The Bernie Conundrum

The Massachusetts Democratic primary is scheduled for March 3, 2020—exactly one year from Sunday—and, oddly enough, I haven’t yet decided for whom I will vote.  With a dozen-odd officially-declared candidates to choose from—and God knows how many more waiting in the wings—I see no particular rush in picking one potential future president over another.  Apart from anything else, I try always to bear in mind Christopher Hitchens’s observation that politicians tend to work a little harder for your vote if you haven’t given it away in advance.

That said, I can’t help noting that the Democratic candidate for whom I voted in the 2016 primary is also a candidate this year.

The hopeful in question is of course one Bernie Sanders, the cranky junior senator from Vermont who was into Democratic socialism before it was cool and whose supposedly loony-toon advocacy for universal healthcare has since become a core tenet of Democratic Party orthodoxy in one form or another.

In 2016, I supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton on the strength of his integrity and liberal bona fides—as Joe Scarborough quipped at the time, “He’s been saying the same thing since 1962”—and I would be prepared to support him over any number of other contenders in 2020 for the exact same reasons.

And yet…

You see, my feelings about Bernie Sanders have grown rather complicated as of late—not by Sanders himself, per se, as by his most ravenous defenders and by what he represents in the American body politic.

Since 2016, my (somewhat cheeky) bumper sticker shorthand for Sanders has been, “Trump, Minus the Racism.”  For all the obvious differences between the two men—to quote Matt Taibbi, “Sanders worries about the poor, while Trump would eat a child in a lifeboat”—there were (and still are) certain ways in which Sanders’s and Trump’s views of the world overlap.  Then and now, both reject the so-called wisdom of the Washington, D.C., establishment of both parties.  Both understand the corrosive, something-is-rotten-in-the-state-of-Denmark role of big money in our political system.  Both are scornful of America’s overly-expansive presence on the world stage.  Both are happy-warrior populists who say exactly what’s on their mind without any filter between their brain and their mouth.

And both inspire a measure of loyalty from a core group of supporters that can only be described as cult-like.  On one side is the Basket of Deplorables.  On the other are the Bernie Bros.

For both groups, the American Dream has effectively become unreachable for all but the most privileged among us—thanks largely to several decades of “rigged” policies by the nation’s elites—and nothing less than a wholesale blowing up of the entire system is sufficient to restore America to its former glory.

The problem with framing our country’s class and cultural divide in quasi-apocalyptic terms—appealing as it sounds at first blush—is that it naturally leads one in search of a savior—someone who presumes to walk on water and spin straw into gold.  And once such a messianic figure is found, it becomes increasingly second nature to view him as infallible—and, more alarming still, irreplaceable.

With Trump and Sanders both, that is precisely what has occurred.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump made a wretched spectacle of himself by describing the United States as a raging dumpster fire and proclaiming, “I alone can fix it.”  While Sanders himself has not quite sunk to such depths of solipsism and delusions of grandeur, his fans have gladly taken up the cause on his behalf, crying all over social media, “Bernie is our only hope!”—implying, with more than a hint of a threat, that if Democratic primary voters opt for one of Sanders’s gazillion intra-party competitors instead of him in 2020, they will shop around for an alternative, Jill Stein-like figure to support in the general election.  As far as they’re concerned, if Bernie can’t have this country, we might as well let it burn.

Needless to say, not all Sanders supporters are obstinate ideological absolutists.  After all, I’m a Sanders supporter and I’m not absolutist about much of anything beyond the correct way to eat a slice of pizza (handheld, folded in half, obviously).

What worries me, however, is that the amplifying—and, dare I say, toxic—effects of the interwebs will cause Sanders to be singularly associated with a gang of humorless, rabid, mansplaining lemmings, thereby turning off millions of otherwise “gettable” voters on both sides of the national divide, greatly narrowing his path to victory and, should victory come, making his operation look less like an organic grassroots political movement and more like the Church of Scientology—a place where unquestioned fealty to doctrine is required at all times and the perfect is forever and always made the enemy of the good.

I guess what I most desire for the 2020 election and our next president are skepticism, nuance and a wee touch of humility every now and again.  We’ve now lived more than two years under a commander-in-chief who seems to truly believe he has never been wrong about anything—or, at the very least, will never admit as much publicly—and who views dissent of any sort as a threat and a nuisance rather than an opportunity for personal and political growth.

