NEW YORK CITY, near America
The hands-down most appealing and forthright candidate for president of these United States is a wild-haired, mild-mannered, stoop-shouldered 73-year-old Brooklyn-born secular Jew who greatly admires Pope Francis. He hails from the farm state of Vermont, his bride is Irish-Catholic, and he calls himself a socialist. Fearful of scant advertising revenues from his barebones campaign budget—and little in titillation value: the candidate refuses to trade in traditional campaign slander—American corporate media insist that Senator Bernard Sanders, better known with respectful affection as just plain “Bernie,” has zero chance of occupying the White House.
As protectors of the mighty, press lords have ordered their newsroom minions to engage in a Bernie blackout, save for marginalizing him as “quixotic,” “rumpled,” or “far left.” Of course, we know of press lords through the ages: they desire the prerogative of harlots, and power without responsibility. Pity, then, their confusion over an uncorrupted politician whose record in Congress, since landing in Washington in 1990, is marked by votes against war, domestic spying, and tax breaks for the preposterously rich.
Now as a presidential candidate, Bernie calls for government-financed health insurance as a right of citizenship; a massive federal jobs program in response to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure; weaning off the coal and oil teats in transition to a green energy future; American foreign policy other than endless war in the Middle East; free university education, underwritten by a financial transactions tax on corporate stock trades; and—horror of horrors!—busting up the Wall Street cartels, whose swindlers caused a worldwide recession in 2008 finally ended not in recovery but in torpor.
Bernie’s got my vote. And if I had a farm, I’d bet it on Bernie to win—both the Democratic Party nomination, and the general election of November 2016. Why not? If I lost the wager, what little remained of my personal exchequer would soon enough be gobbled up by moneygrubbers with little more to do in life than plot ever more devious means of bleeding the rest of us dry.
These plutocratic grubbers are bankrolling Bernie’s principal rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton, as well as the pathetic platoon of cretins, clowns, clods, and creeps who seek anointment by the opposition Republican Tea Party. (Watch this space for future installments on that crowd.)
Understandably, the grubbers are invested in status quo. While constituting just one percent of the U.S. population, they own nearly half the country’s wealth—thanks largely to Wall Street greed—and covet all the rest. They live in whispered splendor behind gates and walls carefully constructed to render climbing them impossible, both literally and figuratively. We rarely see them; for the most part, we do not know their names. But look—there they are in the shadows of our daily lives, skulking backstage, pulling our strings.
We must never underestimate the grubbers’ grasping inclinations; they are helpless against impulses driving their nature. For example: In 1967, a posse of pranksters led by social activist Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) gathered in the mezzanine-level visitors’ gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and dumped a pail of dollar bills down onto the trading floor, creating a down-on-their-hands-and-knees scramble of millionaires scooping up the picayune windfall.
And we must understand the grubbers’ greatest fears: that theirs is an empire of illusion; that we may come to realize they are no better than us; that social reformation is the ready and rightful power of the American people.
On the balmy afternoon of May 26, Bernie Sanders launched what supporters from coast to coast have dubbed the “Burlington Revolution.” Devoid of stage managers and focus groups and sideshow distractions, it is a campaign with the genuine promise of a fresh social compact.
Before a crowd of five thousand—an audience greater than that of all other formally announced candidates of both mainstream parties (combined)—Bernie spoke in a park along the banks of Vermont’s scenic Lake Champlain. A joyful army cheered his bugle call:
We begin a political revolution to transform our country—economically, politically, socially, and environmentally. …[W]e stand here and say, loudly and clearly: “Enough is enough; this great nation and its government belong to all the people, not to a handful of billionaires.”
My fellow Americans, this country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression and, if you include the planetary crisis of climate change, it may well be that the challenges we face are more dire than at any time in our modern history. …Brothers and sisters, now is not the time for thinking small. Now is the time for millions of working families to come together, to revitalize American democracy, to end the collapse of the middle class…The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.
American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. …The [oil billionaire] Koch brothers will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. …If a bank is “too big to fail,” it is too big to exist.
We can live in a country where every person has health care as a right, not a privilege; where every parent can have quality, affordable childcare, and where all our qualified young people can go to college; where every senior can live in dignity and security, and not be forced to choose between medicine and food; where every veteran gets the quality health care and benefits they have earned, and receives the respect they deserve; where every person—no matter their race, their religion, their disability, or their sexual orientation—realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans.
None of the foregoing appeared in the next day’s issues of the two most influential newspapers in the U.S.—the Washington Post and, despite its Page One motto, the New York Times. Nor did either paper give ink to Bernie’s message two days later. On the other hand, both the Times and the Post provided contemporaneous coverage to a pair of Republican Tea Party has-beens who announced their candidacies in the same week—each man owning a patently unreasonable hope of becoming president: Rick Santorum, a homophobic former Pennsylvania senator soundly defeated for reëlection who maintains that climate change is a “hoax,” and George Elmer Pataki, the long forgotten ex-governor of New York unknown beyond his state.
