It’s 2015, and Eugene V. Debs is either jumping for joy in the afterlife or spinning in his grave.
If Debs is jumping for joy, it’s because his intellectual descendent, Bernie Sanders, is the closest any socialist has ever come to being elected President of the United States. Sanders is enjoying much more support than Debs ever did, and, what’s more, he isn’t in prison. What progress.
On the other hand, if Debs is spinning in his grave, it’s because the actual message of socialism has spread no farther than it had in 1920, when Debs ran for the presidency for the last time. Sanders doesn’t owe his popularity to a sudden uptick in the number of socialists living in the U.S., but rather to a sudden uptick in the number of Bernie Sanders supporters—in a sense, he’s a meme; he’s popular because he’s popular. To the majority of Bernie Sanders supporters, he is not so much a serious candidate as a rallying cry against inequality. Certainly, it looks good and feels good to support Sanders. It feels good to deride the stagnant billionaire class and to reassure ourselves that, as the election draws closer, they will be Feeling the Bern. Let’s melt off some of their excess wealth and return it to the people, where it belongs. It feels like progress; we feel right and just.
Except, it isn’t wrong to be rich in America. It’s wrong to use your wealth to tip the scales further in your favor at the expense of the poor. It’s wrong to hoard your money all for yourself. It’s wrong to create laws that perpetuate your wealth and make it harder for other people to climb up the ladder behind you. But, it isn’t wrong to be become wealthy in the first place. I think Sanders understands the distinction, but I’m not sure all his supporters do. That alone may sap his strength in the polls; as Sanders gathers steam outside of his base, he risks becoming identified with Occupy Wall Street and similar movements.
Let it be known that I like Bernie Sanders a lot. I think he’s the best candidate by far. If we elect him, we’ll end up with either a glorious socialist utopia or with panic, collapse and the implosion of capitalism, but that’s a die I’d be willing to roll.
But, really, I don’t think Sanders’ dream of a Scandinavian-socialist America would come anywhere near being implemented; the invisible hand of the market would check him so hard he’d forget which way was left. If Bernie Sanders is elected, at the very least, we will have someone in office who values the humanity of ethnic minorities, women and people in other nations.
But, do I understand all his positions on the issues? No. I haven’t taken the time to examine the economic reasoning that leads Sanders to say that socialism will work, this time around, in America of all places. Unfortunately, I think some of the facts are washed out by the personality cult of Sanders. I’m afraid that we support Sanders not for who he is, but for who he is not. For the millions of Americans trying to distance themselves as far as ideologically possible from Donald Trump, Sanders is an excellent alternative, the face to match Trump’s heel. But, how many of those supporters are really familiar with Sanders, beyond recognizing him as the anti-Trump?
Yes, there are a few of Sanders’ positions that we can all understand and support. He’s backed gay marriage much longer and more consistently than Hillary Clinton; he has no illusions about women’s rights or the fact that all people really are equal. I am certain he would work as tirelessly as president as he has for the past 50 years or more to protect the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. He is an activist. He is a revolutionary. And, that’s the side of Sanders that I’m not so sure everyone sees.
As the election draws closer and Sanders comes under more scrutiny, will you still support him? If you’re a union member or someone deeply invested in small-scale American manufacturing, you probably will. On the other hand, how about if you are a young, equality-minded business owner? You want to be socially conscious, but you also have to be conscious of your bottom line. As it becomes apparent that, like all progressive agendas, Sanders’ agenda involves tighter restrictions on business that are going to make it harder for you to operate, well maybe you won’t like him quite so much anymore.
A recent political cartoon showed Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush marching down a two-lane highway, peering worriedly behind them, where to the right, Donald Trump is veering off the main road, trailing a small group of followers and toting a sign that says “Hate.” Behind them and to the left, Sanders is veering off the main road, too, but he is carrying a sign that reads “Love,” and he’s followed by a long column of voters that stretches back to the horizon. Sure, that’s a fairly accurate depiction of what’s happening, but it’s not the whole story.
Not all of the voters in that long, long column of Sanders supporters are following Sanders. The people in the front of the column are following him, but the people behind them are just following the crowd. When they find out where the crowd is really going—toward a radical, Arthurian overthrowing of “might makes right” in American politics—how many of them will stay the course?
Passanisi is a member of the class of 2017.