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Liliana Aguirre shouts her support for Sanders as she waits in line to caucus at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nevada last month. (Photo: Mike Nelson/EPA)

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Robert C. Koehler

The snaking line was more than a mile long. Thousands of us had been waiting for hours in the bitter cold to get into Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre to hear Bernie Sanders speak. It was Monday night. The Illinois and four other state primaries were the next day and, as has been the case for the last three weeks now, the fate of the country — and the planet — seemed to hang in the balance.

Signs were everywhere: A FUTURE TO BELIEVE IN, of course. And FEEL THE BERN, and variations thereof. BERNIE: PROPHET, HILLARY: PROFIT. And my favorite: SHAMANS FOR SANDERS.

The elevated train — Chicago’s L — rattled and clattered overhead at regular intervals, adding random noise to the windy, exhilarating night. Cheers erupted here and there for no apparent reason. The camaraderie was joyous. Even the police were friendly.

What if Trump people showed up and tried to start something? That rumor had been hovering for several days, but here in the midst of this crowd nothing seemed more preposterous. “If Trump people show up we need to show them love,” a woman standing nearby said. “Welcome them! Invite them to be one of us!” This was the sort of energy that infused the crowd. If nothing else, it flooded the cold March night with warmth.

And people chanted: “This is what democracy looks like!”

Oh Lord.

What I thought was: Maybe they’re right. A day and a half later, as I write, I’m still transfixed by those words, even though all the energy has scattered. Democracy is about depth of participation, not about winning and losing. And something is happening this election cycle that is opening up a participatory consciousness I haven’t felt, at least at the national level, in four decades.

What I want is more than a fleeting image of democracy on a bitter Chicago night. I want a lasting sense of social involvement and participation in crucial change. This is what democracy looks like. Democracy is the precondition of social evolution. And for this to occur at the national and global level — for society to reorganize itself in a way that defangs the four horsemen of social collapse: war, poverty, racism and climate change — we have to be engaged not as spectators but at the level of every human soul.

The doors opened. A huge segment of the waiting crowd did not get in, but I made it. Wow. A burst of light and warmth in the historic old theater. Jill Sobule is on stage with her guitar. “When they say they want America back . . . America back . . . what the fuck do they mean?”

Speakers address the crowd. Someone says: “The only thing that’s been able to trump hatred and fear is beauty and love.” Old rock music fills the air. Twentysomethings get up and start to dance. A mom in front of me is holding a month-old baby and I can hardly contain my emotions.

The candidate himself didn’t step onto the stage till 11 p.m. He went nonstop for about 40 minutes, addressing, by my count, 15 issues, none of which — of course! — were part of the media coverage of the primaries. Here are a few highlights:

• “This is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We need to invest in our children. Get our priorities right. We are not going to be shutting down schools while Wall Street makes huge profits. . . . No more water systems that poison children.”

• “This should be a country with the highest voter turnout, not one of the lowest.”

• “Together we are going to repair a broken criminal justice system. . . . We need to demilitarize the police.”

• “Substance abuse is a health issue, not a criminal issue. We need to rethink the so-called war on drugs.”

• “There are 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. living in fear: We need comprehensive immigration reform.”

• “The way we have treated Native Americans for centuries is an absolute disgrace.”

• “Barack Obama’s father was born in Kenya. My father was born in Poland, but no one is asking me for my birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin.”

• “I’m opposed to death penalty. In a world where there is so much violence, the state should not be a part of that.”

Finally and, it almost seemed, reluctantly, Sanders brought up the matter of war. He condemned the Iraq invasion as one of the worst blunders in American history and added: “I will do everything I can to see that the men and women in the military do not get sucked into perpetual war.”

Yeah, this is what democracy looks like, on both the inside and the outside. I hear the words of the one major-party candidate who dares to question America’s militarized relationship with the rest of the world. I also hear the wiggle room. I wish Sanders’ stance on war and the unfathomable U.S. military budget had the certainty of most of his other policy positions; and I wonder if his momentum — his reach into the soul of the electorate — would be more powerful if that were the case.

I know this much. When I hear someone dismiss Sanders’ social programs, such as free college tuition, on the grounds that “the money’s not there,” I will ask why nobody ever says: “We can’t develop the next generation of nuclear weapons; the money’s just not there!”

When it comes to militarism, I have yet to see what democracy looks like.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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