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The Sanders Candidacy

The Sanders Candidacy        Gerry OShea

The Sanders political phenomenon is astonishing. We are talking about an unprepossessing 78-year old Jewish man, a recent survivor of a heart attack, a declared socialist from the small state of Vermont, who is one of two candidates – with former vice-president Joe Biden - most likely to win the nomination of the Democratic Party for president, even though he is not even a member of that party.

 The bulk of his support comes from young people who have volunteered in droves to help their man win the nomination. In addition, his fundraising is far more successful so far than any of his opponents – a strong indication of a thriving grassroots candidacy. The senator’s treasury is flowing over from small contributions of $50 or less. He does not take Political Action Committee money and makes no effort to solicit donations from the affluent.

 Explaining the voter attraction of a patriarchal figure like Bernie Sanders  - especially for people in their 20’s and 30’s - has baffled political pundits. The accepted conventional wisdom, which may in the end prevail, suggests that the Democrats would have a better chance of defeating Trump in November led by Joe Biden, promising a continuation of President Obama’s moderate policies. 

Traditional thinking suggests that a successful candidate should hug the political center because, in the past, that is where most voters find their level of comfort. Bernie Sanders contends that large numbers of the electorate, especially young people, are calling for much more radical change.

 Working people have seen major growth in company profits but no significant improvement in their standard of living over the past forty years. This inequality prevailed in the Obama years almost as much as under Trump.

 Young college graduates face big student loan repayments and, when many of them leave home to work in the cities, they can’t afford decent accommodation. They have to look far into the horizon to think about purchasing a place of their own. The poet William Butler Yeats wrote of post-revolutionary Ireland: “That is no country for old men.” Change young for old in our time in America.

No wonder that in a recent national study of people in their twenties, 44% said that they favored a socialist system for the United States with 42% opting for a continuation of capitalism. Senator Sanders is tapping into the unhappiness and frustration of these young people.

His policy proposals include a promise that the federal government will eliminate all student debt and end tuition payments at public colleges. Add to that his plan to guarantee pre-k education for every child leaving many voters wondering where the money will come from to pay for new entitlements.

Sanders points out in his stump speeches that at present government subsidies go mostly to ranchers and big corporations. This cogent argument appeals to the many people who feel that they are excluded from any government largesse. He drives his point home forcefully by adding that America already has a socialist system with the bulk of the benefits going to the well-heeled.

There are two broad and conflicting divisions among socialists. One group believes that the economy, or certainly what they identify as the commanding heights of wealth production in the country, should be controlled by the state, supposedly acting on behalf of workers. That is the theory that more or less prevailed in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries until that house of cards collapsed in the 1980’s.

On the other end of the socialist spectrum we encounter Social Democracy(SD), which in different variations, encompasses the governing philosophy of many countries in Europe, especially the Nordic states like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Many of the leading SD parties claim the socialist label.

The Social Democrat belief system demands a strong social component to all aspects of public policy while still encouraging private enterprise and valuing competition as a positive driving force in the economy. Catholic social teaching, stressing the pre-eminence of “the common good” in dealing with all political issues, fits easily into the SD approach to governing. In Sanders’ words: “What Democratic Socialism means to me is a civilized society where all people live in security and dignity. I am talking about human rights and economic rights.”  

Polls show that a majority of Americans support many parts of the SD agenda: adequate medical coverage for all citizens, legislation to ensure equal employment and promotion opportunities for women, universal childcare, a $15 an hour minimum wage, lightening the load of taxation on workers and demanding much higher returns to the government coffers from corporations and the affluent, and an ambitious housing program for all with generous subsidies for the poor and lower-paid.

However, socialism, the “s” word, creates real problems for broad swathes of American voters. For many, it conjures up images of oppressive government control of all facets of living from employment to housing and education. The ghosts of Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro live on.

The senator from Vermont has already faced loaded questions from his opponents in the Democratic Party about some laudatory words he uttered about improvements in education in Cuba under Castro.

Mayor Bloomberg in one of the televised debates dismissed Bernie as a communist – a ridiculous and unfair accusation, but if a Democrat labels him that way, just think what Republicans would come up with if he is the nominee.

Imagine if Senator Sanders is the standard bearer for the Democrats and President Trump ties him to the disastrous policies of the allegedly socialist Maduro regime in Venezuela. One doesn’t need a fertile imagination to predict how Trumpian rhetoric would use the economic breakdown in Maracaibo.

 Medicare-for-all is a noble concept but it would involve millions of people losing their present insurance provided by private companies. This is vehemently opposed by many people, including trade unionists, who are happy with their current coverage. Promoting this policy, which does not allow for any private choice, remains a huge obstacle to a Sanders victory.

Thirty of the forty congressional seats that Democrats won in the mid-term elections in 2018 were in districts that supported Trump in 2016. How would those candidates fare seeking re-election in November on a Democratic ticket led by a socialist?

The Vermont senator’s multitude of followers argues that whatever votes would be lost because of the perception of extremism associated with the “s” word would be more than compensated by a big increase in the number of new supporters who were too young or uninterested to vote in previous elections.

That contention is seemingly supported by a professional study that predicts that close to 8% more people are planning to cast a ballot in 2020 compared to the 2016 presidential race. However, the returns from the primary elections so far do not reveal any major upsurge in youth voting.

 Many of the diehard Sanders supporters are imbued by the grievance culture that seems to permeate large sections of both parties. Although Hilary won the 2016 primaries by close to four million votes, some of Bernie’s supporters believe that their man was wronged by the Democratic Party establishment. If they are unsuccessful again, how will they deal with another setback?

It is clear after the Super Tuesday results that the Democratic convention in Milwaulkee in July will face a choice between a moderate candidate, the former vice-president, Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders, proclaiming his version of socialism and promising radical changes if he wins the White House.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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