Socialist presidential candidates aren't usually people I have a lot of admiration for, but I got an email the other day from Bernie Sanders that moved him up a notch in my estimation. The subject line was "Why on earth would Bernie go there?" It explained Sen, Sanders' decision to speak recently at Liberty University, the very Christian, very conservative college founded by Reverend Jerry Falwell at Lynchburg, Va.
"I spoke at Liberty University because I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse—not just to shout at each other or make fun of each other," Sanders wrote. "It is very easy for those in politics to talk to those who agree with us—and I do that every day. It is harder, but not less important, to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us and see where, if possible, we can find common ground. In other words, to reach out of our zone of comfort."
This idea—also on display in Vice President Joe Biden's remarks at Yale in May, in which Biden spoke positively about Sen. Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican from North Carolina—may help to explain why Sanders is attracting large crowds on the campaign trail and better-than-expected support in polls.
That's the kindest interpretation. Watch the actual Sanders speech at Liberty University, though, and there's a darker possibility. That is the chance that American crowds are actually being seduced by the lure of socialism. Sen. Sanders offers the hope that generous benefits, such as medical care, family and medical leave, and higher wages, can be granted to most Americans simply by taxing, or regulating, the "handful of extraordinarily wealthy people whose greed is in my view doing this country enormous harm."
Sen. Sanders frames this in terms of "morality" and "justice." To respond to it, his political opponents—both Hillary Clinton and the Republicans—will need to argue along two lines. The utilitarian case is that socialism, where tried, has led to high unemployment, bare shelves, and slow growth. The vastly expanded welfare state in America has led to dependence, misery, and perverse incentives rather than increased opportunity or prosperity. The moral case is that individuals own the product of their labor, and that, beyond a certain point, taxing the few to redistribute to the many amounts to confiscation without consent—essentially, theft, or slavery.
Thinking about the state Sanders represents in the Senate, Vermont, can also help to explain some of the appeal of his presidential campaign. The senator who left the loud and crowded cities of Brooklyn (where he grew up) and Chicago (where he graduated from college) for the more bucolic Green Mountain state is the agrarian Jefferson to Hillary Clinton's urban Hamilton. Though Vermont is in the Northeast, it's a rural, back-to-the-land, post-industrial frontier in a way akin to the earlier stagecoach immigration West.
The new twist on the Vermont story is the way the state is experimenting with variations on the standard model of publicly traded companies in capitalism. One is the cooperative—both Cabot cheese and St. Albans Cooperative Creamery have survived and prospered as cooperatives controlled by family farms, albeit with various elaborate government price supports and trade protections. Another is the employee-owned corporation, of which Vermont-based King Arthur Flour is a leading example. That only goes so far; the state's largest companies in terms of employment and revenue are more traditional players such as IBM and Keurig Green Mountain, Inc.
The co-op and employee-owned models can exist and prosper as part of capitalism, and for some businesses and individuals, they may be the right fit. But I wouldn't count on them to power vast amounts of productivity or growth. Vermont's gross state product consistently ranks at the bottom of the 50 states. The Sanders policy program amounts, in part, to taxing Texas oilmen, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and Wall Street investment bankers, and using the money to subsidize the ski bums and hippy organic farmers of Vermont. It's one thing for Sanders and others to choose to move to Vermont; it's another thing for them to ask for a subsidy from those who decided to stay in New York City or Chicago. Where's the justice in that?
If Sanders wants to get elected president, he will need to expand his appeal beyond the cheese belt of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Upstate New York, and Vermont. He'll also have to carry places such as Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida. His best chance to do that would be to take seriously his own excellent advice about getting out of his zone of comfort.