The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Bernie Sanders drives so many people out of their minds

Sen. Bernie Sanders during a rally at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina on Wednesday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Bernie Sanders has a way of making people lose their minds.

It’s certainly happening now, with him having won two out of the three primary contests so far, and being in as good a position as anyone — at the moment, anyway — to be the Democratic nominee. So why is that prospect causing so much panic?

To be clear, there are plenty of rational, reasonable critiques that have been made of Sanders’s candidacy and of what his presidency would look like. I’ve made many of them myself; while I think there’s a lot you can give him credit for, he isn’t my favorite of the Democratic candidates.

But alongside those criticisms is a wave of unhinged delirium, ludicrous fear-mongering and bizarre hyperbole about the Vermont senator.

I’m not even talking about the infantile screeching we’re sure to hear from President Trump and his allies (though for the moment they’ve decided that they want Sanders to be the nominee, so they’re doing what they can to promote him). I’m talking about Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans.

Consider New York Times columnist David Brooks, a moderate conservative and Never Trumper. He has a column that seems fairly representative of Never Trump sentiment at large. Brooks notes that while he’d vote for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Trump, Sanders is an entirely different and terrifying prospect, which Brooks begins exploring with a recitation of the horrors of the Soviet Union — as though Sanders has proposed herding us all into collective farms, starving half the population and establishing a gulag where he’ll send his political enemies.

Brooks warns that a Sanders presidency would be, if not exactly the same as Stalinism, something almost as frightening, a “rule by majoritarian domination” driven by “incessant hatred for your supposed foes” that will bring us to a future too hellish to even describe. He can’t find a single quote from Sanders laying out this authoritarian plot, but he does note that Sanders wants to spend a lot of money on social programs. Egad!

Why isn’t it enough to just say that Sanders is too liberal for you? If you prefer our current health-care system in all its dysfunction to, say, what they have in Canada, that dystopian nightmare of statist oppression, then fine. If you think free public college is a bad idea, fine. If you’d rather the minimum wage stay where it has been for over a decade and not go up to $15 an hour, fine. Just say that.

But the notion that Sanders would impose some kind of autocratic rule is preposterous. He doesn’t even want to get rid of the filibuster!

Ah, but doesn’t Sanders use the word “revolution” all the time? But listen closely to what he’s talking about. It’s a revolution of more democracy. He maintains that he can pass a radical program through Congress because his movement will have so much popular support that even Republicans will be unable to resist the pressure from their own constituents to support it.

Now, as it happens, that idea is utterly bonkers. There is no way on earth Sanders is going to get the people of West Virginia to convince Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III to support single-payer health care, let alone the people of Kentucky to do the same to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. But if, by some miracle, it happened, it wouldn’t be because Sanders eviscerated our democratic system in order to bring it about — it would be because he worked within that system and got the outcome he wanted.

What about the “establishment” Democrats convinced that Sanders would lose the general election?

I don’t doubt their sincerity on that particular score — though whether they’re right is an entirely different question. To date I’ve yet to see a persuasive case for why Sanders is certain to have less of a chance of winning than an uninspiring “moderate” candidate like former vice president Joe Biden or former New York Mike Bloomberg, both of whom have shown themselves to be weak campaigners of the kind who have lost presidential elections many times before.

The idea that establishment Democrats are horrified about a Sanders nomination solely because of their concerns about the outcome on November 3 is awfully hard to swallow. What seems more likely is that Sanders challenges, disparages and dismisses the entire political structure of which they are a part.

Use the Post Opinions Simulator to pick a state and see what might happen in upcoming primaries and caucuses.

I should say that you can overstate the degree to which Sanders holds the political class in Washington in contempt, at least in practical terms. For all that his campaign is a grass-roots effort, many of those “establishment” Washington Democrats would be working in a Sanders administration, and some are already working in his campaign.

But there’s no question that he stands outside ordinary Democratic politics in a way no other candidate does (and he’s not even a registered Democrat). Furthermore, the challenge he offers to capitalism is much less substantive than spiritual. He’s proposing what is essentially a European social democratic program, maintaining the economic system we have, but with some increased regulation and a more robust set of social supports.

His rhetoric, on the other hand, is radical for American politics. He doesn’t bother with encomiums to the genius of the free market. His descriptions of our political and economic problems have villains who have to be defeated — and some of those villains support Democrats as well as Republicans.

So when either a Never Trumper or an establishment Democrat considers the world Sanders would make, they aren’t sure what their place in it would be. And that may be what has them really scared.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Now Sanders wants a Green New Deal for the entire world

Michael Gerson: The false authenticity of Sanders and Trump

Fareed Zakaria: Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy

Greg Sargent: Bloomberg’s vanity campaign sinks deeper into absurdity

Henry Olsen: Two reasons Bernie Sanders should terrify Democrats: Florida and Pennsylvania