Bernie Sanders—Yes or No?

What we can learn from Bernie—and what will ultimately sink his campaign

The 58th Presidentiad, to use Walt Whitman’s coinage, is upon us, and among its biggest surprises is the spirited campaign of Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from the Green Mountain State. I asked three of my favorite Vermonters for their impressions of Sanders.

John McClaughry of Kirby, self-described “decentralist agrarian Reaganaut,” offered the harshest assessment: “I have watched Bernie in Vermont for the past 35 years, since he and his radical hippie pals took over the tiny dirt-poor town of Stannard. To his credit, Bernie has defiantly called himself a socialist from the beginning, even under pressure to ‘tone it down.’ He remains fully committed to 1960s (if not 1860s) Marxism, and every morning he sets out to advance the socialist movement and defeat its enemies.”

“His performance as mayor of Burlington was overall innovative,” McClaughry concedes, “although he still takes flak from his radical comrades for promoting a corporate redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, and for arresting his radical friends protesting at the GE armaments plant (who were trying to keep union workers from their jobs).”

“On the down side, Bernie is impervious to facts. He’ll say anything to advance the movement, and he’s not technically lying. You have to know the truth before you can lie, and for Bernie the Truth is what is required to be true by Marx’s scientific theory of history.” thisarticleappears copy

Is there a decentralist tinct to Sanders? “Only in the sense that the left must seize control of local institutions of government to advance the movement. Ultimately all power must be centralized in the national government, to advance the movement, correct inequality of wealth, defeat the little yellow and brown people who are taking American jobs, and thwart the evil Koch Brothers.”

Rob Williams, yak-herding Champlain College professor and publisher of 2VR, has worked with Sanders “on issues of corporate control of our U.S. imperial media culture.” He admires “Bernie’s independence, his outspokenness, his impatience with bullshit.” Sanders’s “ability to ‘live and let live’ with politicians on both sides of the D.C. aisle … makes him Vermonty. Other than this, he’s a Brooklynite through and through.”

“I like his slightly unkempt and casual appearance and his uniquely compelling charisma,” says Williams. “He is easily the best ‘honest deliverer of bad news’ we have of any of our elected politicians in D.C.—climate change, Wall Street takeover, collapse of the middle class, corporate greed—and he’s been saying all this for decades.”

“On the other hand, Bernie’s unequivocal support for the Pentagon’s F-35 Burlington-based joint strike fighter baffles and infuriates me. I find his cozying up to Lockheed and Sandia Labs perplexing, and his support for Israel maddening.”

“Bernie knows I am a secessionist,” says Williams. “I have often suggested he run for president of the 2nd Vermont Republic. I’m not sure he appreciates this.”

Williams is “proud Bernie the Vermonter is roaring,” but he believes that “no single program, party, platform, or politician can keep the U.S. empire from its lumbering debt-driven collapse. Not even Bernie—and he knows this. As a remedy to imperial ills, his campaign is, rationally speaking, a dead end.”

Frank Bryan, professor of political science emeritus at the University of Vermont and author of Real Democracy, the classic study of town meeting, has done radio and television ads for Sanders in previous campaigns.

Sanders, says Bryan, is an “intense partisan” who is “imprisoned by his own ideology.” He is “driven by a combative personality prone to hyperbole,” but Frank finds it “refreshing to have a congressperson who truly understands the plight of the working class get up on his soap box and pull no punches.”

“Bernie in Burlington or Starksboro or any town in Vermont’s governance: ‘Yippie!’ Bernie in Washington—aside from constituency service—so what? He may be able to nitpick here and there but in the final analysis he’s simply one more vote for what is all too often a mishmash of political compromise that the center (Washington) churns out to be structured and implemented by the bureaucracies.”

“I guess from a therapeutic point of view, Bernie is good for the left in America. But unfortunately it’s the centralized left. (You and I might think that’s an oxymoron and we’d be right.)” 

“But here’s the real problem,” concludes Bryan. “Bernie is either too old to realize he’s too old to be president (I doubt that) or he’s just doing this to ‘send a message.’ Ranting and raving on a grand scale by an old man (who most of us in Vermont really like) would be akin to me also at age 74 making a pass at Scarlett Johansson at a cocktail party. I might have plenty to say but the whole thing would be sad to witness—especially for those who care about me the most.” 

