In the 2016 primary, I voted for Bernie Sanders. His calls for transformative change and revolution appealed to me.
It is a decision I… somewhat regret.
Consider that a confession right up front: I’ve got buyer’s remorse.
A few things happened to sway me. The first? Discovering this video was a thing:
It’s a press conference, in full, from when the Sanders family returned from the USSR after their honeymoon.
Whether Bernie intended it to be or not — I certainly don’t think anyone should jump to any conclusions — it’s sheer Soviet propaganda.
Hearing Jane Sanders say, as Bernie watches on, that she wishes her kids could grow up in the USSR — as the whole Soviet system was falling apart — makes me cringe, body and soul.
The idea people have that all Bernie Sanders calls for is ‘Sweden in America’ isn’t really true. At least, it wasn’t true then — and, to my knowledge, he’s never disavowed any of this.
Seriously, watch the video, or at least some of it — I’m not posting any clips of it because I think people deserve the whole context.
And remember the time period in which this happened: this unabashed praise for the Soviet system, over the American system, came in the midst of the USSR’s imminent collapse — and when things were a lot better in America for impoverished communities (case in point: welfare was a thing that still existed), to say nothing of the working class (which also was a thing that still existed).
The second strike? Can we call it grift? Oh, gosh, do I want to go there… but I’ll hold back.
Sanders raised millions of dollars to establish a Vermont-based ‘Thank Tank’ that produced almost no work.
The organization did, however, pay Bernie’s son-in-law a six-figure salary for a job in which he had no qualifications. This was a significant portion of all the funds raised.
As these details started to emerge, the organization was very quickly shut down. No attempts were made to improve it instead — and if anyone knows where its money exactly went, I’d certainly like to know.
I’ll never quite understand how major media outlets determine which stories they’re going pay special attention to, but how this story was so easily ignored by the MSM is something I’ll never understand. For a Sanders family that railed against the Clinton Foundation, maybe this should have been a bigger deal?
More importantly, millions were raised from Bernie’s fervent supporters and labor organizations — all money from people who don’t have a lot — and the only tangible results I can see from it is Bernie Sanders’s son-in-law got a very sweet gig that he did almost nothing with.
Maybe that’s not grift — grift requires a certain intentionality behind it that I don’t know was there — but, gosh, does it come right up to the line, and at the very least we know Bernie’s not against some good, old-fashioned nepotism.
Both of these stories gave me the kind of distance I needed to take a clearer, more neutral look at Bernie’s career as a whole.
I was able to contextualize how Bernie’s calls for revolution — huge structural changes — don’t jive with his legislative career, which embodies the very spirit of institutionalism and small, incremental changes he often complains about on the stump.
At rallies, he screams we need a revolution. Legislatively, it’s small amendments here or there. Yes, there were a lot of amendments. I used to defend him as “the Amendment King,” which came from a Matt Taibbi column, without thinking more broadly about what that really meant: it’s nibbling at the edges, sometimes giving away his vote cheaply, often to help bills pass that should have gone down. The 1994 crime bill is the most infamous example.
More importantly, in the context of today’s campaign, what does he think about the big, structural change that could transform the Senate into a body that could pass popular legislation? AKA, nuking the filibuster.
He doesn’t support it. He’s cool with the filibuster, which means virtually any legislation a President Sanders could propose would go down in flames. (And before anyone cries Reconciliation!, it ain’t the panacea many think it is.)
And politically? He’s built a nice career niche for himself in Vermont and DC, enjoying the elite privileges of a life he often rails against, but went decades without building any kind of infrastructure to move legislation or elect legislators in Vermont or across the country. There’s no revolution without people, and for most of his career that’s not something he’s ever bothered with.
After all that, I came to realize it: It’s BS. All of it.
Critically, I’m not calling him a liar. I’m sure he believes the things he says, just like I bought a keyboard and believed I’d teach myself how to play the piano.
But he’s certainly not doing the things one does to lead a revolution that could create the changes he calls for.
Even running for President alone can’t create those revolutionary changes, particularly when that person is old and just recovering from a heart attack.
Real change is a lot of hard work, and requires someone who can build institutions that outlast them, and who have a keen understanding for strategy.
It requires the ability to work with all kinds of people – being able to forge new consensus on ideas that before didn’t have a chance.
Perhaps the guy who talks a big game, but eschews parties and coalition building on big, legislative ideas isn’t a revolutionary, never mind a leader?
He can give a good speech, sell a lot of books, has achieved some incremental progress, and is living his American Dream. It’s a familiar story, but not a socialist revolutionary one.