The surges of Ben Carson, left, and Bernie Sanders represent challenges to the status quo in both parties — challenges that show us how differently Republicans and Democrats see themselves right now. (Photos: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Another day, another big 2016 presidential rally in … California?
During a normal election cycle, presidential candidates descend on the Golden State for one reason and one reason only: money. They fly in, flutter around a Hollywood fundraiser and fly out.
This is not a normal election cycle.
That’s why, in mid-August, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist who is currently leading Hillary Clinton in some New Hampshire and Iowa polls, drew more than 27,000 supporters to the Memorial Sports Arena just south of downtown Los Angeles.
It’s also why, last week, Ben Carson, the pioneering pediatric neurosurgeon who is currently lapping every Republican contender not named Donald Trump both nationally and in Iowa, came to the Anaheim Convention Center, right on the edge of Disneyland, and nearly filled the 7,500-seat arena. At 2:30 in the afternoon. On a weekday.
Given that Sanders and Carson tend to attract fans from opposite ends of the political spectrum, there wasn’t much overlap between the rallies. As a reporter, however, I attended both events. It was a revealing exercise — much more revealing than continuing to obsess over Trump.
Trump would have been Trump four years ago; Trump would still be Trump four years from now. He is a celebrity who spews out an endless stream of “controversial” bombast, and, as such, he tends to dominate coverage of the campaign, which in turn tends to boost his poll numbers, as political scientist John Sides of George Washington University recently explained.
The side-by-side surges of Sanders and Carson, meanwhile, are more specific to this cycle. They represent challenges to the current status quo in both parties — challenges that show us how differently Democrats and Republicans see themselves right now, at one of the angstier moments in our political history.
Especially when you see them in action at their respective rallies.
A lot of things about Sanders’ L.A. event were unsurprising (as I wrote in August). The couple who pulled up in a yellow Corolla with a collage of bumper stickers on the back. (“Vote Dammit,” “Equality on My Mind,” “Minecraft,” “Cthulhu”) The flip-flops. The backward baseball caps. The beards.
The Sanders crowd was full of college kids from nearby USC; young, progressive professionals; and liberal retirees in loose-fitting Ralph Lauren. Mostly white, but still fairly diverse. As I entered the arena, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds was playing on the PA.
But once Sanders started speaking, it was clear that the Beltway’s usual analysis of Berniemania — that Sanders is catching on because he and his supporters are angry with rich people — didn’t ring true. In person, Sanders doesn’t sound like some sort of populist demagogue. He sounds like a wonk. Most of the senator’s remarks, and all of his biggest applause lines, were about policy — not the badness of billionaires.
Sanders supporters cheer as he addresses a crowd in L.A. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2020. Putting 13 million Americans to work by investing $1 trillion over five years on infrastructure projects. Creating 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans by spending $5.5 billion on a youth jobs program. Making tuition free at public colleges and universities. Passing single-payer healthcare. Enacting a universal childcare and prekindergarten program.
Sanders mentioned all of this and more in his speech — and every time he checked another item off the liberal wish list, the beer-swilling crowd went wild.
That’s because the Democratic status quo — at least from a left-wing perspective — is the moderate, incremental, accommodating and, in recent years, stymied presidency of Barack Obama.
By supporting Sanders, Democrats are registering their dissatisfaction with this status quo and implying that the establishment choice, Hillary Clinton, would be just as moderate, incremental, accommodating and stymied as her predecessor. They elected Obama because of who he was; they aren’t going to make the same mistake again. For them, Obama didn’t do enough with his presidency — and Clinton can’t be trusted to do enough either.
Sanders, on the other hand, can. After all, he’s been pushing the same proposals for decades.
“Maybe Bernie won’t get elected,” a 35-year-old screenwriter told me after the L.A. rally. “But maybe he will. Why should we sell ourselves short — why should we settle for less — if we don’t have to? Why shouldn’t we give his ideas a chance?”
As for the Carson event? It was older. Whiter. And no one was focused on policy.
Sure, Carson touched on The Issues. He described immigration as “a problem.” He predicted that our “fiscal irresponsibility” would “kill us if we don’t deal with it.” He declared that it was “not appropriate” to jail Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He decried the “global jihadists” wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. And he confessed that it “pains” him when he sees people “[going] around trying to shoot” police.
But other than saying that we need to “seal the border,” stop Democrats like Clinton from giving students “free college” tuition, “not impose our will on other people” like Kim Davis, “destroy [the global jihadists] before they destroy us” and accept that “police make mistakes” just like “plumbers, teachers and presidents,” Carson didn’t actually offer up any solutions. The only concrete policy I heard him propose was a corporate tax holiday to repatriate foreign profits, an idea the federal government already tried more than a decade ago.
Policy clearly wasn’t the point of Carson’s rally. Instead, the point was character: that of both Carson and his supporters.
“There are those who say, ‘You don’t have elected political experience,’” the candidate said onstage. “But if you look at the elected political experience of everybody in Congress, it comes out to about 8,700 years. Where has it gotten us?”
The crowd cheered. “The fact of the matter is our system was really designed for the citizen statesman,” Carson continued. “It was not designed for the professional politician.”
