The image of Bernie Sanders as a lovable kook – a cranky but harmless Communist grandpa – was perhaps cemented for all time by Larry David’s hilarious impersonation of the Vermont pol on Saturday Night Live on October 17.
But there’s nothing funny about the real Sanders’s politics. He’s been representing the people of the Green Mountain State in Washington for nearly a quarter century – serving as the state’s only House member from 1991 to 2007 and as Senator since 2007. Although he’s running for President as a Democrat, he’s never been belonged to either party, and has served longer on Capitol Hill without a party affiliation than anyone else, ever.
He calls himself a “democratic socialist” and says he admires the political systems in the Nordic countries. We’re not the first observers to point out that his image of the Nordic countries seems hopelessly stuck in the past – but, then, his politics in general seem hopelessly stuck in the past. Although born in 1941, he brings to mind the raving New York Communists of the 1930s, who, from the safety of America, cheered Uncle Joe Stalin, turning a blind eye to the Gulag, the show trials, and the Ukrainian famine, and forgiving him for the shock of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as soon as Hitler invaded Russia. Listening to Sanders, you’d think socialism had never been tried – you’d think, in fact, that the entire twentieth century had never happened, and its horrific lessons never been learned.
Vermont is a pretty blue state, but Sanders is so far left that one suspects that for many voters there, a vote for him in a House or Senate election may not necessarily represent an affirmation of his entire worldview but may, instead, be a way of getting their little corner of the country noticed, and – just maybe – an attempt to shake things up, to give the two-party system a poke in the eye. One Sanders on Capitol Hill, in any event, doesn’t endanger the prosperity or security of the Republic. But the idea of Sanders as a serious presidential candidate is something else again. And the fact that he’s drawing huge, enthusiastic crowds – and getting standing ovations on programs like Bill Maher’s Real Time – is deeply worrying.
This is, after all, a guy who supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, praised their “very deep convictions,” met with their leader, Daniel Ortega, and – while serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, before his entry into national politics – arranged for his burg and Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, to be “sister cities.”
This is a guy who honeymooned in the Soviet Union – specifically, in the glamorous tourist mecca (not!) of Yaroslavl, which he also made a “sister city” of Burlington. This is a guy who vacationed in Cuba in 1989, met with the mayor of Havana, and tried unsuccessfully to arrange a tête-à-tête with Fidel Castro – whom he admires greatly, insisting “that he educated [Cubans’] kids, gave their kids healthcare, totally transformed the society,” and saying that “just because Ronald Reagan dislikes” Castro and his cronies “doesn’t mean that people in their own nations feel the same way.”
This is a guy who, during his years as mayor, reportedly had “a socialism-inspired softball team…called the ‘People’s Republic of Burlington.’” This is a guy who, before getting into politics, “wrote, produced, and sold ‘radical film strips’ and other education materials to schools about people like Eugene Debs.” (In fact, Sanders “still has a portrait of Debs on the wall of his Senate office, and calls him a ‘hero of mine.’”)
At a time, moreover, when chavismo has emptied Venezuela’s supermarket shelves and rendered the bolívar virtually worthless, Sanders has nothing to say about that disaster – which is a direct result of the kind of socialist policies he calls for – but is busy complaining on the campaign trail about the “choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers” that America offers at a time when, as he claims, “children are hungry in this country.”
In short, he’s a guy who doesn’t understand economics. He’s a guy for whom the real-world consequences of implementing economic policies matter less than the ideological impulse underlying those policies. And that ideology? It’s an ideology that’s led him, throughout his career, to embrace tyrants and belittle liberty.