Zachary Leven on political imagination from all sides
WHAT ARE REPUBLICANS these days, anyway? Surely it’s not enough to say that they are conservative—“conservative” no longer has the economic and, yes, believe it or not, environmental meaning that once unified a cause. Certainly, Republicans oppose gay marriage, support guns, oppose people from other countries who stay here for more than a week, support the word America (a word which to them represents a few scattered images of old white men, horses, maybe a professional sport [not basketball], flat, dry landscapes, and a vague sense of history), and Republicans are those who oppose Democrats, and whatever it is the Democrats had for lunch this afternoon. More so, though, Republicans can be defined by a particular way of thinking—a way of thinking that contains two fatal flaws.
The first flaw is believing that government is the only possible source of oppression. It is one possible source, but corporations (both large and small), religious organizations, regular citizens, and nature are all equally capable of ruining people’s lives in a systemic and unfair manner. The second flaw is assuming that because government is the only source of oppression, everything government does is therefore oppressive. A doctor being reimbursed for his services, a weapons treaty, an art exhibition, a postman delivering a letter: if it comes from the government, it is an assault on our freedom. (There are, of course, some exceptions to this, the largest being the United States military, which, in the eyes of Republicans, is the greatest force of good ever to grace this earth, second only to Christian love.)
On the issues, Bernie Sanders is obviously not Republican. His platform of free college education, single-payer health care, heavy Wall Street regulation, and high taxes on the rich may place him on the left/right spectrum somewhere just east of Neptune. And that’s fine—I support the exploration of space, whether astrophysically or politically. I’m a great advocate for liberal policies, and on first blush, Sanders seems the most liberal candidate this nation has seen since William Jennings Bryan. But while Sanders’ policies may be liberal, his “us versus them” rhetoric, and his tendency to oversimplify the issues feels more like something you would get from the other side.
Like Republicans, Sanders believes that all our problems are the result of a single, menacing actor. Like Republicans, he believes it is so potently evil that everything it touches turns instantly corrupt and heartless. Of course, he’s referring to the financial industry, and that it’s indeed a more appropriate target of ire is beside the point. A political philosophy rooted in animus is, or at least was, supposed to be the hallmark of the other team. The Reagans, the Cheneys, the Thurmonds—these were the people dividing the world between angelic, regular folk, and the mustache twirlers. But “Feel the Bern” could easily refer to the “Berning” hatred festering at your core. It may feel right, but is it progressive?
I’ve always believed that what separates liberals from Republicans is a genuine compassion toward the “less fortunate,” a euphemism we use in America to describe people who have been completely fucked over. Republicans take no pity on the fucked over—they don’t believe such people even exist. As Howard Dean put it, “Republicans believe if you’re rich, you deserve it; if you’re poor, you deserve it.” By helping out the sick and the poor, you’re interfering with the natural karmic fiber of the universe. This is why, in Republicans’ view, if there is any appropriate role for government, it’s to further reward the rich and punish the poor, thus helping the universe be more of its genuine self.
It certainly seems true that Bernie wants to do as much as humanly possibly (in fact, considerably more than what is humanly possible) for the fucked over. It’s understandable how one might therefore conclude he is the most liberal person imaginable. But as Bill Clinton might have said, that depends on what the definition of do is. In his two terms as a senator, Sanders’ only real legislative accomplishment is a bill amendment “To require that not less than 30 percent of the hot water demand for certain new or substantially modified Federal buildings be met through the installation and use of solar hot water heaters.” Which is great. We all love solar power, especially on substantially modified Federal buildings. But otherwise, Sanders has submitted bill, after bill, after bill so broad and sweeping in scope that their only effect is to clog up committees. Which may explain why none of his colleagues are endorsing him.
Although Sanders seems to be literally falling over his podium with the desire to help those at the bottom, being liberal is about much more than just wanting that thick and tightly wound security net, wanting health care for poor and rich alike, wanting economic equality. Those are all good things, but being liberal also means having a broad, nuanced, and balanced view of the world; recognizing the complicated interconnectedness of society; empathizing with people of other cultures and perspectives. Liberals, or the best ones, anyway, have the special ability to understand issues from multiple sides.
So let’s give that a shot.
Imagine a Republican presidential candidate named Sammy Banders. He knows, like all decent Americans, that ownership is a fundamental human right, that when the government repossesses a portion of your earnings, it is no different than a gang of thugs breaking into your house and robbing you. He knows that life is sacred, and that its termination at any stage is murder. He knows that excessive regulations are holding back our economy. And so on. And he’s had enough. His supporters, of which there are countless thousands from coast to coast, have also had enough. So he proposes a campaign platform of eliminating virtually all taxes, eliminating Medicare and social security—yes, why not, getting rid of libraries and public schools too. And his critics say to him, “But Sammy, how will you ever accomplish such a dramatic agenda?” And he replies that he’ll succeed by having millions of Americans rise up. He’ll succeed by turning Massachusetts into Kansas, by turning New York into Texas, by turning California into Alaska. He says he’s starting a revolution, and when he’s done, all voices of liberal opposition will be squashed by the power of his numbers. He believes quite sincerely, based on the massive crowds who greet him at every campaign stop, that America beats with a Republican heart—all that’s needed is for someone like himself to set it free.
If this sounds deranged and terrifying, now you know what Bernie Sanders sounds like to much of America. Or at least, what he would sound like in the general election, once people actually started paying attention.
The conceit of Sanders’ platform is that there is no legitimate reason to oppose it. His plans are the correct plans, and no reasonable minded person would disagree. It is only the ungodly amount of money in politics preventing the indisputable perfection of his policies from being recognized by the masses. Get the money out of politics, and progressivism will flourish throughout the nation as surely as flowers bloom in springtime. But the reality is that even with a Democratically controlled house, and a Democratic supermajority in the senate, single payer would probably still not become law for a host of logistical, technical, economic, and bureaucratic reasons, all of which are perfectly legitimate. But the prospect of such massive Democratic gains under a Sanders presidency is not likely happen to anyway, and if it does, it would be despite him. Consider that Hillary Clinton has directed $26 million in campaign funds to help down-ticket Democrats get elected, whereas Sanders has directed $1,000. In Sanders’ defense though, he is at least upholding his promise to get the money out of politics in this one area.
Every candidate puts forth his or her best proposals with a whiff of idealism, but it’s the statesmen who acknowledge there is still a necessary, and perhaps fundamentally good and important process of negotiation and criticism that must be honored. That is, if you believe in American democracy, at least as a basic principle. And this is where we see broadest distinction between a candidate like Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama. It’s hard to imagine Sanders saying, as Obama did at his famous DNC convention speech in 2004, “… there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” Sanders’ message, rather, is some kind of twisted inversion of that sentiment—that there is not a conservative America at all, there is only a liberal America, or at least that’s all there will be once he’s president.
There is a large part of me who longs for that to be true. But it isn’t. Unquestionably, our country was once a lot more progressive. The wealthy paid their fair share in taxes. We invested heavily in our nation’s infrastructure. Labor unions were strong, wages were higher. Wall Street was more heavily regulated. Our goal should be to regain those values. But unfortunately, the slogan “Make America Great Again” has already been taken.
America is a diverse nation, not merely in heritage and culture, but also in political ideology. Acknowledging this truth (and I think this truth is undeniable), the question then becomes is there some other way to equality, fairness, opportunity, and security? Are there new and innovative approaches that might be more workable in such a vast and diverse nation? With a President Sanders, we’d likely never find out.
ZACHARY LEVEN is a graduate of Berklee College in Music in Boston. He’s currently earning his MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyLeven.