Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders likes to say his political ideology never changed. In his case, consistency is not a positive.
Over the course of decades in public life, Sanders has made multiple statements praising and apologizing for socialism all over the world. Here are a sampling, as well as explanations for why he’s dangerously wrong.
1. Bread Lines Are Great
“It’s funny sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is because people are lining up for food. That’s a good thing. In other countries, people don’t line up for food, rich people get the food and poor people starve to death,” said the independent from Vermont in the 1980s.
I’m not sure which are the “other countries” people don’t line up for food in yet starve to death. They certainly do both in Venezuela. In the Soviet Union, one of the implied not-so-bad countries, people did starve to death from time to time, especially during the several rounds of collectivization, most notoriously the 1932-33 Holodomor famine when Joseph Stalin killed millions.
Even when there was no mass starvation, Soviet people lived in what can be described as perpetual food insecurity, or not knowing where the next meal will come from, and in what form. One joke went: “A man walks into the store, and asks: ‘Do you have any sausages?’ The clerk answers: ‘Not really. Here, we don’t have any milk. The store across the street doesn’t have any sausages.’”
Soviets scurried through the cities and towns, trying to buy something good for the table. If a needed product arrived at a store, a line formed immediately. Because there was no guarantee that those at the back of the queue would be able to purchase it, fights and quarrels were common.
Grocery store lines are never a good thing; they are a sign of shortages and food insecurity.
2. Cuba Is a Socialist Paradise
“I don’t know what’s so wrong with this country,” Sanders said of Cuba. Bernie has a long history of praising Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He was particularly impressed with Cuban social programs. “[H]e [Castro] educated their kids, gave their kids health care, totally transformed the society,” Sanders also claimed in a recent interview.
This claim has been fact-checked multiple times In fact, not only has Cuba failed to provide a decent standard of living to its people, the country’s socialist regime is operating the largest per capita gulag in the world.
Since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, more than a half a million residents of his small island nation have been incarcerated, many tortured and beaten to death. One was Alan Gross, an American arrested in 2009, when he worked through the Agency for International Development to provide the Cuban Jewish community internet access. In 2014, the captive was allowed an audience with a congressional delegation of which Sanders was a part.
Sanders uttered the words above after he’d met Gross in prison. To look a political prisoner in the eye and then to praise his captors takes a person wholly impervious to compassion. This kind of indifference can be expected from an avid reader of communist philosophers Karl Marx and Lenin. After all, the two revolutionaries viewed suffering as historical necessity.
3. Americans ‘Almost As Bad as Hitler’
Sanders has also said that American actions in Vietnam were “almost as bad as Hitler.” The senator, who is seen describing himself in one of his campaign ads as a “very proud Jew,” should probably review his World War II history.
Disturbingly, he made the statement to a crowd of ninth graders when campaigning in Vermont in 1978. To the Nazi comparison Sanders added: “The North Vietnamese are not my enemy. They are very, very poor people. Some of them don’t have shoes. They eat rice when they can get it. And they have been fighting for the freedom of their country for 25 years. They can hardly fight back.”
So harmless! Vietnamese commies assassinated “traitors” and Trotskyites, and liquidated the nation’s landlords along with any other political competition through the 1930s and ’40s. According to The Black Book of Communism, as the Viet Cong consolidated power in the north of the country in the 1950s, they carried out tens of thousands of executions. Many more were imprisoned, and perhaps 1.5 million people fled the areas under their control.
After the 1975 fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese Communists sent between 200,000 and one million people, many of them intellectuals and religious leaders, to re-education camps. Some of them remained there as late as the year 2000.
4. The Soviet Union Produced Great Art, So It’s Cool
“The stations themselves [in Moscow Metro] were very beautiful, including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful,” Sanders said after visiting on his honeymoon. I fisked that comment in a prior essay, but I want to add that although the presidential hopeful was impressed with the splendor of the Moscow Metro, sumptuous public art does not seem to be his issue across the board.
Sanders never stopped extolling Communist Cuba, yet under the Castro regime the beautiful city of Havana, once known as the Paris of the Western Hemisphere, has deteriorated. Its architectural gems are now crumbling, and 28,000 people live in Havana buildings that can collapse at any minute.
It was out of character for Bernie, the man who has never shown much interest in the arts, to praise the Moscow Metro. As a =revolutionary socialism type, he likely took a note of the chandeliers because his Soviet minders graciously decided to draw his attention to them. Bernie trusted his guides to supply him the correct talking points.
