Chris Matthews is a dope and doesn't understand Bernie Sanders' appeal at all

The simple-minded "Hardball" host only understands conflict and has placed Bernie in a box. Let him out!

Published June 22, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)

Chris Matthews        (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Chris Matthews (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

First, Bernie Sanders raised more money than anyone expected, then he drew larger crowds than expected (in Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota), and now he's polling within 10 points of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. But it's still not getting through to a lot of political insider types—typified by Chris Matthews on "Hardball" recently [video/transcript], as he hamfistedly compared his crude understanding of Bernie Sanders with the just-launched official phase of Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The problem for Matthews is that he's “seen it all,” so when something beyond his perception comes along, he doesn't handle it well. And Sanders is doing something definitely outside the Beltway's ken: running a bottom-up, movement-building campaign for president.

At his campaign launch on the Burlington, Vermont, waterfront—a waterfront for the people, built by Burlington when Sanders was mayor in the 1980s—Sanders made this promise: "Not only will I fight to protect the working families of this country, but we’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back." It reflects how Sanders sees the very nature of the race:

This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs.

Although other candidates may mouth similar sentiment, Sanders was not simply engaged in idle rhetoric; building movements is what he's done throughout his unique political career. It's why he's in the U.S. Senate today, and it's how that waterfront was built. But that reality is utterly beyond the likes of Matthews to understand.

Is it too much to expect MSNBC, the supposed liberal counterpart to Fox News, to engage in a substantive debate about defining the direction of progressive thinking about the future?  Apparently so, if "Hardball" is any indication. Matthews not only kept all substance sidelined, he misrepresented Sanders' agenda, and attributed his support to anger, as if there were no rational reasons worth exploring to be angry four decades into the decimation of the American middle class.

As Matthews saw things the day after Hillary Clinton announced, Sanders was running some kind of crazy-man campaign that had the benefit of giving the sensible candidate, Clinton, a sparring partner to get her in shape for the general election. In so doing, Matthews ignored another thing Sanders said, just after the passage quoted above:

As someone who has never run a negative political ad in his life, my campaign will be driven by issues and serious debate; not political gossip, not reckless personal attacks or character assassination. This is what I believe the American people want and deserve. I hope other candidates agree, and I hope the media allows that to happen. Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show or a soap opera. The times are too serious for that.

Matthews, naturally, set off to trivialize the campaign. Instead of baseball, as Sanders mentioned, he turned it into a tortured basketball metaphor.

You want a fight? You got one. Like Stephen Curry answering LeBron James last night, Hillary Clinton has spent the weekend putting up her points. Let Bernie Sanders, the self-styled socialist, charge up Wall Street, she`s working Main Street, promising to create equal opportunity for the rest of us.

You wondered what the Clinton campaign was missing? Well, now we know it. It was an opponent, someone to light up her engine. And thank God this thing isn't going to be boring after all.

This need not have been the prelude to a total disaster. It could have just been a frothy way of setting the table for a serious discussion. After all, Matthews mentioned Clinton “putting up her points” to answer Sanders, so he could have gone on to exploring and comparing the points in question. But the lazy, inaccurate formulation of Sanders charging up Wall Street while Clinton worked Main Street gave Matthews away.  Nothing of real substance would be allowed to get in the way of crafting his utterly predictable—and highly misleading—narrative.

Matthews' complete lack of interest in Sanders, his issues and ideas—as opposed to Sanders as a walk-on actor—was underscored by his choice of panelists for the discussion that followed: former Obama adviser David Axelrod, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, and Hillary Clinton's former chief speechwriter and senior adviser Lissa Muscatine. Nothing against any of them personally—each certainly does have important areas of expertise, and Muscatine would have been perfect if accompanied by a longtime Sanders adviser of similar stature—but what qualified them as a group to provide any particular expert analysis of Sanders, his issues and his campaign?

Fielding a decent panel would not have been difficult. If Matthews had any interest in offering insight into the race, he'd have borrowed "Ed Show" regular John Nichols, who writes for the Nation, or at the very least drawn on his own regular, David Corn, who served as the Nation's Washington correspondent before moving to Mother Jones. Instead, Matthews telegraphed a complete lack of interest in trying to get inside of what Sanders is doing—or why he's gaining much stronger support than anyone expected beforehand.

Perhaps most exasperating was Matthews' insulting insinuation that Sanders is uninterested in creating broad-based opportunity—an assumption that can't withstand a moment's scrutiny of the actual points Sanders has made.  Here are just a few things Sanders supports, taken from his own campaign announcement speech.

On job creation, Sanders pledged to “invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure,” which “would create and maintain at least 13 million good-paying jobs, while making our country more productive, efficient and safe.”

On raising wages, Sanders pledged to more than double the national minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour “over the next few years,” just as Los Angeles recently did. He also pledged to “establish pay equity for women workers,” and to end the practice whereby millions of American employees “work 50 or 60 hours a week – and earn no overtime,” and said “we need paid sick leave and guaranteed vacation time for all”—things taken for granted throughout Europe.

On healthcare, Sanders pointed out that “Despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act, 35 million Americans continue to lack health insurance and many more are underinsured,” even as we continue to pay far more per capita for healthcare than other nations. Thus, he said, “The United States must join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care to all as a right by moving toward a Medicare-for-All single-payer system.”

Sanders also committed to universal pre-K, free tuition in public colleges and universities along with “substantially lower interest rates on student loans,” and expansion of Social Security, in sharp contrast to GOP plans to cut Social Security.

And yet, every single one of them was ignored by Chris Matthews.  Why? Because they did not fit with his brain-dead Beltway narrative. Ignoring absolutely everything that Sanders has said in the way of specific proposals, here's how Matthews lamely characterized the race, instead:

She's a Democrat, and he`s a socialist. He says he is!  I'm not knocking the guy! He is what he is. He's finally saying what  socialism means today. It means take from the very rich and use it for school programs and stuff like that.

Anyway, does the Democratic Party want to grow the pie or redistribute the pie? This weekend, Hillary Clinton talked about profits for everyone.  Let's watch her.

In keeping with Matthews' aversion to specifics, the clip from Clinton contained exactly none:

In the coming weeks, I'll propose specific policies to reward businesses who invest in long-term value, rather than the quick buck because that leads to higher growth for the economy, higher wages for workers, and yes, bigger profits. Everybody will have a better time.

The deeper problem is that Matthews has fundamentally misrepresented the difference between Sanders and Clinton. Matthews presented it as a choice between redistribution or growth. But that's clearly a false dichotomy, and since Matthews does not know that now, a robust, factual issue debate in the Democratic primary is precisely what we need.

In such a debate, we should hear about a 2014 study of how inequality hurts growth from the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development, composed of 34 industrialized nations. The study found that rising inequality had reduced growth by 10 percentage points in Mexico and New Zealand over the two decades leading to the Great Recession. In the U.S., along with Britain and Italy, the cumulative growth rate would have been 6 to 9 percentage points higher. At the same time, greater equality was found to have helped increase GDP per capita in Spain, France and Ireland, before the financial crisis hit.

There is similar evidence from American states as well. One of the most common mechanisms of redistribution at the state level is the state income tax, which is often the only tax that falls more heavily on those at the top. While conservative ideologues have routinely portrayed income taxes as a hindrance to economic growth, which ought to be abolished, the data show that states without an income tax perform more poorly, as documented in a 2013 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, "States with 'High Rate' Income Taxes are Still Outperforming No-Tax States."

What's more, as reported in the New York Times last December, more generous welfare states have higher rates of people working:

Some of the highest employment rates in the advanced world are in places with the highest taxes and most generous welfare systems, namely Scandinavian countries. The United States and many other nations with relatively low taxes and a smaller social safety net actually have substantially lower rates of employment.

More precisely, the Times went on to note:

In Denmark, someone who enters the labor force at an average salary loses 86 percent of earnings to a combination of taxes and lost eligibility for welfare benefits; that number is only 37 percent in the United States. Yet the percentage of Danes between the ages of 20 and 59 with a job is 10 percentage points higher than in the United States.

Norway and Sweden are only slightly behind Denmark. And this helps get to the very heart of the Sanders campaign, because, yes, Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist -- but democratic socialism means something much bigger and much different than Matthews thinks it does. It means the kind of social and political order that can be found in Scandinavia, which Gosta Esping-Andersen's classic study, "The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism," identified interchangeably as the “socialist” or “social democratic” form of welfare state, which aims to provide maximal protections for all.

If you want to understand what being a democratic socialist means, these are the countries you look to, as Sanders pointed out when George Stephanopoulos asked if a democratic socialist could be elected president. Citing the three countries just mentioned, he said:

[T]hey are very democratic countries, obviously. The voter turnout is a lot higher than it is in the United States. In those countries, health care is the right of all people. And in those countries, college education, graduate school is free. In those countries, retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than in the United States of America. And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.

When Stephanopoulos pushed harder, saying, “I can hear the Republican attack ad right now. He wants American to look more like Scandinavia,” Sanders was unconcerned. “That’s right. That’s right. What’s wrong with that?” he responded, and went right back to citing specifics that make those countries attractive:

What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a stronger middle class in many ways than we do, a higher minimum wage than we do and they’re stronger on the environment than we are?”

