Home > Uncategorized > Why Bernie Matters – posted 4/12/2020

Why Bernie Matters – posted 4/12/2020

Since Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign, there has been an outpouring of testimonials about the man and the movement he inspired. A cynic might point out that Bernie became a hero when he exited the race. Honestly, there has been no one else remotely like Bernie on the national stage in my lifetime.

He has been the difficult truth-teller. Who else gives hell to the billionaire class and says there should not be any billionaires? Who spoke out against American military interventions in Latin America, Iraq and Iran and who else defended the rights of the Palestinian people? Who has been as consistently honest about economic inequality in America?

We know that households in the top 1% own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Really, at the top levels of American politics, Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are just about the only ones who would say it, let alone try to address it.

For a long time before Bernie gained prominence, an intellectual dishonesty prevailed in which the deeper problems in American life were sugar-coated and we were fed a shallow mythology that we are number one in everything. Bernie has played a critical role in puncturing that mythology. He is not a phony.

On issues like climate change, mass deportations, police murders of Black Americans and crushing student loan debt, Bernie was the skunk at the garden party. He told it like it was and he did not care who didn’t like it. He never poll-tested his answers. That kind of integrity cannot be bought.

He made $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and Green New Deal his signature campaign issues. No one had a bolder agenda. As he would often say at his rallies, pundits in 2016 accused him of being too radical but what was radical in 2016 became conventional wisdom in 2020. Bernie did win the ideological battle for the party platform.

Bernie showed that you could run for office without relying on big money campaign contributors who then expected payback. He pioneered another way to run with millions of people sending him $18 to $27 dollars. Defying all odds, he was financially competitive and actually raised more money than his Democratic competitors. Even by January 2020, Bernie had racked up contributions from over 5 million people. That is so small “d” democratic and sets an example to follow for future progressive campaigns.

The super-rich have been buying politicians forever and the U.S. Supreme Court has only helped that along. Many Democrats have argued that the party should take that millionaire/billionaire money because not to take it was unilateral disarmament. After all, that money from the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and others of their ilk is mother’s milk to the Republicans.

Bernie disagreed. He opposed Citizens United from day one, co-sponsoring the DISCLOSE act, which was the first legislative response to that court decision. He has always stood for enacting mandatory public financing laws for all federal elections.

For me, Bernie’s greatest achievement has been rehabilitating democratic socialism. Until Bernie ran in 2016, the Left was pretty much dead in America. There has been no consequential Socialist Party since Norman Thomas and not even a Labor Party.

For almost 50 years, the American ruling class has been successful in closing the door on progressive politics. During the Bill Clinton years, Democrats became Republican-lite. No American politician ever talked critically about capitalism as a system. That was taboo. Bernie made it possible to have that discussion. He showed how economic and political issues the public has seen as disconnected are rooted systemically in capitalism.

Also, by his example, Bernie helped to make it possible for people to say they were socialists. Any student of history knows how much Joe McCarthy-type red-baiting has inhibited the free speech rights of American progressives.

The Bernie campaign in 2019-2020 was not a conventional political campaign. It had more of the attributes of a movement. It was never about just winning the Democratic nomination. It was equally about strengthening social movements whether for workers’ rights, minority rights, women’s rights or LGBTQ rights. Bernie amplified the voices of the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans.

Core to the Bernie message has been his whole-hearted defense of working people. Most Democrats only talked about the middle class. Bernie departed from what had become a party norm. His central argument has been that working people of all races and nationalities deserve far better than they have received in America. To quote him:

“If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.”

This was a message received ambivalently at best by the Democratic Party establishment. The party establishment does not even recognize how much the economy has devastated workers across the country. Much of the party leadership has been more interested in appealing to urban and suburban members of the professional managerial class than workers.

The Party remains split between its centrist and progressive wings. It is almost like there are two parties inside one party. It will be fascinating to see how the Joe Biden campaign navigates these tricky waters.

Bernie unleashed remarkable energy and enthusiasm as was evident at his rallies. He inspired. It has often been noted that he won over a number of Trump voters. I think it is because he respected all kinds of people. There was no basket of deplorables with Bernie. This is a strength of his that was insufficiently appreciated. He wanted to bring over people who identified as Republican or independent and he was good at it. Look alone at his successful track record in Vermont.

He was never shy about going on FOX or walking into any lion’s den. He went to Jerry Falwell’s school Liberty University and made his case. He did not treat people who disagreed with him as un-people. He wanted to persuade them.

Part of Bernie’s contribution has been leading the way in bringing a new generation of millennials to democratic socialism. Think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlieb and Ilhan Omar as well as the thousands of young people brought into organizations like Democratic Socialists of America. Bernie carried the vote among young people overwhelmingly. He was more in touch with the realities of their lives even though he was the oldest candidate.

I think it is worth reflecting on why his campaign ultimately did not win. He never broke through with African Americans like he did with Latinos. He also did not do well with people over 50. His strategy of bringing in the 50% of people who don’t vote, especially young people, did not result in winning. Progressives should reassess and figure out what went wrong so the future might be different.

As someone from the 1960’s/1970’s New Left generation, I stand in awe of Bernie Sanders’ accomplishments, even losing. The movement that carries on will be in a far better place than it ever was before.

I saw the historian Heather Cox Richardson compare Bernie to the fiery abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner of the Civil War era. While it is a good comparison, I guess I see him as our era’s Eugene V. Debs. Bernie has fought the immiseration of our working class and almost single-handedly resurrected the American socialist tradition.

I think 100 years from now, if there are people to remember, Bernie will be honored for breaking from decades of a stifling political orthodoxy and pointing the way to a better life for all.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Debbie Socolar
    April 12, 2020 at 11:29 pm

    Excellent piece today, Jon — all very apt.

    It was striking to see him on MSNBC with Chris H the other day say he felt a need to get back to the Senate to work on the pandemic crisis. So down to earth.

    I also just got to read your interesting column from 4/5 — hadn’t heard that phone/cable idea before… smart!

    Amid all the emerging public health issues, worry about prospects for fall election, and risks of encroaching fascism, it’s striking to see a good many people talking about how this crisis, with its great disruption and its exposure of inequities, may be an opening to big positive changes. Hoping to find ways to help that happen!



    • April 13, 2020 at 11:58 am

      Hi Debbie, thanks for your support and reading! I do not really hear from anyone else from the old days. Sometimes I think it would be interesting to have a reunion but probably nobody wants to. Hard not to worry about things. Trump is certainly an authoritarian and you have to wonder about the fall election and even whether there will be one. Bernie had an honorable run and maybe he is not done at least as far as having huge impact. You stay safe and well!

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