I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.
– Oscar Wilde
One thing we learn as we grow older is that lessons from the past are like surplus zucchini: mostly unwanted, and, even when they’re accepted, not especially appreciated. This is especially true when said lessons are directed by an older generation at a younger one, and doubly or triply so when they come from that most maligned –not without reason – generation of all, the boomers.
Bernie Sanders is technically too old to be a boomer, but for better or worse he embodies the last gasp of that generation’s attempt to remake America. Ironically, his strongest support comes from millennials who routinely – again not without cause – blame boomers for many of their troubles.
As a born-and-bred boomer myself, I try not to take this personally. Fifty years ago I was already losing faith in my generation’s grandiose promises, and the intervening half-century has made a cruel mockery of them.
The United States is still waging war on foreign lands, economic and social injustice remain rampant, and we’ve watched our country go from a flawed center-left government to a twisted and deformed far-right one that realistically no longer qualifies as a representative democracy. The boomers who presided over this precipitous decline will soon – have already begun to – die off en masse. Could a pre-boomer like Bernie Sanders swoop in at the last moment to reverse and redeem our poisonous legacy?
I devoutly hope so, but while miraculous happy endings do occur, they’re called miracles for the obvious reason that they don’t happen very often. And here’s where the triumph of hope over experience comes in: so much of the movement that’s coalesced around Bernie is rooted in or echoes the ideals of the 60s, but seems to ignore or be oblivious to everything that went wrong about those years.
I’ve never met a young person who appreciated being told, “Oh, you’re just repeating what we did back in ___.” My dad didn’t win any points by frequently dismissing the 1960s movement as a pale shadow of what he’d seen in the 1930s. Of course we know history doesn’t repeat, only rhymes, but Bernie’s movement is so deeply steeped in the rebellions of the 60s that it’s impossible to wholly separate them.
I never met Bernie Sanders, but if you were at all active in 60s radical politics, you knew Bernie, or someone very much like him. Every SDS chapter or antiwar mobilization committee had its own Bernie: indefatigable, indispensable, implacable, and sometimes a royal pain in the ass.
He was the one who kept meetings on topic, who organized transportation to the march or the picket line, who harangued us about discipline and organization, and who ultimately in many cases transformed our idealism into exasperation.
That was the mood in our off-campus squat at the tail end of 1969 when our local Bernie showed up to brief us on SDS’s split into a bewildering alphabet soup of bitterly competing factions. RYM I, RYM II, PL, WSA, and most recently, Weatherman. “We need to examine the position papers and decide who we’re going to align with,” he insisted, but we had joined the movement to stop the war and pursue civil rights, not to argue over sheafs of arcane Marxist-Leninist dogma.
Weatherman, with its Bob Dylan reference, had the most visceral appeal, but we’d just heard the stories from the “War Council” in Flint, where Bernardine Dohrn had sung the praises of Charles Manson (“First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach! Wild!”).
Today she claims she was joking, but with all due respect, I think she’s lying. I didn’t know anyone at the time who didn’t take her words at face value. Powerful psychedelics and an ever more feral savagery combined to create a mood both intoxicating and frightening, and many longtime activists began heading for the exits. When, a few months later, one of our local comrades blew herself up while building an anti-personnel bomb, it was the last straw for me as well.
But wait, what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders? He wasn’t a Weatherman; I’ve never heard of him embracing or supporting their bomb-throwing or Manson-idolizing. If anything, they would have sneered at him as a “re-entry hippie” when he (slightly) trimmed his unruly locks and got involved in electoral politics. Like me, he probably rubbed shoulders, knowingly or not, with some deranged individuals, but it was a long time ago, and we were young and naïve. You can’t hold that over a guy’s head forever.
So what does make me a little queasy about Bernie? Why do I fear that though I agree with large parts of his program and values, he may not be the answer to the existential crisis facing the United States today? I’ve broken it in down into three categories.
This is the easiest, most obvious one. Nobody wants to discriminate against older people, especially not me, an actual older person. But there are certain inescapable realities. I’m six years younger than Bernie, and in good health (not just my opinion; my doctor agrees). My mental faculties seem as sharp as ever (though if they weren’t, how would I know?).
Yet I can’t pretend I have the same energy or drive as I did a few years ago. I can walk 25 or 30 miles, put in 12 hours or more studying, researching, and writing, yet there are also days when I can’t be bothered getting off the couch or out of bed. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can do that, but presidents don’t get mental health days. Wars, natural disasters, or crucial decisions won’t wait while he takes a much-needed nap.
