Bernie Sanders and the Science of Smears
by Matt Taibbi Rolling Stone edited by O Society April 18, 2019
The satirist Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil’s Dictionary, once defined radicalism as “the conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.”
What Bierce wittily captured — that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s normies — means that at any given moment, the current political establishment will be fighting off the inevitable.
The Brahmins of today don’t battle with ideas, because as Bierce pointed out, their belief systems are usually regressive and unpopular, only they don’t know it yet. The battle is almost always waged instead over personality, because while certain “radical” ideas may be unstoppable, individual politicians are easily villainized, delaying change — a little.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made headlines this week by taking on the Center for American Progress, long known as a messaging arm of the mainstream Democratic Party. Sanders wrote a letter criticizing the CAP board for playing a “destructive role” in the “critical mission to defeat Donald Trump,” a critique seemingly crafted in response to recent efforts by ThinkProgress, a news site founded by CAP, to paint Sanders as a hypocrite for being a millionaire author.
The Sanders letter to CAP formalized the rift between the Democratic establishment and the labor-based movement of millions Sanders represents. That we’re talking about a petty PR battle and not the hardcore disagreement about policy and (especially) campaign funding sources that created this divide is Exhibit A proving the old propaganda method is still working.
The practice of painting dissident challenges as selfish, hypocritical acts — as opposed to the selfless altruism of corporate-funded candidates — has been going on forever. Long before Sanders was framed as a thin-skinned, cranky narcissistwho’s “all about himself,” Dennis Kucinich went through the same thing.
Kucinich was/is living proof of the Bierce aphorism. When he announced his run for president in October of 2003, the Ohio congressman “stood up against corporate interests,” promised to revoke NAFTA, endorsed decriminalization of marijuana, called for universal health care and trumpeted “amnesty and legalization for illegal immigrants.”
He was the only candidate promising to withdraw troops from Iraq, and in those jingoistic years after 9/11, he not only brought an imam on stage for his launch, he took a shot at Columbus Day. From the New York Times account:
“The Cleveland event had a tailored multicultural appeal, starting out with prayers from a rabbi, an imam and a Baptist preacher. The speakers were racially diverse, and Mr. Kucinich took a moment to acknowledge the American Indian communities on Columbus Day.”
Many of these ideas are now blue-state orthodoxy. “Universal health care” is an official goal of the Democratic Party, even if the party doesn’t mean it in the same way Kucinich did. He was right about Iraq — he was the only one right about Iraq in that field — and significant parts of the electorate are beginning to suspect he was right about NAFTA, the legalization of marijuana and a bunch of other things.
Kucinich may even have been ahead of the curve on Columbus Day: four states and 50 cities now celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead.
But back in the 2000s, when Kucinich still had a small voice in national politics, he was routinely denounced as something worse than a radical: a kook, nut and egomaniac. I covered both of the Kucinich runs for the presidency and saw how frustrated he became over time as his ideas were ignored and his campaigns were denounced as indulgences.
What little coverage he got tended to be stuffed below the fold, and focused on him as a “lower-tier” eccentric, a vegan who dabbled in ventriloquism, wore wing-tips and was too short (the standard modifier attached to him was “elfin,” as in “the elfin peace candidate”).
Reporters from 2008 will remember the “hot mic” debate exchange between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, when the contenders whispered about thinning a field of eight that included Kucinich and Mike Gravel.
“We should try to have a more serious… smaller group,” Edwards offered, leading to the following exchange:
Clinton: Well, we’ve got to cut the number, because they are just being trivialized.
Edwards: They are not serious.
About the seriousness: when asked later that year by Wolf Blitzer why he was the only candidate who’d had a chance to vote on the Patriot Act to vote against it, Kucinich shot back, “Because I read it.” He was probably right that none of the others had.
But he was seen as the unserious one. By 2010, when he was opposing the Affordable Care Act for many of the same reasons driving today’s Medicare-for-All movement, even would-be liberal commentators like Markos Moulitsas were denouncing him. He was a modern Nader, pushing “unrealistic” and “self-defeating” politics, someone who’d never accomplished anything.
The treatment of Kucinich was pure high school. I used to get an unpleasant pang of recognition listening to the cool kids on the press plane laughing at the “lefty elf” who refused to get the hint he wasn’t wanted on the debate stage.
Back when Sanders didn’t seem like a threat to win anything, he got much of the same. He was dismissed as a geek and a wallflower who’d be defined by whether he chose to be a help or a hindrance to the real candidate, Clinton. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy in early 2015 mock-welcomed Bernie to the race, insisting the entrance of the “loner” would be a “plus” for the Clinton campaign, since he would “occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O’Malley.”
It wasn’t until Sanders started piling up delegates that he began to take on the villainous characteristics for which he is now infamous. After he won primaries in 2016, suddenly reporters ripped him as a divisive narcissist with three houses who was the ideological mirror of Donald Trump, boasting racist, sexist and violent followers.
This was all part of the age-old technique of focusing on the person instead of the ideas or the movement behind them. Sanders wasn’t winning in 2016 because Bernie Sanders is some great stump act — he isn’t. A fair portion of his support was coming from people who were fed up with both parties even before he decided to run.
The easiest way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths is to create an ick factor around the politician benefiting from them. That was Sanders in 2016 and it’s still him, mainly. However, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii have also been pre-emptively dipped in the ick this cycle, cast as crippled politicians whose mere presence in the race will “undermine” Democrats in the end.
Additionally, and I could see it coming even a year ago, politicians benefiting from domestic discontent with the status quo are being denounced as Kremlin favorites as well as selfish agents of division.
On the day Gabbard announced her run for the presidency, MSNBC ran a story claiming Russian-linked social media accounts were pushing a “possible campaign of support” for the Hawaii Democrat. The story was sourced to the firm New Knowledge, which had been caught by the Times faking an almost identical story about Russian trolls and Alabama Republican Roy Moore.
Sanders was described as the Kremlin candidate in the Washington Post just a few days ago. This was unsurprising since the Postwas asking as far back as the fall of 2017 how Democrats would respond to Putin playing dirty tricks for Sanders in 2020.
There are people who will protest that descriptions of such Russian activity boosting Sanders are rooted in fact, as efforts to reach his supports are described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency. That’s fine. I would counsel anyone who thinks Russia is responsible for the rise of Sanders or people like Gabbard or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should go out and interview voters around the country, especially in remote areas.
The anger toward the political establishment that drives support for such politicians began to be visible over a decade ago, long before Sanders or Gabbard were factors in any kind in national politics.
Those voters aren’t selfish, or hypocrites, or Kremlin favorites, and they’re not going anywhere. What a lot of DC-based reporters and analysts don’t grasp is that if you remove Bernie Sanders from the scene, there will still be millions of people out there mad about income inequality. Remove Gabbard, and discontent about the human and financial costs of our military commitments will still be rampant. Removing Warren won’t cancel out anger about Wall Street corruption.
Covering personalities instead of political movements only delays things for a while. Sooner or later, the conservatism of tomorrow arrives. You can only delay the inevitable for so long.