Politicians can’t help themselves. The question is whether the media will pile on — or provide common sense. The early returns aren’t encouraging.
President Trump’s reelection campaign is already gearing up its scare machine, which it will roll out against any Democrat. To impugn Sanders, it will scream about Venezuela, Cuba and economic ruin while painting Trump as Horatius at the bridge, saving America from socialism.
Sanders’s Democratic rivals will surely succumb as well. Billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has already labeled Sanders’s stance on wealth as “communist.” Former vice president Joe Biden and others have suggested a Russian preference for Sanders. Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina power-broker who is expected to endorse Biden, gravely intoned about democratic socialism that the term “has always had really dire consequences throughout South Carolina.”
Politics, as they say, isn’t bean bag. And Trump has surely erased inhibitions about using lies and distortions. Democrats won’t be immune. Speaking in Nevada this weekend, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg scourged Sanders for pushing an “inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans” — whom, of course, Buttigieg claims to represent. This after Sanders had led the field, and trampled Buttigieg, with a diverse coalition of men and women, whites and Latinos, voters of all ages except those over age 65, those with and without college degrees, and union and nonunion households. Sanders led among self-described liberal, moderate and conservative Democrats.
The key question going forward is whether opinion writers, cable-news contributors and other pundits fan the freak-out or help Americans cut through the tripe. Fox News is an irreparable Trump propaganda outlet, but can voters expect better from the rest?
MSNBC already exhibits severe Sanders derangement syndrome. Host Chris Matthews has served up the worst calumnies, darkly tying Sanders to a socialist threat of public executions in Central Park. He compared Sanders’s victory in Nevada to the Nazi invasion of France. (Matthews has at least apologized for this comparison.) Strategist James Carville, who had endorsed Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), accused voters of being dumb while suggesting on MSNBC on Saturday that Vladimir Putin was the real winner of Nevada’s caucuses. Will the set soon be decorated with hammer-and-sickle posters?
This sort of scaremongering is nonsense. Sanders has held office for decades and has been a remarkably effective legislator for a progressive in a conservative era. Sanders has made clear what he means by “democratic socialism”: that quality health care, education and a decent wage are basic human and economic rights that should be guaranteed to all.
He hasn’t talked about taking over the commanding heights of the economy. He isn’t flashing Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Instead, Sanders has called for returning to the teachings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest of 20th-century Democratic presidents.
In the midst of World War II, Roosevelt argued that coming out of the Great Depression and the war, Americans had come to understand the need for an economic “Bill of Rights” that included the right to health care, education, housing and a job with adequate wages. This, Roosevelt proclaimed, would be tribute to the sacrifices made in the war. Eleanor Roosevelt carried that banner to the United Nations, establishing the Declaration of Human Rights as a goal for humanity.
Sanders’s positions are not alien. Nor are his positions Russian. His platform revives the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, a legacy discarded when Democrats tacked to the prevailing winds of the conservative era — a period that features obscene inequality, declining life expectancy, unaffordable health care, rising deaths of despair, a declining middle class and entrenched racial division.
Sanders has repeatedly invoked Roosevelt when defining what he means by democratic socialism. And he dismisses the slurs for what they are: “When I talk about democratic socialism, I’m not looking at Venezuela. I’m not looking at Cuba," he has said. “I’m looking at countries like Denmark and Sweden.”
As the Democratic primary fight continues, the scurrilous will supplant the serious. Media reports will document the slurs. It’s clear what Sanders stands for. Will pundits, opinion writers and cable contributors offer Americans a reality check — or add to the derangement?