First, quickly, some exciting news. My major project -- the one that caused me to be absent for much of October -- is quickly coming to fruition. It's an Amazon Kindle Single (i.e., a short, reasonable priced e-book, published by and sold through Amazon.com...like these that I wrote in 2011 and 2013) on the life of -- and life on the 2016 campaign trail chasing after -- Bernie Sanders. This e-book (tentatively titled, as of today, "The Bern Identity") should be out in less than two weeks. It's part interpretive bio, part what passes for gonzo fear-and-loathing style reporting on the '16 race from Manassas to Burlington and all the way to Vegas, baby. But at heart it's simply an effort to answer a question: How did one man -- who was radicalized by all the lies and hypocrisy he encountered growing up in the late '50s and early '60 -- stay true to that vision...while everyone else around him dropped out, sold out, or just plain gave up?
One of the many things I learned was the story of how he came to reject both the Republican and Democratic parties as a young man. It happened during one of the most iconic moments in 20th Century U.S. politics, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 -- a turning point for both the newish medium of television and the way we elect our presidents. To many, it was the start of a shining moment for liberalism that came to be called "Camelot" -- but 19-year-old Bernard (as most folks called him then) Sanders, watching in the lounge of his University of Chicago dorm, saw it differently. He'd say later he was physically nauseated by both the hawkishness of Kennedy and the dishonesty of Nixon, who took a more moderate line on Fidel Castro's Cuba even as he was involved in planning for the Bay of Pigs.
Soon, Sanders joined the campus chapter of the Young People's Socialist League, the so-called "Yipsels" -- at the same time that he was becoming a leader in protests against racial discrimination in housing and public schools. For someone with the kind of political ambitions that the future U.S. senator clearly harbored, a "socialist" tag might be the kind of past he'd try to whitewash later in life -- especially since more Americans have said in polls that they'd vote for a Muslim or an atheist for president than said they'd vote for a 'socialist." Those who once harbored more radical ideas in the late 1960s or '70 who are still in politics are more likely to have become Wall Street-friendly raging moderates. (Cough, Hillary, cough cough.) But that's not away the head-down, pounding endurance route of Bernie Sanders, one of Brooklyn's top cross-country runners in the late 1950s, He's that rare politician determined to convince you of his vision -- even if it takes his entire lifetime! -- rather than pander to what he thinks you want him to say.
That brings us to today, November 19, 2015, and the campus of Georgetown University. There, Sanders delivered a landmark -- and possibly even historic -- address on what it means to be what he called "a democratic socialist" in America in our 21st Century:
"The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this," [Sanders] said. "I don't believe government should own the grocery store down the street or control the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal."
But Mr. Sanders did not shy away from the word "socialist," using it repeatedly to make the case that basic goods such as education, health care and jobs should be available to everyone and that the super-rich should not have a monopoly on power in the United States.
Providing historical perspective, Mr. Sanders said that democratic socialism was not a scary or an alien notion. He recalled Roosevelt's reforms, explaining that ideas such as Social Security, and later Medicare, were once demonized by the "right wing" but were now accepted as important economic support systems.
"By the way, almost everything he proposed was called 'socialist,'" Mr. Sanders said of Roosevelt.
While Mr. Sanders's positions are not popular in some parts of the country, he was met with adoration at Georgetown.
Just a couple quick thoughts. First, while I applaud Sanders remarkable consistency over the last 55 years, I'd have to say that "democratic socialist" isn't the branding that I'd go with if I were starting from scratch in 2015. Why? I think the term "socialist" suggests certain programs -- nationalizing industries like the railroads (oops, we kinda did that one...nevermind) or coal mines, when that's not in any way what Sanders advocates. Instead, he supports an expanded role for government in a handful of areas where unfettered capitalism -- insurance executives paying themselves 7-figure salaries while rejecting your kid's transplant, for example -- doesn't make sense.
If "democratic socialism" meant a state-run media instead of a free press, or if the government decided to nationalize Silicon Valley for Soviet-style production of the iPhone 7, that would be a terrible idea. Bernie Sanders doesn't support that. Nobody does. Instead, his platform asks some basic questions. Why do we take care of all old people through Social Security but not all sick people? Why do we only offer free public schooling through 12th grade, when it's not possible to succeed today without either advanced vocational training or a college degree? Is that 'democratic socialism,' or just common sense?
The most interesting thing about Sanders' speech today is his effort to re-cast himself not as someone "from the 1960s" (Hillary's unexpected phraseology) but as a re-incarnation of FDR. That's not just to associate his campaign with uplifting the working class -- something Roosevelt did more successfully than any other POTUS -- but also to remind folks that when it was necessary, FDR was resolute in dealing with threats overseas. But would Sanders ever get a chance to prove this in the White House? That will be tough -- while most polls have shown him beating the weak GOP field, it will be very, very hard for Sanders to erode the years of goodwill that Clinton has developed the Democratic base of older voters, blacks, Latinos, and female activists. But then, his campaign is largely more about his ideas than about him
For me, the last few years -- from the the crash of '08 to the current painful sight of watching some beloved friends and colleagues losing their jobs -- have caused me to lose a lot of faith in capitalism as we've come to know it in America. But this much seems clear: That expanded educational and health care opportunities, and strong unions in the workplace to maintain a middle class, are critical for this country to get anywhere in the 21st Century. Bernie Sanders says that would make me a "democratic socialist," too. If that's the case, then count me in.