Amy Glass is a California native who loves to ride horses and target shoot. She recently joined Martese Chism — a diehard sports fans from Chicago — and Irma Westmoreland — a grandmother from Augusta, Georgia — on a bus trip to South Carolina. The women have little in common, except that they are all nurses and they all support Bernie Sanders.
The nurses came together to visit South Carolina ahead of today’s Democratic primary, hoping to talk with voters about issues like universal health care, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and free higher education. After Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, South Carolina Democratic Party voters are up next in America’s long and arduous primary process.
South Carolina is an important state for Sanders and his supporters. National political pundits have dubbed it Clinton’s “firewall” because Democratic voters in the state, a majority of whom are African American, have less familiarity with the Vermont senator.
Clinton on the other hand, has been campaigning in the state for years, first with her husband in the 1990s and then again during her own election run in 2008. African Americans — who are almost always tacitly posited by mainstream pundits as a singular political entity rather than a diverse group of women and men with a range of political interests — are assumed to be heavily in Clinton’s camp.
Whether Sanders will be able to break through Clinton’s supposed firewall is unclear, but the importance of South Carolina goes beyond whether a self-described socialist in a crucial primary state — one that within some voters’ lifetimes was known to massacre striking workers and socialists — can attract a sizable share of votes.
South Carolina, the first state to try to secede from the United States during the Civil War, has long been a bastion of reactionary racial and economic conservatism; if Sanders’s “political revolution” is to have any legs nationally, it will need to make inroads in seemingly unlikely places.
“Where Do You Hurt?”
As the bus pulled to a stop in a working-class African-American neighborhood on the outskirts of Columbia, the nurses, dressed in red nursing scrubs, gathered for a quick talk. “We’re just talking to people,” one said, “seeing what’s going on with them right now.” “Yes,” another nurse agreed, “just asking folks, where do you hurt?” I followed along, watching as the nurses fanned out and walked up to the houses on the block.
It was late afternoon, so a lot of people weren’t home. But some were, and watching the interactions, the strength of these nurses as advocates for Sanders and his program became immediately apparent. People didn’t immediately close the door; they listened to what the nurses had to say, seemingly confirming Gallup’s consistent rating of nurses as America’s most trusted profession.
And the nurses’ approach was fitting — after all, they spend their days asking their patients “where do you hurt” and doing everything in their power to alleviate that pain. As the nurses slowly trickled back to the bus, I asked them how it went. “We had some good conversations” they said, and “people are hurting.”
Later in the day the bus stopped at a Columbia convenience store — the only place for miles where residents can buy food. The nurses filed out into the parking lot, chatting with the people milling about and the mechanics in the repair shop next door.
Pam Darpel, a nurse from Kansas, had a particularly long conversation with one of the mechanics, so I asked her what they talked about and whether she had convinced him to vote for Sanders. “Well he voted for Rubio in the Republican primary,” she told me. “But after we talked for a while and he told me about not being able to afford to send his daughter to college because his pay had not been raised in almost a decade, and after I told him about Sanders’s educational and economic plans, he said he thought he would vote for Sanders if he got another chance.”
These kinds of encounters happened a lot in South Carolina. Three Republican voters told me that they had voted for a candidate other than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz but that they also liked Sanders. One exceedingly polite older gentleman told me that he liked John Kasich a lot but if his favored candidate did not win the Republican nomination, he planned to vote for Sanders.
In rural Clarendon County, southeast of Columbia, the nurses met with some farmworkers. Curtis Dixon, a day laborer who works ten to twelve hours a day chopping collard greens with a machete, told them that on a good day he’s able to make $40 to $50 — well below the minimum wage. Dixon is paid by every box of greens he fills, not by the hour, so it’s legal for him to be paid so little. Supporting a family with four children, he struggles to keep his water and power on while still affording to feed his family.
The nurses, who every day see the suffering caused by inequality and America’s abysmal health care system, were visibly shaken by Dixon’s story. Before they walked back to the bus Dixon told the nurses, “I’m going to make sure I get everyone and anyone to vote for Bernie Sanders . . . No one in America should have to do that for this amount.”
Dixon and his family, hailing from one of the country’s poorest areas, and the thousands of people like him in South Carolina and across the country, constitute what the American media has blithely lumped together as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall.”
Solitary Around Shared Concern
Sanders and Clinton are essentially tied in elected delegates (the unelected “superdelegates”— leading party officials who aren’t bound by the will of voters — are another story), but Clinton will in all likelihood win today’s primary. Many of the Democratic voters I spoke to had never heard of Bernie Sanders until the last week or two, while Clinton, like Donald Trump, benefits from having one of the world’s most recognized names.
But watching the nurses build support for Sanders — sacrificing their time and spending weeks far away from their families — I saw a different picture from the one painted in the mainstream media.
Instead of pat campaign stories about angry voters and a starkly divided country, I saw people finding common ground around basic issues like making sure their children had opportunities, that a hard day’s work should at the very least allow you to keep your lights on and feed your family, and that all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, are hurting.
Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” has frequently been labelled naïve by the Clinton campaign and mainstream political pundits. But the nurses I spent time with are certainly not naïve; they are a group of people determined to build bridges and establish solidarity around shared concerns. They are working to replicate in the political arena what they do every day in their hospitals and clinics — talk to people, find out where they hurt, and come up with solutions to lessen the pain.