Everything you need to know about the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination can be found in a single moment in one of the early debates, when Bernie Sanders was asked for his thoughts on banks. His face creased in pharisaical rage.
"They trample on the middle class, they control Washington, and why do they chain all their pens to the desks?" he demanded. "You gotta break up the banks into little pieces and then flush the pieces down the toilet so you can never put the banks back together. Then you just make the bankers pay for college for everyone, and America's fixed!"
As Sanders spoke, Hillary Clinton shamelessly mugged crazy faces—until it dawned on her that the wild applause from the crowd was for him, not her. "Wait a minute, do you all like this?" she cried. "I'm not losing, am I?"
OK, that exchange only happened on Saturday Night Live. But that doesn't make it any less true. A self-proclaimed socialist whose entire platform consists of spending more money on everything and making somebody else pay for it has somehow broken into the presidential race, to the befuddlement of everybody—especially Clinton.
The 2016 campaign will long be remembered for its peculiarities. The role of still-not-dead Fidel Castro, whose revolution helped produce two major candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—by driving their parents out of Cuba and keeping them from returning. The most amazingly trivial and profoundly useless act of pandering in political history: Carly Fiorina's declaration on the campaign trail that she would root for Iowa over her alma mater Stanford in the Rose Bowl. (Iowa lost the game by 29 points, Fiorina the caucuses by 26.) And the shocking performances of two renegade candidates who are barely members of their own parties, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Trump's popularity, though undeniably surprising, was still an amplified version of a previously observed phenomenon: America's sporadic love affair with belligerent rich guys, painfully unrequited since Ross Perot left politics.
Sanders is another matter. Embracing a political label that, outside a few mutinous congressional districts, has been instant electoral death for the past six decades, the independent senator from Vermont has not only renounced the political triangulation that gave Democrats all their presidential victories of the past 48 years; he openly preaches class warfare. Barely considered an asterisk when he announced his candidacy—The New York Times didn't even run a story, and New York magazine considered him significant only because he would "occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O'Malley"—Sanders roared from 30 points behind in the Iowa polls to a photo finish so close that some precincts were decided by coin flips. (This no doubt confirmed Sanders' oft-stated fears that money plays too large a role in American politics.)
It wasn't until the Super Tuesday voting in March that Clinton really reasserted herself as the front-runner—and even then, what did Sanders in was not his affection for socialism but his problematic relationship with black voters. In the cluster of southern states at the heart of Super Tuesday, Clinton rolled up majorities of 80 and 90 percent among the large black turnout. Outside the South, Sanders won four Super Tuesday primaries—Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota and, of course Vermont—and came within a gnat's eyebrow of upsetting Clinton in Massachusetts.
"I was surprised at the numbers of people who turned out for his rallies here," said William A. Prezant, an attorney and former state Democratic Party chairman in Nevada, another state where Sanders did startlingly well, winning more than 47 percent of the vote in February caucuses. "You'd think his talk about socialism would be anathema to the rugged individualism of Nevada. This is a state with legal gambling and prostitution.…But he's tapping into people who are disaffected, who feel they've not had much of a say, who feel the political system has really become an economic system for people like lobbyists and political consultants who are an economy unto themselves."
While the remainder of the campaign looks distinctly more favorable to the former secretary of state, there are still plenty of scenarios, mostly involving indictments or health crises, giving the Democratic Party establishment roiling waves of off-the-record jitters.
Even if Sanders' candidacy flickers and blows out, the questions it has raised will remain long after November: Has the American electorate taken a sharp turn left? Will we start seeing Che Guevara T-shirts on the podium at conventions? Or is Sanders just one more political sunspot in an election cycle that has already given us a Twitter war between a GOP candidate and a murderous Mexican drug bandit?
Part of the answer lies in the Bernie-friendly quirks of the electoral calendar. Iowa and New Hampshire are home to some of the most liberal Democratic voters in the country. The states are also small, making Clinton's ability to make big media buys with her vast campaign war chest (twice the size of Sanders') less significant.
Yet even if he loses, Sanders has still shown he can attract around 40 percent of Democratic voters across the country. That's an amazing performance for somebody who keeps a plaque on the office wall honoring Eugene V. Debs, who ran his 1920 Socialist Party presidential campaign from the prison cell where he was serving a sentence for sedition.
