The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For good or ill (probably ill), at least Bernie Sanders is sincere

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Durham, N.H., on Monday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Look, I know that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a socialist. I’m aware that the engine of his campaign is breathtaking hubris well-lubricated with monetary snake oil, and that the ideas it spits out would, if enacted, catapult the United States into a fiscal crisis. And while I doubt it was politically savvy for Hillary Clinton to say so out loud in a new documentary, I understand that Sanders has trouble cooperating with his senatorial colleagues, which means he’s doomed to disappoint even his ardent supporters, should he get elected.

But darn it, I just like the guy.

I don’t mean that I like Sanders the way Democrats “liked” Donald Trump in 2016, in the misguided belief that his nomination would allow Hillary Clinton to stroll unhindered into the White House. For one thing, I want the Democrat to win — only, please, let it be a less radical candidate.

New Hampshire primary live updates

Yet even as I wish failure on his campaign, I still like Sanders himself. I’m a sucker for sincerity. And so are a whole lot of New Hampshire voters I’ve talked to, including quite a few who were planning to vote for someone else.

Over and over, nearly word for word, they basically said, “I like him because he’s been saying the same thing for 40 years.” They may disagree with this or that part of Sanders’s agenda, but at least they know he means it. Which may explain the strange “Freaky Friday” demographic inversion among supporters of the septuagenarian Sanders and the precocious Pete Buttigieg.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., is what you would have gotten if you’d asked Democratic political consultants in 2008 to custom-build you a candidate for youth appeal. One of the youngest viable presidential candidates in history. Gay and married. Impeccably credentialed. Filled with the fresh exuberance of a golden retriever puppy.

Somehow all this youthfulness appeals only to the middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged or older. The younger voters are all over at Bernie’s place, grooving to whatever musical opening act — Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, the Strokes — has volunteered to stump for him that night.

Other Democratic hopefuls don’t appeal to Sanders supporters either, of course, but Buttigieg seems to earn their special disdain, and if you ask them why, the same answer crops up: He’s fake. Buttigieg has many fine qualities, but sincerity is none of them. He’s just too obviously a box-ticker, an over-polished careerist who has never made a move without wondering how it would look on his résumé.

It’s Sanders who appeals to the sincerity caucus, with his undeniably authentic Brooklyn accent, his utterly unpolished speaking style and an unshakable commitment to socialism that could never, even in 1968, have seemed like a good career move. I suppose it’s only natural that young people, at the peak of their passions and their powers of mental computation, should be attracted to the most fiery exponent of the most rigidly abstract ideology — just as the middle-aged and prosperous flock to the candidates who seem to mirror their own success at making pragmatic compromises with unfortunate realities. The difference is that, unlike in many past campaign seasons, the young seem to care enough to actually get out and vote, and with practically one voice. That may be enough to win Sanders the nomination in an overcrowded race.

Play the Post Opinions Simulator to see what might happen in the Democratic primary.

I suspect that the sincerity appeal may also explain how Trump secured his nomination in 2016. The things Trump says are often untrue, sometimes awful and occasionally incoherent. But by that very token, you know his speeches haven’t been carefully focus-grouped, every word scrutinized for possible offense, before being massaged into a rough approximation of something a human being might actually say. Most of what you hear seems like whatever just bubbled up from his id this very minute.

Our apparent national sincerity fetish isn’t rational, and neither is it really wise. Sincerity isn’t a virtue by itself; what matters is the company it keeps. Mao Zedong’s Red Guards no doubt were plenty sincere, but I’d still rather be ruled by a used-car salesman from the seediest lot in town. It’s nice, of course, to know that politicians will keep their promises, but not if they’re promising to do something horrible.

Then again, look back over the past two decades of politicians who promised that everything would be different, then delivered more of the same, only somehow worse. Those obviously insincere promises and even more obvious and catastrophic institutional failures are undoubtedly the reason so many voters seem to prefer honest devils over two-faced saints.

Read more:

Megan McArdle: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are pulling apart in more ways than one

Dana Milbank: Is Bernie Sanders really happening?

Paul Waldman: Is it fair of Sanders to call Buttigieg a buddy to billionaires?

Colbert I. King: Is Sanders an election-year disaster waiting to happen?

Jennifer Rubin: A warning to Democrats: Don’t let Bernie Sanders get away from you

What will happen in the primaries? Play the Post Opinions Simulator to build your own possible outcomes.