Of course, both Trump and Carly Fiorina are nonpoliticians as well. But Carson is a very particular kind of nonpolitician. We’ve seen CEOs run before. We’ve never seen a candidate like Carson — a black, devoutly Christian Republican who overcame a poor, fatherless youth to attend Yale and become the first surgeon to separate cranial conjoined twins.
And that was what Anaheim was all about. In the arena, supporters held up red, white and blue signs that said, “America Needs Gifted Hands.” Volunteers slapped pediatric-looking stickers on incoming attendees — “Ben” in a childlike script, with multicolored stick figures holding hands. The banners flanking the stage read, “Heal. Inspire. Revive.”
At the Sanders rally, a union organizer and an immigration activist introduced the candidate. Carson’s warmup acts were Brennley Brown, the voice of Disney’s Sofia the First; the Southern California Children’s Chorus; and a Nashville singer named Annie Bosko, who performed a song inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou.
“I read Dr. Carson’s autobiography a couple of years ago, so I already knew about his character,” Aaron Trout, a 25-year-old caregiver, told me. “When he started running, I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Onstage, Carson made sure to summarize his story for those who weren’t as familiar with it as Trout. He recalled the “dilapidated ghetto” he grew up in: “the rats, the roaches, the gangs, the murders.” He praised his heroic mother, who at 13 married a bigamist but “never became a victim,” “never felt sorry for herself” and taught him that “the person who has the most to do with what happens in life is you, not somebody else.” And he explained why his difficult childhood made him a conservative.
“I knew I had the ability to change my circumstances,” Carson said. “It is not the government’s responsibility to take care of everybody else.”
In a recent column, my Yahoo News colleague Matt Bai argued that at a moment when “politics has merged fully into entertainment, when characters and story arcs have supplanted expertise and worldviews … what makes Carson compelling to a lot of people, clearly, is the power of his personal narrative.”
Bai is absolutely right. But I think it goes even deeper than that. The sense I got from talking to dozens of conservatives in Anaheim is that by supporting Carson, they’re not just making a statement about the candidate — they’re making a statement about themselves.
Physician Tamara Hoover takes a selfie with Carson during a campaign rally in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
After the rally, I met Kelly and Marsha Whitehill, a retired couple from Corona del Mar. Kelly said he was still undecided. Marsha said she “loves” Carson. I asked why.
“Wisdom,” Marsha told me. “He has wisdom from his experience of saving lives. He has the brains.”
“And courage,” Kelly added.
Marsha nodded. “That’s right,” she said. “His story of the way he grew up. He’s been through it all and climbed the mountain and made it.”
“Do you worry that a doctor, as brilliant as he may be, might not know how to get things done in Washington, D.C.?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” Marsha said. “The Republicans we’ve elected have done absolutely nothing. First they said, ‘Give us the House.’ We gave them the House. Then they said, ‘We can’t do it. We’re only one-third of the government. So give us the Senate.’ We gave them the Senate. What have they done? Nothing.”
“What about race?” I asked. “Do you care that Carson is black?”
“I don’t think it matters,” Marsha said. “I don’t think of skin color.”
“But that is a hope of ours,” Kelly added. “That Dr. Carson can connect with black Americans and change some of their thinking.”
“Yes,” Marsha said. “That he can reach the radical African-American movement that’s going on today. Black Lives Matter. We need that. And the addiction to welfare — the third- and fourth-generation welfare.”
“He may be able to be more of a leader than our current president,” Kelly said.
Marsha leaned over and looked me in the eye. “We don’t think Republicans are racist the way the Democrats do,” she said. “I don’t get that. Because we don’t agree with Obama we’re racists?”
“All this support for Carson disproves that stuff,” Kelly concluded.
Yes, politics has merged into entertainment. But that’s been true for some time now. What’s different in 2015 — the age of the selfie, when everyone has his or her own profile and followers on social media — is that politics has also become yet another vehicle for voters to self-define, self-express and self-promote.
You can see this with Trump. Many of his supporters don’t think he will (or even should) be president. They simply “like what he’s saying.” You can see it with Sanders as well. Liberals worry that they succumbed to the cult of personality last time around; now they want to see themselves (and be seen) as policy wonks instead.
So what do Republicans want? What’s the status quo they’re challenging? I would say it’s the image the rest of the country has — or at least seems to have — of conservatives today. The image formed under Obama. The image that always seems to prevail in the media. That conservatives only care about rich people and are usually rich themselves. That conservatives are mostly white and maybe even racist. That conservatives aren’t that educated. Or smart. That conservatives don’t believe in science. That conservatives are negative and obnoxious.
If you set out to contradict every single one of those stereotypes by engineering a candidate that Republicans could point to and say, “See! We’re not like that! We’re voting for him!” your candidate would look and act exactly like Ben Carson: a mild-mannered, Ivy League-educated black man of both science and faith who rose from rags to riches and became a Republican along the way.
As Kelly Whitehill put it: “All this support for Carson disproves that stuff.”
Ultimately, then, Carson isn’t just entertaining for Republicans. Or even inspiring. He’s self-affirming — just like Sanders is for Democrats.
Both Carson and Sanders make voters feel good about themselves. And these days, that may be the most appealing kind of candidate of all.