Or at least the most confused man in the Democrats’ primary race
You have to hand it to Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders. After more than forty years of irrelevance, in half a decade the Green State socialist has transformed into a legitimate contender for the presidency. While serious questions remain about how he would fare in a general election against Donald Trump (polls consistently find that a majority of Americans would vote against a socialist), there can be no doubt that Bernie is having his moment. He finished first in last week’s Iowa caucuses, albeit in one of the lowest turnouts ever, and repeated the feat last night in New Hampshire, albeit by a far smaller margin than his upset 2016 victory in the Granite State.
We are witnessing Peak Bernie.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and party Brahmans officially are freaking out. Figures like former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel are warning that a Bernie nomination not only would tank the Democrats’ chances of defeating President Trump but risk rending the fabric of the party itself. Hillary Clinton famously dissed Sanders as incapable of playing well with others, saying, “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done.” They may not want to admit as much but the Democrat establishment’s full frontal assault smacks of the same sort of desperation that consumed the Republicans four years ago when a certain estate tycoon started taking a scythe to their field of anointed candidates.
The anti-Bernie crowd generally makes two arguments. First, as the Emmanuels and Hillarys of the party have said, he simply lacks the experience, personal comportment, and demeanor of a President (then again, see, e.g., Donald J. Trump). The second argument goes to the soul of the party itself: Will the Democrats continue to be a relevant, mainstream, center-left party or will they lurch to the Leninist Left and the proverbial dustbin of history?
Yet there are even more fundamental problems with Bernie Sanders. First, while his acolytes and disciples point to his authenticity and consistency over the years, in reality he has been one of the most inscrutable politicians in recent times. At various points in his long political career, Bernie has sounded and behaved like a full-throated Stalinist, an old-school New Dealer, and a standard-issue Democrat. Second, he routinely displays ignorance of the most basic realities of business and economics, and like his hero Marx has zero experience in the private sector he wants to “transform.”
Americans have no way of knowing which Bernie Sanders would take the oath of office in January 2021. Given that he talks constantly of his coming “revolution” that’s a huge problem, even a disqualifying one.
Bernie doesn’t seem to know which version of socialism he likes
Sanders’s supporters frequently cite his authenticity as his biggest strength. He hasn’t changed his tune in more than forty years, so goes the argument. A typical example: In the introduction to his book The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America, Journalist and Bernie Bro Jonathan Tasini wrote, “That is the essence of Bernie Sanders. No bullshit. Unvarnished opinions and beliefs. Now, Bernie carries that authenticity into the national arena in his quest to become president of the United States. As I write these words, tens of thousands of people have already swarmed to hear Bernie speak the truth at mass rallies in arenas and halls across the nation.” Likewise 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said “Here in Vermont, voters have always given Bernie huge margins because they know that (unlike the rest of American politics) what you see is what you get. Read what he has to say, and don’t doubt he means every word of it.”
It isn’t just Bernie Bros who fawn over their hero’s supposed realness and truth-speaking. Just today New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff wrote, “I admire Sanders for his authenticity and passion.”
These quotes are typical of Bernie’s supporters. They see him as real, unvarnished, and unafraid to speak truth to power. In reality, he may be the most difficult mainstream candidate to pin down. Americans don’t know whether they’d get Bernie the Commie, Bernie the Democratic Socialist, or Bernie the Democrat. It’s entirely possible that Bernie himself doesn’t know.
Version #1: Bernie the hardcore Marxist-Leninist
Early in his career, he was Bernie the Commie, an unapologetic Marxist-Leninist who enthusiastically celebrated communist revolutions and dictators, voicing support for figures like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. During the 1980 presidential election, as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont he “proudly endorsed and supported” a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) presidential candidate named Andrew Pulley, a man with a history of violent rhetoric. According to testimony during a 1973 federal lawsuit the SWP brought against the government for surveillance and other activities, at a 1969 anti-war rally he said, “if America don’t come around…it should be burned down to the damned ground, it should not exist to see 1980….We advocate a Socialist Revolution in America by any means necessary.” He encouraged soldiers to “take up their guns and shoot their officers.” The SWA would go on to win their unlikely suit (fun fact: During the trail, the government was represented by a young U.S. Attorney named Rudolph Giuliani). Mr. Pulley’s rhetoric didn’t dissuade Bernie: As the Washington Examiner reported last year, “Sanders was one of three electors for Pulley on the Vermont ballot.” In 1984 Sanders backed another SWP candidate, former Black Panther Mel Mason. Mr. Mason was a staunch supporter of the Chinese and Soviet revolutions that collectively murdered some 60 million people.
Over the years Bernie also praised press crackdowns and bread lines in socialist countries. He declared in 1985, “It’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how a bad country is, that people are lining up for food. That is a good thing. In other countries people don’t line up for food: The rich get food and the poor starve to death.”
In 1988 the Sanderses famously honeymooned in the Soviet city of Yarislovel, where a shirtless Bernie traded vodka shots and sang This Land is Your Land with his Soviet hosts, to their obvious delight. Upon his return he held a press conference in which he and Jane heaped praise on the Soviets’ health care and public transportation systems, their “palaces of culture” and “community involvement.” He also lauded what he saw as the country’s “surprising degree of self-criticism.” It never seemed to occur to him that he’d seen the country his hosts wanted him to see, not the country as it really was, the one that would collapse less than four years later. In the 1980s, Bernie also visited Nicaragua, a close ally and satellite of the Soviet Union.
Version #2: Bernie the fuzzy Democratic Socialist
Of course, today his supporters know him as a kinder, gentler “Democratic Socialist.” While he has never disavowed his earlier radicalism, instead of praising the Soviet Union these days he talks about countries like Sweden and Denmark (and, more recently and confusingly, the decidedly non-socialist Taiwan). In contrast to his past effusive praise of Cuba, during a February 2016 town hall he said, “When I talk about democratic socialist…I’m not looking at Cuba. I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
Likewise, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC shortly after announcing his first presidential bid in 2015 he explained what “democratic socialism really is…in countries in Scandinavia like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, they are very democratic countries…in those countries by and large government works for ordinary people.” The former fire-breathing, Cuba and Castro loving revolutionary suddenly was espousing what sounded suspiciously like Scandinavian Exceptionalism.
Which arguments only add to the confusion: While Scandinavian countries do have universal health care, generous welfare systems, and strong social safety nets supported by extremely high taxes, those qualities do not make them socialist states, or even “democratic socialist” ones.
Indeed, former Danish and Swedish prime ministers have gone out of their way to eschew Bernie’s assertions. In 2015 the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, went so far as to get on an airplane to the United States specifically to deliver a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to disavow socialism. Though he didn’t mention Sanders by name, he said, “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said. “Therefore, I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.” Former Swedish Prime Minister likewise disavowed both socialism and Sanders.
There’s another, far darker element to Bernie’s Scandinavian stew: Perhaps he is unaware that the largest corporation in the region is the Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, followed by the Norwegian oil company Equinor. Rounding out the top three is clothing giant H&M, which has been the subject of investigations into its use of abusive sweatshops in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and elsewhere.
Sweden is also the world’s third largest arms exporter per capita, after Russia and Israel. Moreover, the size of the country’s military industrial complex is only part of the story. Like any industry the global arms industry has a pecking order. Those who can afford to buy American do so. Those who can’t purchase from the EU, followed by Russia and China. Sweden is in the bargain bin, which means a disproportionate of its weapons sales go to third world dictatorships and warlords. Perhaps Bernie hasn’t looked under the hood of a Saab lately.
Version #3: Bernie the standard-issue Democrat
A third version of Bernie is on display in the Senate. The erstwhile Independent actually has voted more often with the Democrats than several actual Democrats. In the 116th Congress Democrat Senators including his former primary rivals Kristen Gillibrand and Kamala Harris broke with the party more often. Ed Markey, Joe Manchin III, and Kyrsten Sinema also exercised more independence than the Independent. So did, ahem, Elizabeth Warren (though only by a fraction of a percentage).
According to Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, “He fought his battles, oftentimes loudly on the floor and within the comfy confines of the caucus lunches, but then he let the chips fall where they may. He didn’t always agree with the tactics of the Democratic Caucus, but he never blindsided leadership.”
Bernie the Squishy Moderate has been most evident when it comes to the Second Amendment. He famously voted against gun control legislation on numerous occasions. During a 2015 interview on CNN he said, “Folks who do not like guns is fine[sic]. But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country — 99.9% of those people obey the law. I want to see real, serious debate and action on guns, but it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides. I think I can bring us to the middle.”
And of course, when he declared for the 2016 election he said, “I am a Democrat now.”
He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how money, business, and the stock market work
Bernie is many things, but nuanced isn’t one of them. His world is divided starkly between good and evil, oppressors and the oppressed, perpetrators and victims. He seems incapable of critical thinking much less intellectual growth. Call it the Bernie Binary.
Among Sanders’s favorite targets are banks and other financial institutions, the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance companies, big tech, and military contractors. Again there is no subtlety in his opprobrium: He says that banks and credit card companies are nothing more than loan sharks ripping off Americans. He’s compared insurance and pharmaceutical companies to crooks and even murderers. He wants to use antitrust laws to break up tech giants like Google, Apple, and Facebook.
Funny, then, that he has lined his own nest egg with stocks in those very industries for decades. According to opensecrets.org, Bernie and Jane Sanders’s wealth is largely concentrated in some two dozen mutual funds, including portfolios managed by TIAA-CREFF, Vanguard, and Valic. For example, the Sanderses hold somewhere between $16,000 and $100,000 worth of shares in the Valic Small Cap Fund. According to Morningstar, that fund’s primary holdings include West Pharmaceutical Services, Catalent, and Molina Healthcare Inc. (though not Novo Nordisk). Bernie and Jane also own between $45,000 and $150,000 in three CREF funds. Those funds’ largest positions are in technology (17%), financials (14%), health care (12%), and industrials (10.74%), with significant positions in energy (6%). Among their primary holdings are Bank of America, Visa, Johnson & Johnson, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, and Facebook. It seems that loan sharks, crooks, and murderers make for good returns on investments.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with investing in the stock market and in mutual funds. More than half of Americans do so, and in the last decade their investments have been rewarded handsomely. Then again, most Americans haven’t made themselves into political celebrities by slamming the very industries in which they invest and grow their own money. Sanders’s financial holdings are noteworthy in light of his political sanctimony, particularly given that there is no shortage of “socially responsible” investment opportunities out there. Moreover, his words do real harm: How many thousands or millions of young people are eschewing investing in the stock market for their own futures because they don’t want to betray the Movement?
As a capitalist salesman would say, but wait, there’s more. Bernie has made a career out of bashing “millionaires and billionaires.” It turns out, to paraphrase Garrett Morris’s Chico Escuela on SNL, bashing rich people has been very, very good to him. Preaching class warfare has allowed Bernie and his wife, Jane, to join the ranks of the one percenters he routinely excoriates. It’s made him a best-selling author and provided him the largess to buy three homes and even become a landlord (the horror, the horror!). Yet when the New York Times asked him about the money he made from his 2016 hit Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, he snapped, “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
Like the stock market, Bernie either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how the publishing business works. Ninety-nine point nine percent of aspiring authors are not sitting United States Senators and presidential candidates. They don’t have establishment New York publishers lining up to bid on their books based solely on their name. They don’t have teams of staff and editors and unpaid interns on hand to refine their manuscripts for sale, nor massive PR machines to pave the way to the best-seller lists. Moreover, bestseller lists themselves are notoriously dodgy, with publishers and authors forever devising new ways to game the system (beacon of morality Tucker Max has neatly laid out the playbook).
And anyone who believes that Bernie single-handedly wrote not one but three best-sellers, in three different genres, while running for President and working as a Senator, well, there’s a bridge in his hometown of Brooklyn for sale.
Which version of Bernie would America get?
For nearly a half century Bernie Sanders benefited from his own irrelevance. His record wasn’t scrutinized, his actions and words remained unparsed. That extended (Russian) honeymoon is over. Democrats and Americans in general – including those who’ve fallen in thrall to his message of revolution – need to start asking him the tough questions, before it’s too late.