Carrie Owens’ condo feels like it’s 95 degrees, but she’s bundled up. At 83, the longtime civil rights activist is not slowing down anytime soon. The night before we visited, she was out presenting at a community meeting. On the day we talked, she was bringing her friend to a luncheon for retired teachers. One of her two phones is usually ringing. She apologizes for the interruption.
Sitting on her couch as yet another campaign ad comes on TV, the woman who grew up in Jim Crow-era Florida offers some gentle advice to Senator Bernie Sanders. Owens says she appreciates Sanders’ championing progressive causes and eliciting so much enthusiasm in young voters. But.
“I think he should take the warning that God gave him in October with the heart attack, and rest,” she says, a smile in her voice. “And I think he should give his support to Joe Biden.”
That is unlikely.
What’s more likely, though, is that even after Michigan Democrats vote in Tuesday’s primary, the same conversations will keep playing out in living rooms and bars across the state. The progressive wing vs. the moderates. Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden. Everyone knows the talking points: electability, polling, turnout. You get the feeling any one of them could be abruptly teleported to a cable news studio onto a live panel discussion.
“A fundamental shift”
These are the same talks Arjun Jayaraman is having with his parents. A passionate Sanders volunteer, he traveled from his East Lansing home to West Des Moines last month to serve as a delegate captain in Iowa.
“I was raised a good little Democrat by my mom,” he says, chatting at a Super Tuesday watch party organized by the Sanders volunteers in Lansing. It’s a friendly, fairly close-knit crowd. Most people look like they’re under 35. The potluck table is piled with pizza boxes, Miller High Life, and paper cups of champagne. Somebody’s at a giant whiteboard, updating an intricate, state-by-state breakdown of the delegate count.
At 38, Jayaraman is a little older than most of the crowd. His father is a college professor at Michigan State University, and the family has always been politically engaged. Jayaramen remembers his mom letting him stay up late to watch election returns when he was in second grade. “I cried when Dukakis lost, when I was 7 years old,” he laughs.
Jayaraman went on to get two degrees in electrical engineering from MSU and moved to the Bay Area, where he worked in tech and renewable energy.
“And then, I was diagnosed with MS,” he says.
That was 2012. By the next year, the multiple sclerosis was slowing him down at work. He lost his job. So he started volunteering as much as he could. First it was with the Occupy movement, and then the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change. As the disease progressed – first he needed a cane, then a wheelchair – his politics were evolving, too.
On the one hand, he saw his roommates, who still had great jobs at Tesla and a large solar company, feeling optimistic. “And they’re just so positive and, you know, everything’s just going up! And if you’re 23 and making $200,000, things are amazing,” he says.
Meanwhile, he was joining a community of disabled and chronically ill people, and learning to navigate the healthcare system. It was a system with bewildering gaps and years-long wait lists, where too many things seemed to rely on luck (he had a much easier time qualifying for disability benefits than others he knew, he thinks, just because he happened to have a good case worker.)
“Disabled people, you can see the stress of just trying to make it, on their bodies, you know?” he says. “And I’ve met people with Crohn’s disease and all sorts of other illnesses that have stacks of bill this big, because they’re not on Medicare.”
Now, in this election, Jayaraman and millions of others like him see only one candidate who they feel is truly trying to change the system, whether it’s health care, disability rights or the Green New Deal. And that’s Bernie Sanders.
“Because he represents a fundamental shift,” Jayaramen says. “And that’s why all these people are banding together to stop him, is because he represents a fundamental shift, and a different way of doing things.”
A return to “civility and normalcy”
Carrie Owens’ condo in Haslett is only a few miles from that Sanders party in Lansing. She appreciates the good Sanders has done, she says, and sympathizes with the desire for change. Because after more than half a century of activism, Owens is still working her 83-year-old butt off.
She rattles off the long list of legislators she called during the impeachment hearings. “Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, Elissa Slotkin, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Robert Menendez, Lindsey Graham….”
Owens left messages for every one of them. Except Mitch McConnell.
“I talked to him in person,” she says slyly, referring to their phone conversation. “Mmm hmm. In person.”
What she wants now is for her party to come together. “Because they need to get out of the broom closet and decide, you know, to unify. Because Donald Trump, he should be admitted!”
Biden, she believes, is the only one for the job. She truly admires and respects him, she says.
“I think Joe Biden can beat Trump and restore some civility and normalcy to our country. We’ve lost all respect for decency and humanity and everything. I think Joe Biden would be able to restore that.”
Like so many moderate Democrats, Owens believes selecting Sanders as their nominee would mean losing to Trump in November.
“I just don’t think the people in the U.S. are gonna vote for a socialist,” she says.
Where the debate gets stuck
And here we are, back at the electability argument. Sanders supporters repeatedly point to polling suggesting Sanders could defeat Trump. And they also talk about enthusiasm and turnout.
At that Super Tuesday party in Lansing, Arjun Jayaraman looks around the room at the people signing up to canvas for Bernie over the weekend. If Joe Biden is ultimately the nominee, Jayaraman says, maybe you could get all these people to vote for him, he says. Or maybe you couldn’t.
But it won’t be anything like this, he says.
“You won’t get my butt to wheel around town, knocking on doors for Biden. That’s not going to happen,” Jayaraman says. This kind of campaign work is exhausting, he says. “And that’s the biggest thing, is there will be a lack of enthusiasm.”
And this is why so many of these conversations get stuck. Because you’re never going to convince Jayaraman that the massive changes he feels are so urgently needed will be delivered by nominating another moderate, establishment Democrat.
And you’re never going toconvince Carrie Owens that the progressive causes she’s spent more than half a century working for won’t be put at risk by nominating a democratic socialist.
This isn’t a conflict that goes away after Michigan votes tomorrow, whoever wins.
And it’s likely not gonna go away even after Democrats finally pick a nominee.