During a perusal of last week’s political issue of The Troubadour, a particular charge hurled at a particular Democratic candidate stood out. After assuring the reader that all possible nominees for the Republicans are “respectable in that they are patriotic and appear to be ethically sound,” Rachel del Guidice went on to deny both patriotism and “ethical soundness” to Clinton and Sanders. Sanders himself was charged with being a “self-proclaimed socialist who wants to change the very values on which this country was founded.” Ignoring for the moment the somewhat-laughable claim of Donald Trump’s being a moral paragon, what is it about Sanders that makes him an anti-patriot and an unethical man? Why should a progressive economic plan be equated with altering in a significant way the foundational values of the United States?
First, to avoid accusations of ahistoricity, a brief examination is needed of what exactly the “values this country was founded on” are. Certainly, if one takes a Jeffersonian approach, this country was meant to be an agricultural paradise, a collection of small, privately-owned dales and glens that answered to little provincial governments. Of course, Jefferson was the third man to sit in the president’s office. The two that preceded him, Washington and Adams, shared a different view, one that saw America being united under a strong centralized government that would build up industry. The Federalists (the party of our first two presidents) valued a strong production-based economy, a more British ideology of federalism, and an efficacious national mechanism of governing. Centralization of power and strong economic controls were in no way foreign to the Founding Fathers, at least not those who opposed Jefferson and Madison.
If one were to speak of American values more generally, it can be asked whether things like the Protestant work ethic and rugged individualism are espoused or neglected by Sanders. His call for reform on Wall Street and in corporate America, counter-intuitively, support the individual far more than a laissez-faire attitude would. After all, is not the rally cry for banking reform that one’s own efforts no longer matter? The classic tale reformers spin is of the hard-working family who loses everything because of factors beyond its control: predatory loan practices, interest rates fluctuating, corporations cutting costs at the level of the worker rather than that of the executive. It almost seems that Americans need to have more protective regulation in economic matters to be able to flourish as individuals.
This being said, the more concerning assertion against Sanders is that he is unethical and unpatriotic, for this draws from ethos, rather than simply a one-sided view of history. The attacks upon Sanders’ feelings for his country and his moral character are, in effect, the very same cries that sparked the conflagration of McCarthyism. Being a democratic socialist is not a sin against America. Wanting to raise the capital gains tax or wanting to have a single-payer universal healthcare plan does not an unethical man make. What can be seen here is a conflation of policy disagreement with virtue and personal worth. Unable to mount a successful or otherwise convincing repulse of Sanders’ positions, opponents must turn to ad hominem-type digressions. Indeed, many (regardless of political leaning) will confess that Sanders appears as the most genuine of all the candidates. Will anyone entertain the notion that a Trump, a Cruz or a Clinton is really running for any other reason than personal gain? For Sanders, however, his brazen crusade to tear down the walls of socioeconomic status is not motivated by the lure of aggrandizement or glory. Bernie Sanders is what he looks like: an old man, tired of the hoopla and pomp surrounding him, trying to do what he thinks is the best for his country. In other words, unlike the other candidates, Sanders might be truly called a patriot, a moral man, someone interested in more than just himself.
The second Red Scare – the time of McCarthy – is no feather in the cap of America. One might recall Arthur Miller’s “Crucible,” the gripping and tragic retelling of the Salem witch trials; not coincidentally, Miller published his play during the height of McCarthy’s escapades. Today, we face, on a smaller and less destructive scale, a similar witch hunt. Rather than judging Sanders on his genuineness, his domestic and foreign plans, his experience or his driving motivation, he is largely caricatured by the voting public according to one word: socialism. Rather than decrying Bernie Sanders because of a political creed of which Americans have an innate fear, perhaps it would be better if he were examined on his own merits and on his comparative strengths when compared to the other members of the electoral field.