I vote in the New Hampshire primary, so my influence is equal to (according to Andrew Yang’s math) about a hundred thousand Californians — which is fine with me. I voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 — and how could I not? He looked and talked like Irving Howe. He filled stadiums railing against inequality. He was from Burlington. I still wondered what would have happened if Henry Wallace had succeeded FDR. He made the name Bernie cool for the first time in my life.
This past year, though, I spent much of my time torturing myself with choice. My YouTube account would show me flitting — admiringly, on the advice of pundits, and for all the obvious reasons — from Pete Buttigieg, to Elizabeth Warren, to Kamala Harris, then back to Warren, then, for a day, to Joe Biden, then a week to Mike Bloomberg, with a sympathetic eye on Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar (though the latter’s turn on Al Franken gave me pause). Through it all, I never stopped listening, especially to Yang, whose take on things still strikes me as hip and particularly astute, whose sense of humor is captivating, and whose book I have been assigning in my course on the new economy at Dartmouth for a couple of years.
But I just sent in my absentee ballot and found myself voting, hopefully, for Bernie again. I feel I owe my friends and “friends” an explanation. It is not because I agree with everything Bernie has to say; curiously, I disagree with a good deal that is central to his pitch. I think Bernie is generally wrong about global trade. I think Obamacare is, if it were not crippled by Republican menace, more likely than Medicare-for-all to curtail “fee-for-service.” Thus, it is lower costs, and move toward universal coverage in — as Atul Gawande writes — better, competing, more integrated HMO-like hospital groups. Anyway, Medicare payment standards would never pass the Senate owing to regional differences in living standards.
When Bernie spits the word “billionaires,” I feel I am back in graduate school, in 1970, studying Marx at the University of Toronto, and imagining the “means of production” owned and passed down like feudal land. I wish Bernie would distinguish more vividly between hedge-fund managers and genuine entrepreneurs, like Bloomberg, in fact. Five years at the Harvard Business Review, and ten more in consulting, have made me respectful of (most) businesses and of the men and women who try, and often fail, to keep them alive. “Corporations” fascinate me. Eighty-five percent of corporate assets are now intangible, which means the quality of corporate conversations are far more valuable than the quantity of corporate stuff. I think the “squad” can be reckless.
But these reservations pale beside the larger conclusion, which came to me as a kind of epiphany in recent days, about why I should vote for Bernie. Our problem is not simply defeating Trump in 2020. It is that over sixty million voters in America were prepared to say that Trump was fit for office in 2016 — and he is still polling at around forty percent. This is a problem one election is not going to solve. We need to change minds over the next two generations, and reframe public argument around two fundamental principles: that truth and dignity matter; and that governments are essential to enabling and protecting both. The good life is more than material dignity; but the good life begins in material dignity. Bernie does not so much advance these ideas as embody them. What Trump has going for him is cynicism. What Bernie has going for him — what he represents — is commonwealth.
Bernie, in short, may well be the left’s Reagan. The latter said that government is the problem — a premise that still weighs on American politics. When Sanders begins every defense of Medicare-for-all by saying “healthcare is a human right,” when he drills into our minds that economic inequality has become absurd, he is doing more for the next two generations of public conversation than any plan. And like Reagan, whose shilling for big corporations and Cold War rhetoric gave his idealistic claims for unfettered capitalism kind of integrity, Bernie’s lifelong commitment to democratic socialism on the Scandinavian model, civil rights, and anti-war activism, gives his idealistic claims for government a similar integrity. Go back and YouTube his House speeches from the 1990s and 2000s — especially the 1990s, when Clinton was in power. There isn’t one that seems either wrong or strident.
The point is, one can get too fancy in the way we look at presidential politics. The most important thing in a party leader is the ability to project simplicity-after-complexity. When Yang, speaking in Hanover, New Hampshire, told the crowd that, when Bernie put his arm around him, he felt like he had been “knighted by his uncle,” he was implicitly conceding Bernie’s unique status. It is a status that explains the loyalty of his supporters, why young people, perversely, prefer him over young candidates, why Trump stole so much from Bernie’s stump speech in the weeks prior to the 2016 election, and why Bernie polls virtually as well as Joe Biden in the swing states, and has every prospect of doing better. Friends warn me: Wait and see what will happen to Bernie when the Republican hate-machine kicks in. I say, wait and see what happens when Bernie takes his gloves off.
But, again, the imperative is not just to win this election. It is to win a generational argument. There will be an election after this one. Indeed, the economy is living on borrowed time; stocks are over-valued by the tax-cut. At some point in the foreseeable future, the markets will crash owing to high government debt — at which point Republicans will, again, try to pull off the perfect con. Bernie is the candidate who’s made clear, not just that the tax cut was unfair, but that it was typical. He has the gravitas to go back into the history of the economy since Reagan and prove it. Correspondingly, a president is also an uncle, or aunt, representing the country in the rest of the world. Lives are at stake. We need a candidate who’ll walk into the Oval Office and not feel, or seem likely to feel, overwhelmed. Years matter. You gain a sense of history, of irony.
Oh, and a parochial thing: I’d love to see what Bernie does with Likudniks.
My wife, by the way, voted for Elizabeth Warren. I suppose almost anything I said about Bernie might be said about her, except — and this is important — that he had the temerity to challenge the Clinton quo in 2016 and she did not. I would love a ticket with both, where we know he will be a one-term President, and she’d be fighting along his side, to change the face of the House and Senate as we roll into 2022.
Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Bernard Avishai is visiting professor of government, Dartmouth College. You can tweet with him @bavishai.