Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders addressed a packed house Monday at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, becoming the latest in a slate of national political figures to appear on the center’s “American Forum” television series.
The weekly series, hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Miller Center faculty member Douglas Blackmon, presents more than 60 speakers annually, including high-ranking public officials, scholars and journalists.
“Our goal with ‘American Forum’ is to bring in the brightest thinkers in America and the people making some of the most important decisions for our country and to demonstrate that we can talk about politics and policy in an engaging way without all the yelling and accusations,” Blackmon wrote in an email.
“American Forum” discussions typically focus on national and international events, with recent topics including racial discord after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri; the rise of ISIS; and a conversation with Greece’s ambassador to the U.S., Christos Panagopoulos, about his nation’s debt crisis. All tapings are open to the public, and more than 250 PBS stations around the country air the episodes.
“We are excited to have Sen. Sanders here and hope that over the next few months we will have other candidates from both parties,” Blackmon said. “Our format allows us to engage these national leaders in a really thoughtful way that can be very revealing about who they are or about really complicated issues.”
Sanders, whose rapid rise in the Democratic Party’s presidential field has surprised many analysts, was the first among the presidential hopefuls to accept the Miller Center’s invitation to appear on the show, an opportunity extended to all Republican and Democratic candidates. The Vermont senator was greeted outside the center by an enthusiastic crowd, including many students, which gathered well before the senator arrived. Inside, an overflow audience watched the taping, which was also live-streamed on the Internet.
“It is great to have a presidential candidate in Charlottesville. You can just feel there is a lot of excitement,” said fourth-year student Katie Hall, speaking amid the crowd on the Miller Center’s lawn. “I thought this would be a good chance to get to see a candidate and hopefully learn about the issues that he is passionate about.”
Many students were still deciding which candidate would win their vote and were eager to hear Sanders speak in person, instead of relying on media representations.
“I am trying to get more into the politics scene here, and I thought it would be nice to inform myself and see what the candidate has to say firsthand, as opposed to reading an article or looking stuff up online,” said second-year student Trent Lefkowitz, standing in line with a group of classmates.
Other students, such as second-year Maeve Fidler, have supported Sanders since the beginning of his campaign.
“I was so excited to learn that he was coming here, and knew I had to do whatever I could to get here,” Fidler said. She was one of a group of dedicated students who arrived around 11:30 a.m. to claim a spot in line for the taping, which did not begin until 4 p.m.
“I feel amazingly lucky to get to see him,” Fidler said. “I kept hearing that he was going to other places and was crossing my fingers that he would come here.”
The 74-year-old Sanders, who serves as an independent in Congress and categorizes himself as a democratic socialist, began the presidential race as an outside hopeful, but surging poll numbers quickly put him at the center of the presidential discussion.
During the interview, Blackmon questioned Sanders on a range of issues, from health care and education legislation to foreign policy, drawing on his own research and on questions submitted by more than 200,000 social media users. In response, Sanders outlined a platform dedicated to addressing income inequality and advocated for affordable health care, tuition-free college, progressive taxation and aggressive climate change remediation measures.
Sanders’ overarching message focused on galvanizing a grassroots movement and drastically increasing public participation in American politics, especially among young voters, a demographic that he has proven popular with.
“The American people by the millions are going to have to get involved in the political process, taking on big money interests and fighting for their kids and their country,” Sanders said. “A lot of people are asleep at the wheel; they are not paying attention, they are not voting. Our job is to revitalize American politics, and when that happens, real change comes.”
After the taping concluded, the audience had the opportunity to question Sanders directly. Several U.Va. students addressed the senator, curious about his views on immigration, his strategy for reaching out to minority voters, and his decision to enter the presidential race.
The proceedings typified “American Forum’s” nonpartisan approach, with balanced questions that gave Sanders an opportunity to share his views while probing concerns about his candidacy.
“We are getting high-profile figures who actually appreciate that they are going to be asked complicated questions and challenged in constructive ways,” Blackmon said. “By producing a great television program – that looks as good as anything on network TV – and at the same time infusing it with the knowledge and wisdom of scholars like those we have at the Miller Center and U.Va., it can become something very special, exactly what public television is supposed to do.”