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.

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28 Responses to Bernie Sanders—Yes or No?

  1. Brian says:

    So “no” then?

  2. Jeremy says:

    I like Bernie, but I feel he’s limited by sticking with the Democrats, especially when it’s guys like Rahm Emanuel who still run the show in the party.

  3. libertarian jerry says:

    What I don’t understand about people like Bernie Sanders is that after all the decades of the proven failures of Socialism,whether Welfare Statism or Marxist Communism,that the Bernie Sanders socialists still believe in this failed collectivist religion. The stacks of corpses,the wasted lives,the bankrupted economies and the inevitable centralization of power into the hands of one despot after another proves socialism’s failure. Capitalism,not crony capitalism,but true free market capitalism,despite its rough edges has,worldwide,taken more people out of poverty and into the middle classes and above then all the socialist systems combined. Its amazing that people still believe in the fairy tale world called socialism that has ruined so many lives.

  4. TB says:

    McClaughry and Bryan, the two Bernie dismissers, are friends and wrote a book together. Neither offered more than categorical criticisms of Sanders. (Too old, radical, opinionated, Marxist, impervious to facts etc.) This tells me that, other than the dubious contention that advanced age should be a disqualifier, they have nothing to say.
    Bernie opposes:
    – the Gilded Age wealth gap of today’s America
    – Citizens United
    – the Student Debt Industrial Complex
    – Global Warming denialists
    – Occupation of Middle Eastern countries
    – Financial Industry control of US politics
    – Increase in minimum wage

    All of the above are majoritarian positions. Sander is a centrist.

  5. Antony says:

    Bernie’s impervious to facts? So the banks are really giving us a great deal for the government support we throw at them? College is too cheap? The Iran Nuclear Deal is endangering Israel? I’m confused as to what the “facts” are, I reckon…

  6. AndyG says:

    @libertarianjerry
    Totalitarianism and fascism failed in the worst way imaginable- Bernie’s brand of socialism is very similar to what the great majority of modern nations have. He’s certainly not a Marxist or Maoist- this is where “conservatives” get off track.
    No, he’s not “one of us,” but that doesn’t necessarily make him The Enemy.
    Oh, and I don’t think you can call one of the few people who voted against the Iraq invasion “impervious to the facts.”

  7. Steve in Ohio says:

    Sanders seems to be the Gene McCarthy of this generation. After convincing LBJ to leave, Gene was pushed aside for insiders Bobby Kennedy and Humphrey. Likewise Bernie will be pushed aside for Elizabeth Warren will talks a good game, but won’t do as much to rock the boat especially in foreign policy.

  8. Elliot says:

    Does John know that socialism and Marxism aren’t the same thing ?

  9. Stumble says:

    What I don’t understand about people like Bernie Sanders is that after all the decades of the proven failures of Socialism,whether Welfare Statism or Marxist Communism,that the Bernie Sanders socialists still believe in this failed collectivist religion. The stacks of corpses,the wasted lives,the bankrupted economies and the inevitable centralization of power into the hands of one despot after another proves socialism’s failure. Capitalism,not crony capitalism,but true free market

    Sanders is much more of the Netherlands and European model than the Stalinist Socalist. To argue that these countries have failed simply isn’t true.

  10. Sophie says:

    I don’t think a Marxist would talk about defeating ‘yellow and brown people’.

  11. Jeremy says:

    @AndyG, I don’t think Sanders is a socialist so much as he just wants to bring back the economic and labor policies of the 1950s-70s. Of course, that is still anathema to libertarians even though it was the most prosperous era in US history.

  12. I was born and raised in Vermont, and I still have a soft spot for it, but Sanders and his ilk have effectively ruled the state for 25 years and they have not been good ones.

    Vermont is economically stagnant, at the bottom of virtually every indicator and only better than states like Mississippi and West Virginia. It cannot pay for its vast welfare system or large bureaucracy, depending on federal transfer payments. Outside of Chittenden County and Montpelier, the vast majority of jobs are seasonal and pay at or less than minimum wage.

