Bernie Sanders, Red Star of Vermont

Red Star of Vermont: Bernie Sanders Mixes Marx and Norman Rockwell
January 8, 1991

BURLINGTON, VERMONT — His ac­ceptance speech sounded like The Communist Manifesto, but it came from rock-ribbed Vermont. “Our small state might go down in history,” Bernie Sanders told jubilant supporters on election night, “as leading a political revo­lution which takes power away from the multinational corpora­tions and the wealthy and gives it back to the people.” If that seems ambitious, consid­er that Sanders — the first socialist elected to Congress in 40 years­ — has always thought big. Shortly af­ter Sanders’s first election as may­or of Burlington in 1981, François Mitterand became the first Social­ist president of France in 40 years, prompting Bernie’s sup­porters to distribute buttons that read: “As goes Burlington, so goes France.”

In an otherwise colorless elec­tion, Sanders became a media darling, his Brooklyn basso broad­cast on everything from Nightline to National Public Radio. Now, as Congress reconvenes, people are waiting to see what, if anything, this son of a Flatbush paint sales­man can do about war, recession, and poverty. And whether, as University of Vermont political analyst Garrison Nelson predicted earlier this year, “there are going to be 100 Bernie Sanders running for Congress in 1992.”

That prospect makes organiza­tion-minded Democrats bristle. But it gives hope to some femi­nists, labor leaders, and civil rights activists who are now, in a series of meetings across the coun­try, testing the waters for an inde­pendent third party.

“Bernie Sanders’s vision is to open up the process,” the Rever­end Jesse Jackson says. “After all, the reason we had such a low turnout in the last election is that, in many cases, the two parties have become indistinguishable­ — one party with two names, wres­tling over marginal differences.”

Independent candidates like Sanders, he says, “can only help make democracy better.”

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The People’s Republic of Vermont

Is Sanders’s election a mandate for strident class politics and third-party candidates? Or could it happen only in a state whose tiny population commands just one congressional seat, and where diversity is largely limited to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream?

Sanders, 49, a prickly civil­-rights activist, carpenter, and vid­eomaker who migrated here in the hippie invasion of 1968, insists the miracle isn’t that he carried Vermont. It is that the left is not sweeping elections across the United States.

Seated behind a stack of dog­eared campaign posters at his Burlington office — a white clap­board storefront with a red “Ber­nie” sign overhead — Sanders paints an America at the brink.

“At a time when the country is $4 trillion in debt, when the peo­ple have experienced one enor­mous scandal after another… when you have a president who’s itching to go to war, an enormous­ly growing gap between the rich and the poor, 3 million people sleeping out on the street, and a health-care situation in absolute chaos — how is it conceivable that the left is not making enormous gains from one end of this country to the other?” he asks.

“It is” — he pauses for breath and resumes with force — “beyond comprehension.”

America is ready, he says, for “radical solutions” that the Dem­ocratic and Republican parties are unwilling to provide, and that the left is too timid to trumpet.

“The day the left wakes up and understands that virtually every working person understands in­stinctively the class issues, and be­gins talking those class issues, we’ll have a revitalization of pro­gressive politics.”

Sanders has been “talking those class issues” to Vermonters for nearly 20 years. Since 1971, he has run for senator twice, gover­nor three times, mayor four times, and Congress twice. Along the way he became such a familiar fixture of Vermont politics that even farmers in the remote North­east Kingdom know him as “Ber­nie.”

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The rough, sometimes abrasive style that alienates even support­ers did not seem to bother rural Vermonters. In fact, Sanders has been able to count on their sup­port in several elections when he lost more urban parts of the state.

Sanders’s style is pure Brooklyn street-fighter: confrontational, unyielding, and convinced of victory even as he lies bleeding on the ground. Defeat, Sanders says, is not failure. Not when you get peo­ple to listen to your ideas.

After one year at Brooklyn Col­lege, Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago in 1961. He led sit-down demonstrations against the school’s segregated housing, joined the Young Peo­ple’s Socialist League and the Congress on Racial Equality, and applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War.

Resettling in Vermont with his first wife in 1968, he built a small business making educational vid­eos (his favorite is one on the life of Eugene Debs) and joined the Liberty Union Party, an out­growth of the antiwar movement. Four times, he was the party’s standard bearer in state races. Four times he lost. Then in 1981, running on his own, he stunned even his supporters and tumbled onto the national scene as Burlington’s socialist mayor.

His trademark mop of unruly hair is white now, trimmed neat as a monk’s. He even traded his crew-neck sweater and jeans for a suit and tie in a televised cam­paign debate. But his message has stayed remarkably consistent: The wealthy and powerful 1 per cent of the population will not surren­der their half of the American pie without a battle, and he is ready to wage it.

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The people of Vermont either love Sanders or hate him. But in an age of political torpor, he has succeeded in making his brand of “Swedish-style” socialism the hot­test topic around.

“In the face of catastrophic fail­ures of socialist governments worldwide… are there really enough left-wing wackos in Ver­mont to elect him?” one man wrote to The Burlington Free Press shortly before the election.

“What nonsense!” countered another reader. “Bernie Sanders hasn’t made a Bulgaria out of Bur­lington.”

In fact, Burlington prospered under Sanders, who won the 1981 mayoral race there by 10 votes. An able administrator, he won comfortable majorities over his eight years in office.

