BERNIE SANDERS: CHILD OF THE SIXTIES
by Bob Wheeler
At this point in the election cycle Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the presumptive nominees of their respective parties. And yet on the Democratic side Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont campaigns on. He has no chance of winning the nomination, but still he won’t give up. Presumably, at this point, his goal is to make the Democratic Party “more progressive.” But what does that mean?
Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” He defines his socialism this way: I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production. But I do believe that the middle class and working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a decent standard of living and that their incomes should go up, not down” (Harry Jaffe, Why Bernie Sanders Matters, p. 173). Sanders cares very deeply about economic issues, especially income inequality, and he has made that the centerpiece of his campaign.
There is, however, a perplexing discontinuity in his argument. He presents a very idealistic political agenda, but it does not appear to be rooted in any kind of coherent worldview. Social injustice is bad and we must combat it, he says. He sometimes even couches his argument in moral terms. “A nation is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable . . .” (Bernie Sanders in His Own Words, Chomois Holschuh, ed., pp. 23,24). “I have spent my career fighting for something I consider to be a human right. That human right is health care” (Ibid., p. 108). “This grotesque level of inequality is immoral” (Ibid., p. 33). “Protecting the environment is not a radical idea. It is a moral responsibility” (Ibid., p. 96). But where do human rights come from? What makes something moral or immoral? Sanders doesn’t really answer the question. The problem here is that he is trying to approach the question of social justice from a secular standpoint. There is no religious or philosophical frame of reference; and herein lies the moral dilemma of modern leftist thought.
Sanders is originally from a Jewish background. He has family members who perished in the Nazi Holocaust, and this is part of what impressed him to get involved in politics. His parents were not particularly devout, but he did attend Hebrew school as a boy and became Bar Mitzvah. Sanders does say that “Being Jewish has greatly influenced by intellectual and emotional development” (Jaffe, p. 27).
Sanders’ intellectual outlook, however, was shaped more by his experiences as a social activist in Chicago in the 1960’s. He was a student then at the University of Chicago, but did not find his classes there very interesting. Instead he became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. And he read. He read voraciously. He read Erich Fromm, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dewey and Debs. He read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. And he read Wilhelm Reich, the Neomarxist and apostle of free love.
It was a time of social and intellectual ferment. But unlike earlier social reform movements, most of the radicals of the ‘60’s came from secular backgrounds, many of them students at large state universities. They were outspoken in their opposition to racism and war, but did not have a clear vision of what America should be like. The most they could do was experiment – experiment with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Suffice it to say, this was hardly a constructive solution to the problems of society.
Sanders eventually moved to Vermont, which during the ‘60’ and ‘70’s had become a haven for the “back to the land” hippies. Sanders bought into Reich’s philosophy of free love. He was briefly married, then had a son by another woman out of wedlock. He did eventually marry a third woman, Jane O’Meara, to whom he is still married. Sanders moved to Burlington and became involved with a small left-wing party called Liberty Union. He eventually got elected as mayor of Burlington as an Independent, and from there went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where he is today. Significantly he has never held a job in the private sector nor served in the military.
Through it all he has been feisty, principled, uncompromising, unswerving in his devotion to the working class and underprivileged. On the issues he favors raising the minimum wage, a single payer national health insurance plan, and tuition free public higher education. On issues like abortion and homosexuality he takes the standard liberal Democratic positions.
All of which brings us back to the question, what does it mean to be “progressive”? The earlier Progressive movement of a hundred years before, the movement of William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, was to a great extent based on religious faith. William Jennings Bryan was a devout evangelical Christian, afterwards famous for his opposition to the theory of evolution. When Teddy Roosevelt ran for president in 1912 on the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) ticket, he could declare, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Their passion for reform was based on the conviction that as human beings we are accountable to our Creator, and part of what He demands from us is social and economic justice.
But contemporary “Progressives” attack the status quo without any moral bearings, and in the long run their disregard for Judeo-Christian moral norms is bound to be counterproductive. A society in which everyone is free to define themselves any way he pleases, and is not required to conform to any social norms, is a society on the path to self-destruction. No one can be induced to act responsibly, let alone make personal sacrifices for the common good. And that, in turn, puts democracy at stake. Legislative bodies cease to function because no consensus can be reached. Law and order become increasingly difficult to maintain. This is not social progress at all, but a civilization in an advanced stage of decline. As well intentioned as Bernie Sanders undoubtedly is, he is nevertheless attempting to lead us to the precipice. It bodes ill for the future of our nation.