5. People Weren’t Deprived in the Soviet Union
“People there seem reasonably happy and content. I didn’t notice much deprivation,” said the newlywed Sanders returning from a Yaroslavl, Russia trip. To which a member of his entourage added: “We’ve met people, we’ve looked up people who were friends of friends, we visited people in their apartments […] totally unsupervised, in fact some of us meat with people who you would really think of as dissidents, who are unhappy with life there, and other people who were pretty satisfied.”
In the late ’80s the Soviet economy descended into stagflation, and foodstuffs like poultry and sugar were rationed. That’s deprivation Bernie apparently didn’t observe. There was also plenty of ethnic strife, although that wasn’t centered in Yaroslavl, so I’ll give Bernie a pass on it.
Few in the USSR were “satisfied” or “happy and content” in 1988. However, that was the height of the liberalization efforts of Perestroika, so the Soviet people discovered they could begin to talk about their problems and history openly.
There was a lot of hope in the air at that time because the country began to open up, and to look for other models of governance. The dissidents were the happiest then because, after decades of being silenced and prosecuted, they finally got to be heard, and the people were listening.
That the only the dissidents were unhappy was the old Soviet propaganda line, usually followed by “and they are crazy.” The USSR confined its politically insane to psychiatric hospitals, and devised all sorts of torture for them.
Sanders’s low-level American delegation talked of the USSR as if they had visited the country in 1968 or 1978, and willingly channeled the official propaganda. They of course had to say something diplomatic, and there was plenty to commend.
Bernie could have gone with, “There is honest reckoning with Stalinism, and private enterprise is now allowed,” then highlighted relevant examples in Yaroslavl. Yet Bernie went on about the chandeliers in the Moscow Metro and how people don’t really need a good selection of food in supermarkets, which by then were outdated commie ideas.
6. Authoritarianism Is Balanced by Antipoverty Efforts
“China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian. But can anyone deny—the facts are clear—that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history?”
China certainly is an authoritarian country, operating a centrally run spy network on its web, forcing abortion on its women, and holding millions of Muslims captive in re-education camps. This is horrific, and hugely disappointing to those of us who hoped the country would liberalize. Yet China is not “becoming more and more authoritarian.”
The high days of Chinese authoritarianism were under Mao Zedong, the icon of Western counterculture who had his likeness cloned by Andy Warhol. Between 40 and 80 million Chinese were killed by starvation, persecution, prison labor, or mass executions during Chairman Mao’s 27-year reign.
At the same time, as Jarrett Stepman recently pointed out, Chinese economic gains became possible only to the extent the country abandoned its Marxist economy, opened to the West, and embraced capitalism. All of this economic progress must have been hugely disappointing to Bernie, who wrote in 1971 that China had democracy “on a local level” while Mao was still in power.
7. The American Dream Better Fits South America
“These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?”
This comes from a 2011 editorial Sanders wrote. As it seems perpetually the case with him, Bernie was dead wrong about Venezuela.
Socialist Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1999, instituting government takeover of the means of production and price controls. Predictably, the economy flattened.
Venezuelan immigrant Daniel Di Martino recalled food shortages and beyond: “My family and I suffered from blackouts and lack of water. The regime nationalized electricity in 2007 in an effort to make electricity ‘free.’ Unsurprisingly, this resulted in underinvestment in the electrical grid. By 2016, my home lost power roughly once a week…For all these problems, the regime has blamed an iguana, right-wing sabotage and even the weather.”
Chavez also instituted censorship and imprisoned dissidents. That’s not exactly the American Dream. People live it not because they have the government redistribute something in their favor, but because they have the liberty to make it happen.
8. Foreigners Who Hate America Have a Point
“They were fighting against American — Huh huh — yes, what is your point?” That was Bernie trying to deflect his Hanoi Jane in Nicaragua moment, in which he apologized for Nicaraguans chanting anti-American slogans because they were fighting a war against us.
In the 1980s the United States was giving money to the anti-Communist guerrillas in the Latin American country, and Sanders, then a mayor of a town in Vermont, decided to give the Sandinista communists a visit. He was present at the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista takeover in 1985, when the crowd chanted “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die.”
After his return, Sanders gave an interview calling the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega “an impressive guy” and complained that the American media was lying about Nicaragua. When recently confronted about the episode by New York Times reporter Sydney Ember, Bernie responded defensively, just not convincingly. He was never anti-war, just anti-American.
Bernie comes with baggage, and the American public rejected him. Looking at how his campaign is awash in money, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that socialism is not going away. Next time they will nominate somebody uncompromised — and charismatic.