Working with other members of his Progressive Coalition on the city council — known here as San­deristas — the mayor opened the state’s first municipally funded day-care center, expanded moder­ate-income housing, and built a pollution-control facility on neighboring Lake Champlain. He switched the city away from prop­erty taxes — which he viewed as unfair to the middle class and the elderly — to hotel and restaurant fees and higher taxes on utility companies.

His efforts won him recognition as one of the nation’s top 20 may­ors by U.S. News and World Report and a following among other­wise traditional voters. A 1985 poll showed that one-third of Ronald Reagan’s Burlington sup­porters also voted for Sanders.

Conservatives were less enam­ored with the sister-city relation­ships Sanders established with towns in the USSR and Nicara­gua. But his fiercest critics came from Burlington’s Green Party, who said he was insensitive to en­vironmental concerns.

After leaving office in 1989, Sanders launched his second run for Vermont’s congressional seat. He had lost by only 3 per cent in 1988; this time he had the econo­my, momentum, and 1000 volun­teers on his side.

Sanders’s 16 per cent margin of victory in November reflected in part the desperation of dairy farmers, loggers, granite cutters, and graying hippies in this eco­nomically ravaged state.

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For all its postcard-perfect beauty, Vermont is in crisis, hard hit by a recession that has devas­tated family farms and made “For Sale” signs as familiar a part of the landscape as Jersey cows. Hid­den behind the verdant hills are single mothers living in uninsulat­ed trailers and an increasing num­ber of homeless camped at high­way rest areas.

In these hard times, even conservative Vermonters warmed to Sanders’s message. “I listened to the man,” my neighbor Harold, a lifelong Republican, said a few days before the election. “And what he said makes sense. I just can’t bring myself to pull the lever for a socialist.”

Sensing that hesitation, Repub­lican congressman Peter Smith re­leased two attack ads late in the campaign: Both questioned San­ders’s patriotism and painted him as a communist sympathizer. But the ads misfired badly, as would­-be supporters told Smith that they didn’t need a lesson in Vermont values. Negative ads only work when the target is an unknown, analysts say — and Bernie was bet­ter known than his opponent.

According to Ellen David­ Friedman, a union organizer and former Sanders campaign staffer, Sanders has effectively “eliminat­ed red-baiting as a valuable tool by taking the punch out. You talk to the farmer or little old lady on the street, and he or she will say: ‘Well I don’t like socialists, but if Bernie Sanders is a socialist then it’s OK.’ ”

Even the state’s unions depart­ed from tradition: drawn to San­ders’s call for national health care, the state AFL-CIO and National Education Association backed an independent candidate for the first time in Vermont history.

Can Sanders’s success be dupli­cated in other parts of the coun­try? Many political observers say no, citing the weakness of Ver­mont’s Democratic Party and the independence and homogeneity of the state’s electorate.

But Sanders is hopeful that his victory will encourage other pro­gressives to launch independent campaigns for local, state, and federal office. Success may take years, Sanders says, but even in defeat, progressive candidates broaden the terms of American political debate.

“I suspect if somebody in Colo­rado was talking about the things I talk about, and ran for Congress, they might not win the first time… but they’ll get people think­ing,” Sanders says.

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Who Started the Class War, Anyway?

Sanders’s victory has been hailed by left-leaning Democrats as a sig­nal that class warfare is good poli­tics.

“President Bush is a very race­-conscious, sex-conscious, and class-conscious president,” Jack­son said in a recent telephone in­terview. The president’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights bill cut off all opportunities for the poor and minorities save one, he said: join­ing the military.

“The price you pay for survival is the high risk of dying,” he said. “And that’s a class crisis.”

Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, an ally of Sanders, agrees that Americans are hungry for progressive leadership, but says it should come from within Democratic ranks. A third party, says Frank, is a Republican’s wet dream.

“It’s daft, D-A-F-T, which rhymes with Taft, whose memory would undoubtedly be smiling at it,” he says. “The best thing for Republi­cans would be for liberals to split.” (Republican president Wil­liam H. Taft was crushed in his 1912 bid for reelection when for­mer president Theodore Roose­velt ran on a third-party ticket; the split allowed Democrat Wood­row Wilson to sail to victory.)

“What disabling compromises do you think Pat Schroeder [Dem­ocrat, Colorado], Ron Dellums [Democrat, California], or Teddy Weiss [Democrat, New York] have made?” he asks. “They are very outstanding, independent­-minded people. People who have been effective from a left position have done it from the Democratic party.”

But Eleanor Smeal, former pres­ident of the National Organization for Women and now director of Feminist Majority, says that only a third party holds answers for wom­en. She and NOW president Molly Yard have established the Com­mission for Responsive Democra­cy to bring together feminists, unionists, civil rights leaders, and environmentalists to voice frustra­tion with the two-party system and explore alternatives.

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The commission, which has held hearings in Washington, D.C., and New York, is planning sessions in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and other major cities in coming months.

“Some folks want to scare both the Democrats and the Republi­cans,” Smeal says, “because they’re fed up with a one-party system with two names. They’re fed up with women and minor­ities being locked out of the deci­sion-making of the nation. At the present rate of growth it will take women 400 years to get parity in Congress. That is just not accept­able. ”

But Smeal is wary of too much emphasis on class distinctions. “You don’t hear a total class ana­lysis from me,” she says, “because women from all classes have been locked out.”

There are signs that party loyal­ties are weakening: In November, independents were elected to gov­ernorships in Connecticut and Alaska, and Massachusetts voters passed a referendum easing ballot access for third-party candidates. Add to that Sanders’s victory and independents have had their most successful year since 1936, ac­cording to Ballot Access News in San Francisco.

