Bernie Sanders is a dangerous combination of idealist and fantasist

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The problem Bernie Sanders poses for Democratic primary voters actually is an old one in public life: How are we to distinguish an idealist from a fantasist?

Thursday night, in his Brooklyn Navy Yard debate with frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and Friday, when he addressed a Vatican conference marking the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus, the crusty Vermont senator came across as a bit of both. This only increases the problem he poses for the party and, particularly for younger Democrats. It’s also true that, when it comes to his electoral survival, Sanders converts rather conveniently to realpolitik. Certainly, that’s the case in his hands-off approach to regulating firearms, since he represents a state where nearly everyone has a deer rifle in their closet and wants to be able to buy ammo at the local hardware store.

Even so—and though I’m obviously not one of those younger voters—I find a great deal to admire about this self-described democratic socialist’s approach to political economy. I was proud to be a friendly acquaintance of the late Michael Harrington, who founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and wrote “The Other America,” one of the principal inspirations for the War on Poverty.

Harrington was both a streetwise organizer and an old school, left-wing New York-style public intellectual. There was nothing he liked better at the end of a grueling day than a few cold beers and a good political argument. (He used to quip that beer was one of the few good things in life that the rich did not begrudge the poor.)

Most of all, he was a political intellectual of deep humanity, and it was that I admired about him and his movement. We all are to one extent or another Marxists today, just as we all are in some sense Freudians or Einsteinian.

Their most fundamental insights simply are ingrained too deeply into our intellectual culture for any large number of us to be otherwise. Still, I don’t see how anyone with a reasonable dose of historical consciousness now can believe in public ownership of the means of production. We have ample evidence that it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, what we can admire about Herrington’s project and that of his American successors is their unshakeable insistence that people matter more than markets. Call it a socialism of political esthetics rather than of political economy.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think the point is indisputable. When Sanders makes it, as he did with particular force in Rome Friday, a lot of us find ourselves nodding in agreement. For someone like me, whose approach to these questions was first shaped by the Catholic Church’s social gospel—as was Harrington’s—that’s doubly so.

Sander’s attacks on Clinton’s ties to Wall Street are hypocritical. She has them because she was a U.S. Senator from New York and the financial industry is crucially important to that state. Sanders has ties to the gun lobby—at least as an accomplice to their frustration of rational firearms regulation—because he comes from a state where guns are popular and he wouldn’t get reelected if he came out for controls. It’s as simple as that.

In Centesimus Annus, Sanders said, “Pope John Paul II gave a clarion call for human freedom in its truest sense: freedom that defends the dignity of every person and that is always oriented towards the common good. The Church’s social teachings, stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, Rerum Novarum in 1891, to Centesimus Annus, to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy.

There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy. Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII highlighted economic issues and challenges in Rerum Novarum that continue to haunt us today, such as what he called “the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many.”

Sanders, whose personal knowledge of Catholic social encyclicals is edifying though somewhat suspiciously detailed, went on to quote Centesimus Annus’ famous paragraph 15 in full: “Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.”

In the United States, Sanders told his audience, the consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United has cemented the privileges of the most  wealthy by granting them an unprecedented influence over our electoral politics. “Our very soul as a nation has suffered as the public lost faith in political and social institutions,” he said. “As Pope Francis has stated: ‘Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules.’ And the Pope has also stated: ‘We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.’

In a final passage that harked back to his full-throated assault on Clinton’s Wall Street ties in Brooklyn Thursday night, Sanders said “Pope Francis has given the most powerful name to the predicament of modern society: the Globalization of Indifference. ‘Almost without being aware of it,’ he noted, ‘we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.’ We have seen on Wall Street that financial fraud became not only the norm but in many ways the new business model. Top bankers have shown no shame for their bad behavior and have made no apologies to the public. . .I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be ‘practical,’ that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism. He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world.”

Clearly Sanders envisions himself doing something similar in the American context. Among younger voters for whom the long, grim struggle with Soviet and Chinese communism is no longer a living memory, “socialism” is no longer a suspect or pejorative label.

A recent Pew survey found that 49% of Americans 18 to 29 had a favorable view of socialism, while only 46% had similarly positive feelings about capitalism. An even more recent New York Times poll reported that 56% of all likely Democratic primary voters were favorably inclined toward socialism. Follow-up surveys, however, seem to indicate that these favorable opinions do not indicate approval of public ownership of the means of production, but rather a more egalitarian society.

In fact, Joseph Schwartz, a professor at Temple and the current vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America—DSOC’s successor—has pointed out that, “Sanders is campaigning more as a social democrat than as a democratic socialist. While social democrats and democratic socialists share a number of political goals, they also differ on some key questions of what an ideal society would look like and how we can get there. Democratic socialists ultimately want to abolish capitalism; most traditional social democrats favor a government-regulated capitalist economy that includes strong labor rights, full employment policies and progressive taxation that funds a robust welfare state.

“So why doesn’t Sanders simply call himself a New Deal or Great Society liberal or (in today’s terms) a “progressive”? In part, because he cannot run from the democratic socialist label that he has proudly worn throughout his political career. As recently as 1988, as mayor of Burlington, Vt., he stated that he desired a society ‘where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.’”

There’s a lot that’s wrong in relations between today’s American workers and their employers, but describing their situation as slavery really is a bit much. One of Sanders’ recurring problems is the tendency to make himself captive to platform rhetoric. His constant railing against free trade agreements as tantamount to economic treason is not just heedless of the facts; it’s just plain silly.

As I pointed out in an earlier post on the role of economic insecurity in this election cycle, free trade has been of immense benefit to American consumers, particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are forced to spend a disproportionate share of their income on goods. Abrogation of those agreements would be catastrophic for working class and poor families.

The problem with free trade is that the larger society, which has benefited, has ignored the deleterious effects these arrangements have had on some workers and industries. We need to take steps to remedy those effects rather than walk away from free trade. Sanders ought to know that—and, if he doesn’t, it’s because he doesn’t want to.

Similarly, his attacks on Clinton’s ties to Wall Street are hypocritical. She has them because she was a U.S. Senator from New York and the financial industry is crucially important to that state. Sanders has ties to the gun lobby—at least as an accomplice to their frustration of rational firearms regulation—because he comes from a state where guns are popular and he wouldn’t get reelected if he came out for controls. It’s as simple as that.

So, too, he knows his calls for a single-payer healthcare system and universal free university education—both of which I, for one, would love to see—are completely out of reach politically. He couldn’t get a majority of Democratic lawmakers, let alone a decent slice of the GOP, to enact such proposals. What’s to be gained by advocating the impossible?

Finally, there’s his simplistic and overreaching critique of the impact the deeply mistaken Citizens United ruling has had on politics. It’s absolutely true that it gave wealthy individuals too much influence over our national life. It has not, however, given them an absolute lock on the presidency. If it had, Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House for the past eight years.

The problem with Bernie Sanders is that he is both an idealist and a fantasist in equal measure. That’s a dangerous combination.

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