Bernie Sanders's America

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

What can be gleaned from Senator Bernie Sanders’s new ad, targeted at voters in Iowa and New Hampshire? The spot is a classic montage of Americana—dairy farms, coffee shops, the Des Moines skyline, happy families, campaign rallies—set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” (You know the one: “They’ve all come to look for America.”) It’s a pretty great spot, with lots of warm fuzzies.

The images and messaging in an ad like this are never accidental, so let’s try to parse out what they mean.

First, the ad is extremely positive—it’s all smiling faces and happy children, hardworking farmers and cheering crowds. That matches with Sanders’s vow, mostly kept, to run a positive campaign. Second, the ad is heavily steeped in classic Americana. In particular, the ad leans on rural imagery, fitting with it primary audience Iowa and New Hampshire. The message might also blunt the attempt by some allies of Hillary Clinton to tar Sanders as a socialist. See, look? He’s as American as mom and apple pie.

Still, it’s hard not to notice how white the ad is—I counted perhaps half a dozen people of color in the spot. (To say nothing of the soundtrack, by a group so Caucasian that The Late Tonight Show has a running gag about “Black Simon and Garfunkel.”) Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats are heavily white: One recent poll found 3 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa are black. Yet the broader Democratic electorate is much more diverse. More than 20 percent of Democratic voters in the last two elections were black, and the minority share of the Democratic vote is forecast to keep growing. That also happens to be Sanders’s weakest demographic. During the last Democratic debate, Sanders was asked about it. “When the African American community becomes familiar with my Congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice—just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African American community, so will the Latino community,” he said. This ad may not be part of the attempt to reach out to them.