The crowd waited anxiously. They milled and talked and began to chant, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” as they waved signs and clapped. The excitement as 7 pm approached was palpable. “Feel the Bern” read signs, and the crowd duly took up the chant.
B – E – R – N – I – E! the chant had become as the clock struck the hour, and then the applause began, building to a crescendo, human thunder, signs waving, as Bernie Sanders took to the podium and waved.
“Tonight,” he told the crowd when they had quieted, “we have made a little bit of history. Tonight, we have more people at a meeting for a candidate for president of the United States than any other candidate …” By now, the applause, as they took up the chant again, was deafening. “Thank you.”
Responding to a billboard “welcoming” him to Wisconsin by labeling him an “extremist,” Sanders told the crowd that,
The view of the majority of the American people are a little bit different. We believe the time has come when people…from all over this country create a political movement that says to the ruling class: you can’t have it all.
And what we are saying to the Koch brothers, Governor Walker, and all of those people, is that this great country and our government belong to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy people.
Sanders had some ideas about government he wanted to share, an appealing alternative to what government has become in America today:
“What politics should simply be about is people coming together, taking a hard look at the problems we face, listen to different ideas, and then go about solving those problems.”
“Despite what the media may think, politics is not a baseball game,” he said. “Politics is not a soap opera. What politics is about in a democratic society is coming together and improving life for other people.” What we have instead, he said, is the Kochs electing people who will make the rich richer “and everyone else poorer.” This is not democracy, he said. This is oligarchy.
He told Wisconsin progressives that,
This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is about you. It is about putting together a grassroots movement of millions and millions of people who stand together and make it clear that we need fundamental changes in the economics and politics of this country so that government works for all of us and not a handful. We need an unprecedented grassroots movement. A politically conscious grassroots movement.
The big money interests, Wall Street, corporate America, all these guys have so much power that no president can defeat them unless there is an organized grassroots movement making them an offer they can’t refuse. And this is what this campaign is about. A political revolution in America, a revolution which takes on the greed of Wall Street and corporate America.
Sanders addressed what have become familiar themes in his campaign, as he explained to the crowd what we are facing: the profound imbalance of income inequality he termed “grotesque,” the “proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the exact same time millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages.” This is not, he said, “What America is supposed to be about.”
This is a rigged economy, and brothers and sisters, together we are going to change that! This campaign is sending a message loud and clear to the billionaire class, and that is that you can’t get tax breaks when children in America go hungry! You cannot continue to send our jobs to China when millions of Americans are desperately looking for work! You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens when we have so many unmet needs in America!
His message to these billionaires was simple: “We will end the greed of the corporate class for them.”
“In my view…it is time to break up the largest financial institutions in this country. Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial investments while expecting the public to bail it out. In my view…if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”
He condemned Citizens United, saying that “The American political system has been totally corrupted and the foundations of American democracy are being undermined…What the Supreme Court said in so many words to the wealthy is, now we are going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government, and that is what they are trying to do right now.” In response, he called for the public funding of elections.
Wealth has been taken from the middle class and given to the wealthy. In response, “Our job,” he said, “Is to redistribute wealth back into the hands of working families.”
He admitted he will be outspent in this campaign:
But we are going to win this election because if we do our job well, if we develop the grassroots national movement that I know we can, at the end of the day they may have the money, but we have the people, and when the people stand together, we can win. Thank you all very much.
It was an inspiring speech from a great orator. The crowd, which filled the Alliant Energy Center, heard what they wanted to hear from Sanders, and interrupted with applause again and again, sometimes to almost painful decibel levels.
Bernie Sanders came to Wisconsin, the old home of American progressivism, and called for a political revolution to shake the foundations of America. Change, he had told them, “Takes place from the bottom on up. It is never from the top on down.” And last night, in Madison, from the bottom up, from the elderly to students, that change began.
Photos by Hrafnkell Haraldsson