Magazine March 23, 2020, Issue

Negligible ‘Never Bernie’

(Roman Genn)
Sanders and the Democrats are birds of a feather

In 2016, there was a groundswell of conservative and Republican opposition to Donald Trump, led in no small part by this magazine. In 2020, there is not much sign of a comparable movement among Democrats in opposition to Senator Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn who is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong as a confessing socialist calling for revolution. 

Why is there no “Never Bernie” movement to speak of? 

The New York Post went looking for one in early February and did not come up with much: some rumors of discontent, but only vague ones. Democratic activist Jim Kessler of Third Way was exemplary: “I’ll still put a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on my car,” he told the Post, “but a lot of people won’t.” Who? Donna Brazile, the former DNC chair, denied that there was any effort from any high-level Democrats to stop Sanders—only a few “moody” donors. 

There is a purely strategic anti-Sanders effort, to be sure, typified by the Big Tent Project, which works to promote less radical candidates (it helped Joe Biden in South Carolina) and warns Democrats that “nominating Bernie means we reelect Trump.” There is a very large difference between worrying that a candidate will lose and believing that he does not deserve to win—that he is, as many conservatives said of Trump in 2016, fundamentally unfit for the office he seeks. Which Senator Sanders manifestly is. Democrats may be concerned that his radicalism is likely to be a political loser, but there is not much intellectual or moral pushback against the radicalism itself.

To the extent that one exists at all, the supra-strategic “Never Bernie” tendency consists of 7,844 nobodies on Twitter and David Brooks, a conservative-leaning New York Times columnist who interned for William F. Buckley Jr. and who has been an ex-Republican for about as long as Donald Trump has been a Republican. The Twitter nobodies are mostly disappointed partisans of the campaigns of other Democratic-primary contenders who cannot forgive Senator Sanders’s often brutish supporters for their abuses, e.g., field director Ben Mora’s mockery of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren’s looks (“chunky” and “looks like sh**,” respectively) and Pete Buttigieg’s sexuality, threatening violence at Joe Biden events, etc. Tom Watson, a Democratic strategist, reports “a level of pure antipathy I’ve never seen before” among anti-Sanders Democrats, but other than the desultory social-media stuff, it is not much in evidence. 

If you want to see “pure antipathy,” consider the Democratic response to Brooks’s column arguing that Sanders, with his socialism and his calls for revolution, is illiberal, something like a left-wing Donald Trump. In a hysterically stupid but terribly typical response, Paul Waldman complained in the Washington Post that Brooks wrote “as though Sanders has proposed herding us all into collective farms, starving half the population and establishing a gulag where he’ll send his political enemies” but—get this!—failed to produce a single quote from Sanders calling for that. 

Well. 

As it turns out, Lenin did not publicly advocate starving millions of Ukrainians to death, Castro did not publicly advocate murdering librarians and imprisoning homosexuals, Chávez did not publicly advocate turning Venezuela into a basket case . . . Senator Sanders says that what he has in mind is Denmark, but the policies he proposes are nothing like Danish policies, which he evidently knows absolutely nothing about, and he has spent his life as an apologist for the Soviet Union (where he vacationed), Castro’s brutal regime (literacy programs!), Chávez’s Venezuela (his Senate website posted an article praising that socialist backwater as the new home of the American dream), etc. In fact, if you listen to Kim Jong-un talk about his philosophy of government, it turns out to be—surprise!—rather different from how things actually work in North Korea. I have yet to find a single quotation from the Dear Leader in which he argues that his fellow countrymen should be starved until they are reduced to cannibalism.

Progressives in general rallied to Senator Sanders in defending him against criticism of the agenda that he himself describes as “socialism.” Tom Scocca of Slate dismissed Brooks’s column as a “grotesque pack of lies,” while Jonathan Chait of New York insisted that “Bernie is an economic socialist but a political liberal.” Senator Sanders proposes, among other things, to gut the First Amendment in order to put political speech under direct federal control—that is not liberalism, but its opposite. Brooks’s characterization of Sanders’s populist demagoguery and the mode of politics it implies—“majoritarian domination”—not only is apt and accurate, it is precisely what Senator Sanders himself promises: a revolution that will leave his political opponents unable to oppose his agenda because they will be regulated into silence or politically bullied into acquiescence. 

