In 1944, legendary Scottish-Canadian socialist Tommy Douglas gave a speech about a place he called 'Mouseland.' He told of a society of mice who “lived and played, were born and died,” and “lived much the same as you and I do.” Curiously, every four years these mice would go to the polls and elect a government … of cats. Unsurprisingly, these cats passed “laws that were good for cats,” while the plight of mice got continually worse. In response, the mice tried electing different types of cats—black, white, half-and-half, cats with spots. The speech crescendos as Douglas explains, “You see my friends, the trouble wasn’t the color of the cat. They trouble was that they were cats.”
The contrast was stark, in effect, a 'third world' country existing only a few hundred yards from the wealth and opulence of this great monument to American capitalism. I thought about this speech while canvassing through Las Vegas in the lead up to the Nevada caucus last month. I’d been sent to a neighborhood in the literal shadow of the famed Las Vegas strip, as in, on some blocks I walked in sunshine, and on others, in shade thrown by the Stratosphere tower. What struck me though was not the sunburn or lack thereof, but the absolute crushing poverty of the area, cracked streets lined with rows of crumbling buildings, some boarded up, others collapsed entirely into piles of rubble; many of the homesteads had no doors to knock, only sheets fluttering over ominous entrances; graffiti was prevalent, as were piles of garbage and broken glass. The contrast was stark, in effect, a 'third world' country existing only a few hundred yards from the wealth and opulence of this great monument to American capitalism.
This, more than any ‘Sin City’ debauchery the imagination can concoct, is the dirty secret of Las Vegas. Behind the bright lights of the strip, the city has an unemployment rate among the highest in the country. And, despite a long, proud history of militant and at times heroic union organizing, nearly half of those who do have a job make less than $40,000 per year. These are the people who keep the gears of the great Vegas machine running—bartenders and cooks, pit bosses and card dealers, adult entertainers, bouncers, cleaning staff and so on; something like one-third of people working in Las Vegas do so in the hospitality industry. Meanwhile, surrounded by wealth, some 16% of Las Vegans, well above the national average, live below the poverty line. Further, the city has among the worst education systems and, perhaps not coincidentally, among the highest violent crime rates in the country. Worse still, Las Vegas is the American city warming fastest due to climate change. Had I been walking around in that same neighborhood in July rather than February, it would not have been uncommon to find someone dying from the heat.
What’s interesting about the great state of Nevada is that it is perhaps the greatest example of a so-called ‘swing state’ the country has. Over the past ten presidential elections, the state has voted for the Republican five times and the Democrat five times. Over the past twenty presidential elections? Ten and ten. Further, since the 1950s, Nevadans have elected five Republican Governors and five Democrats, while sending six of each to the Senate. And yet, as the population has jumped back and forth between Republican and Democrat, the plight of the ordinary person in Nevada has remained the same or gotten worse.
The trouble wasn’t the color of the cat. They trouble was that they were cats.
Days later, at a Bernie Sanders rally on the campus of UNLV, I stood next to a man with long gray hair, a bushy gray beard, and a shirt with ‘Bernie 2020’ spelled around a peace sign. He smelled like patchouli. We stood outside in the brilliant February sunshine, surrounded by a huge crowd of people out on a midweek afternoon. The man told me he’d stood at exactly that spot in 1971, pointing down at his feet as he did so to emphasize exactly, as a UNLV student protesting the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been waiting for this candidate for fifty years,” he said, putting his hand on my forearm and looking at me seriously.
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I considered telling him about Douglas’ Mouseland story, particularly its conclusion. There, one little mouse comes up with an interesting idea, asking, "why do we keep on electing a government made up of cats? Why don't we elect a government made up of mice?"
After winning the Nevada caucus that weekend in a landslide, Bernie Sanders said in his victory speech, "We have just put together a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition which is gonna [sic] not only win Nevada, it's gonna to sweep this country. No campaign has a grassroots movement like we do.”
This was not just political rhetoric. In Nevada, Bernie won both men and women, white voters by ten points and non-white voters by twenty, as well as every age group under 65. Stories emerged of immigrant cab drivers taking out billionaire heiresses with impassioned speeches during the caucus realignment period, while, despite political attacks from union bosses and other candidates in the days leading up, Sanders won five out of seven precinct locations on the strip thanks to support from the union rank and file.
This is not a coalition brought together by a cult of personality, or, as Bernie often jokes, because he would not win a beauty contest. Rather, it is a coalition forged by those united in their belief that Mouseland should be governed by mice and not cats. These are individuals who view a system which makes neighbors of opulence and soul-crushing poverty as wrong, a coalition which gives credence to 'of, by, and for.'
Interestingly, Tommy Douglas described the response of cats to the mouse who thought Mouseland should be governed by mice:
"Oh," they said, "he's a Bolshevik."