But independents do not a third party make. Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker and Alaska’s Wally Hick­el ran as independents only after losing their Republican primaries. And Sanders, although aligned with the Progressive Coalition in Burlington, has shown little inter­est in building a party structure around him.

If the time is ripe for a third party, Bernie Sanders says he is not going to lead it. “A third party will be created, not when a dozen people get together and decide to form one,” he says. “That’s prob­ably happened a hundred times in the last 100 years.… It starts on a grassroots level.”

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The Road Ahead

Two weeks spent with the Demo­cratic caucus last month proved the political equivalent of a cold shower for Sanders.

“I would not be telling you the truth if I told you I thought the U.S. Congress will support my agenda,” he says.

Still, he won his first tug-of-war, gaining a committee assignment from House Speaker Thomas Fo­ley without joining the Democrat­ic caucus. (He will most likely serve on the Banking and Finance or Education and Labor commit­tee.) And he draws distinctions between elements of his program that he is unlikely to win in the near future, such as military bud­get cuts and higher taxes for the wealthy, and those goals he be­lieves are realistic: national health care and federal relief for small dairy farmers.

“The laws in this country favor chemically intensive, large-scale farming,” said Ben Cohen, co­founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. And that leaves Ver­mont’s struggling family farms out in the cold. Sanders says he’ll make their cause a national priority.

National health care, too, is “absolutely winnable,” Sanders says. “It is not a poor people’s issue.… Most of the people who have no health insurance whatso­ever are working people.”

The effort would coalesce unions, farmers, and the elderly “all on one side against the multi­national insurance companies, the drug companies, the AMA, all the people who have been making bil­lions of dollars in profit off human illness and misery,” he said.

Even Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corp., is talking about the idea, Congressman Frank said. “He says he has to put the cost of health insurance on his cars, while his competition — the Japanese and the Germans ­— don’t.” Sanders says the program could be funded by recouping the fraud and waste in the current sys­tem; Frank says the money could come from trimming NATO out­lays in Eastern Europe.

And if national health coverage is won, Sanders believes, the co­alition behind it would be well armed to tackle other policy goals, like affordable housing, adequate funding for education, and a more equitable tax structure.

Utopian? Sanders doesn’t think so. Raised in a cramped apart­ment on Kings Highway, where money worries caused bitter fam­ily rifts, Sanders says it is “not utopian” to work toward an America where people’s basic needs are cared for.

Pointing to the Swedish model of democratic socialism, Sanders believes his role in Congress is to debunk what he calls the “big lie “: that there is no middle ground between Reaganism and Stalinism.

“The president of the U.S. will not tell you that it’s good that 3 million people sleep out on the streets,” Sanders says. “But what he’s been able to posture is: ‘Do you want the Soviet Union? That’s your alternative.’ ”

“The role that people like me have to play is to say: We do not want authoritarian communism, but we can do a hell of a lot better than laissez-faire capitalism.”


Let Us Now Praise the Radical Women of New York

It has been six weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ever since, the nation’s thinkpiece writers have been working overtime, spilling untold barrels of ink in the pursuit of explicating, denigrating, or emblematizing her. Just this week, a piece at CNN seemed to lay blame at her feet alone for the failure of several progressive candidates in Tuesday’s special and legislative elections. The extraordinary focus on a neophyte nominee is in part due to the unusual circumstance of an incumbent being dislodged at all in America’s top-heavy system, much less by a very young woman of color. But critics keep returning to just one way in which Ocasio-Cortez has distinguished herself from the multitude of Democratic candidates this cycle: She identifies as a socialist. 

The word has been tossed around for decades as a slur against even the most bloodless, corporate Democrat; it was used so liberally on Fox News in the Obama years as to render the term totally hollow. Seizing the chance to fill this vacuum of meaning, Ocasio-Cortez — along with Cynthia Nixon, candidate for New York’s governorship; Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate; and the man who popularized the term with his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders — has reclaimed the label, affixing it to a slate of policies that make eminent sense to many Americans: socialized medicine, free college tuition, an end to cash bail.

Throughout her still-brief political career, Ocasio-Cortez has been dogged by a slate of tsk-ing pundits muttering about her policies being too far to the left — and potentially a liability for the entire Democratic party in the crucial November elections. But those who seek to paint a young woman drawing on the legacy of FDR’s social policies as a wild and dangerous radical ought to look just a bit further back. In all the multitudinous pieces seeking to understand the phenomenon of her candidacy, few have looked at the history of the city Ocasio-Cortez is from. New York has a long history of radical women who have stood at the helm of social movements, often in times of great social ferment. Is it such a surprise that again, on these steaming streets, in the second decade of a young century, women tired of a grift-raddled and regressive status quo have chosen again to take up the banner of progress?

A century ago, New York City was the primary residence of “the most dangerous woman in America”: a firebrand who preached a line far more volatile than free college. Behind her tiny wire-rimmed spectacles, her seething mind drew hordes into the streets. Down on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, a woman came to this country and made an indelible mark on it. Her name was Emma Goldman, and exactly one hundred years ago, she was in prison for preaching anarchy in the streets of New York.

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In 1885, at the age of sixteen, Emma Goldman stepped off a boat in New York Harbor, fleeing a father in St. Petersburg who had told her she had little more to learn than how to make gefilte fish.

