Opinion

Why everyone — even conservatives — should welcome Bernie Sanders to the presidential race

Sanders will at least make things interesting — which is more than most candidates can say

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

I'm a little thrilled that Bernie Sanders has announced his run for president.

Despite the fact that I'm a conservative, having a socialist candidate in the mix is cause for excitement. Not because I think the good Vermonter will defeat Hillary Clinton and then lose the general election in Mondale-like fashion. (Even if he did defeat her in the primary, he wouldn't lose 49 states.) And not because I think he'll soften her up for a Green Party challenge either. In fact, I don't see him alienating that many progressives from Clinton at all.

I'm over the moon for Bernie's run because it's just something different. His nascent campaign is oddly dignified and endearingly silly. Our debates about the economy need uneconomic values. More than anything our politics need impolitic candor. As the major candidates engage in their mind-numbing attempts at branding, social-media jockeying, and faux-umbrage-taking, Bernie Sanders is going to talk about ideas. Some good, some lunatic. But ideas they are.

Sanders began his campaign by thundering, "Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their super PACs, and their lobbyists." By itself, that is a sentiment a Tea Partier could have expressed. It is one a fundamentalist patron of Memories Pizza would share. Even if I suspect that a President Sanders would put Tea Partiers and Memories Pizza on a Justice Department hate-group list, the 2016 race needs at least one populist billionaire-hater besides Rick Santorum.

Sanders has some positions that I either like outright, or like considering from his angle. Sanders has historically been very friendly to an expansive reading of the Second Amendment. There has been a progressive case for expansive gun rights for a long time, most often articulated by Dan Baum, who contributes to Harper's. Although my own views on guns are conflicted, I do know that the liberal perspective on gun rights has all but disappeared as the NRA tilts ever closer to the GOP and flirts with surrendering its single-issue purity.

Sanders also has many views on education. For decades the federal government has been claiming that it will make college more affordable by guaranteeing student loans and doling out grants. Colleges have mostly raised tuition in response, to capture all of the cheap money sloshing around. Sanders has at least caught on to this burgeoning scam, and has deplored Washington's profiteering: "In my view, the most revolting aspect of the student loan crisis is that every year, the federal government makes billions of dollars in profits off of student loans — $127 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office."

Of Sanders' view that higher education ought to be "free" because it is paid for through general taxation, I'm less convinced. But at least he's got one absurdity nailed down.

My favorite Sanders view (since abandoned) came in his very early years in politics. Sanders was enough of a radical that he could demand the abolition of compulsory schooling, writing that it will "crush the spirits of our children." The radical anti-establishment stance on education has migrated to the religious right, and to the un-schooling left. But I hope that Sanders re-embraces it during the campaign in one great YOLO gesture.

Sanders is an occasional (perhaps opportunistic) opponent of American imperium, and of useless wars. One of my favorite examples is this Fox News story from 2011, which is headlined, "Sanders Questions ‘War' in Libya."

The report says:

And there is no doubt in this senator's mind that the U.S. is at war with Libya, despite administration officials' denials and the president's promise that no U.S. ground forces will be committed to the struggle against Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"I think when somebody drops bombs on other people, usually I think we refer to that as a war," Sanders said [Fox News]

The idea that dropping bombs on people constitutes warfare is obvious, but it is also somehow radical in an America that no longer fights wars, and instead engages in police exercises, "humanitarian intervention," and "kinetic action."

On the silly side of the ledger, Bernie Sanders thinks that the sheer number of deodorant brands is in some kind of direct opposition to the well-being of the poor and the general population. But even silly ideas can generate interesting debates, or at least interesting confutations.

My hope for Sen. Sanders is that he connects his ideas to a vigorous political campaign against Hillary Clinton. Clinton is the conflict-of-interest candidate. Sanders is the candidate who is at conflict with vested interests. I pray he gives us the interest of actual political conflict, too.

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