The rise of Bernie Sanders feels familiar to me. When I was a libertarian-leaning Republican, I was a delegate for Ron Paul in the 2008 Nevada State Convention. Paul’s supporters were passionate if a bit nutty, but change seemed, if only for a moment, possible. The problem was that the ideology behind the candidate was bankrupt. The experience was the beginning of the end of my affiliation with simplistic libertarian blather and GOP politics altogether, but Paul’s rise was driven by the same frustration and anger that is now propelling Sanders.
For too long, the anger and passion has been driven by Tea Party types and libertarians. Their solution seems to be throwing more gasoline on a trailer-park fire. Inequality? Cut taxes for the wealthy and implement a “flat tax.” Poverty? Eliminate the social safety net and cut food stamps. Those not actively making problems worse are obsessed with non-stories and fictitious “scandals,” featuring Benghazi, Jade Helm, e-mail servers or any of the other innumerable, invented outrages.
Even issues I care deeply about, like prison reform, can distract. Our country grows more lopsided by the day, and despite big wins on gay marriage and health care, too many trends are moving in the wrong direction. Are we a society that works for people or are we in something like feudalism, where corporations and private organization all but own their employees?
The current problem with politics, the economy and culture comes from treating human beings like just another business asset to be exploited or replaced. We say a person’s value is what the “market will bear,” and if the market has no use for a particular human, he or she has no inherent worth. That’s pretty sick. Should we just let them starve to death? For the radical right, the answer is an enthusiastic “absolutely.” If all else fails, deport them.
I listen to Donald Trump talk. He says what I just wrote without sarcasm or a trace of humanity. He and other politicians agree with Sanders’ assessment of reality, but their solutions could not be more different. Trump’s only idea is to blame Mexicans. He embraces the idea of “individual success,” as if it all takes place in a complete vacuum, without outside help or public investment. It’s an argument that sways only the most ignorant and upwardly mobile of young men. It’s also an absurd statement coming from a guy who inherited millions of dollars. But even conservatives who recognize these ideas as folly still have a work around. Rather than tackle the problems, they buy their own kids a ticket an Ivy League school, so at least their progeny have a chance of joining the exploiter class. This isn’t so much a society as a pyramid scheme.
Corporations benefit from weak labor and a beaten down population. Many are almost too powerful to tame. Walmart generates more money in sales in a year than the GDP of Norway. (Don’t worry I’m sure it doesn’t do anything evil with all that money.) Walmart and like-sized corporations are no longer businesses. They are instead autonomous, totalitarian states existing right in our own nation. They care only for their own interests, unconcerned with national borders or anything like the public good.
Yet, people on the right still vilify the government. It’s baffling, but I totally get it. I was there and I said those words. I was parroting “conventional wisdom,” the political equivalent of talking about the weather. It’s so trite and predicable that it’s become a national punch line. Flat tire? Thanks Obama! Getting fat? Blame Obamacare! Wife left? Damn government! Our national, running gag is not only tiresome, it lacks anything resembling truth. It’s understandable to hate the government, because it’s easy and satisfying, but the government didn’t foreclose on your house, cut your paycheck or send your job to China. Ranting and raving about the government never helped anyone do anything.
Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders.
Sanders calls himself a socialist, which is just about as big an American insult as you get. Conventional politicians and business people decry the evils of socialism, except when they are wallowing in it. America has the most generous socialist government that has ever existed in human history, but it only applies to millionaires. If you’re on the board of a bank or massive corporation, the government has unlimited socialism for you. No cost loans, favorable bankruptcy laws, bailouts and tax breaks without limit. At the same time, unemployed students cannot discharge student loans no matter how bleak their financial circumstances. Socialism has been inverted. Rather than deployed for the poor and struggling, it’s doled out endlessly to people who don’t need it.
Sanders not only points out how much we coddle the super wealthy, but he also has some actual solutions. Higher taxes for some, enlarge the social safety net and reduce the cost of higher education, just for example. Sanders’ messages don’t conform to the partisan binary we have the gall to call “democracy.” It sounds different, because politicians still dust off the same talking points. Hard work, play by the rules, love Jesus, yada, yada, yada. It’s the same crap they’ve been peddling since Reagan and just as effective. If I have to listen to one more Republican worshiping at the alter of Ronald Reagan, I think I might lose it.
You can’t blame conniving, selfish politicians for doing what works. They only play to the willing cameras, repeating meaningless lines that someone has wrote or some consultant has poll tested. Our entire political debate has been reduced to a bad reality show, deductions for gaffes, stumbles and extramarital affairs, and extra credit for soundbites and signing pledges.
The majority has ceased to rule here. Most people don’t even bother to vote, and that’s by design. Liberal ideas would always win if everyone voted, which is why there is such a nonstop, furious attack on voting by the right. America is under siege by a small, insular aristocracy, and they won’t go down without a fight. It’s telling that we could easily see candidates from only two “noble” families, the Bushes and the Clintons, in our next election. We need no more perfect example of American feudalism than power being passed back and forth between ruling houses.
Despite my conviction that Sanders could win, I find myself fighting hopelessness over what has become the “narrative.” It’s not only insipid talking heads or professional pundits spouting conventional wisdom. On a home-grown podcast, I chatted up two fellow liberals who both expressed great support for Sanders, but at the same time they both insisted that “he can’t possibly win,” tapping into my own deep cynicism. I worry that change cannot happen so long as the angry, mostly white and gullible, keep protecting their shrinking piece of the pie.
I offer only one ray of hope in the form of Shakespearean-level irony. The fuming, hate-filled and false rhetoric that has labeled Obama a “socialist” might have actually removed the sting from the insult to the point that is now meaningless. The insults have grown so far from reality that there is nothing credible for the professional furious to spew.
Even though the idea of socialism is anathema to libertarians, the two groups have a lot in common, on drug-law reform and the privacy of private sexual conduct for instance. I also know a lot of purist libertarians who are horrified by the xenophobia of Trump. We have our differences, and I’ve put in a lot of effort criticizing the ideology, but libertarians have much more in common with Sanders than with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and other values-pimping theocrats.
Despite my appreciation for his ideas and policies, Sanders, nor any public figure, is the messiah. I don’t believe in an all powerful savior, political or otherwise, but I do believe that ideas and people matter, and Sanders offers something that we haven’t tried before—unabashedly progressive ideas.