Sanders is a guy who throws around words like oligarchy like penny candy, promises to stop virtually all U.S. trade with countries not run by someone named Castro, and thinks the federal government should set up "worker-owned businesses." He wants you to be able to borrow money from the government at the Post Office. And his contempt for the marketplace borders on the paranoid. "You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers," he famously said at the beginning of his campaign, "when children are hungry in this country."
What Sanders means when he says he's a socialist—a democratic socialist, as he's always careful to add—is one of the great underexamined questions of the campaign. Sanders himself usually blows it off with a breezy line that he's not Stalin or Kim Jong-un.
"Does anyone here think I'm a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government? That I want all of you to be wearing similar-colored pajamas?" he asked some New Hampshire school kids last fall. After they finished laughing—the inevitable response—he explained that "democratic socialism" is just a kind of friendly neighborhood clubhouse where everybody's welcome: "a government which represents all people, rather than just the wealthiest people, which is most often the case right now in this country. And it is making sure that all of our people have health care as a right, education as a right, decent housing as a right, child care as a right."
If that's the definition of socialism, it includes just about every Democrat who's run for president in the past 30 years, and a lot of the Republicans, too.
"I don't think Sanders is a socialist by any political science definition I've ever heard," says the Middlebury political scientist Matt Dickinson, who writes the widely followed Presidential Power blog and is a longtime Sanders watcher. "There are different definitions, of course, but they all include some version of government ownership of the means of production. I've never heard him say anything along those lines."
Jack Gierzynski, a University of Vermont political scientist, agrees: "The closest Sanders gets to anything that remotely resembles the government replacing the private sector is on single-payer health insurance, where the government would take over the role of the insurance companies. Beyond that, I've never heard any rhetoric from him about the private sector being taken over or the government owning the means of production."
On the rare occasions when journalists have really pressed him about his personal definition of socialism, Sanders abandons his carefully cultivated reputation as a blunt talker who eschews political spin. In an interview last year with Rolling Stone, a reporter asked about a documentary on Debs that Sanders made in 1979, before he won elected office. Because little film of Debs exists, the documentary made heavy use of still photos, with Sanders himself voicing over some of the union leader's speeches.
"Some of the language is pretty hot by today's standards," the reporter pointed out, noting references to wage earners as "slaves" who would be better off fulfilling their "great historic mission" to "overthrow the capitalist system."
"Those were [Debs'] words," Sanders replied quickly. "You're not quoting me saying those things." Though Debs' vision of "massive exploitation and inequality," Sanders said, is "a vision that I share."
"Including an 'overthrow of the capitalist system'?" the reporter pressed.
"No, no, no," Sanders retorted. "Now you're being provocative. If you follow my campaign, have you heard me talk about overthrowing the capitalist economic system?"
Also worth noting: Sanders usually delivers his speeches without a prepared text or even notes, mostly because he's been saying the same thing, relentlessly, for 40 years. ("Bernie's the last person you'd want to be stuck on a desert island with," one of his friends told The New Yorker. "Two weeks of lectures about health care, you'd look for a shark and dive in.") But when he talked to Georgetown students last year about his definition of the word socialism, he used a teleprompter.
Even taking Sanders at his word that he doesn't want to overthrow capitalism, he certainly intends to regulate and tax it within an inch of its life, and to put some of its foremost practitioners in jail. (On the first day of a Sanders presidency, he vows, he'll have a committee make up a list of who should be criminally prosecuted for the 2008 financial crisis.) When a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter asked during an interview if he wanted to say anything to reassure the nervous inhabitants of Wall Street, Sanders snapped, "I'm not going to reassure them—their greed, their recklessness, their illegal behavior has destroyed the lives of millions of Americans. Frankly, if I were a hedge fund manager, I would not vote for Bernie Sanders. And I would contribute money to my opponents to try to defeat him."
There won't be any need for a committee to make up lists of new taxes; Sanders already has a long one. A business health care tax! A Wall Street trading tax! Higher inheritance taxes and corporate income taxes! A new tax on oil companies! Higher marginal income tax rates and higher Social Security taxes! More than a dozen altogether, adding something between $6.5 trillion and $20 trillion to the country's tax burden, depending on whose accounting you listen to, over the next decade. The high end would mark an increase of nearly 50 percent over current federal government projections.
And that doesn't even count the taxes that make Sanders pant with excitement but have not yet been put forth as formal proposals. Like this one, in Sanders' campaign autobiography Outsider in the White House: "It is also time, high time, to establish a tax on wealth similar to those that exist in most European countries.…A tax on wealth could raise tens of billions a year."
