The Devil, Huey Long, and Bernie Sanders
Consider the devil:
In Dante’s time Lucifer was waist-deep in ice, chewing Judas Iscariot (among others) in one of his three mouths while beating his enormous wings in an eternal quest to escape Hell.
Bernie Sanders is not this devil, nor has he known him. The Lucifer of American myth is traditionally a well-dressed and entirely convincing man. In “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” he’s a fast-talking fiddler; on Fox he’s a foppish Brit named Tom Ellis.
In America the devil has always been a con man, because we were too secular to go whole-hog on traditional Christianity’s use of Lucifer as ideological prophylaxis. The Bible paints Lucifer as the tempter of Christ, and the Church has leveraged that in their centuries-long campaign to extinguish human curiosity regarding the divine. Don’t ask questions or believe persuasive arguments; persuasion itself is the work of Hell. (Except ours.)
This election has a convenient devil with great hair and decent tailoring: Wall Street. No issue is as responsible for extending the Democratic primary or upending the Republican circus than the lingering economic damage of the financial crisis and recession of 2008. Since we’ve all reached a consensus that the banking sector was primarily responsible, focusing that animosity into votes is a key strategy for all the major candidates. This is particularly true on the Democratic side, where even so much as accepting campaign donations from individual employees of financial firms has become a factory of red meat for Sanders supporters and otherwise anti-Clinton partisans.
Executing the anti-Wall-Street strategy best requires a complicated series of genuflections and personal ornamentations. The simple strategy, PR-wise, is to wave your cross at that American devil while looking or sounding as little like him as possible. Bernie Sanders is uniquely suited to the job: he has the voting record, temperament, and physical appearance necessary to convey he’s fed up with those flyboys and not taking any more.
Democrats have had this candidate on their national media flag for the last 16 years. John Edwards wanted to crack down on Wall Street but John Edwards got a kind of haircut that would make Jamie Dimon blush before his sleeping around caught up to him. Eliot Spitzer actually scored a few spitballs on the street sign before his yen for prostitutes took him down. Even Elizabeth Warren, currently the vanguard on anti-Wall-Street legislative efforts, was nearly unable to win her seat from an idiot of a Republican challenger in a blue state because of her little Cherokee story.
Only Sanders has been this successful nationally, and his campaign’s laser-like focus on Wall Street as well as the legitimate bellicosity of the candidate is responsible. Sanders really does believe that bankers should be prosecuted and jailed for wrongdoing on behalf of their employers. He really does think the government should forcibly reorganize these institutions, and that this process will remove the implicit federal guarantees that he believes backstop excessive financial risk to the American economy.
Or so his supporters believe, but as an American acquainted with American devils like Joe McCarthy, Huey Long, and Charles Coughlin I am suspicious. Throughout the campaign specious accusations that Sanders’ opponents are funded by Wall Street kept building, with his campaign eagerly asking for transcripts of nonsense paid appearances at Goldman Sachs or obsessing over the tendency of (politically liberal!) employees of Wall Street firms to donate to Hillary Clinton. It gets weird: every NPR article on FaceBook, for the last year, has been filled with Sanders supporters claiming that Wall Street controls the media and has been suppressing coverage of their chosen candidate’s platform or successes.
Then came the interview that made me realize the devil’s figured out that if you stop tailoring your suit we’ll all believe he doesn’t exist. In a conversation the New York Daily News, Sanders revealed that rather than having a chapter-and-verse understanding of how he’d wield the office of the President against Wall Street he instead has a litany of politically productive, utterly uneducated complaints. To wit:
Daily News: And then, you further said that you expect to break them up within the first year of your administration. What authority do you have to do that? And how would that work? How would you break up JPMorgan Chase?
Sanders: Well, by the way, the idea of breaking up these banks is not an original idea. It’s an idea that some conservatives have also agreed to.
Daily News: Okay. Well, let’s assume that you’re correct on that point. How do you go about doing it?
Sanders: How you go about doing it is having legislation passed, or giving the authority to the secretary of treasury to determine, under Dodd-Frank, that these banks are a danger to the economy over the problem of too-big-to-fail.
This is more than just a non-answer. It’s a revelation that Sanders doesn’t understand his critique of Wall Street as anything more than a path to power.
Before we even get to what legislation Sanders would pass — if legislation is even required, constitutional, or passable in a Republican Congress — someone who is not completely full of shit should be able to respond with some sort of religion on the issue. Should JP Morgan be divided by assets? Should retail banking be fully disentangled from institutional or brokerage activities? Can they manage money or mutual funds?
“Breaking up the banks” means approaching a multi-billion-dollar business and dividing it in a legal way without destroying it. Such a process has scant precedent — Standard Oil and AT&T are it — and anti-trust activities have never been executed on the shaky ground that an institution is “too big to fail.” Establishing an enforceable standard for what that means is an intensely mechanical endeavor and Sanders’ people clearly haven’t even started. All they have is “bring back Glass-Steagall” which reflects the total lack of understanding as to why it was repealed: it did not work in the context of modern finance.
Even if we agree that certain financial institutions are too large or risky to exist in their current form — and the Republicans definitely do not — the legal means of determining that and executing a reasonable plan to mitigate it requires masterful policy and a huge political coalition. Considering Sanders can’t provide the most basic of outlines to describe how he’d execute on his stump speech, his promised timeline of Year 1 in a theoretical presidency is right out.
Are we ignoring the devil in the details because he know him to be elsewhere?
Liberals who went through the years of wrangling and policy development for the ACA ought to know better than to fall for this nonsense again. That single initiative consumed every cent of political capital Barack Obama had in eight years of presidency and lead the country through multiple heated government shutdowns. The idea that Sanders’s ambitious political revolution can make it all up when they get there reveals just how many college students are behind the man, ready to cram for Capitol Hill like a freshman final.
The interview goes on the reveal that Sanders doesn’t know which laws he would prosecute bankers with or have a clear grasp of what, if any, were broken in the financial crisis. It makes a lot more sense that this would be the case if you assume Sanders’s standard for a campaign plank is that the sentiment is popular, and taking on Wall Street still is now that the immediate problems of restoring functionality to the American economy are behind us. We can just leave aside that Eric Holder — who took down La Cosa Nostra — saw no way forward even in the depths of the crisis when fury was at its peak even as he secured billions of dollars in settlements for the American people.
While I watch Hillary Clinton finish this nonsense off I am reminded of Democratic Party hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the election of 1936 began to brew in 1934 it was clear FDR faced a stern challenge from Huey Long, who was running to the left of the New Deal with his infamous Share Our Wealth platform. Chief among its promises were aggressive action on Wall Street, a universal basic income, and free education.
Long was killed by an assassin in Lousiana before he and his coalition could endanger the New Deal and bring American progressivism to its knees with its own narcissistic ambition. The Democratic Party breathed a sigh of relief that The Kingfish was gone; they’ll be doing the same in Philadelphia this July when they banish the heir to his legacy.