Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.
Bernie Sanders—Yes or No?
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.”
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.”