Friday, July 31, 2015

Bernie Sanders

I was hoping not to bore you with political discussions, but Bernie Sanders is one of Vermont's U.S. senators, and he is adding an uncommon dimension to the 2016 presidential race, making it seem almost as if Noam Chomsky were about to debate Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination on national television. The last few presidential elections have been dull, and there usually isn't much point in paying attention to what the candidates say. I am familiar with several of Bernie's positions, but won't go into any detail here. Rather I'll just explain what I generally like and dislike about him and leave it at that.

What is appealing about Bernie is his willingness to state in plain terms the positions that he feels strongly about. I may be slightly biased because I generally agree with him: for example, it seems obvious to me that Citizens United was one of the worst rulings in the history of the Supreme Court and that the federal government is effectively a plutocracy. In the context of how public servants should be spending their time, there aren't currently many national politicians besides Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who actively oppose the interests of those who provide most of the funding for election campaigns. As a politician, Bernie is highly accessible in Vermont and doesn't engage in double-talk when he claims to represent the people. He has honed his message with the help of years of political experience during which he learned how to win people over. His strongest card by far, and what makes him stand out the most, is his visible enthusiasm for the causes he values. That passion is contagious, and you won't find it in Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or any of the Republican candidates. Bernie is possibly the best hope in the U.S. for generating a populist movement that counters the relentless trend toward greater inequality.

Unfortunately there are a few negatives about Bernie, from my point of view anyway. Although he has cleaned up his language considerably, his still sounds a lot like an old-school socialist along the lines of Noam Chomsky, and both of them seem to be operating on a conceptually obsolete political model. Bernie loves to say "working families," which means little to me. "Working," I think, is a way of saying "worker" without the direct socialist connotations. "Families," it seems to me, is a toned-down representation of "the people," and shows a conscious effort by Bernie to cast his ideas in a framework that is familiar and acceptable to most Americans. I don't think these are the optimal frames of reference, because they refer back to an industrial period that no longer exists. While it might be argued that we still have oppressed workers, the masses must rise up, etc., the real conditions are far more complex than that, and I'm not sure how Bernie would deal with the present global economic situation. Just saying "workers unite" won't fix anything. Furthermore, I don't know how Bernie would deal with automation and AI, which are inevitably going to eliminate millions or possibly billions of jobs worldwide. Although Bernie is focusing on the real problems, I'm not sure he has the vocabulary or tools to deal with them effectively.

Bernie is a smart Jewish guy from Brooklyn, but he doesn't quite make it into the top tier of that category. The problem is that the smartest people rarely go into politics, which is one of the reasons why I usually find it uninteresting. He followed a pattern roughly similar to that of Howard Dean, another New Yorker who moved to Vermont and found it easy to launch a political career here. The influx of liberals to Vermont has made the state as a whole far more liberal than it used to be, and some old-time Vermont conservatives now consider Chittenden County, where both Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean started their political careers, a different state. However, over the years Bernie has become popular statewide. Even so, our neighbor, former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, says in his memoir, "A reasonable case can be made that Bernie's legislative accomplishments don't match those of other Vermont senators, but his rhetorical accomplishments certainly do." There may be some sour grapes in that statement, because even though it may be accurate, Jim Douglas would probably have liked to have Bernie's current job himself.

My guess is that Bernie Sanders is using this situation as a method of advancing his causes, and that actually becoming president is not his primary goal. At a minimum the political discussion should be more interesting than usual this time around. In the extremely unlikely event that Bernie wins the Democratic nomination for president I will vote for him. Otherwise I may vote for a third-party candidate, if at all.

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