Those are things that anyone can understand, but they're also things Chris Matthews ought to have known to begin with. After all, Matthews served in the Peace Corps as a young man, and has considerable experience overseas. Yet, when it comes to displaying an even passing awareness of how some of our most prosperous European allies organize their societies, Matthews comes off as ignorant as Bill O'Reilly.

In fact, Scandinavian welfare states are the perfect way to frame this campaign debate. In addition to them, Esping-Andersen's “Three Worlds” are composed of the conservative welfare state, typified by Germany, which aims to consolidate the existing social order and its hierarchical relations in various ways, and the liberal welfare state, typified by English-speaking countries from Britain to the U.S. and Canada to Australia and New Zealand, which aims to deal with imperfections in the market system with minimal interference to the basic system. While certain elements of the U.S. system are social democratic in spirit (most notably Social Security and Medicare), the large size of the private welfare state (particularly subsidized healthcare and retirement plans) puts the system as a whole clearly in the market-oriented liberal welfare state category.

This typology provides a much more robust guide to the Sanders/Clinton debate than anything Matthews might come up with. Sanders wants to move the U.S. more in the direction of Scandinavia, just as he's openly stated.  Clinton, in contrast, with her market-oriented emphasis, simply wants to strengthen the existing liberal welfare state structure. We can best think of comparing where Sanders and Clinton would take us by looking at the results these two models produce, and when we do this, we find that the social democratic welfare states consistently outperform the liberal ones. Most notably, they produce the least inequality and poverty, and the highest rates of labor force participation. The dependency these robust welfare states are supposed to breed is simply a figment of the imagination.

But for Matthews, reality is boring. He'll take the sizzle over the steak every time. After the clip of Clinton referred to above, he offered a contrasting clip of Sanders. “Well, yesterday, Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, spoke about massive wealth redistribution,” he said. Then played the following Sanders clip:

There has been a massive redistribution of wealth which has gone from the middle class and working families to the top one tenth of 1 percent. We`re going to take some of that money back for the middle class.

Unfortunately for the simplistic dichotomy Matthews was trying to establish, both Axelrod and Muscatine pointed out that the differences between Clinton and Sanders were a lot more nuanced. “She's more about growth for everyone and having everybody have a bigger share of the pie,” Muscatine said, reinforcing the dichotomy, but then she added a whiff of reality: “Her problem is the pie is this big, and the very small, small, small fraction of people are getting the bulk of it.” Axelrod went even further, pointing out that a Hillary-style “growth Democrat” was going to have to act a lot like Bernie Sanders sounded there:

[T]he biggest thing is if you`re for a growth Democrat, then you need to get the money somewhere to invest in education, to invest in research and development, to invest in infrastructure and invest in the pillars of growth, and it has to come from the people who have gotten the benefit of the economy over the last so many years.

This is where a panelist from the Sanders camp could have steered the conversation into a more interesting, challenging and fact-based direction. Instead, Matthews simply took another crack at misrepresenting Sanders, again using paired video clips. In the first, Matthews explained, she was “scolding” the financial community. She said they had “created huge wealth for a few by focusing too much on short-term profit and too little on long-term vale.”

Then Matthews summarized, and turned to Sanders. “Well, she's for long-term investments,” Matthews said. “Here's Sanders, Senator Sanders, on the other (ph), and he sounds like he wants to destroy Wall Street. Much different tone here.”

But Sanders actually said nothing about destroying Wall Street. Here's what he did say:

Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial instruments while expecting the public to bail it out. If a bank is too big to fail, that bank is too big to exist!

All that Sanders was talking about was returning to the pre-1999 way of doing things, before Bill Clinton signed off on the repeal of Glass–Steagall, which had protected the soundness of the banking system since the depths of the Great Recession. This is hardly a wild-eyed radical proposal, it's precisely the opposite: a call for a return to sobriety. It's worth noting that all the Scandinavian countries have banks and financial systems, too. They just don't destroy the larger economies that they're part of.

When Muscatine first joined the discussion, she began by trying to say something obvious, and Matthews tried to cut her off. “Look, they both agree about one fundamental problem, and that is that ...” Muscatine said, before Matthews interrupted. “I'm not interested in what they agree about,” he told Muscatine sharply. “You're on the wrong show!”

But its axiomatic that you can't understand any argument, any debate, any conflict, without understanding what's shared in common. So if it's understanding you want, Chris Matthews has told you quite clearly: “You're on the wrong show!”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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