Naomi Klein says she’s nervous, and she sounds it. Standing before a crowd of about 2,000, Klein has plenty of experience speaking at rallies; she’s been doing that for decades. What she’s never done before is speak at a rally to endorse a presidential candidate. That changes tonight.
For 20 years, the Canadian journalist and activist has been writing and speaking about how capitalism has shaped politics to the detriment of people and the environment: She did it in No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, This Changes Everything, and in her most recent book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, which came out in September. She always felt, she told the crowd, that social movements should keep their distance from electoral politics, but on Saturday night she crossed what she calls “a personal Rubicon.” She endorsed Bernie Sanders.
At one of several Iowa campaign events this weekend, including a large “climate crisis summit” in Des Moines, Sanders—along with Green New Deal mastermind Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps an equal draw for the crowd assembled in convention hall at the Coraville Marriott—talked up his plan to address the climate crisis and his just-released immigration plan, which calls for, among other things, abolishing ICE, halting deportations, rescinding President Trump’s Muslim ban, securing labor rights for undocumented workers, and creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
In their remarks, both Klein and Ocasio-Cortez stressed that these plans need to work in concert: The climate crisis will create many new immigrants and refugees—in fact, it already is—and the United States needs just policies that will treat them with compassion and dignity. Indeed, Sanders’ immigration plan calls for the U.S. to accept “at least 50,000 climate migrants in his first year in office.”
“What is happening on our planet is unprecedented,” Klein said, noting the fires that are wreaking havoc in California, as well as the heavy rains and floods that made planting season especially short in Iowa this year. When people flee environmental destruction like floods and fire, they need to be met with humane immigration systems, and not, “with another kind of fire, the fire of hate.”
Klein said that though other candidates have plans for addressing the climate crisis, Sanders’ version of the Green New Deal, which calls for comprehensive changes to almost every aspect of American life—how we construct buildings, how we get around, how we farm—is “head and shoulders above the rest,” because of its “scale” and “boldness.” It’s the only plan that matches the scale of the crisis, she said.
Climate change was certainly top of mind for Kayla Elam, a 25-year-old dental hygienist from Peoria, Illinois, who’s lived in Iowa for two years. Elam’s been to several Sanders rallies already, and this time, she’d brought along her friend Emily Trudeau, a 26-year-old medical student at the University of Iowa. “Everything that he cares about is exactly what I need our candidate to care about,” Elam said. “Climate change, money out of politics.”
“We love Bernie,” Trudeau added. “He’s our candidate.”
Jessica Moore, who’s 35 and drove about half an hour with her husband to get to the rally, wasn’t so sure. She’d come out of a sense of curiosity and thoroughness: She said Bernie was probably too far left to be her candidate, but that she wanted to hear him out before ruling him out. Like Elam, she called climate change her number-one issue.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, who took the stage after Klein, Trudeau said she was “also a big draw. She’s a representative of the people, and I appreciate that.”
“She’s pretty inspirational and cool,” Elam added, “and she genuinely cares about everything, just like Bernie does.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who’d spent some of the morning knocking on doors in the Des Moines suburbs, urged rally-goers to reject cynicism and give themselves permission to imagine transformational change to America’s political system. She doubled down on the idea that climate change and immigration are inextricably linked: It’s immoral, she said, for American lawmakers to gripe about how hard it is to find workers to fill jobs while also rejecting immigrants who are desperate to come to the U.S. and do them.
Alluding to the wholesale overhauls laid out in the Green New Deal and Sanders’ Medicare for All plans, Ocasio-Cortez told supporters not to be swayed by those who call his agenda too radical and too expensive.
“If people with limited political imaginations can’t imagine an America that works for working people, that’s not our fault, it’s theirs,” she said, to huge applause. “It’s almost as though people can’t imagine that saving our planet is more important than a Wall Street bailout, because that happened just fine.”
Like the local politicians who spoke before her, and Sanders, who spoke after, Ocasio-Cortez emphasized the size of the crowds who came to see him in Iowa and in her district in Queens, New York, last month, as well as the strength of his donor and volunteer base. It was a not-so-subtle argument for the popularity of Sanders’ democratic socialist ideas in a crowded and fragmented primary that precedes a general election where many voters prize the ability to unseat Trump over everything else.
Sanders supporters don’t have to choose between doing what is popular and doing what is right, Ocasio-Cortez implied, because their candidate’s ideas are both. It was a message that resonated deeply with the riled-up crowd.
“We are not pushing the party left,” Ocasio-Cortez said, to massive applause. “We are bringing the party home.”
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