Viewed from a certain angle, enacting all those taxes would be an act of fiscal responsibility—because Sanders will need every penny of them to cover the cost of his giveaways. His proposals would cost some $18 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the calculations of The Wall Street Journal—$15 trillion alone on that single-payer medical system with no co-pays or deductibles. That would raise federal spending from around 20 percent of gross domestic product to about 30 percent, which, if it isn't socialism, is at least a good down payment. (If you doubt that The Wall Street Journal can be trusted to do a fair financial appraisal of Plan Sanders, The New York Times in February reported that a panel of lefty economists estimate the price tag should be doubled to $30 trillion.)
A Sanders administration will resemble nothing so much as a cracked-open piñata, with free airports, bridges, college tuition, child care, preschool, and family leave, plus bigger pensions and more Social Security spilling everywhere. "In the Bernie Sanders drinking game," cracked a giddy Joel Stein in Bloomberg Businessweek, "every time he mentions a free government program, you drink someone else's beer." Not that his largesse is limitless. "You want to build a new football stadium? The federal government is not gonna pay for that," Sanders sternly declared in an interview last year.
When you start throwing around numbers like $18 trillion, even case-hardened tax-and-spend liberals take a deep breath. "BERNIE SANDERS RELEASES HEALTH PLAN AND IT'S EVEN MORE AMBITIOUS THAN YOU THOUGHT," gasped The Huffington Post in January, when Sanders finally provided details on his single-payer plan. Sanders' defense against these charges is always two-pronged: His ideas aren't as expensive as they look because in the long run they'll save money—by creating healthier Americans and smarter, college-educated kids! And anyway, who cares, because the tab will be paid by predatory corporations and their greedy billionaire masters.
The financial model of his health care plan, for instance, assumes it will mostly pay for itself with $10 trillion in lower medical costs over the next 10 years. And the rest will be covered by taxes on the rich-particularly people who make $10 million a year or more, who will be hit with marginal income tax rates of 52 percent.
Like so many of Sanders' ideas, there are some grim realities lurking beneath those airy assumptions. There are only 13,000 households in all of America that have an annual income of over $10 million, so even if you seize their gold-plated plumbing, sell all their polo ponies, and make their kids empty hospital bedpans, there's a limit to how much can be squeezed out of them.
Meanwhile, the idea that the government can run a health care program without bureaucracy will be news to anybody who has ever applied for Medicare or Medicaid. Countries that use single-payer systems cut their costs not through administrative savings but by putting the hammer down on doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and everything else involved in the actual provision of medical care. What happens when those people resist Sanders' attempts to cut their revenues by a trillion dollars a year? What if they refuse to join his plan and set up an alternative, private system? Will he outlaw it? Promising to horsewhip hedge fund managers may be politically costless, but Americans may feel less enthusiastic about the prospect of doing the same to their family doctors.
This glib disregard of troublesome facts runs through many of Sanders' economic ideas, sometimes to the point of outright falsehood. Remember that wealth tax he's so enraptured by, the one "similar to those that exist in most European countries"? A 2014 European Commission survey of the continent's tax policies found just three European countries with something like it: Spain, France, and the Netherlands. "Several countries abolished their wealth tax," the commission reported, "because of the fact that the taxpayers were able to move much of their wealth out of reach of the wealth tax." That is, when a government tries to seize rich people's money, many of them leave.
Often Sanders employs lines that sound good to his eat-the-rich supporters but have a tenuous relationship to reality. In Outsider in the White House, he declares in a shocked tone: "Ninety-eight percent of the daily newspapers in America have a monopoly as the only paper in town." That's true, probably even understated. But so what? The Internet has made nearly every newspaper in the world available to anybody with a keyboard, along with blogs and websites running the ideological gamut from ThinkProgress to Stormfront.
Print newspapers have withered away to desiccated skeletons of themselves, and the only thing that will be accomplished by attacking big chains like Gannett and Newhouse with antitrust cases, as Sanders wants to do, is to kill off another bunch of papers. The outlets that survive will not necessarily be any better for losing their corporate identity. No progressives were lauding the strong local ownership when William Loeb was using the Manchester Union Leader to call Nelson Rockefeller a "wife swapper," or when the Otis family ran the Los Angeles Times as such a labor-baiting rag that one local trade unionist dynamited the building.
Consider also Sanders' popular tax on Wall Street trading (or "speculation," if you prefer his 19th century vernacular), the instrument by which the rich will pay for everybody's college tuition. Sanders' definition of "rich" has always been flexible: He often draws the line at $250,000 a year in household income, which is indeed a lot of money if the household is in Farmington, New Mexico (median home price: $186,000), much less so in Arlington, Virginia ($552,000). When Sanders talks about raising the income cap on Social Security taxes, "rich" dips all the way down to $118,500 a year, the current maximum taxable level of income for individuals.
But the trading tax will reach down to Main Street any way you want to cut it. It will clobber mutual funds, the preferred middle-class investment instrument. (There are currently more than 80 million 401(k) accounts.) The Vanguard Group, a mutual fund company, estimates that Sanders' tax would knock more than a percentage point and a half off returns for an actively managed fund that buys small stocks.
The trading tax will also hit union workers, through the investments of their pension funds, as well as the very colleges it is intended to support, through the investments of their endowments.
Which brings us to the delicacy of Sanders' plan for tuition-free college. His funding plan makes no allowance for a crunch in endowment investments, nor for the probability that once stock trades are taxed, investors will start making fewer of them, which will reduce the money gained from the tax. And then there's another probability: that once tuition is free, more students will want to attend college, requiring more professors and more buildings. Once you've got less money than you expected but more students, the whole thing starts unraveling like a Kmart sweater.
And that's the fundamental weakness in Sanders' economic thinking, even more than his unfounded belief that achieving income equality is the constitutionally mandated purpose of American government. He has no idea how or why markets work, and he has no sense of their dynamism. It never occurs to him that if you tax people for being rich, they'll go be rich someplace else. Or that if you tax their stock trades, they'll either figure out a way to reduce trading—or move their business to Tokyo or Frankfurt. Or that if you stop paying pharmaceutical companies for drugs, they'll stop producing them.
In that respect, he's very much like the socialist planners who tried to remake the economies of Russia and Eastern Europe and Cuba and could never figure out why nothing they did worked. To the extent that they achieved equality, it was by reducing everybody's income to next to nothing.
Feeling the Bern
Leaving aside, for the moment, just where on the Richter scale of redistributionist economics Sanders may fall, what does it mean that he's won such popularity while bragging about being a socialist?
Nothing, insist some Bernie watchers, counterintuitively: His manic reception by the left-wing Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire doesn't signify anything about the electorate as a whole.
"I was around when Michael Dukakis was destroyed by the liberal label during his presidential run, and I don't think that as a country we've moved that far from 1988," says the University of Vermont's Gierzynski. "On economic issues, there's still that strong vein of economic individualism in this country. Even among millennials, it's pretty clear that they're more libertarian than liberal."
Berniemania among college-age kids—in Iowa, he won a stunning 84 percent of caucus voters aged 17–29—is more a matter of style than substance, Gierzynski and others argue. "Young people have never liked party labels, and that's even more true today," he says. "Somebody who goes against the party establishment is always going to be more popular with college kids."
Beyond that, Sanders seems to have inadvertently turned into a hipster icon. His unremittingly unmediagenic style—he usually looks like he just climbed out of a clothes dryer, punctuates his speeches with spastic chopping motions, and, if he tries to tell a joke, inevitably steps on his own punchline—is so inept that young audiences regard it as a sign of authenticity, an adjective used often by his supporters.
"I saw him at a rally in New Hampshire right after [dead-ringer comedian] Larry David did him on Saturday Night Live," says Middlebury's Dickinson. "It was literally the next day, and Sanders says, 'I'm gonna start with a joke: I'm not Bernie Sanders, I'm Larry David.' It was horribly delivered, but the crowd still went wild, because it was very Bernie."
In some ways, Sanders is authentically what he appears to be. He spent his college years at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, by his own admission kicking around with the campus communists. He washed up in Vermont in 1968 amid a major hippie influx to the state (though Sanders, who liked neither dope nor rock 'n' roll, was at best a fellow traveler), and he moved into an empty shack on some farmland where he cooked over fires made from rolls of toilet paper and lighter fluid.
From there he took a desultory stab at making a living. For a time he was, by all accounts, the world's worst carpenter, before becoming, by all accounts, the world's worst underground newspaper columnist. (The closest thing to a scandal during his presidential run has been the surfacing of a nearly incomprehensible old column that at first glance appeared to suggest women fantasize about being raped by three men at a time. On closer reading, it was a profoundly inept attempt at satire.)
