I have devoted a lot of space to criticizing Bernie Sanders (and, especially, bad arguments made on his behalf). I will probably continue to do so, in part because I have disagreements with his worldview, and mainly because I think the available evidence says his nomination would increase President Trump’s odds of reelection. But we should be cognizant of the distorting effect a primary can have on our perspective. The flaws of candidates we oppose feel more irritating over time, even if they haven’t actually grown, while their virtues seem to recede. As an exercise in maintaining perspective, I’m devoting a column to the virtues of Bernie Sanders.
Sanders is motivated by an ideological vision that is fundamentally humane. For all his attacks on the “millionaires and billionaires,” the only true visceral rage he shows is at poverty in the midst of one of the world’s wealthiest societies. His anger at the inaccessibility of health care, housing, and basic needs for all Americans is the through line of his career, through all of its idiosyncratic turns.
Sanders is generally pragmatic about how he advances this goal, and has spent decades working with people who do not share his values in order to make incremental advances. He is not motivated by wealth. (While Sanders has a lot of money, he accumulated it by saving what he earned; like his Larry David caricature, he does not enjoy creature comforts.) His passion to lift the unfortunate is pure and admirable.
He also appears to be a decent human being. While gruff, he has an endearing charm. While his support base is disproportionately attracted to personal abuse, Sanders himself treats his adversaries as human beings. He is the eye of the hurricane, a center of personal warmth surrounded by a swirl of dehumanizing rage. This is not to absolve him of responsibility for the political culture that surrounds him, only to note that his personal decency goes at least some way to offset the indecency around him.
Finally, and most importantly, Sanders is not an authoritarian. Far from it: He is a passionate small-d democrat. This fact has been distorted by conservatives, who believe that Sanders’s socialist economics along with his noninterventionist foreign policy — which has in the past brought him uncomfortably close to communist governments overseas — add up to some form of left-wing revolutionary program.
I have frequently criticized illiberal tendencies on the left. There is a segment of progressive activism that seeks to shut down opposing views rather than prevail by reason. But Sanders is emphatically not an adherent of that political mode. He is a committed political liberal in the mold of the old Free Speech Movement from the 1960s. When some leftists tried to shut down a campus speech by the risible Ann Coulter last year, Sanders vocally denounced their campaign. Here he is, sounding like John Stuart Mill:
“To me, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness. If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo, or shut her down, or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?
“What are you afraid of ― her ideas? Ask her the hard questions,” he concluded. “Confront her intellectually. Booing people down, or intimidating people, or shutting down events, I don’t think that that works in any way.”
I don’t consider Sanders’s obsession with a “political revolution” realistic, but it is just that — a political revolution, not a violent one. And this is why I would have zero qualms about voting for him should he win the nomination. He would be the only candidate who could stop a true aspiring authoritarian. As much as I hope he does not get the nomination, my vote for him in November would be automatic.
There is nothing Sanders would need to do to earn my vote against Donald Trump, and nothing he could do to lose it. All I can hope is that everybody else who opposes Trump and his war on democracy and the rule of law feels the same about every other candidate.