2019 has barely begun and already the war over Bernie Sanders is in full force. This week, it was about his decision to deliver his own State of the Union response via Facebook Live. Next week it will be something different. The fundamental thing missing from the Sanders debate? Substance.
The political makeup of the United States is shifting. A recent Gallup poll found that over half of adults between 18 and 40, regardless of political party, have a positive view of socialism. This year saw the arrival of staunch progressive voices in Congress, including Democratic Socialists of America members Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. With all of that, the Democratic Party establishment remains resistant to the changing tides within the party. As Nancy Pelosi now infamously said during a CNN town hall, “We’re Capitalists. That’s just the way it is.” The most vocal challenger of this way of thinking is undoubtedly Bernie. And young people have certainly responded, with roughly 60% of Millennials expressing support.
Young people’s love for Bernie may not be easy to understand for the more shallow political analysts. He’s 77 years old. He’s not particularly handsome. His manner of speaking resembles a college professor more than a motivational speaker. He is everything we are told young people don’t want in a president. But Millennials and Generation Z aren’t allowing ourselves to be swept up by personalities. The only thing we’re interested in is policy.
At least that’s what we like to think.
Since 2016, there’s been a disquieting rise in celebrity worship among progressives and democratic socialists. Much of it is an understandable reaction to the character assassination attempts against progressive leaders. Every week there seems another fake scandal targeting a left-leaning politician—be it Bernie’s reluctance to join the Democratic Party, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of the f-bomb, or the bizarre claims that Rep. Ilhan Omar is somehow an anti-Semite. It’s necessary to call out weaponized outrage and not play into the hands of conservatives and centrists. But alongside these character attacks, there are legitimate grievances that we have to be willing to acknowledge—which brings us back to Bernie’s SOTU response.
Leading up to his response, the self-proclaimed #NeverBernie wing of the Democratic Party presented plenty of bad-faith arguments against him. He was called a racist and misogynist for implicitly deeming Stacey Abrams’s response insufficient. He was called an egomaniac for hogging the spotlight and making the fight against Donald Trump all about him. He was even accused of being part of a big bad “Russian Plot” to divide the Democratic Party leading up to 2020—as if the party needed help being divided. Never mind the fact that numerous other Senate Democrats including Sherrod Brown and Kamala Harris were also delivering a SOTU response or that Bernie has been delivering a SOTU response since 2017.
But there was also a large group of people—many of whom are leftists—voicing strategic concerns over Bernie’s choice. The main argument being that Bernie (and, by extension, the left) had nothing to gain and a lot to lose through this political stunt. Wouldn’t this only strengthen the narrative that he’s a spoiler who’s intent on dividing Democrats? Regardless of the validity of centrist gripes with Bernie Sanders, he was playing right into their hand and enforcing their narrative. But the pro-Bernie progressive response was the same.
“Why do you hate Bernie Sanders?”
“Are you afraid of socialism?”
“Wow, I didn’t realize you were a corporate shill.”
That kind of defensiveness serves nobody. Neither do all the memes that elevate him to the status of a god. All that does is teach us to pledge our fealty to a politician regardless of what they do for us.
Bernie Sanders is a flawed politician. He walked back on his youthful radicalism in order to play politics and cozy up to Democrats in Washington. He is against abolishing ICE. He’s against reparations. He completely mishandled sexual misconduct on his 2016 campaign. These are all facts. To ignore them is to reject ideals in favor of rooting for your “team.”
Politics is not a sport. The stakes are not winners and losers—they’re life and death. It means nothing to advocate for politicians instead of for the people they’re supposed to represent. Bernie isn’t your friend and he never will be. Neither will Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, or Ilhan Omar. They are tools for building a better society and we have to be willing to criticize and even abandon them if they stray from that ideal.
Universal healthcare, a jobs guarantee, eradication of homelessness, and carbon neutrality are worth fighting for. Politicians, not so much.