Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely honest.
Progressivism in 2019 is a funny critter, indeed.
Comrade Muppet puts on a good show, but if you want to know where his heart is, go to berniesanders.com, where you’ll find a Bernie Sanders swag store and a donations link and precious little about what the candidate thinks and believes. Sanders has been around long enough to appreciate that Democratic presidential campaigns are made of rage and money, with ideas way back there somewhere near the caboose. Fresh ideas don’t pay the mortgage on second and third homes, either, which must be of some interest to a man with Senator Sanders’s real-estate portfolio, relatively modest senator’s salary, and light professional résumé.
To the very limited extent that Senator Sanders is a man of ideas, he is — not that he’d ever admit it — a man of Donald Trump’s ideas. Who does this sound like? “I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.” President Trump? Yes, indeed, but it is Senator Sanders. Representative Steve King of Iowa, immigration restrictionists such as Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, and President Trump himself all have found occasion to praise Senator Sanders for his beady-eyed, zero-sum view of immigration.
Senator Sanders has, in fact, been all too happy to appropriate the rhetorical scheme of the alt-right knuckleheads (remember those guys?), denouncing those who take a more liberal view of immigration as advocates of “open borders” — a position held by approximately zero figures in American public life — and agents of a sinister conspiracy advanced by the Koch brothers and affiliated business interests. Which is to say: Senator Sanders’s criticism of the Koch brothers comes from the same direction as President Trump’s.
Like his populist fellow-travelers — including President Trump — Senator Sanders applies much of the same zero-sum thinking to trade. Quiz question: Who described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “disaster” — Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders?
Right-wing populists and left-wing populists may disagree about such world-changing issues as whether the phrase “a man with ovaries” actually means anything, but on the fundamental policy questions they come down strikingly close to one another. That is because the enemy of populism isn’t the right wing or the left wing — the enemy of populism is liberalism, understood here not in the demented sense we use it in U.S. politics (where liberals are the people opposed to liberalism) but in its proper sense, meaning the classical-liberal regime of property rights, free enterprise, free trade, individual rights, and a worldview based on well-ordered liberty emphasizing cooperation within and between nations.
Senator Sanders, like President Trump, is an anti-liberal — and, fundamentally, a nationalist. Sanders may be deep-dipped and tie-dyed in 1970s countercultural horsepucky, but he is a practitioner of a very old and established kind of politics that would have been familiar to such frankly nationalist politicians as Franklin Roosevelt (and Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter), Woodrow Wilson, and Benito Mussolini. He has been shamed out of the blunt, Trumpish way he talked about immigration during those 2016 union-hall speeches, but his worldview remains essentially the same. Most politicians do not evolve very much at his advanced age.
The feature of nationalism that Trump and Sanders — and, to a considerable degree, figures such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — are rehabilitating is, in part, corporatism, a word that all of them certainly would abjure and that none of them quite understands. Contemporary progressives use the word corporatism to describe a situation in which the notionally democratic character of government is subverted by private business interests, but in reality it means something closer to the opposite: the subordination of private business interests to the “national interest,” something formally short of the Marxist-Leninist model of outright appropriation of the means of production but functionally similar to it.
Mussolini was, for all his absurd macho-man peacocking and bluster, a practitioner of what American progressives sometimes call “stakeholder” economics and politics. The corporazioni of fascist Italy were intended to coordinate the efforts of business owners, labor, government, and other interest groups in the service of a unified national agenda. Senator Warren, in particular, frequently speaks of the social role of American businesses in explicitly corporatist terms, but the far-left American intellectuals who dream of “workers’ councils” and grand industrial projects directed by the central government are practitioners of classical corporatism, whether they understand the fact or do not. The so-called Green New Deal is a textbook corporatist boondoggle.
Senator Sanders may call himself a socialist, but then, so did Mussolini, for a long time.
If you view the economy as a kind of national household (which is what the Greek root of “economy” literally means), then Sanders-ism — including his restrictionist immigration views, however muffled they now are — makes perfect sense: Why take on responsibility for a bunch of shiftless strangers you don’t really need? Why even contemplate it when you have enough mouths to feed as it is? Especially when you believe (wrongly, but sincerely) that what ails Americans is that there aren’t enough good jobs to go around?
If you take a more intelligent view — well, then you probably aren’t taking the Sanders campaign very seriously. The good news is that he probably isn’t, either.