Hippie freak. Weirdo. Pervert. Old commie thug. It’s hard not to get the sense we are really supposed to be both shocked and appalled by the fact that Bernie Sanders is the only living American who never quite got over the '60s counterculture and its organic free-range version of leftism. After Altamont, when the dream was supposed to be over, Bernie spent the '70s living in a Vermont farmhouse writing for underground zines. In the '80s, when even the Russians were souring on the whole community ownership of the means of production thing, there was Bernie honeymooning in the Soviet Union and keeping the dream alive.
Here is something that GOP hacks and Clintonites alike have failed to understand: this weirdness, far from alienating millions of Americans, is actually part of the secret of Sanders' appeal.
If it were only a matter of holding the right policy positions and having a more or less consistent record on progressive issues — to say nothing of clearly articulated plans — the favorite son of the American left would in fact be a daughter, i.e., Elizabeth Warren. But Warren, for all her substance (not to mention her fascinating background in Oklahoma), still seems very much like the sort of person who is, well, a politician: a graduate of a good law school who taught at Harvard before being elected to the Senate.
Whatever Bernie is, it isn’t a politician, at least not in the conventional sense. In the American popular imagination he has become an avuncular hanger-on, the Democratic equivalent of the village atheist who has been banging on about these absurd ideas — like not letting people go broke to pay for their children’s health care or letting billionaires pay slightly higher taxes — for so long that sooner or later they started to catch on. He is a kind of hippie Fred Rogers, a nostalgic throwback to a simpler time when people were kinder and less greedy and there were fewer brands of deodorant.
This is why I was delighted to read a recent article in Politico about the public-access cable show Sanders hosted while serving as mayor of Burlington in the '80s. Typical episodes of this no-budget clone of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood featured Bernie talking to the police chief and schoolchildren and random constituents or planting trees. Tell me you wouldn't watch this if Netflix put together a reboot:
Its opening image is usually a chalk-outline illustration of a TV set with Sanders' head talking inside it. The credits often appear to be hand-lettered on white poster board. The episodes usually range in length from 30 minutes to roughly an hour. Topics include Plato, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, the “immorality” of the war in Nicaragua, the "stupid" property tax, the effects of the looming nuclear apocalypse on children, Burlington's waterfront, Burlington's trash dump, Burlington's snowplow operation, the "incredible increase" in crime, the close-fisted state Legislature, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the reasons that punk rockers wear black.
The aesthetic of the entire series, all wood paneling and high-waisted jeans and perms, matches the era. Sanders' suits, too, tend to fit the theme. The best one is either powder blue or white. It’s impossible to tell which color it is, exactly, due to that yellow light washing over every episode.
These were the good old days, when The Man was still The Man and you needed to fight him every day. Like the lady said, a lot of things have changed since way back then. Now major corporations are the vanguard of all our wokest causes. The whole country has moved on except for Bernie.
This applies to some of Sanders’s policy positions as well. Many Democrats were shocked when he told Vox’s Ezra Klein that open borders were a conspiracy invented by the Koch brothers to depress American wages. This should not have been surprising to anyone who knows anything about the history of the American labor movement, which has historically supported restricting immigration — and not just in the Midwest and the Northeast. Cesar Chavez argued that immigration undermined the ability of Hispanic American farm workers when they attempted to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.
The same is true of Sanders' attitude toward guns. While his voting record in the House and Senate does not quite live up to the exacting standards of the National Rifle Association, he nevertheless understands that rural Americans in places like his home state have a different relationship with firearms than coastal elites. (Should he become the Democratic nominee, he would be smart to make something of this.)
This is not to suggest that Bernie's quixotic stubbornness will never catch up with him. If you want a preview of the first sparring match between him and Joe Biden in the Democratic debate cycle, watch him insist that incarcerated felons — including the Boston Bomber — should be permitted to vote from their prison cells. Hell, even Cher told him to get stuffed (though she later deleted the tweet). In the meantime, though, it's hard to blame him for letting his freak flag fly.
If Bernie won't, who else will?