It’s time for a closer look at the truth about Senator Bernie Sanders, and whether he lives up to this idealized fantasy of a perfect liberal-left candidate he claims to be — and which too many of his supporters eagerly insist he is.
This isn’t an argument against voting for Sanders over Clinton if that’s your preference. This is an argument against voting based on unrealistic expectations and lack of historical perspective and information about Sanders himself. This is an argument against clichéd, absurd, constant “but THIS time it’s different, I SWEAR!” faux-savior candidates package themselves this way.
This is an argument against the way these sort of candidates’ most hardcore supporters fall for it time after time, while becoming angry at anyone who points out we’ve seen this song and dance before and it’s no more true this time than it was last time. [Notice I said “[the] most hardcore supporters,” not ALL of his supporters, but the ones who insist he has no real flaws, insist he has the most integrity of any politician, insist any negative reports against him are a conspiracy by the MSM or “Hillbots” or some other catchphrase, and other extreme behavior that this segment of supporters engage in even while denying they do it.]
This is an argument that facts, realistic expectations, and history matter more than cheap political rhetoric, blind idealism, and the lazy “come save us” mentality among voters. This position is not cynical, by the way — I’d argue it’s far more cynical to think we have to grasp about for a single radical savior to destroy the entire political and social foundations of our nation, as if that’s the only workable solution to addressing problems and helping people.
So, here are some hard, cold truths about Bernie Sanders. Just keep these facts in mind the next time you feel compelled to treat him as some sort of uncompromised, morally superior super-socialist hero come to balance the scales of justice and deliver radical reforms to our economic and political systems…
During his first term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders cut taxes and balanced the city budget, saying, “We’re going to out-Republican the Republicans.” Also as mayor, he also supported condominium developers on Lake Champlain despite a referendum by local progressives to stop the deal — this is important because during the campaign, Sanders blasted Burlington’s then-mayor Democrat Gordon Paquette for supporting the exact same developers and the exact same condo plan. And at one point during his tenure, Sanders had peace activists arrested for blocking the General Electric plant in the city.
After being elected to Congress, Sanders voted in lock-step with the Democratic Party the vast majority of the time, taking campaign funds from the Democrats and even $10,000 from Hillary Clinton’s HillPAC. The notion Sanders is just some outsider who refuses to play ball or take “tainted” money is pure fiction. He takes such money when he wants or needs it. Moreover, his complaints or criticisms of certain funding sources, corporations, and/or ties between government and the corporate world tend to grow silent when his own interests overlap with those funds, corporations, or government-corporate projects.
For example: Sanders had a history of opposing bonuses for Lockheed Martin executives for a while, and his supporters like to point to this example of the Senator standing up to big business and corporate bonuses. The problem is, Sanders very quietly has come around to being a supporter of Lockheed Martin. There’s some shady history involving Sanders’ denial of being aware of certain deals taking shape between the new Burlington, VT, mayor (recall Burlington is where Sanders got his own start) and Lockheed. Yet somehow, both the Burlington mayor and Senator Sanders were simultaneously working out deals with the company for building and expanding in Vermont. What a nice little coincidence.
This led to a vast partnership between the state of Vermont and multiple energy corporations, with state and federal funding flowing their way, for development. So all of a sudden, Sanders’ opposition to Lockheed became a partnership with Lockheed involving taxpayer funding and major energy project expansions. Vermont became one big testing spot for corporations developing new energy and grid projects, despite repeated concerns about the safety of these projects and the corporate-state relationship that relies on “trust the companies and the politicians linked to those companies to maintain proper oversight.”
Senator Sanders’ enthusiasm for pet projects in his state is well-known, one of the most controversial being his years of pushing to locate a Pentagon F-35 fighter jet project in Vermont. This $400-billion military project is the sort of vast “military industrial complex” government-corporate boondoggle Sanders regularly pretends to oppose, except when he’s aggressively lobbying in favor of them for Vermont. His pathetic excuse for such situations is often “well if it’s going to happen anyway, my constituents may as well get some of the jobs and money from it.”
That’s not a principled stand, it’s just the same behavior every single other elected official engages in. But Sanders does it while standing on a soapbox lying to voters about how he’s above the fray, how he’s incorruptible, how he would never do that terrible thing his opponents do (despite the fact he’s been doing it all along). He’s playing the role of yet another pseudo-liberal savior for those who haven’t already had a stomach full of the same pandering, disingenuous “but THIS time it’s different, he/she really means it!” game with Clinton, Gore, Obama, Ron Paul, or whichever new and shiny snake oil salesman has been hoisted up on a pedestal lately.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ pretense about being opposed to war and warmongering is a sham. In 1999, he supported the war against Serbia that involved a vast bombing campaign resulting not only in INCREASING the ethnic cleansing on the ground (something the administration and Pentagon literally openly admitted — during a press conference — they knew would happen and weren’t frankly concerned about, saying so in those dismissive of terms) but also littering that portion of Europe with depleted uranium debris. I won’t go on about it here, but the effects of depleted uranium exposure are terrible, for the troops using it and the victims on the ground subjected to the bombings. Italy sued the United States to recoup health care costs for Italian peacekeepers stationed in the region who ended up poisoned by the depleted uranium contamination. Soldiers exposed to it also have children with dramatically high rates of birth defects. And it contaminated the water table beneath the former Yugoslavia.
These dangers were already well known, there was already plenty of opposition to the use of depleted uranium (U.S. troops from the 1991 U.S.-Iraq Gulf War were coming home with extreme health conditions, symptoms of which were typically consistent with radiation poisoning, and nearly 200,000 of the troops who served in that war ended up disabled) and concerns that a vast bombing campaign would increase the ethnic cleansing on the ground. Sanders was well aware of these facts, but voted in favor of the war anyway.
Senator Sanders’ support for war doesn’t end there, though. He also voted in favor of the war against Afghanistan in 2001 — handing over a nearly blank check to prosecute global war to an administration that everyone already strongly suspected would attempt to revive the war against Iraq. This vote in favor of war came despite the existence of very real alternatives, since the government in Afghanistan offered to hand Osama bin Laden over to a global court for trial. There was room for negotiations, but of course the Bush administration wanted to invade and so no negotiations were attempted. Sanders was as aware of this as the rest of us sitting at home were, so pretense that he lacked the same information or awareness of the real situation is nothing but an excuse. Sanders also supported Obama’s bombings in Iraq and Syria. He’s basically voted or spoken out in favor of some new war as often as he’s voted against some other, different war, if not more so. He’s more inclined to fall in line and support a Democrat’s war than a Republican’s, but he’s obviously willing to make exceptions even in favor of a conservative’s war of preference.
And when it comes to funding wars, domestic spying, and so on, Sanders has proven willing to vote in favor of budgets that perpetuate and expand such things. For one example, voted for Obama’s budget that increased military spending 5% and contained all manner of other spending for the “military industrial complex” and vast global spying that Sanders claims to oppose.
Looking back at domestic policy again, Senator Sanders voted in favor of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that, among other draconian things, vastly expanded the federal death penalty — this despite Sanders’ stated opposition to the death penalty. His explanation for the vote is that the bill had other provisions he did strongly support, so it was therefore complicated and his vote for the bill can’t be simplified as support for all of its measures. This is a defense totally at odds with Sanders’ and his supporters’ tendencies to point to simplistic side-by-side vote comparisons between Sanders and other politicians over the years as a way to pretend he’s some principled socialist outsider championing the little people all the time. He isn’t, his votes in Congress are about 93% the same as Hillary Clinton’s votes (and neither he nor his supporters suggest similar allowances be made for Clinton’s votes while they are bashing them).
Sanders claims to be a socialist, and his supporters love to suggest he’s fighting against corporations and Wall Street. But Sanders defines his “socialism” this way (this is a direct quote): “[D]emocratic socialism is… to maintain the strong entrepreneurial spirit that we have in this country to continue to produce wealth, but to make certain that the wealth is much more equitably distributed than is currently the case.” So what he actually supports is capitalism, just with protections for the poor and (maybe) the working class. Which is fine, but pretending this is some sort of dramatic socialist change — or pretending Sanders is even consistent about it, since his rhetoric very often is at stark odds with his voting and behavior — is just dishonest and factually incorrect.
