Stephen Lemons Column

Bernie Sanders' Socialist Candidacy Is a Losing Proposition for Democrats, and Here's Why

When it comes to the left's nearsighted infatuation with Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and his pie-in-the-sky socialism, color me un-amused. 

Sorry, all you BernBots and hashtag progressives who want me to "Feel the Bern," because the only burn I'm feelin' at the prospect of Bernie becoming the Democratic nominee for president is heartburn. 

Sadly, I've seen this lunacy in Democratic politics more times than I've seen Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which is saying something.

This hankering after ideological purity, this hardheaded crush on un-electable pols who tell libs exactly what they want to hear, this tin ear to political necessity that liberals have, and this perverse fantasy that what flies in the Northeast and other deep blue parts of the country will have universal appeal. 

It's all so sickeningly familiar.

Indeed, this year, it's worse than ever, with progressives suffering from what I like to call "Thom Hartmann confirmation bias," meaning they believe that middle-of-the-road American voters — the people Democrats have to win over in the general election — agree with the far-left slant expressed on Hartmann's über-liberal talk radio show, which is practically the left's version of Fox News.

You know, fair and balanced, but for libs.

Social media doesn't help this situation much either, since it allows users to create these alternative realities where self-validation is more important than the truth.  As a result, ordinarily sane folks who like what Bernie has to say about soaking the rich to pay for single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, and an unprecedented expansion of the social welfare state seriously think that a hectoring 74-year-old die-hard Vermont socialist, who honeymooned in the old Soviet Union and looks like he should be in one of those old shots of politburo members waving at a May Day parade, can win in a general election. 

With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent resounding win in the South Carolina primary, and with polls anticipating a strong showing by her on Super Tuesday, I'm less concerned about Sanders now than a week ago.

Still, he has enthusiastic grassroots support in Arizona, which has its presidential preference election on March 22.

Also, there are some Bernie Kool-Aid drinkers vowing to write in Sanders' name come November rather than vote for HRC, whom they see as some sort of female corporate Frankenstein.

Sandernistas point to polls showing that Sanders does better against likely GOP nominee Donald Trump than Hillary.

But I would counter that many mainstream voters have yet to be informed of Bernie's lifelong embrace of radical politics.

Add an inflexible economic worldview and a cranky campaign style that's been hilariously lampooned by comedian Larry David on Saturday Night Live in such sketches as the one titled "Bern Your Enthusiasm" and you've got a recipe for disaster if Bernie is the Democratic nominee. 
Take, for instance, several years of polling, which demonstrates that the word "socialist" has about as much appeal to American voters as the Zika virus. 

Okay, I kid, but not by much.

In a June 2015 Gallup poll of American adults, 50 percent of respondents said they would not vote for a socialist candidate for president. 

Only 47 percent said they would vote for a qualified socialist. More people (a lot more people) would vote for an atheist (58 percent), a Muslim (60 percent), a woman (93 percent), and a Mormon (81 percent).

The good news for Bernie is that 91 percent of respondents said they would vote for a Jewish candidate. Sanders is a Brooklyn-born and -raised Jew.

Additionally, of adults under 30, almost 70 percent said they would vote for a socialist, which helps to account for the enthusiastic support Sanders has from millennials.

More explicitly in his memoir, Sanders baldly states: "Many Burlingtonians, including myself, supported the Sandinista government in Nicaragua."

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Yet, study after study has shown that for older Americans — anyone above 30 — the term "socialist" has a stigma to it, informed by the Cold War and the failed experiment of Soviet communism.

This is where the pedants will pop off and inform me that there's — to borrow a line from Bernie — a yuuuge difference between socialism and communism. 

Moreover, Bernie is a "democratic socialist," the pedants will preach, which is pretty mainstream stuff in Canada, France, Sweden, and much of Europe. 

But do these know-it-alls really think that such hairsplitting will win over voters who tread the center of the political spectrum?
Yes, Sanders has referred to himself as a democratic socialist, but he has referred to himself, unequivocally, as a simple "socialist" many times.

Sanders' political hero is 20th-century socialist Eugene Debs, one of the original founders of the International Workers of the World, who ran five times for president, never winning more than 6 percent of the vote.

This alone should tell Democrats all they need to know. But there is so much more. 

According to his 1997 memoir, Outsider in the House, Sanders' radical political activism has its roots in his years as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s.

Among the leftist political organizations Sanders joined at that time was the Young People's Socialist League, the youth arm of the Socialist Party USA. 

From a draft, 1974 press release: "Bernard Sanders, the Liberty Union candidate for the United States Senate, today called for the public takeover of all privately owned electric companies in Vermont."

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Reporter Harry Jaffe notes in his sympathetic biography, Why Bernie Sanders Matters, that in college Sanders also "attended meetings at the South Side Socialist Party," and that as a freshman on campus, Sanders "tried to convince his roommate . . . that capitalism was a failed system that oppressed the majority."

This wasn't some temporary knee-jerk radicalism borne of the era and Sanders' laudable activism against the Vietnam War and racial inequality — it was a lifelong commitment. 

During his 1990 run for Congress, Sanders famously stated: "I am a socialist and everyone knows that."

In a July 2015 Q & A with the leftist periodical The Nation, which since has endorsed him, Sanders did not run away from the term.

"Do they think I’m afraid of the word [socialist]?" asked Sanders rhetorically. "I’m not afraid of the word."