Are we sure Bernie Sanders—the man whose views haven’t changed in half a century—is the ideal corrective to this state of affairs?  Is it really enough to replace one stubborn old mule with another simply because the second is smarter, kinder and more dignified than the first?

I don’t have the answer to that question today.  Ask me again in a year.

Think Big

There’s a Greek adage—since become an American cliché—concerning the difference between a fox and a hedgehog:  “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.”

If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim the White House in 2020, it would do well to nominate a hedgehog.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran for president as a fox—someone who had walked the halls of power for decades and seemingly knew everything about everything.  As a consequence—because she attempted to address every issue all at once, to be all things to all people—she came across as a woman who believed in nothing in particular other than becoming president.

By contrast, her opponent—one Donald J. Trump—ran as the know-nothing charlatan that he is—a man of appalling incuriosity and ignorance about the world around him—yet nonetheless captured a majority of the Electoral College on the strength of a single, clear and consistent message:  “I will make brown people go away.”  (In time, this would be shortened to “Make America Great Again.”)

If you want to know the story of the 2016 campaign, it’s that the candidate who knew many things was defeated by the candidate who knew (or at least said) one big thing.  My advice to the Democrats’ eventual nominee next year:  Find one big thing on which to campaign, and stick with it.

For all his bumbling and rambling in his official duties as chief executive, Donald Trump understands the power in establishing a singular, unified worldview and funneling all of his major declarations and acts toward the implementation thereof. 

Trump may careen incoherently from one policy bungle to another—ever on the defensive against a media-industrial complex that he views as an existential threat to his presidency—but his One Big Idea has remained the same:  That is, the notion that America has been taken advantage of for decades by its counterparts in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East—economically and militarily—and it’s high time the United States stand up for itself by withdrawing most of its troops, tearing up most of its treaties and, of course, building a Big Beautiful Wall on the border with its neighbors to the south.

We can argue about the wisdom of the 21st century’s leading superpower effectively withdrawing from the world stage to tend to its own private concerns—and, indeed, about whether such a thing is even possible—but we can’t deny the elemental appeal of a commander-in-chief who knows exactly what he wants for his country—particularly regarding its foreign policy—and is unrelenting in his desire to effectuate it, up to and including when public support turns against him.

Obviously, Trump’s bluster on this front has far outpaced his capacity for generating results—as would be expected of a loud-mouthed businessman who once managed to bankrupt a casino.

Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Trump’s singlemindedness about isolating the United States from the global community scratched a primal itch in millions of voters who wanted to send an angry message to Washington, D.C., and who regard Trump as a faithful vessel for their (self-)righteous ire.  His stick-to-itiveness vis-à-vis “America first!” carried him over the finish line on November 8, 2016, and is the one thing guaranteeing that 30-odd percent of the electorate will never, ever leave his side.  In the broadest possible sense, they always know where he stands and, rightly or wrongly, they believe he stands with them.

In 2020—as in 2018—it will be the left’s turn to vent its outrage at the incumbent administration and chart its own course forward, and the worst the Democrats could possibly do is to nominate a candidate who is timid and circumspect about saying what he or she truly believes—or worse, who says too much about too many different things, resulting in a muddled message that does nothing to inspire those who yearn to be inspired—as perhaps they haven’t been since the “Yes We Can” days of 2008.

Among the more amusing side stories from 2016 was that, in preparing for the general election, Hillary Clinton and her aides entertained at least 84 possible slogans before ultimately settling on “Stronger Together”—a fact that illustrates both how seriously the campaign took the concept of self-branding and how woefully unfocused the whole operation was, thematically-speaking.  For all her experience and expertise as a public official, Hillary could never quite explain why she, of all people, should be president of the United States—particularly not in an easy-to-remember phrase that could fit easily on a bumper sticker or a red hat.

It all comes down to the elemental question, “Why do you want to be president?”  Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t summon a coherent answer in 1980, effectively strangling his own insurgent candidacy in its crib.  In truth, very few candidates in the intervening decades have done much better, typically using the query as an opportunity for a vague laundry list of issues rather than a sweeping declaration of principle.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a person who presumes to become the most powerful human being on Earth at least pretend to believe in something beyond personal wish-fulfillment.  As no less than Richard Nixon observed, those who run for high office can be divided into two groups:  Those who want to do big things, and those who want to be big people.  Of course, the former can (and generally does) lead to the latter.  Wouldn’t it be nice if America’s next president understood that it doesn’t work the other way around?