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Would Chesterton Be a Bernie Bro?

The Prince of Paradox criticized the excesses of capitalism and wanted a strong working class. But would he go as far as Sanders?
G.K. Chesterton

With his win (in the popular vote, at least) in Iowa and last week’s victory in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders appears to have landed the much-coveted role of Trump’s arch-nemesis. It’s fitting. A showdown between the two has all the trappings of an archetypal confrontation with the Jungian shadow-self, though I’ll leave it to my readers to decide who is the hero and who the shadow.

Both speak the language of economic nationalism and both have been known to talk tough on immigration. Both favor a restrained foreign policy, even if Trump has oft been led astray by the cadre of bomb-happy neocons with which he’s surrounded himself. Neither has much love for The New York Times. Most importantly, though, both are populists, regarded as dangerous aberrations by power brokers in their own parties. Don’t look now, but the DNC is this close to launching a #NeverBernie movement. At least one Democratic commentator has said openly that keeping Bernie from becoming the nominee is “almost as important” as defeating Trump, and the NYT Editorial Board wrote that to elect Bernie would be merely to exchange “one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.” Every other candidate on the Democratic slate hopes to suppress the populist energies that Trump unleashed. Bernie wants to re-direct them.

A Trump versus Bernie election would be a final rebuke to the political status quo. Cross that Rubicon and American politics will be animated, perhaps for a generation, by an ideologically ambivalent anti-elitism. The idols of both parties will be broken. In this strange political moment in which the categories and labels that previously organized our thinking are fast becoming obsolete, who better to turn to for re-orientation than the author known as the “prince of paradox”?

G.K. Chesterton, the British theologian, poet, journalist, art critic, novelist, and wit active during the early 20th century, is difficult to pin down politically as a man of either the Right or Left. The only thing that can be confidently said of him is that he was a populist. “I am not a Socialist,” he wrote, “just as I am not a Tory; because I have not lost faith in democracy.” With this in mind, I found myself wondering what Chesterton would make of Bernie.

First and most obviously, it seems clear to me that Chesterton would approve of Bernie’s direct populist appeal and his willingness to take an adversarial stance toward the rich and powerful. When the NYT Editorial Board questioned Bernie’s ability to get his agenda past a Republican-controlled Senate, his response highlighted this aspect of his political style. “You’re saying, how do I negotiate with Mitch McConnell?” Bernie said. “And I’ll tell you how I negotiate. Because when the people of Kentucky are demanding to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or health care for all or making their schools, public colleges and universities tuition-free, that’s the basis of negotiation. That’s how change comes about: you make an offer to Mitch McConnell that he cannot refuse.”

This proposed alliance of the executive and the populace against the political class echoes a similar affinity that Chesterton detected between the medieval English monarchy and the peasantry. In his Short History of England, he wrote that “a tyrant and a rabble” are alike in that “neither tyrants nor rabbles are snobs; they do not care a button what they do to wealthy people.” Chesterton goes so far as to say that even a bad king can be a friend of the people if his “oppression weakens the nobility and relieves the pressure on the populace.” If Bernie can mobilize voters against the political class and curtail the power of the donor class, he will be doing exactly what Chesterton believed a strong executive should do.

Chesterton’s oligarchic “nobility” plays the same role in his political vision that “billionaires” and “large corporations” play in Bernie’s. For Bernie as for Chesterton, the two-party system is largely a sham; both parties have been bought and paid for by the wealthy ruling class. Bernie’s website openly admits that the Democrats are as crooked as the Republicans. In Chesterton’s History, he likewise attributes the partisan disputes of the early 18th century to nothing more than “a difference about externals which divided the old agricultural gentry…from the new mercantile gentry.” Nor is the idea that neolibs and neocons have conspired to rig our economy against working- and middle-class Americans limited to left-wingers. Tucker Carlson has sparked debate across the American Right by railing against “vulture capitalism” and insisting that “[y]ou’d have to be a fool to worship” the free market.

So far, so good. Chesterton and Bernie would seem to agree on the need to, as Chesterton puts it, “resist the tendency of Capitalism to reach its natural culmination in slavery.” They might disagree, however, as to what form that resistance ought to take. Chesterton, who favored a distributist economy in which government regulation would prevent capital from accumulating in fewer and fewer hands, rejected socialism as a technocratic imposition that bore little relation to the actual values of the working class. Of course, when Chesterton writes about socialism, he’s using the classical definition: public ownership of the means of production. In this sense, Bernie is not a socialist. Instead, his democratic socialism follows the Nordic model and is ultimately “an enhanced, super-charged welfare state,” as Chuck Chalberg of Intellectual Takeout has written. Free college, free health care, almost free child care, and higher taxes await, but President Sanders won’t have the government owning and operating factories.

For Chesterton, however, a government-administered, cradle-to-grave welfare state was just as threatening as utopian socialism. Of the first true welfare state, created by Hohenzollern Germany in the years before World War I, Chesterton writes that “the German regimentation of the poor was the relapse of barbarians into slavery.” Capitalism may threaten the worker’s freedom, but so does the government dole. In Chesterton’s view, the welfare state aims at “protecting the poor against themselves” by allowing “an external power” to have “a finger in the family pie.” In Chesterton’s day, well-meaning social engineers wanted to ban alcohol. Today they’re after our vape pens and large sodas. Chesterton despised the nanny state and understood that government is no replacement for the family. He would almost certainly have rejected Bernie’s plan for government-subsidized child care.

Chesterton’s ultimate goal was “to restore the personal property of the poor and the personal freedom of the family.” He didn’t want a working class propped up by government handouts; he wanted it to stand proudly on its own.

Of course, I would be remiss if I ended this article without addressing the elephant in the room. If Sanders’ welfare policies weren’t a deal breaker for Chesterton, his extreme position on abortion certainly would be. It certainly is for me (even more so than Bernie’s warm regard for communist butchers like Castro). Legal abortion was still unthinkable in Chesterton’s time, but he was a staunch opponent of all forms of birth control. He also opposed eugenics in an intellectual climate in which anti-eugenicists enjoyed roughly the same level of esteem that anti-vaxxers do today.

If Chesterton were alive today, he might applaud Bernie’s populism and dream of setting him like an attack dog on the American oligarchy and its political cronies. But in the end, Chesterton’s elevation of the family over the state and his firm belief in the sanctity of human life would prevent him from going full Bernie bro.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.