The commentariat is all atwitter about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, self-described “democratic socialist,” running for president. The flyaway hair; the Nooh Yawk accent; the blunt talk; he’s so “authentic.”
But I've always managed to keep my enthusiasm for Sanders under control. It's all very well to prattle about the wonders of socialism, to praise Scandinavia's state-funded child care, and to yammer — yet again — about breaking up the banks in the most capitalist nation on earth. But that's not authenticity. That's just bushwa.
Before becoming a representative and a senator, Sanders was the popular mayor of Burlington, Vt., for eight years. So what did he socialize? What privately held entity did he transform to public ownership? Isn't that the definition of socialism? I put this question to his spokesman, Michael Briggs, who provided a list of accomplishments: affordable housing, a child-care center, a Little League program.
The late Boston Mayor Tom Menino could have made those same claims, and he didn't run around pretending to be a socialist.
As for breaking up the banks (Sanders filed some dead-on-arrival legislation to this effect last week), the Democratic Party had its shot six years ago and blew it. Barack Obama surged into the White House on the heels of a devastating recession, with a clear mandate for economic change. Instead, his appointees played patty-cake with the banks, as if they were drawing paychecks from George W. Bush. If Democrats really cared about breaking up banks, Elizabeth Warren might be running for president.
To me, Sanders is just another political Pander-Bear. (Thank you, late Senator Paul Tsongas, for that wonderful addition to the political lexicon.) Sanders rails against wasteful military spending, yet has championed the basing of the crazily overpriced F-35 joint strike fighter in Burlington. "From whom might these F-35s protect Vermont?" Thomas Naylor asked in Counterpunch magazine. "Possibly Canada
. . . or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts?"
"Hundreds of jobs" were at stake, spokesman Briggs pointed out. Of course Sanders supported the base.
Earlier this month, Slate magazine writer Mark Joseph Stern documented some of Sanders' more noxious pro-gun posturing. In 1993, then-Representative Sanders voted against the Brady Act, a relatively mild gun control measure. Sanders twice supported what Stern calls "vile legislation," the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers from the kinds of lawsuits inevitably filed after mass killings such as those in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
Sanders' spokesman had no comment on the Slate article, other than to point out that the NRA isn't exactly pouring money into Sanders' campaigns. Because he has supported some gun control measures, such as expanding federal background checks, the NRA has awarded Sanders consistently low marks — D-, C-, D+ and a straight F in 2002 — every time he has run for national office.
I get it. Bernie supports the absurd F-35 base and throws the gun owners some bones because he is representing his constituents, who like having jobs and enjoy playing with their guns. He is authentic in that respect — he is an authentic American politician.
And I get that for some Democratic primary voters, casting a ballot for a purported socialist feels exotic, like sneaking into a Brazilian slasher film at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. But don't worry; this socialist won't confiscate your second home on the Cape and turn it into a proletarian sanatorium. His bark is far worse than his bite.
Alex Beam's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.