How to Lose to Bernie

If we don’t want to wake up the first Wednesday in November to a President-elect Bernie Sanders, we need to be clear about what his views actually are, what is wrong with them, and how we can present practical alternatives more likely to continue the prosperity that President Trump has brought to ordinary Americans.

Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist who hopes to achieve a more equal and more prosperous society by raising taxes, extending welfare benefits, and nationalizing key industries such as energy and healthcare. Unlike some of his supporters and staffers, he plans to achieve this program by lawful and strictly democratic means.

Yes, Bernie is a Marxist, or might as well be.  “If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war,” Bernie tweeted last August. But not all Marxists are equal.

I have in my library a curious political pamphlet, once distributed in the hundreds of thousands. It is a 1948 edition of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, issued to mark the centennial of that work, with a very long preface by Harold Laski, the chairman of the British Labour Party and one of the first English academic political scientists. The political purpose of Laski’s introduction is to show readers sympathetic to Marx that the British Labour Party, with its platform of welfare, taxation, and nationalization, is a true Marxist socialist party. Clement Attlee’s Labour government, whose record Laski wrote to defend, was carrying out its policies with the benefit of a very large parliamentary majority.

Britain in 1948 stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States against Soviet aggression in Europe. The next year, the United States and Britain would help found NATO, and the year after that, they would fight along with other allies against Communist aggression in Korea.

Sanders is old, but he is not old enough to have had any role in the early Cold War. In the last decades of the Cold War, however, Sanders was safely a supporter of the other side, a fan of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the terrorist government of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Famously—or infamously—in the 1988 twilight hour of the Soviet Union, he and his wife honeymooned there.  But despite the frothings of U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) about the Russian menace, the Cold War is over.

How did Laski’s Labour Party acquire its tremendous legislative majority, and how did it squander it? Labour won the 1945 elections against the Conservative Party led by the great hero of the modern world, Winston Churchill, who had prophesied the menace of Hitler and had inspired and helped lead “The Great Alliance” that destroyed Nazi Germany.

But when the British voted in 1945, Hitler was dead and voters—no doubt traumatized by the horrors of the war—wanted the security that the socialist program of nationalization, welfare, and taxation that Labour claimed to offer. Churchill warned voters in his election broadcast that “no socialist system can be established without a political police . . . No socialist government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently ­worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”

But Churchill was wrong in this case. He was a false prophet of a British Labour dictatorship that never came to be. Worse, Churchill was wrong politically and the extremism of his warning pushed many voters to Labour as he helped give his opponents the commanding political power they needed to implement their program.

Yet, by 1951, Churchill was back in 10 Downing Street as prime minister. This was not because he had won some argument about the principles of free government or free markets, however. It was because the Labour government’s nationalization of energy and transportation had not produced the promised prosperity but instead brought on power outages, frozen homes, and long food lines.

It is important to remember that not all socialists are the same. Neither are all Marxists the same. Not all nationalizations are the same, either. Britain no longer has a nationalized trucking industry, but it still has a National Health Service which—whatever may be its pluses and minuses—is so much a fixture that Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson won first the Brexit referendum and then his commanding parliamentary majority late last year by promising to enlarge the NHS with the money that would otherwise have gone to Europe.

Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism has failed convincingly whenever and wherever it has extended nationalization beyond health care. That is not to say that national health care or socialized medicine in itself is a wonderful or desirable thing, but those who, sensibly, are more concerned with what works than they are with the principles of some free-market checklist will note that some national health care systems (Israel or Germany) clearly work better than the present American hybrid of public and private, while some clearly do not work at all (Canada, I am looking at you).

Above all, it’s vital to maintain a clear picture of the system as it actually exists in America and to remember that our current debate is not one between pure Marxism versus pure capitalism.

If we want to beat Bernie Sanders, we have to be empirical and pragmatic. Bernie is vulnerable if we can make the case that while some of the things he wants to do, like nationalizing health care, just might be made to work in ways that make ordinary Americans better off, others, like nationalizing energy and banning fracking, will not.

Bernie is vulnerable insofar as his foreign policy record is closer to that of “Blame Britain First” Jeremy Corbyn than Cold War heroes Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin. Bernie is vulnerable insofar as he has abandoned the patriotism of his 2016 campaign and his immigration skepticism for an alliance with the young and woke who favor open borders and dishonoring the flag.

Even though Mark Twain may not have said it, the truism that “History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes,” applies here. Attlee’s government did not build the New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, and a Sanders Administration won’t make socialism work in America. But if we want to prevent the destruction of prosperity and American power that a Sanders Administration will leave in its wake, we need to learn from the experience of others about which kinds of arguments will keep him out and which kinds of arguments will do little but smooth his path.

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).

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