IN 2003, while I was teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina, I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper announcing a “Going Out of Business” sale of Utica Linen products. The mill that had been making these linens was closing and relocating to Asia where they would be able to pay lower wages. When I saw that advertisement, I thought back 50 years ago to when that same company’s mills had first moved to North Carolina after shutting down operations in Utica, my hometown. They did so to take advantage of North Carolina’s cheaper non-union labour.
What I remember most about that period wasn’t just how the factories emptied out leaving parts of Utica looking like a ghost town, it was what the closures and loss of thousands of jobs did to my community and my neighbours. Those mills had defined life in Utica for generations. And then they were gone. The stress of mass layoffs created tensions that tore families apart. One-third of the population was forced to leave in search of employment. In short order, Utica went from being a vibrant city to a depressed town with dilapidated neighbourhoods. And now a North Carolina town was going to suffer as Utica did – for much the same reasons.
A few months ago, I endorsed Bernie Sanders for President. There were many reasons, which I will describe in a moment, but high on my list is that I never forgot what happened to my hometown and so many other American cities across the Northeast and Midwest. Sanders earned my support because he understands what bad trade deals and corporate greed have done to our communities. While some politicians have paid lip service to consequences of factory closings and the exporting of jobs to Asia, Sanders is the only one who has addressed the issue forcefully and pledged decisive action to protect American workers and their communities. I realise, of course, that Sanders isn’t going to bring back the Utica of the 1960s, but what he has done is shine a light on the corporate greed that continues to put their interests ahead of their responsibility.
I have also been impressed with the way Sanders speaks the unvarnished truth about other long-ignored critical issues facing the country like: Income inequality, the corrupting role of big money in politics, and the need for universal healthcare coverage.
Equally impressive is the way young voters have responded to Sanders. They have been inspired by Sanders’ passion and authenticity and have become engaged in the process. Millennials have an instinct that can sniff out phonies. In the exit polls in state after state, Sanders overwhelmingly wins the support of voters under 35. And by a 70-point margin, young voters say that they trust Sanders more than his competitor.
I have also been impressed by Sanders’ opposition to committing US troops to fight in reckless wars and by his smart and courageous call for balancing concern for Israelis with concern for the Palestinians and by the compassion he has demonstrated for the suffering the Palestinian people have endured living under occupation. On this critical issue, Sanders not only has the best position of any candidate in the race – but also he has the best position of any major party candidate in decades. This came through so clearly in this week’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, New York. When asked why he had accused Israel of using disproportionate violence, he stood his ground calmly explaining his position to the cheers of his supporters.
Finally, I am deeply moved when I hear Sanders speak with a sense of awe at the trajectory – his life beginning with his father’s immigration to the US, his family’s hard work to succeed in this New World, all leading to his run for the presidency. It is a classic American story that resonates in so many ways. The fact that Sanders carries this story with him speaks volumes about the man. Early on, Sanders’ candidacy was ignored by the Press. Even now, his chances of winning the nomination are cynically dismissed. Through it all, this 74-year-old Brooklyn born son of a Polish immigrant continues to rack up victories while transforming our politics for the better. As another New Yorker once famously said, “it ain’t over till it’s over”. Stay tuned.