Don’t expect to see an anti-Sanders movement comparable to the anti-Trump movement of 2016, for at least four reasons. 

First, there is no principled anti-Sanders movement because Democrats’ principles are Sanders’s principles. Whereas Republicans in 2016 had good reason to doubt Trump on everything from abortion to the Second Amendment to taxes, Democrats have no such qualms about Sanders. Sanders calls himself a socialist, Warren insists that she is a capitalist, but they come down pretty close together on health care, business regulation, taxes, and much more. (With capitalists like these, who needs socialists?) Sanders wants a monopoly health-care system, punitive taxation, a (further) weaponized regulatory state, and a radical expansion in federal spending and federal power. Democrats may quibble, but they simply are not in the position of 2016 Republicans who doubted Trump’s reliability on their core issues. 

Second, Democrats do not actually believe socialism to be outside the boundaries of respectable opinion. They may worry about it as a marketing matter, but Sanders’s enthusiasm for left-wing autocrats from Moscow to Havana to Caracas is not, from the progressive point of view, morally comparable to disreputable right-wing enthusiasms—for Pinochet or Franco, once upon a time, or for Orban or Alternative für Deutschland today. They are committed to their belief that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were “on the right side of history,” that those who opposed them were monsters, and that those who rallied to the flag of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were only humanitarians with excessive enthusiasm—“liberals in a hurry,” as they used to say. 

Third, unlike 2016 Republicans, 2020 Democrats do not believe that Sanders’s performative outrage, rhetorical incontinence, facile extremism, defects of judgment, etc., disqualify him from the office. They only worry that voters might think this and punish his campaign and their party—which, let us remember, are not the same thing—for these excesses. Trump abominates CNN, and Democrats see a would-be censor and a threat to the First Amendment. (Never mind that every single Democrat in the Senate voted to effectively repeal the First Amendment only a few years ago.) Democrats complain about Fox News—and Senator Sanders complains more generally about the “corporate media”—and progressives hear only a call to arms. Both Senator Sanders and Senator Warren have taken the lead in outlining repressive new measures curbing political speech in the name of “campaign-finance reform,” but practically every major Democrat accepts these or similar measures enthusiastically. 

Fourth and finally for this discussion, the Democratic Party’s transformation into the Party of Oberlin is, if not quite complete (see South Carolina and the resurgence of Joe Biden), then very far along. When James Carville warns about driving away blue-collar and rural voters, Democrats in Brooklyn hear that Southern accent and quietly whisper, “Good riddance.” The Democrats are in the mood for culture war, not for coalition-building and reconciliation. They do not wish to win with moderation and compromise, because they do not wish to govern with moderation and compromise. They feel themselves to have been humiliated by the Trump administration, and they have set upon Sanders as the instrument of their vengeance. That Senator Sanders has so much in common with Trump—an outsider to the party who loathes the party leadership, a demagogue who detests compromise and bipartisanship, who has a funky outer-boroughs accent and zany hair, who until the day before yesterday voiced remarkably Trumpian views on immigration and trade, etc.—is no accident, and it is not something that Democrats are having to hold their collective nose and swallow. Democrats speak in public as though the Republican Party has been ruined by Donald Trump, but in truth their detestation is larded with envy. Trump has given the Republicans something the Democrats want for themselves. 

For better and for worse, the Trumpiness of Senator Sanders is the sizzle and the steak, and not only for the hardline left-wingers. They could have had a Buttigieg or a Klobuchar, and they may yet nominate Biden as a kind of placeholder and caretaker. But Senator Sanders, a man with the freshest ideas from the 1930s and the cultural affect of the 1970s, is the future of the Democratic Party. 

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