Is Bernie Sanders a deep cover Communist revolutionary? Uh, no.
The most recent attack on the Democratic frontrunner is inane red-baiting
Bernie Sanders has a problem. On a few occasions he has given qualified praise to dastardly Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Cuba, thus proving his sympathy with the Red menace. So says both the army of Never Trump conservatives (numbering in my count at maybe two dozen, every one of which has a newspaper column somewhere), and various Democratic elites, including some of Sanders' presidential opponents.
But this is just the latest flailing attempt of a political establishment desperate to stop Sanders from securing the Democratic presidential nomination. Bernie Sanders is not a Communist and this kind of knee-jerk red-baiting is as childish as it is outdated.
So what are we talking about? In a press conference after visiting the Soviet Union back in 1988, Sanders spoke positively about the Moscow metro, Soviet youth culture programs, and expressed hope at the potential reforms that appeared to be unfolding there. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, when asked by Anderson Cooper about Cuba and Fidel Castro, Sanders explained Castro's literacy program was one reason why the population hadn't helped the U.S. overthrow him.
The first thing to note here is that Sanders does not deny the worst things about Communist rule in either the USSR or Cuba. In the press conference, he noted that Soviet reformers he spoke with were "absolutely open in acknowledging that they are not a democratic society." He noted that while health care and housing were cheap, they were outdated and low-quality. On Cuba, Sanders said, "We're very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba." When Cooper noted that Castro had imprisoned a lot of dissidents, Sanders responded: "That's right, and we condemn that."
Secondly, Sanders' comments about the Moscow metro, the high quality of Soviet arts programs, and Cuban social programs are basically correct. The Moscow subway system is a shockingly beautiful and functional system even to this day — especially if you compare it to the grimy, broken-down, ridiculously expensive rat warrens of the few subways that even exist in the United States. Soviet culture programs — in singing, theater, ballet, and so on — were famously world-class.
Castro, meanwhile, really did create an excellent literacy program, and Cuba's health care system is astoundingly good considering how dirt-poor the country is (in part a result of the decades-long U.S. embargo, mind). Cuba has more than three times the number of doctors per capita as the United States, its infant mortality rate is a third lower than the U.S., and its life expectancy for men is slightly higher (though not for women). In his film Sicko, Michael Moore famously took several ill 9/11 first responders to Cuba, where they got decent care they could not get in America. One woman on a meager disability pension found her asthma medicine cost 0.0005 percent what it did in the U.S.
On the other hand, it's not like the United States is some beacon of democracy and humane behavior. Another reason most Cubans did not support President Kennedy's attempt to overthrow Castro is that we almost certainly would have helped install a brutal right-wing dictatorship just like we did in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, Argentina, and elsewhere. Anderson Cooper may also be interested to learn that the U.S. imprisons its population at levels approaching the Soviet gulag system at its height, or the names of Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, or Thomas Drake. Every president of both parties going back to the 1940s has supported reprehensible dictators in places like Saudi Arabia, Romania, the Philippines, and elsewhere. And Trump has obviously buddied up with authoritarians the world over — he's currently in India making nice with Narendra Modi, an anti-democratic strongman implicated in violent crackdowns against his country's Muslim minority.
It is of course true that Communist countries often imposed horrible conditions on their populations to build their trains and welfare states. Cuban doctors are poorly paid and sometimes forced to serve overseas as part of Cuban diplomatic efforts. Communism is a failed model of human development — indeed, the only real lesson here is how humiliating it is for the United States that a rattletrap country like Cuba can manage a health care system somewhat competitive with ours in terms of outcomes on a tiny fraction of the resource base.
But that is why Sanders does not point to those nations when talking about what he actually wants to do. When he is delivering his stump speech, he always refers to Denmark, Norway, France, or other European social democracies as his actual lodestar. Rich countries can have quality services and infrastructure without slave labor camps or abolishing democracy.
At bottom, this attack on Sanders is classic red-baiting. Point to something positive somebody said about a Communist country taken out of context and hysterically accuse them of guilt by association. But taken to its logical endpoint, the move is simply silly. Are we supposed to automatically forgo something if the dread Communists happened to do it? I guess we must tear down all American public schools, the Social Security and Medicare programs, all roads and highways, and all our public transit systems. Cuba has 5-cent asthma inhalers? Well ours will have to cost $1,000, otherwise Lenin will make capitalist baby Jesus cry.
Back in the heyday of the Soviet Union in the '50s and '60s, Sanders' comments would no doubt have been disqualifying for most Americans, gripped as they were by Cold War paranoia. But where international Communism was then a formidable globe-spanning behemoth, today it is almost completely dead. The USSR collapsed almost 30 years ago, and most Americans have a dim at best memory of it as a dysfunctional basket case.
To any even slightly good-faith interlocutor, what Sanders said about the USSR or Cuba is anodyne or even boring. These countries have a few good aspects but are generally pretty wretched. That's why we should aim at the Norway example, which proves we can have a dramatically more equal and comfortable society without sacrificing democracy. Attempting to whip up a McCarthyite frenzy over gentle social-democratic reforms is transparently ridiculous and smacks of desperation.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.