Politics & Policy

Bernie Sanders: The Anti-Hillary

(Win McNamee/Getty)

Tomorrow afternoon, an elderly man with wild eyes and white, straggly Doc Brown hair will voluntarily push himself into the woodchipper. By announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, will hope primarily to fire a shot across the Left’s creaking bows, and to ensure that the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, is given at least a brief run for her money. “Based on her record,” Sanders averred earlier this month, Hillary Clinton, is not prepared “to take on the billionaire class.” Nor, per Sanders, is Clinton likely to oppose the ratification of new free-trade agreements, to fight for the working man, or even to tell the public what she actually believes. “Why don’t you tell me what Hillary Clinton is campaigning on?” Sanders recently demanded of an MSNBC host. “You don’t know, and I don’t know, and the American people don’t know.”

This is a criticism that one could never reasonably level at Sanders. Because he sits so peculiarly far to the left, it will be tempting for conservatives such as myself to dismiss him summarily as a crank, and to move on to other things. This, I’d submit, would be a cruel mistake, for, the merits of his politics to one side, there is a great deal to like and to respect about the man.

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Unlike the vast majority of American politicians, Sanders has not contrived to determine the most electable point on his part of the ideological spectrum and then to present its presumptions as if they were his own, but has instead determined to present himself to the public as he actually is. This virtuous decision has had real consequences. Despite having to operate in a culture that is obsessed with parsing and obfuscating the truth, Sanders does not play games with words. Per his own description, he is not a “liberal” or a “progressive” but a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist.” Despite the electorate’s pronounced fear of absolutism and of consistent conviction, he steadfastly refuses to pretend that he represents moderation: According to his website, he is openly in favor of both single-payer health care and card check, he voted proudly against DOMA before it was cool, he has joined Ron Paul in calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve, he stands unabashedly in favor of open borders, and he has proposed that the federal government should further regulate ownership of the media. Most important, perhaps, he does not merely go along to get along. “I’m right and everybody else is wrong,” he told National Journal’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood last year. “Clear about that?”

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To those among us who like to bat ideas around, such bluntness represents a welcome change — especially given the current alternatives. At present, alas, the Democratic primary is being dominated by a corrupt, controlling, soulless, cynical, entitled, and mostly synthetic avatar named Hillary Clinton, and, in consequence, it is almost entirely devoid of ideas. Thus far at least, Clinton’s campaign, which seems to be motivated primarily by fear, has been reactive. When they can, Hillary and her team stick to meaningless and saccharine banalities, almost all of which, one presumes, have been poll-tested within a fraction of an inch. When she feels that she has to weigh in, however, she does so with a degree of studied caution that would have made even Mr. Rogers blush. If Clinton is worried that a potential rival might ding her, she pens a quick tribute to their position and then she moves on. If she is concerned that her silence could be interpreted as indifference, she gives a platitudinous speech on the topic of the hour, and then goes home. If the scandals that stick to her finally become too much for the press to bear, she consents to answer a few carefully chosen questions and then she buggers off. At no time does she stake out a vision. At no time does she adopt a controversial or momentous position. Instead, she hides behind corporately assembled strings of mawkish, semi-literate tosh. It is difficult to imagine a more welcome counterpoint to such artifice than Bernie Sanders. All told, Sanders is to public policy and professional politicking what Joe Biden is to personality. He is open, blunt, unapologetic, compelling, ready to debate, suspicious of frivolity, and — in a culture that loathes frayed edges and rewards aridity and insipidity — downright necessary. Democrats who are spoiling for a debate over the future of their party should be thrilled that he has come along.

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#related#In the long term, of course, none of his virtues will help Sanders one whit. Indeed, such are our political divisions that his participation in the race will in all likelihood end up helping, not hurting, Hillary Clinton. If Sanders is fierce — and if he elects to energetically represent the harsher elements within the progressive base — Clinton will be able to cast his dissent as an illustration of her own moderation. And if he is meek and respectful, she will be able to use the exchanges as an indication that she is capable of dealing with her opponents in a courteous manner.

It is often presumed that because Sanders will provide the hard-left faction with a mouthpiece, Hillary will inevitably be forced into the sorts of corners she particularly dislikes to inhabit. Occasionally, this may indeed happen. But to presume it will change the political dynamic, I think, is to misunderstand how factional representation works in practice. Just as the tea-party movement lost much of its bite after it managed to elect some champions to Congress, so will the fact that somebody within the contest is speaking to progressives’ concerns likely serve to diminish their vitriol. There is no man so angry as the man who feels that he is being ignored, and no movement so powerful as one that is convinced it has been suppressed. With Sanders in, the rebels will have their moment, and, for a brief moment at least, American discourse will have its standard raised. Bravo, Bernie. Here’s two cheers for a dying breed.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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