Sunday evening, on a light rail train heading west from the Moda Center after Bernie Sanders’ massive rally, strangers were telling each other their student debt stories.
There was the son who, as part of his military service, had the Army paying for three years of his college, and still ended up $25,000 in debt to finish. There was the graduate who spent years in a small town in Nevada working down his debt. There were dollar numbers sounding more like real estate than about college.
Of the rally’s jaw-dropping attendance of 28,000 – a number, coincidentally, similar to the average debt of an Oregon public university graduate – a striking number were young, considerably outnumbering the veteran activists remembering Nader and McGovern campaigns. Along with the notes of class struggle, there was a strong theme of generational struggle, of young people alarmed about the condition of the planet they’re inheriting, about pay levels sending their future receding into the distance.
Pay levels that match up against their student debt like a high school hoopster against Shaquille O’Neal.
“I like his stance on renewable energy, following more in Europe’s path,” explained Nick Robinson of Portland, who attends Whitman College. “As a college student, I like his stand on tuition, how we shouldn’t pay so much.”
Possibly Sanders’ biggest ovation of the night, a balcony-shaking roar, followed his pledge that in his presidency, “Every public college and university in America will be tuition-free.”
As a literal goal, it might involve some economic pixie dust. But it’s far enough from our current reality to suggest a lot of space available in that direction.
Especially when Sanders also promises, as he did next, to support those who “suffer under the burden of outrageous student debt.”
Unlike many other candidates, Sanders wasn’t introduced by another political figure; not a lot of prominent politicos support him. Sunday, he was presented by three young activists: an environmentalist, a Latino and his new African American press secretary, Symone Sanders, a recent addition following disruption of appearances by Black Lives Matter. The trio reduced the podium age by decades.
Sanders campaigns differently in other ways. He doesn’t warm up a crowd with jokes, and declare how glad he is to be in Portland. He orates grimly, resembling a particularly disgruntled Old Testament prophet, and seems to get more indignant as he proceeds. He covers the full range of left/liberal applause lines, from billionaires buying the political system to climate change immigration reform to abortion rights to single-payer health care to supporting President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Trying to comprehend both this event and last week’s Republican debate, where the guaranteed applause lines were attacking Planned Parenthood and an impregnable border wall, could make your head – or maybe the political system – explode.
And he connected some broader issues to his young voter crowd. Complaining that none of the bankers involved in the 2008 economic crash had paid any penalty, Sanders compared them to a kid with marijuana in his pocket. Calling for an economy that works for working people, Sanders warned, “We have a huge and tragic situation regarding youth unemployment in America,” then broke the numbers down by white, Hispanic and African American youth.
(Spoiler alert: The unemployment number isn’t good for any of them.)
The political uprisings of half a century ago, of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, also had generational fuel, driven by a resistance to being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Part of what’s behind the Sanders effort is a youthful objection to have their lives trashed in a more fiscal fashion.
Others have noticed. Monday, Hillary Clinton unveiled a new, 10-year $350 billion New College Compact, intended to let students attend public universities without borrowing, go to community college tuition-free, and refinance existing student debt. The issue was, said a Clinton staff member, “a great organizing opportunity.”
Sunday evening at court level at the Moda Center, Kristina Grimm and Michelle Larsen responded enthusiastically to Sanders, frequently yelling out “Yes!”, especially on student loan issues.
“My $60,000 education is a burden to me, as I can’t pay back my student loan,” even though she now makes reasonable money, explained Grimm afterward.
“I have two in college, and two more approaching college,” said Larsen, “and I’m worried they’re going to live their lives in debt.”
The roar for Sanders Sunday came from an NBA arena jam-packed with enthusiastic fans, right up to the $15 nosebleed seats.
But you might also hear the sound of a generation.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 8/12/15.