Meanwhile, corporate media pronounce Hillary Clinton the “inevitable” Democratic nominee—never mind her ever inauthentic quick-change political beliefs, her notorious coziness with Wall Street, the queasy Southern drawl she adopts for public appearances in Dixie, or the singular accomplishment of her four years as secretary of state: according to government records, 956,733 frequent flyer miles. And Bernie is pronounced alluring only to a constituency of his own gray-haired generation. Further, saieth newsroom minions—ignorant of his civil rights activism from the 1960s forward, or his creating employment programs for minority youth—Bernie has no discernible appeal to African American and Latino voters, whereas Mrs. Clinton is potentially the “third black president” (after her husband Bill, he of the tapioca face, and cinnamon-skinned Barack Obama).
Item: A recent Times article contained a bit of ageist snark that editors would surely see unfit for application to Hillary Clinton, who at age 66 is only seven years Bernie’s junior. With not a trace of irony, the article noted that a “significant minority” of old people gathered at Lake Champlain for Bernie’s kick-off. (Since the event occurred in the middle of a weekday, during business and school hours, might it not be more notable that a majority of the assembly was thus young or middle-aged?)
On the almighty dollar front, media accurately report that Hillary clobbers Bernie. With the help of the banks and counting houses of Wall Street—and a coterie of billionaires who tithe to the Clinton Foundation—Hillary long ago passed her goal of amassing $100 million (€90 million) for the long slog through state “primary” contests in the run-up to a nationwide determinative election in November 2016. For the national effort, Hillary seeks a cool two billion dollars (€1.8 billion). By comparison, Bernie’s primary season treasury stands at about $4 million (€3.6 million), and he accepts no money from billionaire-backed funds: grassroots contributions only. According to the Federal Election Commission, individual donations to his campaign treasury average $40 (€36).
As for the Clinton family foundation, Doug White offers a pithy summation. Director of a post-graduate program in the ethics of charity fund-raising at Columbia University in New York, he calls the Clintons’ standards and practices in regards to the foundation “distasteful.”
Jesus-jumpers and corporate evangelists of the Republican Tea Party tell us that America is a “Christian nation,” despite the eighteenth century American revolutionists who created something politically new under the sun: the separation of church and state. And in “Christian” America, socialism is dirty word—never mind that Jesus Christ, arguably the world’s most famous socialist, became a celebrity in the Holy Land by storming the temple of Jerusalem to assault and evict the capitalistic grubbers of his time.
Were the U.S. truly a Christian nation, our society might more closely reflect the feisty spirit and charitable philosophy of Christ. But as scripture has it in America, Inc., only capitalist true believers may ascend to sainthood. Alan Bean, an ordained Baptist minister and director of the Texas-based Friends of Justice, takes a dim view of this dogma. As he wrote in the August 2014 edition of Baptist News magazine, “The marriage between market capitalism and American evangelical piety make Jesus impossible. His words are inconvenient at best, and heretical at worst.”
Sectarianism aside, now comes Bernie Sanders who dares identify as a democratic socialist. While it inspires no special alarm in Europe, we Americans are taught that the very word socialist is as unholy as a condom in a collection plate. On May 3, television interviewer and former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos expressed incredulity over Bernie’s blasphemous brand. How in blazes, asked Mr. Stephanopoulos, could an “admitted socialist” be democratically elected to the presidency?
Patiently, Bernie explained what democratic socialism actually is, as opposed to its portrayal as godless abomination.
“We know that countries [such as] Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are very democratic—obviously,” said Bernie. “The voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. …[H]ealth care is the right of all people in those countries…[C]ollege education and graduate school is free.”
Mr. Stephanopoulos, ever the obliging corporate journalist, tsk-tsked Bernie. Republican Tea Partiers, he warned, would surely attack a Democratic candidate fool enough to advocate an America á la socialist Scandinavia.
“What’s wrong with that,” said Bernie, unflinching. “What’s wrong [with] more income and wealth equality? …[T]hey have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, higher minimum wages than we do, and they are stronger on [environmental protections]…We do a lot in our country that is good, but we can learn from other countries.”
Just as capitalism comes in national varieties—e.g., liberal and coördinated market economies of the west, state capitalism in China—socialism has defining principles that depend on the definer. Some two thousand years ago, for instance, a certain leftwing carpenter from the Judean village of Nazareth preached a decidedly stern socialistic view. As chronicled in biblical addenda:
Come now, you rich. Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. …Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud. They cry out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. —James 5:1-6
I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance should supply their need. —Corinthians 8:13
And all who believed were together, and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings, and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. —Acts 2:44-45
And this would be the core curriculum of the Bernie Sanders school of socialism: tuition-free higher education, political campaigns free of oligarchs, dissolution of bank cartels, universal healthcare, robust labor unions, energy policy that avoids climate disaster and provides well paying jobs, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy—and economic justice for the poor, for the working- and middle classes.
