Most of the critical pieces about Bernie Sanders one reads in the opinion sections of major newspapers (to say nothing of those in conservative media) could have been written about the Vermont senator long before his recent comments on the subject of Fidel Castro and literacy initiatives. Those of us who have spent time in the company of socialists of a certain generation are all too familiar with the argument that, while mass murder and imprisonment are less than ideal, it is a fine thing when more people learn to read. (These claims rarely survive acquaintance with the literature people were actually permitted to enjoy in the communist regimes of the last century — illiteracy would seem to me preferable to the all-encompassing tedium of Soviet socialist realism.)
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weird opinion. But that does not mean that Sanders would be a better or more appealing candidate if his views on this and other subjects were less strange. Indeed, I think the case could be made that Sanders has been getting steadily less weird since at least 2015 and that this is regrettable.
I for one miss the perspective Sanders once offered to readers of the Vermont Freeman and similar publications in the late '60s and early '70s. It goes without saying that these missives were full of nonsense. But between the lunatic speculation on erotic subjects and the conspiracies about fluoride there was a healthy skepticism about the nature of the modern world that has all but disappeared from Sanders' political rhetoric today. In 1969 Sanders called American disillusionment with public education "one of the most heartening signs in recent years" and dismissed an educational establishment that existed largely to perpetuate "patterns of docility and conformity — patterns designed not to create independent and free adults, but adults who will obey orders, be 'faithful' uncomplaining employees, and 'good' citizens." In 2020, Sanders is an uncritical proponent not only of public schooling but of universal pre-kindergarten. The notion that there might be something inherently cruel and dehumanizing about American public education has given way to the implication that children as young as two should be subjected to it so that both of their parents can contribute to GDP.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Similar points could be made about Sanders' present attitudes toward guns and immigration. As Joe Biden pointed out recently, Sanders once held fairly moderate views on the subject of firearm ownership, even voting against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. This is not that strange, not only because Vermont has some of the least restrictive weapon laws in the country but because the question of gun ownership, especially for minorities, has historically been an issue that has divided radical progressives from milquetoast liberals. On this as with so many subjects, one would not expect Huey Newton or Hunter S. Thompson to agree with Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, when it comes to immigration, as recently as 2015 Sanders dismissed "open borders" as "a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States." He also expressed his fear that immigration has depressed American wages and suggested that this is why the Koch brothers and other prominent conservatives support its expansion. Half a decade later, it would seem to be the case that Sanders himself is not just a right-winger but a libertarian or even a minarchist when it comes to this question, someone who believes that no meaningful restrictions — not even a basic legal distinction between those who are citizens or otherwise present in this country lawfully and those who are not — can be placed upon immigration.
Sanders' evolution on these and other issues was already underway during his last presidential campaign. It has continued apace ever since. In 2016, Sanders rarely spoke about so-called social issues and even made a point of arguing that woke identity politics is favored by capital because it pits the working class against itself. In 2017, he drew the ire of the DNC by campaigning with an openly anti-abortion candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Now he claims that opponents of abortion have no place in the Democratic Party and that "being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat." Call me crazy, but this sounds like Nancy Pelosi-approved normie liberalism to me.
We need the weird Bernie, the guy to whom Ross Perot once gave a sword, the old codger who made (to my mind) the most incisive criticism of our economic system of any recent American politician when he said that nobody needs 23 different kinds of deodorant. This, after all, is the real point of being radical: not to create a politically correct eco-friendly version of our present debt-driven consumerist dystopia, but to replace it with something more humane.
Maybe Bernie needs to go back to his farm.
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.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.