Editorial: Broadening Bernie’s message
NPR posted two telling photos of the winning presidential candidates in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Democrat Bernie Sanders was pictured with his right arm held high overhead with a clinched fist, lips closed tight and a determined look that the fight he has fought his entire life had begun on a national level. It was not a look that reflected triumph, but rather a realization that he had earned the chance to pursue his sense of economic justice on a national stage.
Trump was shown with a smug smile, a half-hearted wave of recognition from an adoring audience, and a look of condescending indifference. (See the pictures here.) It’s a split second in time and one shouldn’t put much emphasis on photographic expressions, but the contrast serves as a metaphor of these primaries and of the two political parties.
Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in an unexpected landslide, 60 to 38 percent. That’s huge considering New Hampshire was supposed to be Clinton territory and nine months ago, she had an overwhelming lead there, a full campaign operation and was a known candidate in every household. That New Hampshire voters rejected her in huge numbers, including women by an unexpected majority, is troubling news for Clinton’s campaign.
That Sanders won by 22 percentage points is evidence that his message resonates. That message, overwhelmingly, is about income inequality; about needing to change a system rigged to favor the rich over the poor and middle class; about a political system that is bought by the wealthiest few and beholden to them; about racial and social justice; and about economic fairness and making the American Dream a reality for the average citizen.
What the Sanders’ campaign is highlighting is the deep injustice middle class Americans are feeling about the inequality of wealth. It is a resentment that may have reached a tipping point.
Clinton is seen as part of the 1 percent, and as a candidate who would not do enough to change that dynamic. Ditto the entire Republican slate.
But Sanders is more than a single-issue candidate. He also has the strongest position on addressing climate change; like Trump he would not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership and would do whatever he could to protect U.S. jobs from going overseas; he wants to provide free college education to every American student who is serious about pursuing higher education; and he considers health care a human right and would press to implement universal health care.
His recent debate on foreign policy exposes a weakness, but no more so than any of the Republican candidates. Indeed, Trump has absolutely no experience in foreign affairs, governmental policy or working within any institution that requires compromise. Experience in foreign policy affairs also eludes the rest of the Republican field. They talk tough, but none have experience.
Sen. Sanders, on the other hand, has served as mayor of Vermont’s largest city and logged impressive accomplishments as a progressive socialist serving with a Democratic city council; in the U.S. House of Representatives, he served admirably (and accomplished far more than his detractors ever imagined) in a House often led by conservative Republicans; once elected to the U.S. Senate as an Independent, he has risen in stature among Democrats (with whom he caucuses). He has, in other words, demonstrated that he knows how to compromise to get things done. He would need a strong team on defense and in foreign affairs, but that is why presidents have a cabinet with strong secretaries of state and defense.
The crucial question facing Sen. Sanders today, however, is where does he go from here? Will he fare as well in Nevada and South Carolina and on Super Tuesday with the same message?
Yes and no.
Yes, in that his message of change and revolution strikes a populist chord with all Americans. No, in that a large part of America does not agree with Bernie’s socialistic vision of “giving” help to Americans who don’t earn it.
There was truth in Trump’s victory speech in New Hampshire when he said, in effect: ‘Bernie wants to give America away (including to those who don’t deserve it), but we (the Trump campaign) want to make America great again the old fashioned way… by earning it’ — it’s a vintage TV cliché from, whom else, Smith Barney and Wall Street in the 1980s.
What’s Bernie’s response? He needs to redefine capitalism to reflect his economic values of fairness and equality. Capitalism, if done well, stimulates the economy, provokes innovation, challenges convention and displaces fading institutions with dynamic forces. Bernie’s brand of democratic socialism needs to embrace that energy in a way that spreads the wealth. And he needs to embrace capitalism’s creative-destruction as the proper path to promote constant change and evolution.
Economists have long recognized the limitations and benefits of capitalism and socialism. Economies like Germany’s, Norway’s and Sweden’s, to name a few, have gone a long way to embrace the benefits of both.
Sanders needs to make that leap. He needs to advance his democratic socialist agenda in a way that is seen as not just progressive, but economically dynamic. He needs to show that his vision would grow America’s economy and make the country wealthier; and not just for the poor and the middle class, but also for business owners and corporations. If he is to win enough states in the South and Midwest to be successful, his economic platform needs to move beyond the country’ outdated notions of socialism to understanding how capitalism can work for everyone.
The idea is not far-fetched. There was a time in this country after WWII in which the wage gaps between the wealthiest 10 percent and the poorest 30 percent were not that far apart. There was a time where the average American could see a way to realize the American Dream, to graduate from college without a mountain of debt, get a good job, buy a house and enjoy a family life that was comfortable and secure. That is not as true today.
Bernie’s campaign should work to make that dream a reality.
If he can articulate that vision in a realistic framework, he’ll have a shot at capturing the nation’s imagination and its heart, which is a reasonable path to the presidency in a campaign fraught with so many unknowns.
— Angelo S. Lynn