By: Adam Stromme
With the decision of Vermont independent Bernie Sanders (I) to join the race on the 26th of May, the news cycle has already become replete with criticisms and dismissals of Sanders’ relevance, let alone his chances. Some skepticism is justified, with pundits pointing to the narrow strip to the left available for Sanders to land on by some polling estimates. Others, however, point to the need for a more electrifying and diverse Democratic primary and Sanders’ powerful campaign position, providing desperately needed back and forth in order to shake off notions that current front- sprinter Hillary Clinton need only worry about stretching before walking up to accept the nomination.
Clinton, it must be remembered, is not an infallible candidate, and the Republicans are well aware of that. From the questionable fundraising of the Clinton Foundation, her silence on the contentious but rarely reported Trans-Pacific Partnership , or the continuing controversy– justified or unjustified– surrounding her mass deletions or emails, Clinton suffers from the Harvey Dent paradox of governance: the longer you stay, the greater a chance you have of being found a villain. Her decision to come out stomping strong in the beginning can be seen as serving the short-term benefit of scaring off serious adversaries– a strategy used by Mitt Romney to great effect in 2012– but at the cost of inviting friend and foe alike to take time to dredge deep into her hawkish past. Part of her contentious legacy has explained her lukewarm reception amongst the general electorate.
To be sure, the Democrats are desperately in need of a Clinton style candidate, as they have suffered from a lack of diversity in the field compared to the Republicans in recent years, where the greased palm of an Adelson continues to populate the field by securing otherwise unrunnable candidates with nigh unlimited funding. But there’s something to be said about the ambivalence of those supportive of the Democratic party towards Clinton, or anyone else seeking to stay the radical right from a place in high office. It appears, in short, as if the minority coalition style that has historically typified the Democratic party has begun to fray at the edges, leaving core voting blocs feeling disenfranchised as we saw in the midterms.
All of this discussion within the party serves a valuable function, but it bears a marked prejudice against Sanders that cannot entirely be explained by his campaigns’ diminutive stature relative to Clinton.
His policies, though progressive in the United States, contrary to the oft presented narrative, fit well with an increasingly diverse and liberal Democratic base. His platform rests effectively, to borrow his own words, on a distain for “politics as usual” serving the interests of the “millionaires and billionaires.”
It is here, finally, where we start to hit the root of the problem with Senator-cum-candidate Sanders: his self-identification as a Democratic Socialist.
Socialism in the United States has been cultivated an ugly duckling status especially in the media, one that conjures up images of round helmeted soldiers marching down Red Square: an absolutist doctrine based upon the suffocation of individual liberty and freedom. Sanders’ decision to hold the label can be variously interpreted as sticking to his principles as always on the one hand, or foolhardily bringing a hand grenade to the primaries in another. Rank and file Democrats and Clinton enthusiasts readily dismiss and chastise his running on the latter terms. But the misunderstandings of Socialism and its history in the United States are largely deliberate, the product of an overly simplistic association with the Soviet Union and Communism gene rally.
The reality is that Socialism has been typecast as absolutist by those who yearn for “politics as usual” to carry because it makes it easier to dismiss, and less palatable to consider. Yet to a shrewder eye, such an interpretation is immediately suspect. What is Socialism but, in more conservative interpretations, the government control of an industry or service which is not fit for a free market, or, in its more radical form, workers control over the means of production? Nowhere, it is pertinent to note, is a rational explication of Socialism ever provided in the mainstream media coverage of Sanders; yet just such an explanation is desperately needed if voters are to make heads or tails of the most dynamic populist to enter the race so far. Instead, quite deliberately, we are always provided with the same ridiculous , specious notions of what Socialism “truly means.”
Who, after all, would think private competition of road maintenance would be practical? Defense (more so than now)? Even government? The reality is that Socialism is not– but in the minds of a few, has it ever been– a question or absolutes. But to give it such an aura is to help people in relegating it beyond the realm of possibility. This is, in effect, the building of irrational associations with a legitimate political expression, brushing it off the table of “acceptable” options. With Sanders we find only the most recent target of a familiar tactic highlighted by a man who knew a thing or two about totalitarianism, real totalitarianism, not the type that tropes itself across our headlines.
Orwellian political dialogue, in the most precise sense of the term, is back in full force; whether Orwell wants it (he wouldn’t) or not.