She departed the city not long after, for Rochester, where she worked in a factory; but after the Haymarket riots and the subsequent execution of four anarchists, she fled the factory and her then-husband and returned to the city. There, in a tenement house, she fell in love; defended gay rights; published the radical magazine Mother Earth; and advocated for every woman’s right “to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”

She possibly inspired the mad Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. She certainly did plot with her lover Alexander Berkman to shoot and wound Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick during a spate of brutally repressed steel strikes.

She stumped so proudly against the First World War that a young J. Edgar Hoover had her deported to the Soviet Union. There she confronted Lenin about his censorship of the press; she left the Soviet Union brokenhearted, and traveled about the world for the rest of her life, never finding a settling-place. She returned just once to New York, in 1934, on a speaking tour. On the umber brick of the narrow building on East 13th Street where she once lived hangs a placard lauding her as an “anarchist and orator.” New York, after all, was the city in which she stood before a jury at her trial and said: “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”  

In the century since Goldman’s deportation, New York — with its welter of cultures, its bright slashes of art amid gray avenues, its ability to encompass great wealth and abject poverty — has played host to innumerable radical women. Anita Block, editor of the women’s page of the socialist New York Call, was the first editor in America to print Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, in 1911. Block was a theater critic at a time when, her instructors said, “no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” It was Theresa Malkiel’s chronicle of her experience working in textile sweatshops, 1910’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, that helped fuel public support for workplace reforms; she later became the first female factory worker to ascend to leadership in the U.S. Socialist Party, where she bristled at the sexist myopia of male socialists. After fleeing the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialist poet Sophia Dubnow-Ehrlich made her name in the United States as an aggressive agitator against the Vietnam War.

In 2018, amazingly, there are still female firsts to be had. The recently elected socialist Rashida Tlaib may be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, squaring off against Kansas’ Kevin Yoder in the fall, may be the first Native American woman in the national legislature — a lesbian, former MMA fighter, and radical departure from the Kansas norm by any measure, if not a socialist. But a trailblazer that preceded them by decades was born and bred in Brooklyn — the remarkable, indomitable Shirley Chisholm.

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Chisholm, whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, began her career as an early-childhood educator, then ran — and won — as the second-ever African American elected to the New York State legislature.  She was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, while the country was convulsed with heated protest against racism. Conducting her primary against a male state senator, William Thompson, Chisholm made inroads not just in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a majority-black neighborhood deeply desirous of a black representative. Thanks to a recent redrawing of the Congressional district, she had to conquer the hearts and minds of the white and Puerto Rican residents of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” signaled her independence from the formidable — and sclerotic — Brooklyn political machine. She conducted swathes of her Bushwick campaign in Spanish, distinguishing herself from predecessors, who hadn’t bothered.   

In the end, it was that grassroots organizing — and the support of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black women — that allowed her to triumph over Thompson and make history. “She can pick up the phone and call 200 women and they’ll be here in an hour,” her husband, Conrad Chisholm, said of her electoral army.

“I went out on the trucks, told the people we could all be liberated from the machine,” Chisholm said, describing her hard-fought primary campaign. She went on to serve seven terms in office.

Half a century later, Ocasio-Cortez faced a similar circumstance: a long-shot campaign against an establishmentarian with an iron-clad lock on the local Democratic Party and a full-throated endorsement from the Democratic machine. Crowley declined to debate her, instead racking up reams of endorsements from some two dozen labor unions and women’s organizations.

After her stunning upset, Ocasio-Cortez told off critics who dismissed the painstaking electoral effort she had mounted. “Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, affixing photos of a pair of ruined sneakers. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”

For New Yorkers, living in a city of corruption and patronage, idealism and protest, activism and regression, hustle might just be the only thing we all respect. One hundred years ago, Emma Goldman hustled across states and counties and cities across America to spread her message of labor and love; Shirley Chisholm hit the pavement to sell herself as the pioneer she was. Ocasio-Cortez, despite the sweeping scale of her platform, draws from a rich and variegated history of women who dared to dream big in this city — and who walked the long rough walk, in brogues and heels and sneakers and boots, on streets and avenues, in every borough — to make it work.


America Under Threat

The overheated media circus that is the annual State of the Union address isn’t one of those solemn traditions perverted by our current reality-show existence; rather, the whole affair has, for over a century now, been a largely cosmetic exercise in partisan bravado from both the president and the opposing party. Sweeping policies are confidently aired before they can hit the wall of political reality, and much of the speech ends up trafficking in platitudes that are only a marginal reflection of overall strategy.

Tuesday night’s State of the Union was no different — Donald Trump hammered mostly themes of immigration (bad), economic strengthening (good), trade deals (fair), and unity (far-fetched) during an eighty-minute address (third longest, with numbers one and two unsurprisingly held by Bill Clinton) — with the main innovation being that the traditional opposing-party rebuttal has multiplied.

In addition to the standard party up-and-comer Democratic response from Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III (yes, those Kennedys), there was an official Spanish-language response from newly elected Virginia delegate Elizabeth Guzmán, plus three unofficial responses: Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Maryland representative Donna Edwards, the latter speaking on behalf of the Working Families Party, with California representative Maxine Waters set to follow tonight on BET. As the nation eagerly awaits to see whether a Democratic wave can hit statehouses and Washington, D.C., this fall, the responses offer some clue as to what progressives inside and outside the party mainstream are planning as an alternative to Trumpism.

Joe Kennedy III

Like some of his boldfaced forebears, Kennedy delivered his speech in a halting cadence that lends itself well to heartfelt, soaring rhetoric. With his speech clocking in at about thirteen minutes, Kennedy seemed eager to connect to his listeners emotionally, noting early on that “many have spent the last year anxious, angry, afraid,” followed by a series of single-phrase despondent descriptions of the past year, such as “bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts, and congregations.” His voice sometimes barely rising above a whisper, Kennedy explained that this isn’t a normal State of the Union response because this hasn’t been a normal year, or presidency, saying, “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”

Much of the speech was dedicated to the idea that the administration has created a “zero-sum game” that pits different kinds of Americans against one another. To this new era of extreme polarization and political tribalism, the Democratic answer is, apparently, simple: The Democrats “choose both.” Everyone wins, both corporations and workers, coal miners and single moms.

Kennedy closed out his speech by saying that “politicians can be cheered for the promises they make. Our country will be judged by the promises we keep.” The problem is, it’s not entirely clear which promises he’s committed to beyond some broad-strokes understandings. It’s important to have an “economy strong enough to boast record stock prices and brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times their average worker is not right”? All right. So what are the Democrats going to do about it? Raise income taxes? Close the capital gains loophole? Nationalize every company and force the former CEOs to work the factory floor? It’s not clear.

Elizabeth Guzmán

Unsurprisingly, Guzmán rooted her ten-minute response firmly in her own experiences as an immigrant elected during Virginia’s 2017 Democratic wave. As an avatar for the future of the party, the Peruvian American who started off as a poor single mom is a more natural fit than the white, male scion of a dynastic family, and she was comfortable in the role. “My experiences have been a testament to the incredible promise of this nation,” she said.

Yet this promise was the backdrop for a speech that amplified the darker themes touched on in Kennedy’s speech, with a greater tone of urgency and a sense of imminent danger to the American dream she had lived. “[Trump] threatens to drag our nation back to a shameful past, one in which our people were judged not by the quality of their character, but by the color of their skin and by their religious beliefs,” she said, accusing the president of “neglected our most fundamental American values.” Faced with the “presence of patriotic Dreamers” — many Democratic lawmakers invited undocumented immigrants to be their guests of honor — she said, Trump “presented his plan, which would fundamentally change the character of our country.”

The overall theme of Guzmán’s speech was one of looming regression, as the Trump administration tries to return to a time not only of open xenophobia and racial animus, but of robber barons and sharp inequality. She described how he “named a cabinet of multimillionaires who are only worried about using their posts to help the wealthy” and “mortgaged the future of our children” with a Republican tax scam. She ended in a more hopeful tenor, outlining a vague plan by Democrats to create “an additional 10 million high-paying, full-time jobs” for American workers, and exhorting her fellow Democrats to organize, protest, vote, and run for office to produce leaders “with stories like mine.” Mostly, though, the speech landed more as a stark warning about the current direction of the union than a road map for improving it.

Bernie Sanders

As expected, Bernie played all the hits for the fans at home. In a twenty-five-minute address delivered over social media — including a couple of minutes of technical issues during which the broadcast was interrupted — the senatorial socialist railed against wealth inequality and a collapsing social safety net in his characteristic Brooklyn-accented rasp. He pointed out that Trump had touted strong economic numbers during the State of the Union, but that these referred to the stock market and general unemployment rather than the pace of job creation, which had fallen, and wages, which hadn’t increased: “The rich continue to get much richer while millions of American workers are working two or three jobs just to keep their heads above water.”

Like Guzmán, Sanders responded directly to Trump’s words and actions, although in a much more freewheeling manner that seemed at least partially improvised. He fixated on the contrast between Trump’s past statements and his actions, saying he promised “health insurance for everybody with ‘much lower deductibles.’ That is what he promised.… But…he did exactly the opposite”; Sanders also threw a jab at his Republican counterparts, observing that “colleagues standing up and applauding how great it is that millions of Americans are going to lose their health insurance [is] not quite something that I understand.”

Sanders also targeted the Republican tax plan and Trump’s cabinet of “Wall Street billionaires.” As for the Trump administration’s immigration agenda, Sanders called the protection of Dreamers “one of the great moral issues facing our country” and said that a failure to act would be “unspeakable and a moral stain.” In addition, Sanders dedicated a good chunk of time to the things he felt Trump didn’t talk about, including climate change (“No, Mr. Trump, climate change is not a ‘hoax’ ”), campaign finance (“How can a president of the United States in the year 2018 not discuss the disastrous Citizens United?”), and Russian interference in elections (“How do you not talk about that, unless, perhaps, you have a very special relationship with Mr. Putin?”). He then switched gears to his oft-promised political revolution, with the administration’s sins prompting “a revitalization of American democracy with more and more people standing up and fighting back.” In all, it was a classic Bernie speech, red meat that will be read by fans as speaking refreshing truth to power, and by detractors as tired, useless proselytizing.

Donna Edwards

This was the response that hewed closest to a personal campaign speech, with Edwards introducing herself by making clear that she’s running for county executive in Maryland’s Prince George’s County. The Working Families Party’s purpose, in part, is to drag the Democratic Party, kicking and screaming, to the left, and her roughly twelve-minute address showcased that objective.

