Yesterday, Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University. The progressive presidential hopeful went to the heart of the Republican base -- appearing at an evangelical, Jerry Falwell-founded university in the south -- and made his case without distorting or moderating his message. While the speech is unlikely to sway most of the crowd (as evidenced by the Q&A afterwards), as a gesture, it speaks volumes about his uniqueness as a political figure.
I wrote two months ago that Sanders is making a huge mistake when he self-identifies as a “democratic socialist.” The term “socialism” is so loaded and elastic at this point that it no longer signifies anything meaningful. If anything, it’s become a bogus catch-all term for tyranny. Sanders is not calling for the abolition of private property or for public ownership of the means of production, which is what true socialism implies. His vision resembles that of many European countries, which is to say it’s a combination of free market economics and a welfare state.
Sanders is a populist, not a socialist. By "populist," I mean he appeals to the working and middle classes, and in a way that transcends arbitrary and often manufactured political cleavages. There’s this false notion (on both the left and the right) that Sanders is a fringe candidate, anathema to independents and centrists. But this is a media fiction, which reveals nothing about Sanders's actual platform.
Bernie’s brand of populism was on full display at Liberty. If you can cut through the rhetoric and the partisan bullshit, there are common causes to be found – and this is what Sanders tried to do yesterday. Most politicians are chameleonic by nature; they adapt in order to blend in with their audience. But Sanders refused to put on airs at Liberty, saying in no uncertain terms: “I believe in a woman’s right to control her own body. I believe in gay rights and gay marriage. Those are my views, and it is no secret. But I came here today, because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.”
Having acknowledged this divide, Sanders did what Democrats ought to do constantly: He challenged the largely Christian crowd to think differently about ethics, politics, and religion. His remarks are worth quoting in full:
Are you content? Do you think it’s moral that 20 percent of the children in this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world are living in poverty? Do you think it is acceptable that 40 percent of African-American children are living in poverty? In my view, there is no justice, and morality suffers, when in our wealthy country, millions of children go to bed hungry. That is not morality. I think when we talk about morality, what we are talking about is all of God’s children, the poor, the wretched, they have a right to go to a doctor when they are sick…I want you to go into your hearts. Millions of people in this country are working long hours for abysmally low wages. You have got to think about the morality of that, the justice of that.
Many on the left have waited in vain for a Democrat to forcefully make the case to Christians that we have a moral (and religious) imperative to alleviate poverty and human suffering. One of the great travesties of contemporary American politics is the unholy alliance between economic libertarians and the religious right. Christian conservatives have managed, thanks to the propaganda efforts of monied interests, to reconcile their love of Ayn Rand with their Christianity, which are entirely contradictory worldviews. Sanders makes the crucial point that capitalism is a morality, too. And the profit motive is the supreme good. “We are living in a nation,” Sanders said, “which worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money.”
The inequality and injustice in this country is an affront to the morality of Christ, and not enough Christians are forced to reckon with that. The truth is that all Christians, one way or the other, choose which parts of the Bible to follow and which to ignore. As it happens, an obscene number of Christians are under the impression that God cares more about what human beings do naked than with our obligations to look after “the least of these.” This is an insult to Christ and to secular ethics, and it’s about damn time someone said so.
Sanders has said repeatedly that his campaign represents a political revolution; strictly speaking, that’s not true. But it’s absolutely true that his campaign has tapped into a widespread disgust with the prevailing power structure, which is of and for the wealthiest Americans. Sanders’s populism is a rejoinder to this insanity, and his willingness to cross political lines without polluting his message is worth applauding, whatever becomes of it.