    Environmental regulations have killed the possibility of development in most of the state, while grandiose infrastructure projects are proposed every year that never get built because they would cost too much and serve too few people.

    Demographically speaking, Vermont is for retired hippies who like their heroin cheap, their beer overhopped and do all their actual shopping in New Hampshire.

  13. Ken Hoop says:

    The guy is appreciably to the right of Dennis Kucinich on matters of foreign policy, especially but not exclusively where Israel is concerned.

  14. Michel Boyer says:

    To Matthew Robare,

    As a Canadian I obviously have no say in this debate. However, for the record (Facts) please read the following:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/10/the-best-and-worst-performing-state-economies-in-america/64307/#slide4

    Vermont is in fourth place for economic indicators.
    Regards

  15. Tom says:

    Carl Zuckmayr was a famous German writer and opposed Hitler. First he fled to Hollywood but couldn´t stick it there. Then he became a farmer in Vermont and wrote a book about it after having come back to Germany. Democracy as practised in Vermont was to his mind the real fulfillment of the American dream. And I might quote another German exile – Robert Bek Gran – who stayed in the States because there were places like Vermont. I have never been there but from everything I read it seems as if it is an unusual part of the States. I don´t think Sanders could have become Senator anywhere else. And I don´t think you can turn the US into some big version of Sweden. It is certainly an illusion fostered by living in Vermont. Still I like this guy and especially his stance on guns. It is neither big city liberal condemnation nor crazy everybody-get-a-submachine-gun militia madness.

  16. Austin Rebreh says:

    A beautiful quote about Vermont from Calvin Coolidge

    I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont

  17. I worry about his age too. We should be able to move well beyond the limited vision of the 60s, and we need a president who has their feet firmly planted in the 21st century. (I’m too old too, and I’m only 61). However, I don’t have any concern that bodies will be piled up like cordwood by Bernie Sanders’ socialist administration.

  18. I’d be interested to read your and/or your friends’ responses to my Front Porch case for Bernie, Bill.

  19. Mr. Libertarian says:

    “The lion’s share of the blame goes to the corporatist wing of the Democratic Party- the Hillary Clinton wing.
    “Do you know why populists are gravitating towards people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Because they don’t talk in the typical, politician fashion. They don’t skirt issues because they are afraid to take a stand for fear they’ll alienate a voter or two. They are honest, open, candid, and straightforward.
    “But instead, we’re stuck in this Clinton-era time warp. Do you realize that the 2016 election could likely be Clinton vs. Bush- just like in 1992? We need to abandon political nepotism. We have to move on from the failed ideas of the past, and embrace candidates who represent new generations of Americans- generations that are coming of age with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt; generations that are facing a job market that won’t let them in; generations that are begging the old guard to protect our environment so that we have a habitable planet 20 years from now.
    “It’s time to say goodbye to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, which also happens to be the corporate wing of the party.” –Farron Cousins, Midterm Losses a Teachable Moment for Progressives, The Trial Lawyer, Winter 2014, at 60.

  20. Grumpy Old Man says:

    Widen the damned Overton Window. Scandinavian-style social democracy has its faults, but it ain’t Stalinism or Maoism.

    I’d like to see a Sanders-Trump election before I die. Just for the human comedy of it, and to imagine that H.L.Mencken is still with us.

  21. Dain says:

    “Does John know that socialism and Marxism aren’t the same thing ?”

    That’s the clincher. While Marxism for decades insisted they were one and the same, we know from experience they can be separated.

    The libertarian right can’t point to any actual, truly libertarian “states” to show that it can be distinguished from mere nutty ideologues.

    Conservatism has it somewhat better than the libertarians on the realism front, but the rhetoric smacks of dangerous evil fascism. And they can’t point to places where fascism has ruled sanely and not dangerously. “Where are all the fascist parties ruling in nice places like western Europe?”

    They what, maybe have Singapore?

    The Overton Window has been kind to the left, mostly because they get to determine what’s seen through it. They’ll nitpick among the left to painfully distinguish good left from bad left to show leftism shouldn’t be given up on. But the right is a big dangerous homogenous blob of evil, and right-wing attempts to nitpick the good from the bad fall on deaf ears.