Despite his recent heart attack, Bernie looks vigorous and fit (though his refusal to release his full health records is troubling). I’m not sure I could keep up with his grueling schedule. But a grim facet of advancing age is how quickly and without warning everything can change. I’ve reached the point in life where it’s no longer remarkable when friends or loved ones abruptly pass away or develop a debilitating mental or physical condition. It can happen at any age, of course, but once you hit your 70s or 80s, it goes with the territory.
I’d feel better if as nominee Bernie chose a running mate who shares his values and could take over for him if it became necessary. Elizabeth Warren would be ideal. Sure, she’s 70, but having watched her dance around the stage at a New York rally, I’d rate her as a very energetic 70. Besides, women tend to live longer and do a better job of hanging onto their marbles.
The worst option – and one that might have me exploring emigration options – would be if Bernie picked a symbolic candidate, a Sarah Palin of the left, so to speak, who would excite the base but repel the moderates, and regardless of how progressive her views or striking her image, would simply not be prepared to step in as president.
Could an 80-something Bernie Sanders serve one or even two terms as president and still be on top of his game? Of course. Maybe 80 can be the new 50. I’ll be hoping and praying that he does. But the law of averages is not on his (or our) side, which is why having the right backup is so vital.
2. Intransigence and Inflexibility
I don’t think the “old man yells at billionaires” trope is a product of Bernie’s age; he seems to have been that way all his life. It’s one of the traits that seems to appeal most to his fans, and isn’t necessarily going to turn off the neutrals (are there that many pearl-clutchers crying “Will no one think of the billionaires?!?”). But running a successful government requires more than finding a group of villains to blame things on.
Do billionaires (and multimillionaires) need to pay more taxes? Absolutely. A lot more taxes. Should they be prevented from wielding undue influence on government? That’s a hard yes, too. But while reining in the billionaires will help rebalance our system and provide some much-needed cash for material and social infrastructure rebuilding, it barely scratches the surface of what’s needed.
That will involve old-fashioned politics, making deals, cajoling, wheedling, and yes, sometimes bludgeoning people into turning your programs into law. Can Bernie do this? There’s little evidence of it so far.
Take his centerpiece proposal: Medicare For All. It’s one possible approach to achieving the real goal, universal health care. It’s an approach that has worked in some countries, while others use more of a public-private partnership, which also works. But Bernie’s insistence on Medicare For All as the sole alternative has two big problems, one of his own making, the other beyond his control.
To his followers, Medicare For All has become indistinguishable from universal health care when in fact that’s not at all the case. Most people don’t have time to become health care wonks, so it’s understandable that they’d glom on to a catch phrase. Unfortunately, that forecloses any discussion of whether there might be other ways of achieving universal health care, and leads to them accusing anyone who suggests an alternative of being an insurance company stooge who wants to see babies dying in the street.
If Bernie can get his program through Congress, no such discussion will be necessary. However, chances of him doing that are somewhere between slim and none. Even if the Democrats somehow gain a strong enough majority to pass it, Trump’s Supreme Court will almost certainly throw it out as “unconstitutional.”
At that point, Bernie’s options will be reduced to either making angry but unproductive speeches about why people are still not going to have health care, or finding a compromise. For instance: “It’s clear that at this time we don’t have the votes to pass Medicare For All. So we’ve agreed to make some substantial improvements to Obamacare and meanwhile set up a commission to study the possibility of moving to a single payer system in the future.”
Not as sexy, and yes, people would be disappointed, but as has been the case ever since Truman first proposed a national health care system, it always comes down to compromise or get nothing at all. If Bernie doesn’t have a backup plan – and he’s keeping it a closely held secret if he does – we risk losing even the minimal protections we currently have under Obamacare.
It’s the same deal with most of Bernie’s excellent proposals. Expand Social Security when the other side wants to cut or eliminate it? Good luck with that, much as I’d like to see it happen. Free tuition and student loan forgiveness for all, even billionaires’ kids? You could maybe agree on cheaper tuition and partial loan forgiveness, but if it’s “my way or the highway,” you most likely get bupkis.
Once again, this presents a twofold problem: first, not getting what we want and need, which is bad enough, but more crucially, if people are anticipating stunning, almost revolutionary change once their guy gets into office, only to discover that little or none of it actually happens, the mood could quickly turn ugly. Americans, with their legendarily short patience and attention span, could say, “So the left-wing guy turned out to be useless? Maybe we need to try a more right-wing guy.”
Sound unlikely? How do you think we went straight from Obama to Trump?
3. Large Battleship/Small Fish
We live in perilous times. There’s no guarantee what’s left of our democracy will survive. Trump has done so much damage that I put its chances at no better than 50-50 even if he does get the boot this year. If he manages to hold onto power, we’re probably done for, with the most likely outcome either a general societal collapse or World War III with us as Germany and almost everyone else lined up against us.
