Bernie Sanders, a Thinker’s Troublemaker

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Bernie Sanders
Troublemaker-in-Chief Bernie Sanders. Photo by Nick Solari / via

Hillary Clinton’s supporters are dead right about some important things. First, that the former Walmart director is the presidential candidate best prepared to keep the economic system running as it is, and the most committed to doing so. Second, that a Republican Congress won’t pass anything her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, proposes — as if they’d treat her better. Finally, that Sanders is a troublemaker.

The Music Man - Trouble
Troublemaker, with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Bernie.

Is he ever. He’s a real bad troublemaker, and the trouble will not end if Sanders is sworn in on Jan. 20. It will have barely begun. First he’ll make a Supreme Court appointment with a view toward overturning the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited, secret, corporate campaign investments. Senate Republicans cannot filibuster for four years.

Then he’ll try to Bern the House down. He has to, if he wants any of his legislative proposals to be enacted. He will make the case to the American people that, through his election, they have spoken, and they have asked for substantial change. He will have plenty of help from Congress in demonstrating that, with Congress as it is, such change cannot occur. He will appeal to the people who propelled him into office to dig a little deeper, give a little more, support some progressive candidates and, in some cases, run for office.

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He will try to wrench state legislatures back from the right-wing fringe that dominates so many of them. It will be possible, because Charles and David Koch and their ilk, who have been buying up legislatures like so many vacant lots, won’t be legally able to do that any longer.

That is where the effort has to commence, because Republicans have used their state legislative majorities and their governors to gerrymander congressional districts and suppress voting through devices such as voter-identification laws. Only when those actions are reversed can the changing demographics of the United States finally play its proper role, so that the legislatures, as well as Congress, can more accurately and fairly reflect both the population and the will of eligible voters.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We could see Sanders become a new FDR.[/pullquote]

In the still somewhat unlikely event that Sanders is elected and can succeed in the political task just described, he will be in a position like Franklin Roosevelt’s, with a New Deal Congress. He’ll be able to direct and effect wide-ranging changes in short order. Also like Roosevelt, the more he enacts, the more he will feel pressure from the conservative and the cautious to reform less and conform more.

To support Sanders, one has to take a gigantic, Kierkegaardian leap of faith that all this is even possible. Politics, though, sometimes relies on just such faith. It works like a money economy, or like the goat-god Pan in Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. Either enough people believe or the money is worthless, the god disappears, the movement dies.

To support Clinton, one has to believe at least one of several things: the status quo is satisfactory; Sanders is right, but his dream is fantasy; Clinton can somehow work with Republicans in Congress who have made their careers by publicly hating her; she will rediscover her Wellesley idealism; or, despite 40 years of evidence to the contrary, she possesses the political skills and qualities of leadership to finesse her way, Obama style, through the minefields of congressional opposition.

socialism Sanders’ supporters seem to be mostly of two kinds, traditional liberals and people who may lean a bit left, but are motivated mostly by their own anger and fear. Significantly, they are not necessarily the best-educated, affluent voters, but tend to be lower in income and well left of the Clinton crowd. Clinton’s people appear to be mostly of two other kinds, political centrists and people who think vaguely that she is a progressive, but care more that she is female or that she seems to be ahead.

It is perhaps useful to look at the two in something of a historical perspective. It is Sanders, the lifelong political independent, who is ideologically in the tradition of Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and George McGovern. Clinton, who is supported by the contemporary Democratic establishment, thinks and behaves like the Republicans Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush.

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A swing back to the political left is far overdue, in historical terms, so it is inaccurate to view Sanders’ insurgency in the same light as Donald Trump’s. Trump is trying to build on the kind of right-wing populism that embodies the worst inclinations of the American voting public, which are racism and nativism. Sanders is a populist as well, in that he tends to demonize what he calls “the billionaire class,” but there is a crucial difference from the Trump demagoguery. Sanders is talking about inequality of wealth and income, which, unlike immigration, is a root problem in America, and he offers realistic and fairly comprehensive proposals to deal with it.

Sanders, in other words, really is not out of the mainstream at all. It is the rest of the 2016 American political world that is out of the mainstream, both of history and of worldwide thinking.

Sanders’ “political revolution” might just forestall the more familiar kind of revolution. His “socialism” might just save capitalism again, in the fashion of FDR.