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20 February 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:27am

Bernie Sanders: the president who never was

The politician’s new work is a limited and soporific harangue. How did he twice get close to becoming leader of the free world?

By Christopher Caldwell

Bernie Sanders is to blame that the Democratic National Committee (DNC), at its winter meeting in South Carolina in early February, voted to upend the party’s traditional schedule for nominating presidential candidates. For a century, the first primary election for both major American parties has been in New Hampshire – compact, rural, and within travelling distance of major media markets. The New Hampshire primary allows close voter scrutiny of candidates, their records and their programmes. That is no longer what the Democratic Party wants. Henceforth, the DNC announced, South Carolina will get the first say. New Hampshire will be consigned to the middle of the pack.

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the DNC, said the change “elevates diverse communities”. By this he means that South Carolina’s Democratic electorate is about 60 per cent black. But there is another, not unrelated reason for favouring the Palmetto State over the Granite one. South Carolina is amenable to the direction set by national party leaders. In the last two nomination races it became a bulwark for protecting the candidate of the party’s establishment – Hillary Clinton in 2016, Joe Biden in 2020 – from an upset at the hands of the Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders.

That his own party should feel the need to close ranks against an 81-year-old whose two previous bids for president ended in defeat tells us something about the contradictions of today’s centre left. The global information economy moved the main source of wealth creation in developed economies from factories to progressive universities. When that happened, revolutionaries, intellectuals and union bosses found themselves sharing centre-left parties with outright plutocrats. Most made their peace with money, sometimes at the price of hypocrisy. But there have remained in these parties a few who were intensely unrelaxed about people getting filthy rich: Oskar Lafontaine and Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France.

[See also: Ron DeSantis supporters are overlooking something critical – he’s boring]

Corbyn has been purged from the Labour Party, the others exiled into smaller radical parties, such as Die Linke in Germany, La France Insoumise and Podemos in Spain. In the American two-party system, that’s impossible. So Sanders’s position is ambiguous. For most of his career he has called himself a democratic socialist. He campaigns as an Independent, not a Democrat. This involves a bit of posturing. In his last three races to represent Vermont in the US Senate, Sanders has run virtually unopposed in the Democratic primary, winning upwards of 94 per cent of the vote – but then refused the nomination. Sanders votes reliably with the Democrats, and the Democrats just as reliably campaign for him and provide him with powerful committee assignments.

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On the evidence of his new harangue, It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism, he is a partisan more than a revolutionary. But he continues to spit poison at the arrangements the Democratic Party has made with the country’s rich. The bitterest intraparty debates of recent years have put Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Biden loyalists against Sanders’s people. And Sanders’s people include some of the most charismatic younger Democrats in US Congress: conspicuously, the 33-year-old New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders has an unlikely youth movement. He is old: born in 1941, he attended the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. He is blunt, hammering the same statistics and anecdotes in speech after speech in his honking baritone. He is so lacking in humour as to make Corbyn seem almost madcap by comparison. He neither reads nor theorises much. These traits have all wound up being pluses. They come over as forthrightness.

Sanders does not just favour high taxes on the rich as a means to fund “education” or another noble cause – for him, the taxes are an end in themselves. They help “tackle wealth inequality, address the long-term damage done by systemic racism, and free up working Americans to create, innovate, and strengthen the United States”. The bills he sponsors carry names such as the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act.

Good old Marx-influenced leftism has the advantage of being more capacious than the contemporary culture-war kind: Sanders wastes little time on arguments about abortion, pronouns and critical race theory, believing those can be subsumed under his general message of fighting the powerful. He can be heretical. Representing a rural mountain state, he has been at best a fitful friend of gun control.

More than most senators, Sanders has a realistic idea of what today’s working class is and who is in it – not so much miners, smelters and lathe-turners as shirt-folders, aisle-swabbers and sheet-changing home health workers. His picture of American oligarchy is less vivid but reinforced with powerful statistics. Three of the richest Americans – Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – own more wealth than half the US.

When Sanders was a boy, the average CEO earned 20 times what one of his workers made; today’s average CEO outearns his workers by 400-to-one. “Billionaires should not exist,” he repeatedly stated during his 2020 presidential campaign. You can see why younger voters like that. Older progressives have been waiting for the country to reject oligarchy and rediscover its true identity; for the kids, oligarchy is the country’s true identity. A Bernie Sanders rally has the atmosphere of a countercultural music festival.

