Among the last generation of candidates for American high office, Bernie Sanders may be the most widely misconceived.
Commentators treat him as a radical Leftist, but his vision harkens back to a simpler time when Americans were more in-it-together.
They treat his programs as experimental, but almost all of them are tried and true.
And they treat him as inexperienced, when as a four-term mayor and quarter-century member of the House and Senate, he has spent more time in elected office than any Democrat entering the Presidency since James Buchanan became the last former Secretary of State to be elected President in 1856.
Bernie Sanders is so sorely misconceived because virtually everyone, perhaps even Bernie himself, has overlooked his underlying conservatism. Sanders is highly experienced, his programs have a proven track record, he wants special interests out of government, he is fighting to save the best of the American past, and his economic program promises stability and security. All of these things are in some way conservative, but American conservatism has been transformed over the course of the last two generations into a radical program for social change. It has transformed America, in the words of Harvard’s moral philosopher, Michael Sandel, from “having a market economy to being a market society.” And this brings to social life the kind of creative destruction more appropriate to markets. In the process, much of the American heritage has been demolished.
Meanwhile, American liberalism has morphed into an often incoherent hodge-podge of social and economic experiments. Obamacare may lower the cost of healthcare and insure millions, but it is neither comprehensible nor proven. Gay marriage may make the society more inclusive and humane, but barring a few historical exceptions, it is something of a social experiment.
As conservatives have hollowed out government safeguards and liberals innovated, a vast niche has been left gaping-open for a political leader who might fill it with the promise of genuine security.
Bernie Sanders does not seek to take America into a bold new progressive era, but rather back to a golden age of social equality and stability. His vision is perhaps best exemplified by the conservative post-war period under Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, when the highest tax bracket was 90 percent and college education was all-but-free. Much of the social stability of the ’50s and early ’60s resulted from higher levels of economic equality, brought about by FDR’s New Deal.
More equal societies are, by many conservative measures, better societies. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-authors of a landmark study on inequality in the 50 wealthiest nations, note that among other things, equal societies enjoy higher levels of trust and lower levels of murder, incarceration, mental illness, and drug-abuse. Equal societies are more stable, reason the authors, because their citizens are relatively free from the status-anxiety driving so many addictive and anti-social behaviors. We can see this at work in the Scandinavian and Northern European states Sanders seeks to emulate.
Almost all of Sanders’ proposed programs are tried and true, and many focus on strengthening the family. His financial transactions tax has been implemented in at least 40 countries and promises to put the stock market back in the hands of real people. Medicare for all would simply model Canada and Australia in universalizing one of America’s most popular government programs. His family-leave and vacation policies are typical throughout Europe and would strengthen families by allowing them to spend more quality time together. Similarly, his $15 an hour living-wage would make it easier for working parents to start a family.
Virtually everything in his economic program would make life more stable and secure, and yet somehow he continues to be portrayed as a dangerous radical.
Perhaps this is because the conservatism to which Sanders’ programs might lead is not the sort to which Americans are accustomed. The philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke, emphasized in the late-18th century that conservatives seek to preserve the best of the past. American conservatives today, on the other hand, tend to be more libertarian, spurning the most hallowed governing institutions in favor of market innovations. The conservative British philosopher, Roger Scruton, suggests in The Meaning of Conservatism, that this antipathy for government in America is perplexing. If conservatives seek to preserve the heritage of their forbears, and the state is the embodied will of the people across generations, then conservatives should find in the state not a source of contempt but rather patriotic devotion.
While Sanders’ socialism would probably be anathema to Scruton and Burke alike, his devotion to the purity of democratic institutions and his emphasis on civic life would probably be appealing.
The same misconceptions are evident in comparisons between Sanders and Trump. Sanders is often treated as a Leftist mirror to the more Rightist Trump, with both being protectionist populists, sticking it to the party establishment. But Sanders is better understood as mirroring the more traditionally conservative Governor Kasich. For most of the election they were the two most popular candidates among the general electorate, and both are respected for their honesty and integrity, while both also represent some of the best of what their parties used to be.
Almost nothing Sanders proposes is new. He emphasizes neither innovation nor multiculturalism. His trade agenda would slow the pace of social and economic change. His foreign policy would bring about a great retrenchment. The societies he seeks to emulate are in many ways quite conservative. And, most importantly, his focus on economic equality would bring all classes together. To say that this makes Sanders conservative would push the argument to extremes, but it does suggest Sanders is appealing to something deeper than radical frustrations. Much of that appeal is conservative, and just about everyone seems to miss it.
Perhaps this explains why he continually beats Clinton in head-to-head polls with Republican rivals by double-digits in what many consider a conservative nation.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editors: Emily Bartran; Caitlin Oriel