For the urbane millennial, vouchsafing the wisdom of Sen. Bernie Sanders to the less-fashionable is the year’s cause celebre. His campaign’s passion has marshaled another resurgence of youth activism, which the Democratic Party must from time to time endure. Yet despite the enthusiasm his candidacy commands around the well-appointed tables of emaciated hipsters and other bourgeois frauds, his presidential pretensions are very much an open question. Is the senator a protest candidate, or a viable alternative to Hillary Clinton?
I admire Sanders, a serious man in an increasingly unserious time. His candidacy, however, strikes a dissonant cord. He strikes me as an idiosyncratic octogenarian berating a progressive movement no longer up to par. His contemporaries are of the Noam Chomsky set, while his growing legions of devotees are of an altogether different mind and experience.
Answers to the questions below may help people understand the general direction of his campaign, and the Progressive movement to which he has endeared himself.
1. Does Bernie Sanders Reflect the Mood of the Party?
The Sanders zeitgeist seems ill-suited for the Democratic Party of 2015. He smacks of the past. About him are all the sins of beat-generation peaceniks whom George McGovern promised the world. Of course, his fidelity to twentieth-century welfare-state orthodoxy is beyond reproach, but the old dogmas he espouses are even now being remade.
The Democratic Party of Barack Obama has been forged in the crucible of identity politics. The new left-wing coalition is sealed in the bonds of tribe, elevating new icons like race, gender, and sexuality. Instead, Sanders speaks the old language of class-based solidarity. Democratic consciousness is increasingly formed by the material experiences of minority groups. Class was the organizing principle of Democratic politics before the Obama presidency. It is now identity.
The senator’s tepid support from minority communities reflects the significance of this development. Although current polling is not authoritative this long before the election, Sanders’ candidacy has struggled to gain traction beyond the bastions of white upper-middleness, or the hors d’oeuvre circuit of the Radical Chic. This is entirely surprising for a candidate who began his political life organizing for desegregated housing in Chicago and who marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, yet entirely unsurprising for a labor-minded democratic socialist who represents a state with fewer than 8,000 African-Americans.
Is economic inequality a function of structural racism? Progressive voters answer yes. Sanders answers another way: racism is a function of economic inequality. What shall the Left make of this apostasy?
2. Are You at All Troubled that Sanders Emits an Air of Donald Trump?
I do not mean to suggest that Sanders and Donald Trump are ideological confreres. Where Sanders is earnest, passionate, and thoughtful, Trump is unscrupulous, vulgar, and erratic. These are not mere aesthetic differences. Sanders is a committed movement ideologue with a mature conception of the good. Trump’s bona fides in this area are, to be charitable, ambiguous. But in some important respects the intellectual roots from which their campaigns of resentment stem are similar, and it ought to give pause.
Both candidates espouse an anachronistic cognizance of international economics. They each conceive of the international system (again, where economics are concerned) as a zero-sum regime in which states with mutually exclusive interests perpetually compete. The prosperity of one is the expense of another. To this perspective, exchange beyond the contours of nation and national interest (narrowly understood) can be detrimental without government supervision.
By this approach, Sanders accepts positions at once at odds with progressivism yet reflecting its anxieties. Speaking to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in July, Sanders said, “There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform, and it is not, in my view, that they’re staying up nights worrying about undocumented workers in this country. What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.” He has elsewhere assailed open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal,” the Koch brothers guilty, in his eyes, of all sins this side of traffic tickets.
He protests that mass migration, inversion, and the creative-destruction that accompanies innovation and specialization diminish American stature, as does Trump. He is disposed to this position for different reasons, perhaps sympathetic to the Marxist fear of capital’s unrestricted movement, and the attendant reification of all social relations into exchange value. Yet, a la Trump, the antiquated economics, and the fear of an America marginalized by foes unseen, ever-present, and foreign, persists.
3. Have You Really Fully Vetted Bernie Sanders?
General observations that Sanders is unconventional tend to obscure a personal history that is decidedly outré. His flair for the eccentric has inspired curious associations, positions, and writings which offend even progressive sensibilities.
The ones that have solicited the most extensive, yet still tangential, remarks in the popular press stem from a satirical essay published in a 1972 edition of the Vermont Freeman concerning gender roles and rape fantasies. The stark imagery therein would, in any other candidate, produce unbelievable histrionics, the sort of thing that would cause Lena Dunham to hurl herself into the Hudson River.
Any candidate who treads into the tender space of rape risks public pillory, a pathology from which Sanders is not immune. His campaign has made no attempt to defend the piece, calling it “a dumb attempt at dark satire in an alternative publication,” further acknowledging that “it looks as stupid today as it was back then.”
I very much doubt Sanders is a deviant or a misogynist, although I am content to leave analysis of patriarchal scribblings to those initiated into gender studies rites. They nonetheless confess the outlandish allegiances of his past, and are actually completely coherent when read in the context of his intellectual predispositions throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The senator’s extensive paper trail during this period betrays a political mind liberated by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a disciple of Freud who believed neurotic disorders were the result of the sexually deadening socioeconomic conditions capitalism creates. Reich’s opus, “The Mass Psychology of Fascism,” proposes that fascist governments are symptoms of mass sexual repression, and advocates establishing government by reason, which directs libido and “orgastic potency” toward the flourishing of civil society. Reich later claimed to discover a life-affirming bio-energy called “orgone” which could theoretically construct galaxies, control weather, and alter sex drive.
Reich’s work animates many of Sanders’s Freeman columns, as Tim Murphy of Mother Jones revealed in July of this year. One supposes a causal relationship between Western sexual conventions and cancer (“Cancer, Disease and Society” 1969). Another uses a natural childbirth in a Vermont commune and the ritual consumption of the placenta as an excuse to wax poetic about the disharmony of late capitalism (“Lorraine: Natural Childbirth in a Vt. Commune Part Two” 1972).
As above, I suspect Sanders no longer pledges allegiance to these positions (indeed, if opposing vaccine mandates disqualifies one from public office, then positing a link between libido and cancer certainly does). But as the scrutiny that accompanies a successful campaign intensifies, he will surely be made to answer for them. And I wonder if these concepts about which he wrote so voluminously and enthusiastically does not still tempt his thinking.
You may also wish to ask him about guns.
I admire Bernie Sanders. In a city of such wild, self-serving decadence as Washington, his principle is itself a triumph. One must be absolved of rallying to the Sanders banner when faced with the prospect of forming ranks behind Hillary Clinton. Still, it seems that he and his followers speak in different accents, and are more dissimilar than they wish to imagine. HRC has been Johnny-on-the-spot, speaking the new leftism with focus-grouped savoir-faire. Shall Bernie do the same?