I felt the Bern four years ago. But Bernie 2020 is leaving me cold.
Several days ago, I received a text from “Peter,” with Bernie 2020. Peter was friendly, energetic, texting with exclamation points and generous enough to invite me to a “barnstorm” in Gary, Indiana and help “win Indiana.”
I do not know what a “barnstorm” is, and if it requires an actual barn, I’m not sure Gary is the right place. And I couldn’t help but laugh at Peter’s naivete, his belief that Bernie had any chance of winning Indiana, of all places. But the text did recall a bygone era of my past, as a high schooler enlisted in the Sanders cause: a cause that these days, depending on the hour, I either hesitantly embrace or outright reject.
The text prompted a question that I’ve been chewing on since: What happened?
As a 16-year-old, the resident Marxist of my high school, there was something deeply inspiring about Bernie 2016. His consistency, his fearlessness, his unabashed embrace of a more moral politics. I felt the Bern in my bones. I wasn’t, at the time, especially interested in policy details, committed only to the ideal. I was gripped.
At the time, I was in the minority. Four years later, as Sanders surges in support, I find myself in the minority again, at least among my usual college-aged milieu. My progressive convictions haven’t changed — indeed, they’ve only hardened. And it’s because of this hardening of conviction, the new urgency that the progressive platform has assumed after nearly four years of attrition, that I have serious reservations about a Sanders presidency.
No doubt, I understand the appeal. There’s something simply intoxicating about the rugged socialist aesthetic in politics. Those doctrinal Marxist predilections from high school have largely faded, but if you showed me one of those old pictures of Trotsky and Lenin, I’d probably get something like an erection, nevermind the ruthless murder and ideological insanity. Radical, “revolutionary” politics stirs us in the deepest, most overwhelming ways, and incites entire movements because of it.
My point is not to compare Sanders to Lenin. There, the disanalogies predominate. But I do think his present success and allure can be explained in similar terms. Sanders is the embodiment of the kind of moral radicalism that gets us going. His speeches stir, his integrity demands admiration. For all of the disdain he expresses for “the media,” he’d make a great columnist or radio host.
Because in this world, the world of political opinion writing, you don’t need substantive policy plans, realistic expectations, contingency preparations, the ability to compromise. You don’t, in many ways, need to acknowledge concrete realities, and you grow accustomed to advancing ideas that have little hope of soon coming to fruition. Your job is to shift the terms of debate, something Bernie excels wondrously at, and that we’re all indebted to him for.
But for all of the rhetoric, the lofty hope and idealism, Bernie Sanders has not once demonstrated that, as President of the United States of America, he will be able to competently and successfully govern.
His arguments often proceed by bad analogy or dismissal. “How will you fund Medicare for all, Senator Sanders?” “Listen, I’ve been to Canada and they do it.” In his New York Times endorsement interview, his repeated disparagement of the publication — witnessed also in his speeches and campaign propaganda — rings with the same whining, indignant sense of victimization that we hear from Trump, sowing distrust in some nebulous conception of “The Media” — i.e. of the central democratic institution in this country that has endured fatal assaults in recent history — and rallying support around it.
He dismisses political realities — that he may not have a Congressional majority; that even a Congressional majority may vehemently oppose his agenda; that some compromise, domestic and foreign, will be required in ways that indeed compromise his ideology; etc. — by noting that he will be a “new” kind of president. What, the kind that does away with important political institutions and respect for all constituents in the name of a minority agenda? Not so new. And much as he might say political inaction makes us complicit in injustice, so too does he enable the ugly fanaticism of his online following.
Any genuine progressive — any person who believes in the dire urgency of addressing climate change, soaring inequality, crumbling housing and infrastructure, ongoing threats to the civil liberties of the vulnerable — should be terrified at what a Sanders presidency might mean. I suspect it will mean four years of inaction in the name of ideological purity, a failure to capitalize on a critical moment. Of course, four more years of Trump would, no doubt, guarantee consequences far more fatal. But a Sanders presidency may well be fatal to the progressive agenda in its failure to accomplish anything all, beckoning in Tucker Carlson or Trump Jr. 2024.
As such, any genuine progressive, any person who’s serious about change, should have no difficulty quelling their Berns and looking to Warren. While the critiques of technocratic elitism might have merit, while a desire to bridge divides might cast doubt on her progressive integrity, and while she certainly doesn’t inspire like Bernie does, I see no way to roll out a Green New Deal in the absence of thorough planning and strategic compromise. The ideals need to get real, and fast, should we hope to avert the worst.
To return to my original question of “What’s changed?” Since then, I’ve done some growing up, developed a willingness to sacrifice the blood-pumping thrill of radicalism for a politics that will actually make the world a better place. I encourage my fellow progressives to do the same.
Caleb Owens is the Development Officer and former Editor in Chief of The Review. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Review staff. Caleb can be reached at email@example.com.