Indeed, Sanders has reveled in being a socialist all his life.

When he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, and wags referred to the city he served as the "People's Republic of Burlington," he and his staff donned T-shirts with the illo of a red star and a clenched fist for a softball game with the local business community.

Less humorous were Sanders' trips to Nicaragua, the U.S.S.R., and Cuba in the 1980s.

Outsider features a photo of the above-mentioned softball team, as well as one of Sanders' meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the socialist leader of that country who had been trained as a revolutionary in Communist Cuba.

"In 1985," Sanders recounts in Outsider, "I was invited by the Nicaraguan government to visit Managua for the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. I was — believe it or not — the highest-ranking American official present." 

At the time, the United States was funding a force called the Contras, which fought an unsuccessful civil war against the Sandinista regime. Sanders, like many Americans, was opposed to American intervention in the region, but he took that opposition a step further, overseeing a sister city program between Burlington and Nicaragua's Puerto Cabezas.

In an interview with a reporter for a public-access television channel after his trip to Nicaragua, Sanders called Ortega "an impressive man," saying his hosts "treated me very well." 

During the same televised interview, Sanders opined that the Sandinista government had "substantially more support" among Nicaraguans "than Ronald Reagan has among the American people."

More explicitly in his memoir, Sanders baldly states: "Many Burlingtonians, including myself, supported the Sandinista government in Nicaragua."

Now, whatever you think of such statements, the average Democrat would have to admit that Sanders' embrace of the Sandinista regime is problematic, considering that the U.S. was involved in a Cold War with the Soviets at the time. 

Don't get me wrong, I agree that President Reagan's support of the Contras was wrong and ultimately illegal, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the U.S. government sold arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and used money from the sales to prop up the Contras.

But the Sandinistas were no choirboys, guilty of human rights abuses and supporting the communist insurgency in El Salvador, where the U.S. had backed right-wing death squads. 

Even if you see the Sandinistas as more virtuous than the Contras, who were guilty of murders and mass rape, do you really want to spend part of the 2016 election trying to defend Sanders' actions of some 30 years ago?

Sanders wanted to meet Fidel Castro when he traveled to Cuba as mayor of Burlington, but he wasn't able to, so we're spared a photo of Sanders in the book shaking the Cuban dictator's hand. 

In the aforementioned public-access interview, Sanders praises Castro as good for Cubans, stating that he "educated their kids, gave them healthcare, totally transformed the society."

He adds, "Not that Cuba and Fidel Castro are perfect. They are certainly not."

However, if Sanders were to be the nominee, I can guarantee that the inevitable commercial  the Republicans would produce will not include Bernie's disclaimer. 

Finally, there's Sanders visit in 1988 to Burlington's sister city of Yaroslavl in the Soviet Union.

Sanders and his supporters have taken umbrage at the charge that he honeymooned with his current wife, Jane, in the U.S.S.R.

But according to his book, that's exactly what he did.

The day after their marriage, he writes, "we began a quiet, romantic honeymoon" traveling to Yaroslavl with 10 other Burlington residents "to finalize the sister city relationship" with the Soviet burg.

"It was a very strange honeymoon," Sanders states.

The left-of-center British newspaper The Guardian dug up audio of Sanders interviewing the mayor of Yaroslavl during this trip.

In that recording, reports The Guardian, Sanders comments that housing and healthcare in America were "significantly better" than in the Soviet Union, but "the cost of such services is much, much higher in the United States."

The Guardian mined Sanders' own papers, archived at the University of Vermont, as well as numerous other sources for the piece.

One draft press release the newspaper uncovered from a 1974 Sanders campaign, when Sanders was a member of the anti-war Liberty Union Party, surely will be used by Republicans against the septuagenarian populist, if they have the chance.

According to The Guardian, it reads:

"Bernard Sanders, the Liberty Union candidate for the United States Senate, today called for the public takeover of all privately owned electric companies in Vermont."

Look, I would never argue that Hillary Clinton is a perfect candidate, and I understand why many Dems might get excited by Sanders' strident commitment to social welfare and income redistribution.

But the Republicans want to run against a dyed-in-the-wool socialist like Sanders. Watch Fox News and you'll see that very little of the right's ire is concentrated on Sanders.

Instead, it is Hillary who is the favorite target of Republican Party hacks. They stay up nights praying for Hillary to be indicted over this silly, over-hyped server scandal of hers.

Why? The same reason the GOP hated and hounded her husband, President Bill Clinton: He was successful.

It was Bill Clinton, who in 1992 as a little-known governor of Arkansas, upended the Republican "lock" on the electoral college, winning Southern states in the general election and fashioning a coalition of moderate, liberal, and conservative Dems that delivered eight years of relative peace and prosperity to the country.

Nevertheless, the tendency among some in the Democratic Party to value ideological purity over electability remains.

But the stakes are too high to engage in the kind of political self-gratification Sanders is selling progressives this year.

Interestingly, in Outsider, Sanders explained why he backed Clinton for re-election in 1996.

Because he thought Clinton was the champion of the poor? No, because he knew what the Republicans were capable of with the White House in their possession.

"I work in Congress," he writes of his GOP colleagues. "I listen to these guys every day. They are very serious people. And the folks behind them — the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the Heritage Foundation, and others — are even crazier than they are."

Some things never change.

Call it the politics of expediency, but Sanders' radical history bars the White House door to him. And it's long since time that his liberal devotees catch a clue.
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons