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National Opinion

Peck: Wild Left Hero

Politicians rarely propound their genuine beliefs, so much as half heartedly abide by popular opinions. Reagan was a liberal Democrat for half of his life, Romney was in favor of the 2009 stimulus package before he was against it, and Obama and the Clintons came to regret their opposition to gay marriage. The “flip-flop,” “U-turn,” and, most jarringly, the “change of heart” are all signifiers that intellectual malleability is commonplace in political discourse. But, misplaced judgement and political expediency are not prerequisites for political life.

Ever since he ran for Governor of Vermont in 1972, Senator Bernie Sanders has been boldly and valiantly consistent. In part, the reliability of his mantra is a reflection of his genuine sincerity, which Sanders’ employs oftentimes at the expense of political expediency. But, more so, Sanders’ consistency demonstrates that his ideas themselves are timeless.

Simply put, Sanders has never changed his core beliefs because he has not had to. In a career spanning 38 years, as the American middle class has dwindled and infrastructure has crumbled, Sanders beliefs have been vindicated time and time again.

In 2019, as the Sanders’ grassroots political machine again clunkers into action, heralding the possibility of a Sanders’ presidency, the perpetuity of his democratic socialist ideals shines brightly. They shine first for their consistency, but shine strongest for their potential to heal an otherwise doomed country.

Where did all the love go?

In 1968, at the end of the American civil rights movement, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Wilbur Cohen laid out a Ten-Point Plan for eradicating poverty. The manifesto was impressive in its scale and speed, for Cohen argued that it could be achieved within a decade. Improvements in social security, expansion of free education, and the ending of racial discrimination constituted part of this plan, which never came to pass.

As fate would have it, the American welfare movement died after Johnson’s administration. Cohen, who had worked on the New Deal and helped propose both the New Frontier and Great Society programs, understood the social potential of civilized government, but he misjudged the motives of those who sought to run it.

Only a month after the Ten-Point Plan was published, Nixon was sworn in as president, and America has been unhealthily reliant on neoliberalism ever since.

By 1978—the year that Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, left office—poverty in the United States could (by Cohen’s projections) have been eradicated. Instead, the downward trend of the 60s bucked, and people who were poor remained so. The story of poverty in America has been remarkably uneventful ever since, which is why it verges on tragedy. By the U.S. Census Bureau’s last calculation, the current national poverty rate is 12.3 percent, an increase over the 11.9 percent poverty rate of 1968—the year Cohen wrote his manifesto. This is an upsetting and repugnant contrast to the progress that had been made in the 1960s, when Democratic welfare reforms ensured that the poverty rate fell from 22.4 percent to 11.9 in only eight years.

To say that America is a civilized country, let alone the leader of the “free world,” is to deny the abject failure of its politicians over the last half century. When the Hillary Clinton acolytes suggested malignancy on the part of working class Trump voters in 2016, they denied the same. There was once a common understanding that poverty was a political choice, and that citizens should care for their less fortunate compatriots, but that sentiment has all but been lost in 21st century America. The anxieties of the “forgotten American” are a byproduct of politically sustained economic inequality. When people are worried for their job security, differences in race and gender become amplified. People start fighting for the few rights they have by picking on the more vulnerable. This is exactly why midwesterners supported Trump’s anti-immigrant dogma, even as their living standards had decreased for completely different reasons.

Burlington, 1981

As the country moved on from Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, there was one town up east that defied the trend. Sanders became the mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981, and soon established the city as a bastion of liberal democracy. He fought off projects that would displace working class people from their homes and cleaned the waterfront of Lake Champlain, all the while maintaining strong links with the business community. Even Republicans who had been hesitant of his socialism came to respect his economic management, which brought a boom in the city’s economy.

Beyond these concrete changes, Sanders’ greatest victory was less obvious. During his tenure, he had revolutionized the way people viewed the role of municipal government. His success in the mayor’s office allowed his political inheritors to push for further reforms, with limited resistance from the city’s population. 30 years of social revival have meant that the largest supermarket in the city is collectively owned by its workers, the waterfront Sanders helped clean is publicly owned, and the city is the only one in the U.S. to rely fully on clean energy sources. In spite of economic inequality and divisions rising nationally, Burlington proved there was an alternative way to govern.

Until Sanders entered the Democratic Primary in 2016, the establishment of welfare programs had not been a significant feature of the national debate for two generations. The exceptions to this rule are Bill Clinton’s (or rather the first lady’s) ineffectual push for healthcare expansion in the 1990s and the implementation of Obamacare 15 years later, both of which ended in failure. The latter, which is largely regarded as Obama’s greatest legislative victory, left millions of people uninsured. Even though the Affordable Care Act offered government assistance to many people, much of the civilized world already had universal health care, far beyond what the Act offered.

When Sanders railed against this status quo, he was met with either disregard or flippancy. Commentators and politicians alike did not argue against his policies, so much as caricature him as a communist, or a crazy person. Cries of “it’s not possible,” not least from the sneering Secretary Hillary Clinton, stifled legitimate debate. It says a great deal about Sanders, the consistent thinker, that, four years on, half of the Democratic primary field has come to adopt his position. Medicare-for-all is inevitable, the arc of history tells us so, but Sanders will ensure it is speedily implemented, rather than thrown on the back burner for the next generation. A country whose welfare movement has been dead for 50 years is finally starting to see some sense. Just as he did in Burlington, Sanders has changed the narrative of an entire country.

Made for You and Me

The longer America resists change, the further it will drift from the civilized world. Beyond healthcare; job security, paid maternity leave, and job seekers allowance are all staples of civilized welfare systems throughout the world that America has not implemented, or even thoroughly discussed. Sanders has continued to litigate his viewpoint in spite of this reality. If there was a perfect display of consistency versus variability, of thoughtfulness versus selfishness, it came in 2003, in the House Financial Services Committee. Sanders took on the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, over his view on financial sector regulations. He berated him for claiming that the American economy was doing well, even as “the middle class is shrinking and we have the largest gap between rich and poor of any industrialised nation.” Greenspan shrugged off Sanders’ remarks, just as Secretary Clinton would do later.

In 2008, Greenspan returned to Congress and admitted that his economic philosophy was flawed. Sanders was vindicated once again.

In this area, like so many others, Bernie Sanders is consistent because he is right. He has never chased public opinion, or been proven wrong by changing events, but only validated. The forethought of his vision is as striking today as it was in 1981, when he first entered the Burlington City Hall and, without his leadership, divisions between the rich and the poor will grow. Demagogues like Trump will continue to take advantage of economic grievances for their own reactionary goals, economic and identifiable divisions will breed themselves anew, and America will continue in its decline from civilization.

When Wilbur Cohen wrote his Ten-Point Plan in 1968, he started with by saying: “The United States is rich in material and human resources.” Whether or not to help the poorest American citizens was achievable, it simply required political will. 50 years on, America remains the richest country in the world, yet acts like a failed state in which economic desperation is inevitable.

Of the candidates who have entered the presidential race, a number including Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren recognize that poverty is avoidable. But only one candidate has the plan, complemented by years of consistency, to realize Cohen’s vision. A President Bernie Sanders would usher in a new golden age for the American dream, returning the country to its former welfare-centered glory and subdue the divisions that increasingly hurt societal cohesion. In the absence of his leadership, however, America will only tilt further to the brink of self-destruction.