May 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Electoral distancing

By Oscar Schwartz
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Australia’s Bernie Sanders volunteers

Somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean, in the year 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette penned a letter to his pregnant, teenaged wife, explaining why he had abandoned her in Versailles to go fight the British for a speculative country that would one day be called the United States of America. “The welfare of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind,” the recently orphaned, 19-year-old French aristocrat wrote to his young bride. “She will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and a peaceful liberty.”

During the first few months of 2020, a cohort of young Australians were overcome by a similar spirit, but instead of taking up arms and setting sail to the New World, they opened their laptops in Brunswick, Redfern, Glenelg East, and placed calls and sent texts to prospective voters in Houston, Little Rock, Las Vegas. They were trying to convince the citizens of another country that Bernie Sanders, the progressive senator from Vermont, was perhaps America’s last hope for fulfilling its historical promise, convinced, like Lafayette, that the worries of America are the worries of a wider humanity.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 prohibits any foreign national from making “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” in connection with any US election. But there are no prohibitions against volunteering from overseas. The Sanders campaign – famous for mobilising vast networks of unpaid volunteers – made international, web-based volunteering particularly easy in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries via the campaign’s online platform. A willing volunteer, whether in New York or Melbourne, needed only to watch a brief online tutorial video and pass a simple quiz before being allowed to participate in American democracy.

Tharini Rouwette, a 38-year-old business development consultant from Hawthorn East, first became interested in American politics while studying communications as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was 2008 and Rouwette, like many others, found herself deeply inspired by Obama’s electoral victory. American democracy’s capacity for endless reinvention, she explained to me, offered an aspirational alternative to politics in her home country of Singapore, “where you have had only one political party rule the country in, like, forever”.

In 2016, Rouwette moved to Melbourne to take a job at the community television station Channel 31. Eager to establish a political identity in her new home, she surveyed the full span of the Australian party-political landscape – briefly joining the Liberal Party – but found what she saw parochial and uninspiring. “I couldn’t identify a single politician in Australia who was bold,” she says. “There were no new ideas.”

During the US Democratic primaries that year, Rouwette – still plugged into political news in the States – saw people posting enthusiastically about Bernie Sanders. His radical message, she felt, provided a stark contrast to the insipid vision offered by Australian politicians. “I saw something in that man that I didn’t even see in Obama,” she tells me. “For him, progress meant that you uplift the lives of those who are oppressed, and that really resonated with me.”

After Sanders lost the 2016 nomination, Rouwette continued to follow his progressive movement online, and connected with others on the Facebook page “­Australians Supporting Bernie Sanders”. In January this year, the Sydney-based moderator of the group asked followers in other cities if they could organise events. Rouwette put her hand up. On February 9, she hosted her first phone-banking and texting event at the Starbucks cafe at Southern Cross Station. It was noisy, un-air-conditioned and crowded. “I was expecting to be just on my own,” she says, “but, no, people did turn up.”

Among them was 34-year-old Ryan Mickler. Mickler grew up in Fremantle and discovered a political consciousness as a teenager in 1998 during the Australian waterfront dispute, when Patrick Stevedores sacked its entire workforce of 1400 wharfies all at once. At university, Mickler was loosely involved with the Labor Party, but grew disaffected after watching its leaders abandon the unions and, as he puts it, slide into “some sort of centrist miasma” the moment they assumed power.

In 2013, Mickler moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, to undertake a PhD in the mathematics of string theory at Northeastern University. As Obama’s second term in office came to an end, conversation on campus turned to who his successor might be. The media was focused on Hillary Clinton, but among Mickler’s peers there was talk of a senator from Vermont who was uncompromisingly loyal to the working class, with a justice-focused message that could attract an intersectional supporter base. “It was a modern form of socialism that I found very appealing,” Mickler says.

In 2016, Mickler participated in local organising for Sanders with the Democratic Socialists of America. Then, after moving back to Australia in July last year – to launch a start-up that delivers AI solutions for mineral processing – Mickler also quickly connected with pro-Sanders Australians online. Before long he was helping Rouwette organise the Melbourne volunteer contingent with phone-banking.

Making calls, Mickler tells me, is intense and occasionally hostile, but more often than not deeply rewarding. He recalled one conversation with a man in Brownsville, Texas. “He was really disappointed about how much all the local Democrats had been just all-in for the oil and gas industry, especially after the spill in Texas. And I talked to him about how we have the same problem here with the bushfires,” Mickler says. “It showed that Bernie’s ideology is a true form of internationalism. The boundaries of country don’t really constrain the kind of empathy that you should have for your fellow human.”

While not a replacement for local organising, the Australians supporting Sanders I spoke to all suggested that the possibilities for international solidarity are deepened by social media. Indeed, this is where I first encountered the “Australians for Bernie” phenomenon. A tweet from a young woman called Ashley Sutherland was, for some unknown algorithmic reason, promoted on my feed. She was wearing circle sunglasses and hoop earrings, holding up a T-shirt with “MelBerniens” imprinted across the chest. “Hell yeah just did some texts and calls,” the tweet read.

Sutherland, I learnt, is a 24-year-old masters student at the University of Melbourne studying social policy. She comes from the southern suburbs of Adelaide, was the first in her family to go to university, and makes rent working five days a week as a pokies reform campaigner at a not-for-profit organisation.

When she was growing up, her father, a tradesman, and mother, then a croupier at Adelaide Casino, avoided conversations about politics. “Politicians were snakes who didn’t care about the average person,” she says. At school, political apathy was considered “cool”. Sutherland, though, was eager for progressive change, and during her undergraduate years, Twitter became a platform where her political indignation could ramify within a broader, generational discourse. The rambunctious online movement of which Sanders was the gravitational centre was occasionally provocative, if not offensive at its fringes – she listens to the notoriously irreverent left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, as does Mickler – but this was infinitely preferable to the disenfranchised silence she grew up with. “I kind of thought if Bernie won, it would be like a hopeful image for my parents and people like them,” she says.

It was not to be. After showing early promise in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders faltered at Super Tuesday, and then faded into the background as the global pandemic hijacked all political bandwidth. The Australian volunteers I spoke to were disappointed, but not defeatist. Participation, they assured me, was less about electoral victory than highlighting the possibility of building a global, progressive movement online, across borders.

Of course, the internet has also proven to be a medium for political meddling, of which the Australian participants have, absurdly, been accused. While reporting this piece, I came across a tweet from an American journalist named Molly McKew who has amassed 124,000 followers by tweeting regularly about Russian foreign intervention in US elections. On March 2 she tweeted a link to a news story about the Australians supporting Sanders. “So, um, this is also foreign election interference,” she wrote.

Who is Molly McKew, I wondered while reading the tweet, and why does she care about a couple of Australians phone-banking for Sanders? A quick search revealed that before her current role as Twitter pundit, McKew served as a foreign lobbyist for and adviser to Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who led the country during the 2008 war with Russia. Saakashvili himself briefly became the subject of online attention during the conflict, when he was filmed chewing on his red necktie during an interview with the BBC. “The worries of one’s own country,” he later explained, “can make a person eat his tie.”

Oscar Schwartz

Oscar Schwartz is a Melbourne-based writer.

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