomorrow. This is what CNN would love, us discussing who would run in 2020." Sanders did not want to give the media the pleasure. "This is not what we should be discussing. We should be discussing, how do we address the crisis we face today?"