Ron Radosh

Why Is Bernie Sanders so Popular?

Bernie Sanders must be smiling. Right now, the RCP average of polls shows that in the upcoming New Hampshire primary, he is besting Hillary Clinton by 41.0 to 29.7. And in the Iowa caucus polls, Hillary Clinton sees Sanders closing in quickly as she wins by a slim 37.3 to Sanders’ 31.0.

On Morning Joe today, Kristen Soltis Anderson and Mark Halperin attributed Sanders’ growing strength to his consistent message and his authenticity. They are correct that his message is both authentic and consistent, but it is new and fresh only to the thousands of college students who pack his rallies, the most recent one in the Boston area. As Margaret Talbot writes in the current issue of The New Yorker, “He’s been talking about the injustices done to working people by unequal income distribution for more than forty years.”

Why are the young, who seem to make up the bulk of the crowds that turn out for his rallies, so smitten with him? First, his socialist message and analysis dovetail greatly with much of the history and politics they learn at colleges from their aging New Left professors. Particularly in American history classes, they have been inundated with “history from below,” where they learned that progress was made as a result of the people’s struggles against their oppressors; the capitalists are the villains, and leaders of the Socialist Party like Eugene V. Debs are the heroes.

Now, as one interviewee told Talbot, “socialism was ‘getting a bit of a P.R. makeover’” by Sanders, and is no longer the “damning label” that it is to his opponents. Indeed, as she notes, a 2011 Pew poll revealed that to voters under 30, 49% have a positive view of socialism compared to 46% who view capitalism favorably. Summing up Sanders’ policy proposals, she writes:

Most of his policy proposals have to do with helping working people and reducing the influence of the wealthy. He would like to break up the big banks, create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure, and move toward public funding of elections—and provide free tuition at public universities. (This program would be subsidized, in part, by a tax on Wall Street speculation.) He wants to end the “international embarrassment of being the only major country on Earth which does not guarantee workers paid medical and family leave.”

If one goes to his official campaign website and looks at the policy proposals he espouses, one finds that he proposes scores of different “tax the wealthy” programs that he promises will end income inequality. For example, he favors increasing the minimum wage in the next five years to $15 an hour throughout the country. He believes in the much-exposed myth that “women earn just 78 cents for every dollar a man earns.” And of course, he favors a single-payer health plan, or “Medicare for All.” How are all of the programs to be financed without breaking the bank? There is, of course, a simple answer: tax the wealthy more, which will provide all the funds necessary to finance these entitlements.

Sanders also favors one thing that resonates with the students who pack his rallies: “Making tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout America. Everyone in this country who studies hard,” he says, “should be able to go to college regardless of income.” At another place on his website, he emphasizes how different his proposal is from that presented by Hillary Clinton; he favors tuition-free enrollment. Clinton, he says, offers tuition to be paid by middle-class students, with different rates according to family income. Also, her plan insists that students work to help finance their education, something that students whose parents are wealthy will not have to do. They will have to work “10 hours a week, in addition to keeping up with their coursework.”

Horrors. Evidently, Sanders does not seem to realize that 10 hours a week is very little, and that every student who attends college can afford to lose some partying time or socializing time and still have a great deal of time for fun as well as studies. I worked far more than those hours, managed to be very active on campus and did very well in terms of grades. But why not offer students the sky and not expect anything from them? One former student tells Talbot “how refreshing it was to have someone point out to us that…some things aren’t a privilege, they are a right.”

This reminds me of an old socialist phrase meant to be sarcastic: “When the revolution comes, we’ll all have apple pie.”  Author Said Sayrafiezadeh writes in his wonderful memoir “When Skateboards Will Be Free” that when he was growing up, he always wanted a skateboard.  He would ask for one every year, but since his mother was working as a full-time activist for the Socialist Workers Party for a paltry salary, she had one standard response: “By the time you’re fifteen, socialism will have arrived, and then skateboards will be free.” He turned fifteen, socialism never came and the price of a skateboard had gone up.

In Bernie Sanders’ fantasy world, almost everything Americans need will be free; entitlements will grow and new ones will be created. The issue of our unsustainable debt and growing deficits does not concern Sanders or his base. In their world, the rich will pay for everything. If not them, perhaps the People’s Republic of China will pick up the tab.