What we can learn from the rise of Bernie Sanders

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  • Age isn't destiny. I've been enduring much teenage sarcasm due to adult amazement that youth in the U.S. are enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. Along the lines: "Imagine that: young people don't react based solely on age!" For a sense of the dynamic, glance at a recent Sanders Iowa ad using Simon and Garfunkel's "America." Survivors of the fabled '60s meet the young precariat of 2016 -- with shaggy Bernie as the bridge. Come to think of it, it's the Internet generations who have unprecedented access to the cultural touchstones of every era; it makes crossing age divides empathically easier than it's ever been.
  • Return of the rumpled Jewish leftist. Jews used to lean mostly to the left. That's been eclipsed by a rightward shift led by billionaires with only one agenda: support for Netanyahu's Israel. It's personified by U.S. casino owner Sheldon Adelson, whose money is cravenly courted by candidates. Bernie's a reminder that some of that past persists. The pattern exists here too. At our last election, "Jewish" seats that had seemed firmly Tory, slipped away.
  • Propaganda model confirmed. Skepticism about news media wasn't always widespread in the U.S. Journalism's prestige ran high after the Watergate exposés. But Noam Chomsky built a frame for doubt with his "propaganda model" in the 1970s. It asserted that, though the U.S. had no actual ministry of propaganda comparable to official censors in the Soviet bloc, its "free" press behaved almost exactly as they would have under a Soviet regime. In Bernie's case, the model would predict that a Sanders candidacy would be first ignored and marginalized -- and indeed, says a study, out of 857 minutes of mainstream TV election news coverage till the end of November, Bernie got only 10. (Trump got 234, Hillary got 113). When, despite this, his candidacy survived and thrived, the next response was also predictable: demonization. Hence:
  • The Cold War is over. Can we come out now? Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, a Hillary backer, says the Republicans "can't wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle" if Bernie is the Democratic candidate. Intriguing thought. Bernie's always said he's a socialist. It hasn't killed him yet. And a poll found 43 per cent of Iowa Democrats also call themselves socialists, including a third of Hillary voters. This surely wouldn't have been so during the 45 years of the Cold War. In those days, socialist got routinely elided with communist, which was the least of it.

It also meant Soviet agent, traitor, bent on imposing foreign tyranny. I'm not kidding. It's impossible to recreate that era for anyone under 40 or so. It's easier to imagine yourself in Camelot. You could lose your career, your family, sometimes your life just for being called the S (equals C) word.

Recall the last Indiana Jones film, set in the 1950s, in which Soviet military units roam freely in the Nevada desert and KGB thugs infiltrate U.S. college pubs to murder students. It wasn't really so, but many Americans believed it was. In the 1950s the FBI had so many agents inside the depleted U.S. communist party that they considered running one of their own for party leader. They'd have won easily. Back then the bite in those words came less from left-wing ideas than from their association with a hostile, nuclear-armed foreign power. Since it imploded, the words alone have had trouble sustaining the same degree of fear and menace.

  • What's in a name? Short answer: whatever those with the naming power say. (This goes back to Genesis. But I digress.) Canadian communists in the 1940s gave up and changed their name to the Labour Progressive Party, lot of good that did them. But any ideology can play the name game. Some U.S. leftists say Bernie isn't a "real" socialist since he doesn't call for nationalization of the means of production. You can even do it with "capitalism." It would be a good idea, Gandhi might quip, as he did when asked for his thoughts on Western civilization. That's because there's no real capitalism any more, plutocracy rules everywhere -- which is basically Bernie's stump speech. At any rate, I hope they try that hammer and sickle ad. Assuming people recognize it, we'll find out if it's still fast-acting poison or merely the basis for some hilarious Internet memes. I'm dying to find out.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr

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