Outside the ivory tower of political theory, though, has Bernie the socialist delivered in any practical ways? The question is best answered by his four two-year terms as mayor of Burlington—the office he first attained in 1981 by defeating a sclerotic incumbent by ten votes, followed by three successive reëlection wins by comfortable margins.
At the top of Bernie’s agenda in ’81 was the matter of Northgate Apartments, a federally subsidized housing complex for working-class families. The freshman mayor battled Northgate’s owner, who proposed to oust all renters and convert their units to luxury condominiums for sale to the wealthy. Witnesses to negotiations between owner and mayor report overhearing Bernie pounding his fist on a desk, accompanied by the loud challenge, “Over my dead body! You are not going to displace working families!” Bernie engineered a series of municipal statutes rendered the proposal far less financially sweet for the owner, and then persuaded Washington to invest millions in rehabilitating the property. Today, Northgate tenants own apartments that carry long-term guarantees to keep the units affordable should they sell to others.
With reëlection in ’83 came more mayoral fist pounding, this time over an industrial wasteland along the Lake Champlain shoreline that Tony Pomerleau, a real estate magnate with powerful political connections, sought to acquire for a private recreation and residential complex, including a hotel, condos in twin high-rise buildings, and a marina for yachts. Bernie’s more inclusive vision prevailed. Today, the sprawling site is called Waterfront Park—a place where ordinary Vermonters can rent a rowboat, toss a Frisbee, visit a science center, take a swim, fish for bass and trout from a pier, enjoy a picnic, find jobs in the park’s modest commercial quarter…or launch a presidential campaign.
Mr. Pomerleau, a staunch Republican, was not happy with Bernie for thwarting his plans, he told The Nation magazine in a recent interview. Nonetheless, he came to know and like the mayor—voting for him in all his reëlection bids, and becoming a confidante and advisor through the first several years of Bernie’s tenure in Congress.
“We worked very well together, for the betterment of the town,” said Mr. Pomerleau, now age 97. “We were the odd couple.”
Betterment under Bernie includes: creation of an arts and business association and convention bureau to promote “good development” that meets community needs and yields fair wages; a supermarket coöperative now boasting nine thousand members; several new industry headquarters, including one with more than two hundred employee-owners; formation of a dozen urban farms, now generating ten percent of all food sold in Burlington; formation of the nonprofit Champlain Housing Trust to provide permanent affordable housing and commercial space; and a municipal ordinance requiring a percentage of city-funded construction to be filled by women workers.
In the wake of recession, immoral war, crime in the suites of Wall Street, sixteen years of social and economic destruction under the right-wing regimes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and the Republican Tea Party’s peculiar obsessions with all things sexual—to name but a few of our troubles—it would seem that most Americans nowadays could be open to the worldview of an “admitted socialist.” In fact, we are.
In his blog, “Informed Comment,” University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole provides numbers that underscore Bernie’s rising popularity in national opinion polls:
Some 63 percent of Americans agree that the current distribution of wealth is unfair. …52 percent think that government taxation on the rich should be used to reduce the wealth gap…A majority opposes the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, one of a number of such rulings that have increased the ability of the super-wealthy to influence politics. A good half of Americans support federally financed political campaigns to level the playing field…79 percent believe that education beyond high school is not affordable…57 percent of people under age 30 believe student debt is a problem…71 percent believe global warming is occurring.
—There you have it: Far from being an outsider, Sanders is paddling his way along the mainstream of American public opinion. Look at the crowds gathering to hear him speak…Oh, how the mighty tremble.
In 1964, a post-World War II generation of American activists began the successful struggle to end a pointless war in Vietnam and guarantee voting rights for all. In that year, the troubadour Bob Dylan captured the Zeitgeist in song—“Times, they are a-changin.’”
Again, it is time for change. It is not impossible that Americans of all but the most extreme political persuasion may unite for the betterment of country under the leadership of an “admitted socialist.”
Consider the cri de coeur of Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic liberal and arguably the most influential member of Congress. This is what she told a California technology conference held the day after Bernie’s bugle call: “[T]oo many people in Washington do not represent the folks who elected them. They represent the rich and the powerful, who don’t want their taxes raised. The only way we get change is when enough people in this country say, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m fed up, and I’m not going to do this anymore.’”
And consider what two proudly conservative Republican Tea Partiers said when they telephoned public service C-Span TV in reaction to its live broadcast of Bernie’s campaign launch in Burlington:
- “I agree with everything he said. I wish my party would get a backbone and stop cowering to special interests.” —Vicki of Anchorage, Alaska
- “Bernie has changed my mind. I am an electrical engineer, and my job was shipped out to China. …We need a change. I am not seeing it with the Republicans. All they’re talking about is shipping our jobs overseas. Bernie is talking about taking care of them and protecting them. So I’m going to vote for Bernie.”—Kevin of Fort Collins, Colorado
November 2016 is more than a year into the future. Nevertheless, I do believe I faintly hear the early strains of that wonderful old American campaign ballad, “Happy Days are Here Again.”
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag