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Bernie in the Age of Clinton

Seven tidbits from Bernie Sanders’s memoir, Outsider in the White House.

Outsider in the House doesn’t contain many surprises. Newly republished by Verso under the name Outsider in the White House (with an afterword by the Nation’s John Nichols), Bernie Sanders’s 1996 memoir lays out the political views he’s been espousing now for forty years.

When Sanders complained last year that America doesn’t need “a choice of twenty-three underarm spray deodorants . . . when children are hungry in this country,” he was borrowing a line he had used in his 1979 film about Eugene Debs. Since the late 1970s, Sanders has maintained remarkable consistency in his support for strong labor laws, single-payer health care, and stick deodorant.

Given the sheer improbability of Sanders’s long political career — which took him from fringe third-party activism to the US Senate — it’s too bad that his relatively routine 1996 reelection campaign forms the dramatic hinge of Outsider in the House.

Still, as the Vermont senator threatens Hillary Clinton’s presumed coronation, it’s worth noting the interesting tidbits his reissued memoir does include. Here are seven of them.


1. When Sanders talks about the need for a “political revolution,” he speaks from personal experience.

It’s easy to dismiss Sanders as an idiosyncratic product of the leftmost corner of America’s leftmost state. But well into the 1980s, Vermont was among the strongest Republican states in the US, voting decisively for Ronald Reagan twice and George H. W. Bush once. After Sanders’s upset victory in Burlington’s 1981 mayoral election, national media treated it as a fish-out-of-water story: “A Socialist Mayor in Conservative Vermont,” ran the Boston Globe’s headline.

Nor is it clear that Burlington itself was a hotbed of radical energy until Sanders and his Progressive Coalition helped make it that way. After Sanders’s election as mayor, the eleven Republicans and Democrats on the thirteen-member Burlington Board of Aldermen joined forces to block his administration at every turn, refusing even to accept his appointments for city attorney, clerk, treasurer, etc. “There was a civil war taking place in Burlington city government,” Sanders writes.

Sanders was only able to govern effectively by building a coalition through political struggle. Between 1978 and 1983 voter turnout in Burlington city elections doubled, as Progressives sought to overthrow the two-party establishment by attracting support from poor and working-class residents who had not previously participated in the political system.

While it never gained an outright majority on the Board of Aldermen, the Progressive Coalition won enough seats to enact real reforms — including significant changes to the tax code, the largest environmental improvement program in state history, and a community land trust that has made Burlington a model for affordable housing.

Liberal critics like Paul Krugman are enamored of the idea that Sanders believes “a sufficiently high-minded leader,” armed only with “transformational rhetoric,” can bring political change. But even the barest outlines of Sanders’s eight-year mayoral term offer a vivid refutation of this self-flattering absurdity.

Whether Progressive achievements in Burlington actually constituted “socialism in one city,” as Sanders calls it, they were tangibly the product of democratic engagement, difficult coalition-building, and bitter partisan struggle. That’s what a “political revolution” will look like, whether in Burlington or the United States as a whole.

2. Sanders literally honeymooned in the Soviet Union.

The day after he and his wife Jane were married in 1988, they left Vermont for Yaroslavl, Russia, where Sanders had helped establish a sister-city exchange program with Burlington.

Unnamed Democratic operatives have already begun the inevitable red-baiting campaign against Sanders, suggesting that Sanders “sympathized with the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.” Alas, Outsider in the House presents no evidence that Sanders took any time out of his visit to confer with Gorbachev’s hardline opponents in the Politburo.

3. Sanders has never been an Ivy League radical.

In 1989, Sanders taught a course on third-party politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School and came away unimpressed with its potential as a field of left-wing action. “I know that conservatives worry a great deal about Harvard,” Sanders writes. “They see it as a bastion of progressive thought, the brain trust for revolution. Trust me. They can stop worrying. Harvard has many wonderful attributes, but the revolution will not start at Harvard University.”

4. Across Sanders’s political career, the Democratic Party has been more foe than friend.

After he arrived in Washington in 1990 to take his seat in Congress, some conservative party leaders sought to block Sanders from entering the Democratic caucus. One Blue Dog Democrat circulated a document containing a compilation of Sanders’s harshest criticisms of “the Democratic Party and its tepidness about fighting for the working families in this country.” “Frankly,” Sanders remembers, “I was surprised by the quality of [the] research…the quotes were accurate.”

In Vermont, Sanders’s relations with Democrats were even worse. Burlington Democrats generally allied with Republicans to derail Progressive Coalition initiatives throughout the 1980s. Vermont governor Howard Dean, who Sanders describes as “a moderate to conservative Democrat,” was a regular sparring partner. In the 1996 campaign, by which point Sanders had become a three-term incumbent and a reliable progressive vote in Congress, Dean endorsed his no-name Democratic opponent.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ summary of the 1996 Democratic convention is a vivid reminder of the shrunken politics that Clintonism wrought:

The Democratic convention was heavily scripted and poll-driven. . . . There was virtually no discussion of class, despite the fact that we have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world. . . . In a convention focused on gun control, smoking, and the personal tragedy of a popular actor [Christopher Reeve], most of the important issues facing the American people were ignored . . . Is it any wonder that most people don’t vote and have lost interest in politics?

5. Sanders has long understood feminism in terms of structural power.

At a 1996 event at the University of Vermont, Gloria Steinem campaigned with Sanders against his Republican opponent, Susan Sweetser. Steinem, Sanders recalls, celebrated him as an “honorary woman” and congratulated him for surviving Newt Gingrich’s Congress.

Former Vermont state senator Sally Conrad also spoke at the rally, and Sanders quotes from her speech. “As we know,” Conrad said, “to be a feminist a person does not have to be a woman. A feminist is someone who challenges the power structure of our country. Bernie Sanders is that kind of feminist.’”

Susan Sweetser, meanwhile, practically accused Steinem of being a “Bernie bro”: “What really is quite interesting,” Sweetser said, “is this is somebody who is supposed to be an outspoken advocate for women, and she comes here to campaign against the only woman who is running for statewide office here in Vermont.”

6. Inequality has soared since 1996, and Sanders’s proposed remedies have become more sweeping.

Sanders begins the final section of the book with a familiar litany of statistics about wealth and income inequality in the United States in 1996. As usual, they are meant to provoke shock and outrage. But from the perspective of 2016, many of them sound almost quaint.

In 1996, 1 percent of Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Today, the top 0.1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

To combat inequality in the 1990s, Sanders offered much of the same moderately social-democratic platform he is running on today: stronger labor laws to boost union growth, more progressive wealth and income taxes, major infrastructure investment, and single-payer health care.

Yet the new additions to Sanders’s 2016 platform are striking: he now proposes forcibly breaking up America’s six largest banks and instituting a “speculation” tax on Wall Street trading. In some ways, these new proposals are simply an index of capital’s unchecked advance across the last twenty years. In 1996, Sanders couldn’t yet rail against the Citizens United decision or the repeal of Glass-Steagall, because they hadn’t happened yet.

Our situation in 2016 is much more desperate, and there is good reason to doubt whether even Sanders’s current program is adequate to the task. But when Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwartzman says he is worried about the “far left,” it’s not just Sanders’s existing proposals that should scare him — it’s the possibility of even more ambitious reforms to come.

7. Sanders is very clear about how he differs from many liberals on key questions of race, gender, and sexuality.

After laying out his policy proposals, Sanders’s memoir concludes with a few words about his larger vision for “rebuilding American society.”

It’s not the case, contrary to recent liberal caricatures, that Sanders’s theory of politics “puts class before race.” What it does do, for good or for ill, is put the material before the emotional. In a brief but clarifying passage, Sanders argues that the most effective way to end psychological harm is precisely not through “transformational rhetoric” but through an effort to destroy the material conditions that produced the harm in the first place:

First, we have to rid the country of any vestige of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I am convinced that providing decent jobs and a better education for the young will be the linchpins of this effort.

Too often liberals believe that being “against” prejudice is all that is required to bring about a more just and more equitable society. Only when every man and woman has a place in American society — and this means, I believe, a decent-paying job — will we begin to eradicate the hatreds that are based on jealousy and insecurity. And only when every American is economically secure enough to stand up to insults of any sort will all Americans be free of the power of prejudice to define them.

Killer Mike put it even more succinctly last week: “I don’t care so much if a candidate ‘cares.’ I care if the candidate’s policy gives opportunity to the black community.”