Much of Edwards’s speech came across as a less restrained Democratic response, leading with how the administration is “run by and for billionaires and promoting racist policies targeting people of color” and helmed by a man intent on “upending the rule of law, destroying institutions, and engaging in an unprecedented purge of the Department of Justice as special counsel Mueller closes in on him.” Edwards then cycled through a list of terrible decisions that the “bought-and-paid-for puppets in government” had made, including the tax plan, failure to fund the CHIP health program for over a hundred days, and the termination of DACA, while pitching the WFP’s ground organizing as a solution. “All across the nation, in communities and neighborhoods just like mine in Prince George’s County, the spirit of grassroots resistance and civic renewal burns bright,” she said, and pointed to victories like the election of Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner.

This was paired with dire admonitions about the Republicans’ future plans, such as using the ballooning deficit that their own tax plan created to “deliver so-called entitlement reform by any means necessary, [which] would fulfill a longtime dream of the far-right,” and handing infrastructure projects to “Wall Street banks and foreign investors.” Edwards also tied in her own experience, particularly her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, a condition that can be extremely expensive without adequate health insurance. She wrapped up by outlining some WFP priorities, including universal healthcare, public financing for elections, policing of corporate crime, and a transition to a clean-energy economy, making it arguably the most specifics-heavy of the response speeches.


Elizabeth Guzmán’s powerful personal history, grave, concise delivery, and crisp admonitions about the changing face of the nation made hers the best response speech of the night. As Democrats ponder their strategy for the midterms — a golden opportunity that, if recent national party strategy is any indication, they’re moderately likely to horribly bungle — one of the thorniest conversations will involve to what extent they should pretend this is a normal election and we haven’t utterly gone through the looking glass. Guzmán’s honesty about the existential repercussions of our current political moment could provide a powerful argument in favor of a more clear-eyed and forceful approach.


Can We Kill ‘Optics’ in Politics Already?

Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. As his campaign proceeds, Barkan will be reporting for the Voice on his experience navigating the New York state election process.

Publication of these articles by the Voice does not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign or, for that matter, of the New York state election process.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I got a haircut.

A day later, I shaved.

Nothing about either act is remarkable. What’s changed since I decided to run for office is the frequency — more trips to the barber, more time spent in front of the mirror trying not to cut myself. Suddenly, image matters. I must conform, in some way, to the public’s alleged conception of the politician. I’m planning to buy nicer shoes. My old black peacoat, too rumpled, has been shelved.

Traditionally, with few exceptions, a politician crafted a persona and then compartmentalized his or her life into the poll-tested, consultant-scripted outward opinions offered to the voters, and what existed below — what the pol really thought. The pol’s positions are an amalgam of conviction and of what is deemed acceptable to the public at a particular juncture of history.

I find myself navigating this balance between fulfilling expectations and defying them, acting out a role (in part) while understanding voters are tiring of artifice. I strive, consciously or not, for the look of the politician. Do I need the tie for Sunday events? Can I wear tan pants in winter? What did Obama do?

I want to signal, through my appearance, that I am a person to be taken seriously. (I understand that this can only be more difficult for female candidates.) I also reflect on its ultimate insignificance — I must pay attention to it, but only so much. Were the Politician Genie to grant me the wish of making me as classically handsome as I want to be, I would still be no closer to winning elected office.

But we are living in strange times, political and otherwise. Before 2016, few thought that a slovenly, cartoonish billionaire could arouse the passions of millions. Granted, Donald Trump was, to many, wealth and success personified, unabashed in the way he had seemingly (though not really) dominated the business world. But he was not “presidential.”

Bernie Sanders, though far different in approach and substance, was not cut from the political consultant’s cloth either. He didn’t always comb his hair. He came from Vermont. He screamed to high heavens about democratic socialism.

Despite the success of each man, a certain brand of politics beyond the White House has remained surprisingly durable. Most Democratic and Republican elected officials still act as elected officials; they move about the public stage in their scripted roles, projecting relative calm and control, hair well-coiffed, teeth bright. They don’t step beyond the Overton Window.

With few exceptions, there are not mini-Trumps roaming America. Even local Democrats, edging left to tap into some of Sanders’s popularity, do not wrap themselves in the socialist banner. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, if even corporate centrists like Cory Booker embrace single-payer healthcare. Substance could trump style.

The politician’s instinct to be cautious endures. Supporting healthcare as a right or legalizing marijuana, like the celebration of same-sex marriage, came years after many in the public had come around to these positions. Sanders did not workshop his viewpoints before embarking on the campaign trail, but many candidates still do. Engineered “listening tours” are not out of fashion.

One lesson of 2016 was that voters, by and large, seemed to be craving “authenticity.” The unvarnished candidates packed arenas; the others chased sparser crowds in littler rooms. These days, I think on this more: If we are all products of our time, what is authentic? If Bernie chooses to comb his hair less, is that some version of fakery too?

Political campaigns inherently involve a degree of artifice — a person dreams up an enterprise, hopefully well-funded, to win over voters. There is the push and pull between what the pol thinks and what the pol thinks voters think. A “savvy” enough pol (the term, abused by journalists, in this context often means the ability to fool people) can appear genuine while responding to the apparent whims of the electorate.

I can feel the tug myself. I have promised to be unapologetically myself, and I believe I have upheld that — so far at least. But I consider what forces may pull me elsewhere. Is it myself to want to upgrade to wingtip shoes? Maybe. Is it myself to put product in my hair to appear more “professional”? My internal argument is, yes, as long as my message doesn’t change. My message was not crowdsourced or poll-tested, but inevitably — as all messages are — it is impacted by the age in which we live and my own bubble of experience.

One frustration with politics is how it devolves into spectacle. Trump was ludicrous, but the dominance of the image — of what is manufactured to be merely seen versus what should hold deeper meaning — is not new.  

The TV era ushered in the idea of a presidential candidate as celebrity, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s triumph over Richard Nixon in 1960. It was believed sweating Dick lost the race by the narrowest of margins in history because he didn’t appear as buoyant and fresh on a debate stage as Kennedy.

Since then, “optics” have ruled, one of those political buzzwords I hated the most as a reporter. The idea of stagecraft trumping substance, the artificial reality constructed to fool voters who apparently just hungered for a good show. Only journalists and political operatives — the insiders in such a formulation — can see through the ruse, but they are in on the joke.

Joan Didion, in the brilliant 1988 essay “Inside Baseball,” captured one such dispiriting example on the campaign trail, writing how the Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, staged a game of catch on an airport tarmac in sweltering heat — to demonstrate, somehow, he was tough.

“What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing, then,” Didion writes, “was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”

Why this obsession over optics still? We are not simply in the TV era anymore, when a few networks set the agenda and every candidate rushed to fit their stagecraft within the medium’s narrow parameters. If social media has been a social ill, it has also allowed new modes of presentation and transmission of information: We are a fractured world, but young people seem to demand a little less bullshit.

But there is still that pull between the old way, the “optics,” and what is demanded now, which is purpose. Can I fret over my appearance — the haircuts and the tailored suits — while also understanding that it’s merely the point of entry, at best a few cents of the price of admission to this new arena?

On all levels, I see politicians underestimating voters. They pinch their speech into little clichés and string them together in a bid to offend no one. They do what highly-paid people tell them to do. They often operate from a place of fear — how best to leave the room without being hated.

The key isn’t to ape Trump’s slobbering mien — it’s to understand voters don’t simply want another Dukakis, fake-tossing his baseball for the cameras. The TV era is dead. Optics belong in the dust bin of history.

Belong, of course, being the operative word. They aren’t, and won’t be for a while yet. Unfortunately.


Cuomo Plays Progressive Three Days After Vetoing Help for the Poor

Governor Andrew Cuomo is having a moment. On Tuesday, he took the stage with Bernie Sanders to unveil a plan to offer free college tuition for families earning less than $125,000. As the crowd of LaGuardia Community College students chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” Cuomo clapped along, a wide grin on his face.

Never mind the well-intentioned Excelsior Scholarship will need legislative approval, where Cuomo’s Senate Republican friends still hold sway, or has no clear funding stream, beyond some money from existing tuition assistance programs. The announcement made a striking headline and scene for the once proudly centrist governor, now beginning to tinker with the idea of a White House run: a progressive icon with the 25-and-under crowd crediting him with a “revolutionary idea.”

But New Year’s Eve was another reminder that Cuomo’s liberalism will always have a ceiling. In a move that galled criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials in both parties, the governor quietly vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have required the state to pick up the cost from counties to fund legal services for the poor. The legislation had passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

Local counties, already contending with a Cuomo-imposed cap on increasing property taxes, have limited resources, and the problem with the status quo is obvious: the finances and politics of counties vary, and so too does the standard of justice. A conservative county executive can slash funds to public defense, and the poor person unable to afford a decent lawyer finds a quicker path to a guilty plea and a criminal record.

In 2014, New York State settled a lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union over funding for public defenders in five counties — Suffolk, Schuyler, Ontario, Onondaga and Washington — which motivated the state to provide more funding there. The lawsuit alleged that the conditions of indigent legal defense in the five counties did not live up to New York’s constitutional obligations as mandated by the Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright. Since then, counties around the state have sought the help those five received, and the legislation was born.

Cuomo’s office said the legislature’s plan would cost the state too much money — as much as $800 million, by their estimates — and promised to introduce their own initiative to address the lawsuit this year. “Until the last possible moment, we attempted to reach an agreement with the legislature that would have achieved the stated goal of this legislation, been fiscally responsible, and had additional safeguards to ensure accountability and transparency,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman. “Unfortunately an agreement was unable to be reached and the legislature was committed to a flawed bill that placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers — $600 million of which was unnecessary — with no way to pay for it and no plan to make one.”

But this argument seems somewhat odd in the wake of Tuesday’s grand tuition announcement. Why does free schooling across the state require no current, viable funding plan but indigent defense does? How much will Cuomo deviate from the legislation he shot down? Why can’t the state just pay for both?

More importantly, if Cuomo is so concerned with fiscal prudence, why not make a serious effort to stop arresting New Yorkers for so many petty offenses? Seventy percent of arrests in the entire state are for misdemeanors. Were the state to decriminalize misdemeanor drug possession, the cost of defending the poor would drop because less people would be interacting with the criminal justice system.

This would mean Cuomo, and his erstwhile buddy Mayor Bill de Blasio, dispensing with their reverence for “Broken Windows” policing. Neither man has yet shown the guts for that.


If Bernie Loses…Don’t Let Conservative History Repeat Itself

There have been huge advances in civil rights, voting rights, and marriage equality over the past half-century. These are life-changing achievements that can all be credited to the work of Democratic administrations. So when I read the headline “Why One Millennial Feminist Would Rather Go to Hell Than Vote for Hillary” in last week’s edition of the Voice, followed by reader comments such as “Millennials, in particular, see through the BS of their elders because they haven’t experienced the benefits that corrupted previous generations of liberals” and “If voting for Bernie Sanders means Trump will come to power, so be it,” a siren — not a “ding-ding-ding” bell, but a blaring, piercing wail — went off in my head.