It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism is meant to impart to readers some of the excitement of the campaign trail – and of Sanders’s hyperactive chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee in the first two years of the Biden administration. It is a means of passing the torch to some Democratic candidate of the next generation. Unfortunately, campaigns translate poorly into books, and Sanders’s more poorly than most. Take his outrage that three Wall Street investment funds – BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – control $20trn in assets, an amount equal to the gross domestic product of the United States. Travelling from Pittsburgh to Youngstown to Cincinnati in the heat of a fast-moving presidential race, you can rattle off that statistic three times in the same day and it will sound fresh every time. But you cannot say it in three different chapters of the same book without exasperating readers. The podium-pounding parallelisms of campaign oratory are soporific on the page. So is the detailed enumeration of Sanders’ $6trn infrastructure plan from early 2021, too utopian ever to have much practical effect on the Senate debate. The book is often a stultifying bore. You could even call its repurposing of a hustings work-product for private sale an act of capitalist exploitation.

[See also: Where did America’s recession go?]

Sanders has a sense the information economy is enabling new forms of exploitation: “The wealthiest and most powerful Americans,” he writes, “employ teams of analysts and counsellors to help them keep tabs on every economic and social trend and then, when they see where things are headed, they start investing in ‘what’s next’… By the time the average American catches on, the rules have already been rigged.” For Sanders “uber-capitalism” is more a mood than a system. “To those who say that, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, there is not enough to care for all the people, our answer must be: ‘That’s absurd. Of course there’s enough!’” he writes. “With the explosion of new technology and productivity that we are experiencing, we now have the capability to provide a good life for every American.”

Here, Sanders has something in common with the British “luxury Communists” of the Corbyn years – counting on “new technology” to make decisions about redistribution less difficult than we fear, and political clashes less heated. And in describing the US as the “wealthiest country in the history of the world”, what exactly does Sanders mean? The US government is $31trn in debt. Particularly since the start of the war in Ukraine it has been using the world’s financial infrastructure as a tool of US foreign policy – from the Belgium-based Swift bank-transfer system to the Western-held central bank reserves of Afghanistan and Russia. The day may be coming when the world withdraws its trust from US-run global institutions, and with it the exorbitant privilege that permits the US to run up such debts.

There is a good deal of nostalgic, church-bake-sale progressivism in Sanders’s world-view. For him, European countries (even the UK) are places where people do things in a better and fairer way than the US. Sanders takes little account of how these countries have themselves been straitened and coarsened by the same global-capitalist conditions he identifies at home, and overwhelmed by migration into the bargain. Instead, it might as well be 1974. Northern Europe remains a particular model for Sanders, especially in education. “Instead of telling young people to be quiet, and discouraging dissent,” he writes, “Finland encourages them to recognise their roles as leaders in the society they will inherit.” (Those who have met Americans may be surprised at the suggestion that they require coaching in self-assertiveness.) Sanders’s ideal in most other matters is Norway, coincidentally also Donald Trump’s archetype of a non-“shithole” country.

Sanders and Trump led parallel movements. Each was as much concerned with breaking up the racket in his own (adopted) party as in governing the country. Sanders was curious about Trump. At least he was curious about why in 2020 Democrats, the old party of the workers, only gained votes from 28 per cent of white working-class men and 36 per cent of white working-class women. Leaders of striking unions frequently told Sanders that large majorities of their members were voting Republican. He doesn’t blame those voters. He believes they are angry at the way “the Democratic Party has abandoned them for wealthy campaign contributors and the ‘beautiful people’”.

Up to the limits of his competence, Trump was a more committed party rebel – such as when he called George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen”. Sanders, on the other hand, has been a stout defender of the Biden agenda, hailing him as the “most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. You might say so if you focused only on quantities of federal money disbursed. But much of that money has been directed to corporations through grants and tax incentives that would be anathema to Roosevelt. Sanders himself describes the central plank in the 2022 Chips Act – about $50bn to “reshore” microchip manufacturing from Asia – as a “giveaway” to Big Tech.

Where Sanders outperforms Trump is in cutting through political polarisation. A poll last summer found he had the approval of 41 per cent of Independents and 18 per cent of Republicans. Perhaps he strikes voters as less disruptive than Trump. Or perhaps he strikes them as more disruptive. For the American public is receptive to Sanders’s message that the rich must be brought to heel – at least 60 per cent would like to see them taxed more aggressively.

[See also: American hubris]

The most extraordinary aspect of Sanders’s career is that this rather limited politician, destined in most times for the role of gadfly, twice came quite close to becoming the so-called leader of the free world. You wouldn’t say he came within a hair’s breadth. But in 2016 it required the Democratic Party’s anti-democratic system of “superdelegates” to stop him. In 2020 it needed a party-brokered near-simultaneous withdrawal of all moderate candidates to clear the field for Biden. In retrospect, his challenge was like that of Brexit: the country was ready for him, the political class was not.

The final necessary act was to purge his own party and turn it into a vanguard organisation that could be rallied behind him. That is what Dominic Cummings managed to do for the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in late 2019. That is what electoral uprisings require. The American party system is not amenable to being harnessed that way. Those who got a scare from Bernie Sanders are taking steps to ensure it becomes even less so.

It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism
Bernie Sanders
Penguin, 304pp, £22

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon