Bernie Sanders Is a Political Fantasy of the Left

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at Georgetown University in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at Georgetown University in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, about the meaning of "democratic socialism" and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Bernie Sanders is a familiar phenomenon, another electoral fantasy of the American left. What scares me is that this fantasy might affect primaries in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, possibly weakening Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate most likely to defeat the social, racial, and economic reactionaries who have seized the Republican Party.

It would not be the first time that a candidate of this minority in the Democratic Party opened the door to a reactionary Republican. I remember Senator Ted Kennedy challenging the re-nomination of Jimmy Carter from the left in 1980, helping to make Ronald Reagan president. I remember Ralph Nader siphoning off enough votes in Florida in 2000 to cost Albert Gore the state and make George W. Bush president.

Mind you I understand the attraction of candidates like Sanders. A college professor of mine was working in JFK's Senate office in 1960 and asked me if I wanted to leave my job and work with them. I declined because I favored Sen. Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination because I thought he was further left.

Several American elections since have taught me that candidates of the left have a tough time winning a majority of American voters. When Hubert Humphrey finally did get the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 he was beaten by Richard Nixon in part because voters did not like the disorder at the Democratic convention in Chicago and the tumult associated with leftish anti-war protests in the late 1960s. Democrats who think Sanders might become president ignore this history at our peril.

Sander's and I shook hands at a gathering in Washington several years ago. I told him very quickly that I am related to Congressman Meyer London, a democratic socialist like Sanders, who represented the New York City garment district in the House of Representatives between 1914 and 1923. To my surprise Sanders showed no interest and moved away without comment.

Senator Walter Mondale, who I worked for in the late 1960s, said to me once that "the great thing about being a senator is that people are trying to teach you something 16 hours a day." Sanders could learn a lot from the trajectory of Meyer London's career in politics, but my impression was and is that Sander's is more interested in the cathartic rush that comes from lashing out at the rich than in learning about the enduring intricacies of American politics.

Meyer London was one of only a handful of democratic socialists who ever served in Congress. When he was hit and killed by a taxi in June, 1926, the New York Times said that 500,000 people lined the funeral route. It was an adoring crowd like Sanders sometimes draws, but it was peculiar to New York's Eastside and completely unrepresentative of the politics of the country.

Meyer London was loved because he had been a fighter for the unionization of the garment industry in New York City in the early 1900s. In Congress in 1916, he introduced a measure to provide national old-age, sickness and unemployment insurance that all the Republicans and Democrats on his committee voted to support. Observers believed that this "social insurance," copied from Germany, England and the rest of Europe, would be the next great reform of the Progressive Era, but it did not happen. U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 and the Red Scare after the Bolshevik Revolution led to a period of reaction in the U.S. that killed these progressive measures.

Those who contemplate supporting Sanders should think about this history. Terrorism and economic dislocations pursuant to the Great Recession and technological change are pushing American voters to the right as World War I and the Red Scare did, not to the left towards the Sanders' wing of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton can win as the candidate of the broad center in American politics. Sanders can only give reactionaries a better shot at the White House.