In 1971, Sanders found his true calling, running long-shot left-wing campaigns for elective office. Among the centerpieces of his first, for the U.S. Senate: a demand that freeway on-ramps be widened to make it easier to pick up hitchhikers. After losing four such elections in a row, he won a fluky four-way race for mayor of Burlington by a mere 10 votes. Four terms and a couple of losses later, he went to Washington, first as Vermont's lone congressman, then as one of its senators.
From the start, Sanders has been prophesying the imminent doom of all America. "I have the very frightened feeling that if fundamental and radical change does not come about in the very near future that our nation, and, in fact, our entire civilization could soon be entering an economic dark age," he said in 1974. (That was also the year he warned that we were on the verge of a "virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation." Since then the Rockefellers have been supplanted by dictatorships of Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and the Koch brothers.)
Though Sanders has won his last 10 elections, there's been no groundswell of socialism in Vermont. Sanders left his tiny Liberty Union party nearly a half-century ago and all his winning races have been run as an independent. (He reluctantly joined the Democratic Party for his White House bid.) He has never attempted to organize his followers into a party that could fight for institutional power, and his three gubernatorial races were disastrous.
"There's a sense here of 'We love Bernie, but we love him even more if he's up there in Washington, rattling their cages instead of ours,'" Dickinson says. "Everybody loves Bernie, yeah, but it's not like he's here putting together a political coalition that will actually govern the state."
If that seems more like a personal ego trip than a serious attempt at building a movement, you're on to the big secret: Even Bernie Sanders is a politician who does politically expedient things.
"As mayor, he did some stuff on leftist issues that had symbolic importance, like working out a friendship-city agreement with some place in Sandinista Nicaragua," recalls Dickinson. "But on substance, he was largely pragmatic. He campaigned against a big hotel-and-condo development on Lake Champlain, but in the end, the waterfront was developed, with condos, though in a more aesthetically appealing way. When college students were picketing a G.E. plant that had a defense contract, Bernie had them arrested because they were preventing workers from getting into the plant."
Sanders is at his most nakedly political when there's a share of pork on the table. His fiery denunciations of Pentagon spending went mysteriously quiet when it came to Lockheed Martin's balky F-35 fighter jet, which has racked up hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns while compiling a sketchy safety record. Amazing coincidence: The first detachment of F-35s will be supplied to the Vermont Air National Guard and deployed at Burlington's commercial airport.
And then there's Sanders' yeoman work to attach a provision to a 1996 agriculture bill permitting Vermont and five other states to create a dairy cartel. The Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact allowed the states' farmers to fix the price of milk and prohibit outside competition. The retail price of milk jumped 20 cents a gallon in the first three weeks—it's a good thing no poor kids drink milk, right?—and an embarrassed Congress eventually repealed the cartel's authority. The unblushing Sanders, though, brags in Outsider in the White House that he walked right into the jaws of hell to get the compact approved, even working with, pardon the expression, Republicans: "We take it any way we can get it."
To get what he wanted, he even made peace with the demons of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—for a while. Sanders' breathtakingly Olympian flip-flops on gun control over the years started with him demanding the "abolition of all laws which interfere with the Constitutional right of citizens to bear arms" in one of his early kamikaze candidacies. (That was 1972, when left-wing radicals were still enchanted with the Black Panthers and other military-chic factions.) By last December, in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, without so much as a blink, he was calling for the expansion of background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and making gun trafficking a federal crime.
In between there were a lot of squirmy moments. Sanders won his first congressional election in 1990 at least in part because the NRA turned against his Republican opponent for supporting a ban on automatic weapons, and he trod carefully around the organization after that. He voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, which established background checks and a waiting period for gun purchases. And in 2005, the man who believes corporations are the root of all evil voted for an NRA-backed bill that blocked negligence lawsuits against gun manufacturers whose weapons have been used to commit crimes. It's a vote Hillary Clinton has wielded against Sanders like an AK-47.
"The reason it's such a problem for Sanders is that it's the one thing that shows he's a politician," says Gierzynski. "He voted that way for purely political instincts. Voting to give immunity to the gun industry, when he's opposed corporations on so many, many things, that's not liberal at all. Not even close to it."
You might even call it inauthentic.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Sanders Surprise".