Which brings us to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the avowed “democratic socialist.” This does not mean, says Sanders, that he embraces the communist notion of having the government take over the means of production in society, but rather to regulate enterprise and redistribute wealth and income potential within the capitalist system. He cites Denmark as an example of the kind of society he favors. But Sanders has in fact advocated, in the past, the nationalization of major industries, including in manufacturing, energy and banking. He once called for the nationalization of the entire energy sector. In 1976 he wanted Vermont to seize, without compensation, the state’s electrical companies. He’s also called for a marginal tax rate of 100 percent for income above $1 million.
This is radical stuff, and while such views have always bubbled up into the lower reaches of the American polity, they never before reached a point of serious momentum—until now. And it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that that momentum is attributable in part to the reality that so many Americans are looking for a comprehensive concept of the American future as the country slips into dysfunction amidst the crumbling status quo. Sanders’s outlook represents such a comprehensive concept, as radical as it may be.
Back in 2016, of all the politicians vying for the presidency in both parties, only two talked to voters in language denoting that they understood the origin of the American malaise—that the Old Order was dying and serious action was needed to direct America toward a new future. Those two were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—Sanders, cloaked in his leftism and ideological fervor; and Trump, in his characteristic crude and erratic fashion, smashing the stemware against the wall throughout the dinner party for no particular reason.
And today, at this juncture in the campaign, they have emerged as the men to watch in their respective parties. It doesn’t mean that Sanders will get his party’s nomination or that Trump will get reelected. Sanders may be just too far out there for the top job, and Trump’s fate, like the fate of any president seeking reelection, will hinge not on what he says but on his performance in office. But for now they represent the piquancy of what might be called the Charles de Gaulle maxim. “A statesman,” said the great French leader, “may be determined and tenacious, but if he does not understand the character of his time, he will fail.”
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Nashua, N.H., U.S., February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid.