Bernie Sanders has done some of the most breathtakingly horrible stuff imaginable — praising dictators, bashing capitalism, and making those ghastly Seventies educational filmstrips bored teachers would run when they wanted to sneak away for a cigarette. (Sanders even performed the voice of Eugene V. Debs.) But we’ll allow that he’s not a phony. He’s not an opportunist. He doesn’t have an ulterior motive. He didn’t sneakily play at socialism as a secret get-rich-quick scheme that wouldn’t pay off until he turned 75. He was for socialism when socialism wasn’t cool. About the closest he ever came to joining the capitalist system was when he and a few pals started a very small and very inept business called “Creative Carpentry.” They’d buy their gear at the local hardware store and ask the clerk how to do whatever job they’d been hired to do.
As late as 1972, Sanders was living in a shack in the woods with a dirt floor. Friends reported that to cook he deployed a coffee can at the bottom of which was a roll of toilet paper soaked in lighter fluid — “Berno.” In the Seventies, a decade he spent running without apparent effect for every office he could find, he’d wake up in the morning muttering about the revolution. “We’re not crazy, you know,” he’d say to a like-minded housemate, who’d reply, “Couldn’t you say ‘Good morning’ first?” Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont prof and longtime friend, told The New Yorker, “Bernie’s the last person you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with. Two weeks of lectures about health care, and you’d look for a shark and dive in.” This is a friend.
Bernie campaigned successfully for the House in 1990 in a blue blazer missing a button. His car (unless he’s gotten a new one in the last few months) is a subcompact sadmobile called a “Chevy Aveo.” When he said at a 2016 town hall that he didn’t know the make or year (2010) of his own ride, no one challenged the credibility of that. Even his famous “dacha” — his Vermont lake house — cost only $575,000 and has a tin roof. Yeah, okay, he’s a multimillionaire. He has two other homes. Socialism turned out to be profitable for him. But that doesn’t reflect an error of his character.
No, it reveals a far greater error, a peevish, intransigent, fact-oblivious misconception of possibility in this great land of bounty. Where else on earth can you become a double-millionaire accidentally? It’s not that Bernie says one thing and does another; it’s that for 50 years he’s been saying one thing about this country, and it keeps doing another.
“If [George W.] Bush is reelected,” he wrote in 2004, for (what else?) In These Times, “the United States increasingly will resemble an impoverished Third World country in which a few families have incredible wealth while the vast majority struggle to survive.” In a November 30, 2010, floor speech in the Senate, he declared, “Mr. President, when we were in school, we used to read the textbooks which talked about the banana republics in Latin America, . . . in which a handful of people owned and controlled most of the wealth of those countries. Well, guess what. That is exactly what is happening in the United States today.”
A few years have passed and somebody far worse than Bush, according to Sanders, is now president. Anybody been to Disney World lately? It’s more than $400 for a family of four just to walk in the joint, plus hundreds more a day in lodging, food, transportation. Yet the place is heaving. You can barely draw a breath. The same scene is playing out in the wine caves and the man caves and the getaway spas: Nope, we haven’t reached banana-republic status quite yet. If it’s stormy weather, that’s only because it’s raining wealth. In recent quarters unemployment has been at or near half-century lows. Wages are rising fastest for the lowest income tier, after years of subpar results that happened to coincide with the Obama era. Republicans have held the White House for 30 of the last 50 years. Yet far from being a third-world country, the U.S. of A. circa 2020 needs some higher designation than first-world. “Premium-world”? If the U.S. were falling into the abyss, we wouldn’t still be the No. 1 answer given when would-be émigrés in the rest of the world are asked where they’d most like to go.
It was only nine years ago that Sanders posted an editorial on his website — it’s still there, under the heading “Must Read” — labeling Venezuela as one of the South American countries (along with Ecuador and Argentina) where “the American dream is more apt to be realized” than in America. In 1985 Sanders called Nicaraguan Marxist Daniel Ortega “an impressive guy,” praising “the intelligence and sincerity” of his minions, while saying of Fidel Castro and Cuba: “He educated their kids, gave their kids health care, totally transformed the society.” On that Nicaragua trip, he praised Ortega’s vision in these terms: “Nicaragua is determined not to be a banana republic anymore. . . . Is this a crime?” To rework Tom Wolfe’s famous quip about fascism, third-world inequality is always about to happen in the United States, even as it continues to happen in Marxist countries. Ortega is still el presidente, by the way. He “has since become a dictator, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Sanders says today. Oopsie! Even the New York Times blazed Evo Morales of Bolivia for steamrolling over term limits to extend his stay in office, but the worst Sanders can say about this is “Should he have run for another term although they made it legal? Probably not.” Thanks to President Trump, though, he believes the United States has “moved in a significant degree toward authoritarianism.”
But all of that isn’t really hypocrisy either, not to the hard Left, because America is always the principal suspect in any global question of wrongdoing. Whatever leftist countries get up to, the real subject must be that the American Right is thinking about doing that. Bernie bros take their cues from the various hints dropped by the boss when they wax nostalgic for Stalinism (Kyle Jurek, one of Bernie’s Iowa field organizers, was caught on camera suggesting billionaires be sent to gulags for reeducation and to “break rocks twelve hours a day” but also insisted gulags were not that bad). On the record they insist they don’t want the brute-force socialism of the Communist bloc. No, they just want the pillowy-soft hygge socialism of Scandinavia. Fine. This would merely involve making your private health insurance illegal, raising federal spending by $100 trillion over a decade, and instituting a punitive-taxation scheme that would guarantee a stock-market crash and other hallmarks of panic. At last the celebrities promising to flee to Canada in the Bush and Trump eras might actually be moved to do so. Certainly America’s wealthiest would be interested. That’d be one way to solve inequality: chase all the rich people out! Alas for the poor and the middle class, they’d find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being asked to pay for their own government, since the bottom 90 percent of earners pay only 30 percent of federal income taxes. The top 1 percent Bernie despises chip in 37 percent. The U.S. already has one of the most progressive tax schemes on earth.