Here we are again, poised to sacrifice the gains of the past on the altar of ideological purity. Passion is great, kids, but what if Bernie doesn’t have the horses to get the nomination? Do you quit after he stumbles because what’s left — Hillary, presumably — doesn’t rise to your standards?

Here’s a warning about what your idealism will get you: another “I got mine” Republican administration that will affect you (and everyone around you) not just for four or eight years. You’ll be feeling the burn for the entire lifespan of whatever retrograde hanging judge President “The Donald” proclaims “The Greatest Supreme Court Nominee EVER!” And with the potential for four (maybe five) open Supreme Court seats, the possible rollbacks — if you stop to think about actual consequences — are heart-stopping.

Try this political brainteaser: Which 2016 Republican presidential hopeful — labor-bashing Ohio governor John Kasich or Fundamentalist darling senator Ted Cruz — said, “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate…it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life”?

Actually, it was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, advising Republican president Herbert Hoover on how to deal with the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent onslaught of the Great Depression. Even as Democratic presidents have put into place a succession of reforms since the early 1930s — Social Security and the forty-hour workweek under Franklin Roosevelt, Medicare and Medicaid under Lyndon Johnson, family and medical leave under Bill Clinton, affordable health care under President Obama — the Republican solution has remained much the same: Liquidate ’em all and let God sort ’em out. Where do you think a couple more presidential terms of that will leave us?

Let’s go to the (crackly, pre-digital) tape: In 1968, President Johnson, despite his shepherding of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress, was reviled by the left because of the war in Vietnam. His vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey, a longtime champion of worker and minority rights, was running for president, but a large contingent of the formidable youth vote that year wore “Dump the Hump” buttons because of his association with LBJ’s war policies. Speaking before the House Un-American Activities Committee in December 1968, Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the radical activist group Students for a Democratic Society, told the congressmen, “I think that the election of Richard Nixon, in a sense, shows that the country will continue to run down until people decide to straighten it out. You know, it doesn’t really matter to me whether Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon is president of the United States.”

In the glare of hindsight, many in the generation Hayden was speaking for have since reassessed the theory that there is no daylight between the parties. Columbia professor Todd Gitlin, a former SDS president himself, said in a 2005 documentary, “Those who hated the war decided to be so pure as to sit [the election] out. I was one of them. I know very few people who voted in that year, and we were wrong.”

Jack Newfield, a muckraking firebrand for this newspaper, wrote in his 2002 book, Somebody’s Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist, “I voted for Dick Gregory [look him up, millennials] instead of Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968, then regretted it as soon as I found out that Nixon had defeated Humphrey by less than 1 percent of the vote.”

Why the remorse? Because, whether or not The Hump could have outright ended the war, he wouldn’t have exponentially increased its savagery by carpet-bombing not only North Vietnam but also Cambodia and Laos, as Nixon did.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because the money we need for the universal health care and free tuition Bernie is promising — somewhere north of 4 trillion dollars’ worth of it — lies buried in the sands of Iraq, a war that was even more of a put-up job than Vietnam, a war that never would have been launched if George W. Bush didn’t have daddy issues. So think for a minute about just how W. got elected over Al Gore. Remember Tricky Dick Nixon? Before he immolated himself with the Watergate scandal, he appointed William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, a man described by liberal lawyer Alan Dershowitz as someone who “made his career undermining the rights and liberties of American citizens.”

So what? Ancient history, you say. Well, add this footnote to Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in Roe v. Wade and his votes against school desegregation and in favor of school prayer: In 2000, those who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the wonky Al Gore cast their lot with the pedantic Ralph Nader in protest. This tipped the scales just far enough to deny Gore a clear victory, after which — you guessed it — none other than Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided over the decision to stop the vote recount in Florida and hand the presidency to George W. Bush.

And when Rehnquist died, W. replaced him with John Roberts, the jurist who, during Obama’s first term, handed down the Citizens United ruling that gutted campaign finance reforms, increasing the control of big money over American politics.

So what’s the takeaway for all of you hating on Hillary, the Shadow Queen of the Corpocracy? Go ahead and cast your primary vote for Bernie, the Shining Knight (never mind that he votes with the NRA and against gun control because Vermont has a large gun-toting population — that’s politics, kids). And if he gets the nomination, go out and campaign and vote for him in the general election. I’ll be right there with you. But if Hillary comes out the victor in Philadelphia, I’ll be pulling the lever for her on November 8, and I hope you’re there with me instead of dragging yourself — and the rest of the country — straight to Rollback Hell.




The level of subtlety expressed in the title of this video broadside about media consolidation continues into the rhetoric deployed by its talking heads, who provide references to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and of course Orwell’s 1984. Pappas’s thesis is that, through deregulation and other trickery, Republican administrations have defanged and manipulated print and television news to the point that Americans now live under, in Vincent Bugliosi’s words, “the dark ominous shadows of totalitarianism, despotism, fascism.” Orwell offers little that is not also explored in current agit-docs like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, or Outfoxed, and draws from the same talent pool of leftists like Michael Moore, Mark Crispin Miller, and Bernie Sanders (one assumes Noam Chomsky called in sick). But unlike these better-crafted films, Pappas’s message is one of relentless hopelessness: 1984 is happening now, American citizens are powerless, and we’re all fucked. In its attempt to diagnose a problem, it ends up serving more as a symptom of the left’s current, and sadly warranted, anxieties.