Bernie was on Saturday Night Live recently, and there’s a skit I love, featuring Larry David (of Seinfeld fame and Curb Your Enthusiasm). The scene is of a sinking ship. “Women and children first!” yells the captain. “Really?” Larry David says, incredulous. There’s a good bit of back-and-forth between Larry and the Captain, as women and children are loaded onto the life raft. Larry can’t seem to convince them to take him on the raft before the women and children, and he worries that he’ll not make it on the raft, so he finally plays his trump card: I’m really wealthy, he says. “I’m worth more than all the rest of you put together.” That’s when Bernie steps in, dressed as a commoner.
“I’m sick of the 1% getting preferential treatment!” Bernie says. “We need to all work together,” he continues, so that everyone gets rescued.
“Sounds like socialism to me,” retorts Larry David.
“Democratic Socialism,” Bernie says, correcting him.
“What’s the difference?”
“There’s a yuuuge difference!”
“Yuge with a ‘y’?”
You might not think that Bernie’s “democratic socialism” has a chance. Most Americans seem to have an instinctive aversion to anything that represents a perceived challenge to capitalism. Even so, there’s something about Bernie. He’s far more radical than his contemporary liberal Democrats (e.g., Obama and the Clintons), but Bernie seems to have wider popular appeal than mainstream liberals, and he’s got them worried. His message is more radical, but it also has old school roots.
FDR and the Progressives of days gone by viewed government as a necessary instrument of the people to reform corruption (both within government itself as well as to reform bankers and the financial industry). They used government to ensure that there was opportunity for the middle class, and to protect the vulnerable and poor. They weren’t shy about raising taxes to create more equality, taxing the wealthiest citizens to create social safety nets like Social Security, Medicare, and some income for the unemployed. It’s kind of an attitude thing. Mainstream liberals like Obama and the Clintons hesitate to upset the delicate sensibilities of the powers-that-be, corrupt or not. Bernie’s the kind to go for the jugular. But, can that kind of approach win a Presidency in 2016? Ordinarily, no, but with more than 8 months still remaining until we vote for the next President, one thing we know for sure: this is no ordinary election.
One thing that intrigues us all is that both Bernie and Trump are anti-establishment candidates. In this primary, voters is both parties aren’t playing it safe. It’s a rejection of the status quo that has the party powerful in a tizzy. Yet, at the same time, despite their radical break from teh norm, these anti-establishment candidates are, ironically, more traditional, it seems, tapping into sentiments from the past. Both Bernie and Trump are nostalgic for a bygone era, and judging from both the national poll numbers and the early primary voting, maybe we all are.
Bernie, of course, is in the FDR mold, a true progressive, but Trump harkens back to the past as well, unleashing old American prejudices and anger at groups that have traditionally been told to know their place. Trump’s specific targets are (at the moment): women, Latinos, and Muslims. Both candidates seem to be looking back to the post-World War 2 era as a sort of golden era, but they do this for very different reasons.
Trump’s American vision is fairly clear: It’s us versus them. It ignites the worst of America’s phobias and prejudices. There are winners and losers, Trump says, there are those who work hard and deserve a piece of the prosperity and there are large groups of people who don’t, who are trying to leech off of society and take from the hard workers. But it isn’t just based on merit. If you’re Latino (especially if you’re an “illegal”), if you are a Muslim, or if you are a woman, then you’re under suspicion and deserve greater scrutiny from the rest of us. There is a certain pecking order that we are born into, and within that order, you work hard, you don’t ask questions, and you do the best you can. There are winners and there are losers. Sometimes you’re just born a loser and have to work that much harder to prove-up to the winners, because in Trump’s America, the winners call the shots, and they call the shots simply because they are the winners. And these winners certainly are above any reforms.
One of the criticisms of Bernie is that his economic policies would be a disaster for the American economy. He wants to “give America away,” as Trump put it last night after the New Hampshire primary. But history is on Bernie’s side. The biggest economic boom in American history took place after World War 2, and during this period, tax rates were high. Really high. Marginal tax rates went as high as 90% during this golden era. The wealthy either faced high tax rates, or they reinvested their earnings into the economy. Either way, it gave the middle class work and money. The economy, to put it crudely, gets constipated when wealth is hoarded by the few.
Bernie’s message is that the economy is not run by a few but by the many. It takes us all. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, since Bernie’s opponent on the other side is a billionaire. Bernie is a throwback to the best of America’s sense of community and cooperation. For Trump, by contrast, there is perpetual paranoia, the need to constantly guard against all those other groups of people trying to “give away America” and take from the winners. In Trump’s world, there’s a lot of losers who need to be defeated and beaten down.
Ironically the “socialist” Bernie actually represents a return to people being rewarded based their hard work and skill, not based on a pre-judgment of one’s gender, religion, or ethnicity. And in Bernie’s America, success shouldn’t be based on corrupt political or corporate connections gained because one is shrewd, a “winner.”
We all kind of sense that there is a lack of equal opportunity in America today and a failure to reward individuals for their effort and skills. This certainly is part of the reason that voters are refusing to vote the party line.
Trump blames the liberals, or the Latinos — there will always be someone to blame. We need to fight all these people leeching off the American Dream, and be ever vigilant, i.e., perpetually paranoid.
By contrast, Bernie’s message is that we’ve lost our old fashioned sense of neighborliness. His message is ironic, because he’s saying that we can only protect individual productivity from the snarling savagery of a herd mentality if we return to the traditional American values of community and cooperation, that billionaire “winners” like Trump have left little reward for the rest of us, despite our efforts, and encouraged a nation of dogs who fight for the scraps under the table.
Is America ready for Bernie’s “democratic socialism”? A majority of American voters would have to make a yuge shift (that’s “yuge” with a “y,”) and tap into our memory of the progressive reformers, the FDR era. That’s a lot to ask, but it is seeming more and more likely that people are open to new (or rather old) ideas. But I think there’s something more going on.
This is shaping up to be a contest, not based on ideas, but of something deeper, and I think that’s another reason why we are all so intrigued. My sense of things at this point is that we are discussing the heart and soul of America. I wouldn’t have said that even a month ago, but I’m sensing it now.
The yuge difference between the Trump and Bernie phenomenon has to do more with our spirit: an inclusive goodwill versus a perpetual paranoia. That we think the best of each other and of ourselves, that we work together to keep the ship from sinking. Trump (and a greater and greater number of the Republican Party) represent an “every man for himself” philosophy. Let the winners win, let the losers lose.
Times of change can bring us together. In distress, we can work with each other to bring out our best. Or we can snarl at each other, we can find a scapegoat to blame and devolve into anger and aggression. There’s a yuge difference, and whether or not America is ready for Bernie depends on how whether we revert to the sins of our fathers or tap into the better angels of our nature and of our nation. If we wind up with Bernie and Trump, then the stark and naked nature of this choice will make this November a deeply significant moment.
Would America choose Bernie? I’ll venture a tentative “yes.” One of my most vivid memories of the 2008 election is of listening to a non-political sports radio show (Colin Cowherd) and hearing him say, “There’s no way that America will elect a man with the name Barack Hussein Obama.” Not in this post- 9/11 anxiety. “I mean,” he declared laughing, “I’m not political, but this is just never going to happen!”