You have to admire the crazed focus, though. Sanders has been doing what he does for a long, long time. In Brooklyn he attended James Madison High School, and James Madison was a classmate. In 1974 he insisted no one should make more than $1 million a year. In 1976 he said “the fundamental issue facing us in the state” was that the top one-half of 1 percent of earners gathered in 27 percent of the income. The plutocracy is always the issue, even if we’re talking about 1976 Vermonters whose lifestyle would be mocked by any self-respecting middle-class suburban teen in 2020. “We need a 2nd American Revolution,” he wrote on a legal pad under the heading of “My Political Philosophy” in the mid ’80s.
Like a self-scourging monk, or Jimmy Carter in the Seventies, Sanders makes a totem of discomfort. In his standard travel rider he stipulates that his hotel rooms be refrigerated to a Muscovite 60 degrees. All of that cold concentration could pay off. This mutt has been chasing the capitalist automobile for half a century, but as of 2020 his jaws are almost in reach of the rear bumper. From a Sandersista point of view, the most embarrassing and worrying item on his résumé is not his famously loopy 1972 essay delving into erotic fancy (“A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously”), his even nuttier 1969 speculation on the secret sources of disease (“The manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develop breast cancer”), or his sandpaper-meets-woodchipper attempt at folk singing on a 1987 album. No, the source of worry must be his disturbingly moderate eight years as mayor of Vermont’s principal city, from 1981 to 1989. He managed to get the place rechristened the “People’s Republic of Burlington” among the coffee-shop wags. He posted a Eugene V. Debs poster in his office (“Union. Socialist. Revolutionary,” read the legend) and flew the red flag by spending his (working) honeymoon in the Soviet Union, in sister city Yaroslavl, Russia. But he didn’t much undermine capitalism. “I’m not going to war with the city’s financial and business community and I know that there is little I can do from City Hall to accomplish my dreams for society,” he told the New York Times back then. Instead of raising taxes to plutocracy-punishing levels, he wrung savings out of various city agencies. Business sighed with relief. True, he presented the (nonprofit, tax-exempt) University Medical Center of Vermont with a $2.9 million tax bill, but this was apparently a negotiating salvo. A judge ruled against Sanders in toto. Yet a decade later, with Sanders having been in Congress for eight years, the hospital did agree to pay $325,000 a year in fees in lieu of taxes on a rising scale, a practice that became widespread.
Now 30 years liberated from the responsibility of actual management, Sanders is free to run his mouth about the depravities of capitalism even after his income has soared into the seven figures on the basis of his book, published just after the 2016 election, Our Revolution. He is so far left that even he sounds a bit amazed that key sectors of the Democratic party have ranged still farther to the left. Sanders owes his congressional seat in part to an NRA campaign against his Republican predecessor, who cosponsored an assault-weapons ban, and for years he was quiet about gun control. These days he dismisses positions he held in his late sixties as youthful indiscretions and is on board with his party’s gun restrictions. Just a decade ago, being suspicious of large-scale illegal immigration did not earn anybody neo-Nazi status, and Sanders is having a bit more difficulty processing the Democrats’ breathtaking lurch into open-borders rhetoric. He still insists that it’s just “common sense” to aver that desperate new arrivals’ willingness to work for cheap drives down the wages of lower-rung American workers. But now that it’s Democratic-party dogma to reopen the floodgates to illegal immigrants, Sanders is nevertheless offering government health insurance to illegals, promising to ease up on border enforcement, halt “99 percent” of deportations, and reconsecrate DACA via executive order. In his view, any bumps experienced by the American worker can be smoothed over by that $100 trillion of new spending that’s coming fast, soon after his inauguration. He told the New York Times he intends to stay up till 5 a.m. working on all that juicy New New Deal stuff that to the rest of us appears destined for Mitch McConnell’s office shredder. Sanders’s plan to subvert Cocaine Mitch is to take Air Force One out to Kentucky and rally the state against him. Because we all know that what Kentucky has been hungering for these 35 years Mitch has been in the Senate is some wild-haired Brooklyn socialism and debt-forgiveness for Sanders’s shock troops of crunchy Oberlin brats.
In a typical stump speech from 2015 Sanders said the same kinds of things he was saying in 1995 and 1975: “America today is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. But most people don’t know that, most people don’t feel that, most people don’t see that — because almost all of the wealth rests in the hands of a tiny few.” No candidate ever needed less coaching to stay on message; Sanders is relentlessly focused on his teachings and has disciples by the million. Hey, history has underestimated Jewish carpenters before.
But why Sanders resonates more than he ever did in the past is that he became the messiah of a huge class of people never previously known: disillusioned, indeed bitter, college graduates. Raised on the false gospel of a bachelor’s degree, they got dumped into the job market with huge debts and jobs that didn’t require their degrees in the first place. This group also turns out to be the type that has the most time and energy to go out and organize, to knock on doors and stuff envelopes. Don’t underestimate a man who commands the fervor of the baccalaureate proletariat.
This article appears as “The Green Mountain Red” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.