  22. Romerus says:

    Those who argue (against the voices of such as Cornel West I might add) that Bernie Sanders has a racial obtuseness problem or worse are almost certainly playing with peoples’ minds, dizzying the partridge, as they say in Spanish. Sanders doesn’t have a problem vis a vis the black community that Hillary doesn’t have ten or a hundred times over. Let us all recall that she and her husband both promoted legislation that was specifically designed to both play the race card, buy off the white rural male vote (aka Bubba) by redirecting billions of dollars in federal funds from serving chronically depressed and distressed impoverished black and minority communities and alchemizing it into 100,000 new police jobs, prison jobs, new prisons, police gear and accoutrements, etc: a dastardly and predatory solution to a problem for which African Americans and other vulnerable, generally impoverished, communities bore no determining responsibility, i.e. the problem of outsourcing and offshoring that robbed working class jobs from all the ethnic and white communities to begin with. President Clinton contributed rollingly (and was paid royally) for inaugurating a new era of superoutsourcing, per the dictates of his Wall Street patrons: another nail in the economic coffin of the black community, which was then dispatched for additional political and economic profit by having its youth sent to jails at unprecedented (but entirely preventable) levels and with concomitant celerity. Bill Clinton’s second term, and by extension his wife’s ongoing political future, was bought at the cost of the lost liberty of hundreds of thousands of black, minority, and other impoverished American youth, but that cost and that payment were always externalities from which he, like all presidents, would always remain profitably immune.

  23. DesertDavey says:

    And, incidentally, “socialism” is NOT the same thing as “Marxism”, despite how intently, and intensely, the righties try to conflate the two (for purely partisan advantage-taking, of course).

  24. Jim Houghton says:

    Interesting viewpoints. But when John McClaughry equated socialism with Marxism…that made it an effort to go on reading.

  25. Arthur Taylor says:

    One thing that I am assuming about Senator Sanders is that he is not running for president because he “wants” to be President. It seems to me he is running because he believes that somebody – anybody (and if needs be, even him) – HAS to put forth his current message at this time and this place.

    Therefore, those of us who agree with his message (I am one of them), will need to simply accept the messenger and pray mightily that he be able to complete his calling.

    Two, his take on the economy and most importantly the fraud and economic propaganda that has been fed to the American people for the last 40 years (and was codified during Clinton’s tenure) is dead on. The Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman ideals and theory is utter B.S. and Sanders knows it. What has been sold to us as economic truth is merely unworkable theory and it has been a failure for America.

    As for his social views? Meh. I am old enough to know you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

    But can you imagine what will happen to America’s collective character if we elect this man? If we vote for a man who is in it for more than himself? If we vote for a man to whom the truth and personal honor mean something? A man who is not owned?

    And can you imagine what this campaign would be without Sanders and Trump? Entire debates about abortion, school prayer, gay marriage and any other idiotic subject that will distract us from the fact that our plutocratic masters are absolutely robbing us of our money and our jobs and our future as we speak.

    Thank God for Bernie Sanders! May the good Lord give him the strength to finish.

  26. Jim Houghton says:

    Jeremy, the 50’s-70’s were a time of prosperity because we were the only manufacturing economy that hadn’t been destroyed in WWII. It’s easy to have unions when you’re only fighting among yourselves over how to slice up a very large pie. Those days are gone, sir. Gone. Unions still have a place in our economy, but they’ll never return us to the days when an auto worker could have a speedboat and a cabin in the woods.

  27. cka2nd says:

    Jim Houghton says: “Unions still have a place in our economy, but they’ll never return us to the days when an auto worker could have a speedboat and a cabin in the woods.”

    How about we at least try it, Mr. Houghton? If we can re-play the Gilded Age and the age of trusts and monopolies, I think we can give trust busting, high marginal taxation and high levels of unionization another go-round. Or we can just bring back the guillotine and the Committee of Public Safety. Believe me, the latter has its appeals.

  28. cka2nd says:

    AMEN, Romerus, Amen.

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