Bernie Sanders has accomplished something no one in American politics has managed for decades: He’s uniting Democrats and Republicans.
It’s early yet, but talking points for the 2020 campaign season are emerging on both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats both have been trying to sell the rise of politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others as stalking horses for the overthrow of capitalism.
Noted GOP pollster Frank Luntz appeared with Howard Kurtz on the Fox “MediaBuzz” program. It was typical ring-around-the-collar news marketing, telling audiences something scary, i.e. Americans are going commie! Kurtz said a poll of 1,000 respondents found that 52 percent of Hillary Clinton voters agreed with the sentence, “I prefer to live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.” His editorial analysis:
“Capitalism itself has been so demonized by media that… if you want to oppose socialism you oppose it by talking about freedom, not capitalism.”
The interesting part of the Luntz poll was that 16 percent of Trump voters agreed with the same statement about socialism. He went on to say significant numbers of both Clinton and Trump voters favored 70 percent tax rates for the top 1 percent of earners. Kurtz suggested this was the result of media bias:
“Is the media kind of soft on socialism?” he asked Luntz. “I mean, favorable press to Democrats like Bernie Sanders and AOC, being tough on flaws of capitalism, the excesses of big corporations…”
Luntz responded that yes, of course, this was the media’s fault. What else could it be? Just look at the New York Times, he said. Why, out of seven Times news stories, he said, “typically” six will be hostile to capitalism or corporations. “It’s gotten so bad,” he continued, “I started to say to people: Stop trying to defend ‘capitalism,’ it’s ‘economic freedom.’”
This is absurd to the point of being funny: First of all, the press has been dumping on Sanders almost recreationally for years now. Meanwhile, fear of litigation has kept the press away from business exposés for decades. Whole genres of corruption go uncovered, from child labor that makes your consumer goods (enjoy that child-mined cobalt ore in your cellphone!) to war profiteering to pollution to industrial accidents. Few news organizations have even one labor reporter anymore. The last collective bargaining session that made a front page probably involved the NFL.
The more interesting part of the Luntz interview came later, when he said of Sanders, “I will be blunt with you, I think he is the most likely nominee in 2020,” and “Republicans should want that” because “Sanders cannot appeal to overall mainstream American people.”
On the other hand, Luntz went on to say with a straight face, Republicans “should be scared to death” if Democrats make Colorado Senator Michael Bennet the nominee, because “there is no issue about socialism” and “he is not extreme, he is mainstream.”
Luntz just got finished telling Kurtz a soak-the-rich 70 percent tax plan has 79 percent support among Clinton voters and 46 percent support among Trump voters, but somehow Michael Bennet — a man who would lose a charisma contest to a bag of styrofoam packing peanuts — is the threat Republicans should worry about.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Colorado-governor-turned-presidential-candidate John Hickenlooper — who sells himself as a “pragmatic progressive” — went after Sanders in New Hampshire, though not by name.
“You have to hand it to the GOP for achieving the near-impossible,” Hickenlooper said in early May. “Just years after the collapse of the Soviet Union…who would have imagined the Koch brothers and Donald Trump could help resuscitate the discredited ideas of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin?”
Of course, Hickenlooper went on to say, he wasn’t trying to cast aspersions on Sanders as a human being by comparing him to Stalin, who murdered 20 million people. “Do I respect him?” Hickenlooper said. “Absolutely. Do I respect his supporters? Absolutely.” However, he said, he thinks Sanders is wrongly “demonizing the private sector” with ideas that will “hurt working people.”
The s-word has become such a political hot button that it’s caused even candidates whose platforms are similar to Sanders’ to make public disavowals. Longtime campaign-press pack leader John Heilemann, in an interview with Elizabeth Warren, claimed Hickenlooper was “afraid” to call himself a capitalist in the current environment, and confronted the Massachusetts senator by daring her to answer: Are you a capitalist?
“Yes,” she said, adding later: “I believe in markets.”
Luntz, Kurtz, Hickenlooper and Heilemann are all indulging in an old PR trick, one designed to reduce the political landscape to a stark (and fictitious) binary choice: One can either be a God-fearing, cheeseburger-loving American, or a Marxist, with nothing in between.
The Luntz poll question was framed as an either/or deal: Would you “rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one”? Hickenlooper was suggesting the choice is between capitalism and Stalinism. Heilemann is pushing a litmus test for candidates: capitalist or non-capitalist. All of this is designed to push the idea that a vote for Sanders (or for the kinds of policies he favors) is a vote to overthrow free enterprise.
The irony of all of this is that Sanders, who is painted as a sort of extremist menace and El Coco-style monster from whom we should hide the children, would have been considered a tepid Republican back in the Fifties, when the original red scare was at its peak.
When Dwight Eisenhower was president, ideas like state-subsidized mortgages, government-aided tuition, and socialized medicine were considered relatively mainstream. The top tax bracket was 91 percent, and though very few people actually paid that rate, some did — there were 10,000 taxpayers in 1958 who paid 81 percent or higher.
This is not to say tax rates that high would make sense today. But there’s a gigantic gap between advocating for free college tuition and single-payer health care and Stalin.
Sanders does pitch himself as a revolutionary (see On the Campaign Trail With Bernie Sanders 2.0). His use of the term, however, is less reality than a dark satirical commentary, speaking to how insanely far modern America has drifted in the direction of a laissez-faire free-for-all. There has not been a true labor candidate as a viable presence in a presidential race in modern American history: They’ve all been backed by big money.
National policy across the board is dominated by business. Politicians drenched in donations from Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed-Martin decide levels of military spending. On the banking and financial services committees, it’s Wall Street money that rules. The Ag committees are ruled by frankenfood and tobacco firms.
The likes of Kurtz and Luntz want to blame the media for changing attitudes, but the real issue is that the corporate cash that has dominated politics for decades almost exclusively pushed employer interests, ignoring all else — and voters have started, belatedly, to notice.
While big companies like Amazon systematically avoid taxes (literally to the point of paying nothing in many cases) most ordinary people are paying every penny of their individual tax obligations and not getting a lot in return.
What politicians like Sanders and Warren represent isn’t Marxism, but an introduction to what politics might look like if you removed money from the policymaking equation.
Most people would rather have affordable health and day care than battleships, they want to be able to go to college without being in debt until death, and they want better schools and more job security.
If policies like these were decided by up-and-down plebiscite, without the advocacy of corporate-sponsored politicians and media outlets that would lose fortunes in ad dollars if elections were publicly-funded, there’s little question that people would ask for more than they’re getting now.
The current panic in the press is designed to make people think that if they demand more politically, it’s going to end in purges and Gulags. It’s a trick, and a big part of the reason there’s going to be a massive effort at creating an “ick” factor around politicians like Sanders, and to a lesser extent, Warren.
They want people to think it’s socially unacceptable to ask for job security or subsidized education or other protections. More to the point, they want to go back to the good old days, when the presidential election season was a glorious ritual in which voters took two years to decide if they would vote for the politicians who’d completely sold them out, or only just mostly.
Bernie Sanders may not be the answer, but he isn’t Stalin, and voter attitudes aren’t changing because people are romanticizing the Great Terror. We’ve just had awful leadership for so long that demanding fairness and competence from politicians has started to seem like a radical idea. It isn’t, but get used to being told it is, until the next election at least.