Nor does Sanders’ rallying cry for people to support his outsider status and stop supporting the status quo, and to have courage to vote for someone other than the Democratic Party presumed candidate, turn out to be consistent with Sanders’ own actions. Sanders has no interest in speaking to Ralph Nader at all — he won’t even take Nader’s phone calls, refused to support Nader’s presidential runs, and in 2004 he was aggressively anti-Nader and pro-Democratic Party. Indeed, Sanders eagerly explained his opposition to Nader and support for the Democratic leadership’s preferred candidate, saying, “Not only am I going to vote for John Kerry, I’m going to run around this country and do everything I can to dissuade people from voting for Ralph Nader.”
As for Sanders’ claim that he wants wealthier people to “pay their fair share” of taxes, apparently he doesn’t think it’s “unfair” for him to make more than $200,000 per year while paying an effective tax rate of just 13% — the same rate paid by people making only $20,000 per year. That means Sanders is in the top 5% of earners in the country, yet pays a tax rate comparable to people living in poverty. Notice, that’s a lower tax rate than Mitt Romney paid — and Romney’s 14% rate caused a great deal of negative press coverage, remember. Sanders and his wife manage to keep their tax liability low because they own a great deal of property (in multiple states, some of which is rental property) and take advantage of all manner of deductions, including some that are obviously skewed in favor of wealthier citizens. Sanders and his wife both receive salaries from the government, so the fact they are supported by taxpayers makes it all the worse that they make use of such huge deductions favoring the wealthy and yet claim to be angry that wealthy people aren’t paying their “fair share.” And there are generally some very serious questions about Sanders’ claim of having relatively low income and net worth, while claiming such large deductions and owning so many different properties around the country.
Looking at Sanders’ public statements about economic racism, he is very correct that the Flint water crisis is rooted in corrupt economic racist policies. However, Sanders himself is personally responsible for promoting similar corrupt economic racist policies when it favored his own constituents. In the 1990s, Sanders pushed through legislation to take Vermont’s “low level” nuclear waste and dump it in Sierra Blanca — an impoverished Latino community in Texas. Yes, it’s absolutely as awful as it sounds. This dump site was in fact too close to the Rio Grande and poses an environmental danger, which is why Mexico objected to the dumping near the border and why the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission denied the site a license. The site was positioned atop a weak geological fault, so that plus the proximity to the Rio Grande and the nearby poor Latino community combined to make this a clearly terrible project. Sanders, however, didn’t care, and pushed it through Congress anyway. His wife, by the way, serves as an alternate commissioner for the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission.
Meanwhile, Sanders himself refused to even visit the little town to talk to the residents, and dismissed activists who tried to speak with him about it.
Sanders has other positions that his supporters — and the Senator himself — either ignore or attempt to excuse despite the clear implications and hypocrisy involved. For example, Sanders voted in support of two different bills to shield firearms manufacturers from lawsuits, in 2003 and 2005. The second measure passed and became law. Likewise, Sanders voted in support of an amendment in 2009 that allows people to bring firearms on Amtrak trains. However, while campaigning for president, Sanders has at various times claimed to support serious, strong legislation to enact gun control, while at other times openly stated he thinks states should make their own gun laws and that he opposes much gun regulation. When campaigning in his home state, Sanders wears his “gun rights” hat, and then tries to muddy the waters regarding his position when speaking to a national audience or — more importantly — to voters in states where gun control has strong support.
One other issue where Sanders’ actual votes and prior statements contradict his current claims — and the assertions of his supporters — is immigration. Sanders opposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 and actively worked to stop the bipartisan bill of Senators Kennedy and McCain, based on the argument that it would bring more immigrants to the country who would compete for jobs at lower wages. Reform advocates were angered by Sanders’ staunch opposition, and by the fact he resorted to certain dog whistle arguments about rising immigration rates taking jobs and driving down wages.
Then, Sanders doubled down on his opposition to immigration reform just last year, by opposing an attempt to raise visa caps on immigrant workers who want to move to the U.S. The visas in question are mostly used in technology sectors and highly skilled labor areas, and Sanders’ argument against them is — once again — that it will bring more immigrant workers to the U.S. where they will take jobs from U.S. workers. The “they’ll come here in bigger numbers and steal our jobs” rhetoric, and the consistent opposition to reform efforts supported by progressive activists and immigration reform experts, is contrary to Sanders’ claims that he supports immigration reform. It also combines with certain other consistent messaging by Sanders on other issues that is framed to appeal more to white voters and workers, who are the majority in Sanders’ home state and who make up the vast bulk of his support in the Democratic nomination process.
If he receives the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders will likely continue to be precisely what he really is — someone who is more than 90% the same as Hillary Clinton and other Democrats on policy issues, whose differences from establishment Democrats are really only about particulars of how to get to the same goal, who compromises his principles and promises when necessary while continuing to pound the podium and offer lofty slogans suggesting he hates having to compromise but has no choice in the matter, and who if actually elected president would be at most only marginally different from an Obama administration.
Even if he actually decided to try to push through some extremely reduced, softened version of banking and investment reforms (which is unlikely, as he’d probably merely form a commission to study recommendations for reform, and then ask Congress to take action on them, and then criticize Congress for failing to act, and then settle for a handful of mild Democratic legislative proposals that fail to pass), he simply doesn’t have a way to get such things through Congress and has no realistic, strong plan to accomplish it besides “voters have to literally un-elect most of Congress and vote in leftwing replacements as soon as possible.” Which isn’t a plan, it’s a wish-fulfillment Christmas list.
The behavior of Sanders’ campaign and many of his supporters likewise bears mention, since it speaks further to the point that the distance between the truth and the myths being perpetrated by Sanders is quite a wide gap indeed. During the primaries and caucuses, the tendency to resort to exaggerations, mischaracterizations, and outright deception has been on display many times in the Sanders camp. One glaring example that sums up this behavior in general, and points to the constant attempts by Sanders and his supporters to pretend he is a bastion of integrity while anyone opposing him is some sort of dishonest thief “stealing” the election from him, is the infamous “coin toss scandal.” To break a tie vote, the Democratic Party in some locations used a simple coin toss, and when Sanders didn’t win, his supporters engaged in a widespread public campaign screaming that the vote was “rigged” or “stolen.” Let’s look at the actual facts, however, to lay bare how far from the truth are these claims…
There were 6 separate coin tosses by 6 totally different people, in 6 different places. Clinton didn’t win 6 coin tosses in a row as if she stood calling flips of the same coin over and over, as some people and press keep implying. And apparently sometimes Sanders’ side called the toss, sometimes Clinton’s side called the toss. There’s an awful lot of gambler’s fallacy going on in a lot of the outraged reactions from Sanders’ supporters and those in the media happy to exploit false narratives for readership.
There are videos of at least two of the tosses. The tosses happened in crowds, with people watching, not in some back room with Clinton’s people supplying “fixed” coins. Sanders supporters at some locations pretty openly stated to media that yes it was a legit toss and unfortunately they simply lost. These have been the rules for a long while, and anyone involved in the caucus who didn’t know simply didn’t inform themselves well enough before the caucus — it is not some sneaky last-minute trick to undermine democracy, and none of these folks were banging the drum to change the rules beforehand (similar to the fact everyone acts enraged about superdelegates when the superdelegate math works against their candidate, but then forget about it and do nothing whatsoever to change the rules until the next time an election takes place and the rules don’t favor their preferred candidate). Acting outraged now is disingenuous or uninformed about a process people had a lot of time to look into.
So next time you see a headline or a social media post trying to imply Clinton magically defied impossible odds by calling 6 consecutive coin tosses where her wins of the tosses are framed as “according to the DNC, she won the coin tosses,” you can ignore it, because it’s trying to paint a false picture.