So there’s far more at stake than whether we get health care. As important as that is, we might be in a position where it’s more vital to perform triage on our republic. Get it wrong and we may not have another opportunity. It has to be a resounding victory, too; in a closely fought contest, regardless of who officially “wins,” Trump could simply refuse to leave office and his handpicked Supreme Court justices would hand him another term.
Choosing the right candidate to defeat Trump can’t be based on emotion or sentiment, let alone by treating this as some sporting and entertainment event. Whether you like, love, or loathe the candidate, the only test, before all else, has to be: is this the person most likely to remove Trump from power. Unless that happens, all the policy differences and competing promises are so much meaningless fluff.
So it might be worth questioning whether this is the time to take society on a drastic about-face. Most people are familiar with the expression “turning a battleship around,” with its implication that it takes a lot of time, space, and planning. They may not have encountered the equally apropos Daoist metaphor: “Govern a large state as you would cook a small fish.”
In other words, don’t make sudden or drastic moves, or the whole thing is liable to fall apart. Millions of Americans have joined Bernie’s army because they’re desperate for meaningful change, but let’s not forget that there are millions more Americans who hate (or at least think they hate) everything he stands for. And that many of them are heavily armed.
America may be more awash in weapons and people prepared to use them than any state of this size in the history of the world. Perhaps it’s too late to paper over the differences, let alone begin healing the wounds, but there’s a good case to be made for stabilizing the country before trying to impose much-needed reforms on it.
Only months ago, Britain’s Labour Party, also headed by an older, left-wing socialist with a cult-like following among young people, let itself be stampeded into an unnecessary election because “Things are so bad now that we can’t afford to wait any longer.” As a result, things are now a whole lot worse, with Britain yanked out the European Union and the government in the hands of a far-right cabal for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.
Jeremy Corbyn was nowhere near as charismatic as Bernie Sanders, it’s true, but there are more similarities than differences. Even their slogans (“For the many, not the few,” “Not me, us”) resonate closely. In both cases, too, the fervor of the young for radical change created a confirmation bias: “Everyone I know loves Jeremy/Bernie; how could he possibly lose?”
The theory was that millions of disillusioned non-voters would be inspired to become politically active again. It didn’t work for Corbyn; he led Labour to one of its worst defeats in history, and there’s some question of whether the badly divided party will ever be able to fully reconstitute itself. Despite his success in the early primaries, Bernie’s anticipated avalanche of new voters has also failed to materialize so far.
Regardless of whether Bernie or one of the so-called “moderates” gets the nomination, it’s all too plausible to imagine a substantial swath of the party refusing to support the winner, which is effectively the same thing as casting a vote for Trump. That’s why of course I’ll vote for Bernie in November if he’s the nominee, just as I’ll vote for any of the other candidates if they prevail. I’d deserve to have my American citizenship revoked if I didn’t.
I’d be happier with some nominees than others; Elizabeth Warren would make an excellent president or vice-president, I think Buttigieg has the character if not the experience to become a great leader. While she’s not my favorite, Klobuchar would be fine, too. Bloomberg? I lived in New York much of the time when he was mayor, and while I disagreed with some of his policies he was a competent administrator and a world apart from our demented president.
Maybe at my age my opinion doesn’t matter so much. The 20, 30, and 40-somethings who form the bulk of Bernie’s support are going to have to live with the outcome of this election far longer than I will. And sometimes you have to choose faith over fear no matter how scary things look, no matter how dire the consequences if the gamble fails. I’ve been following politics for most of my life; the first candidate I gave my wholehearted devotion to was JFK in 1960. Like many people my age, I’m not sure I’ve ever fully recovered from seeing his bright, shining promise cut down in a hail of bullets.
I want to believe, I really do. If Bernie makes it to the White House, I dream of an FDR for our age, of new social and economic programs that will transform our nation in the way the New Deal did, and still does, by way of once-radical ideas like Social Security. Yes, it’s true that when Franklin Roosevelt was Bernie Sanders’s age, he’d already been dead for 16 years, but hope springs eternal, and in the most unlikely of places.
So ultimately, I’m not making an endorsement, other than “the Democrat who isn’t Trump.” If it’s Bernie, I’ll do whatever I can to help; if it’s anyone else, the same. It’s really the moral equivalent of war: when we found ourselves up against Hitler in 1941, we weren’t in a position to agonize over whether Joseph Stalin – not a great guy himself – was a suitable ally. We were fighting for the survival of western civilization. The rest of that stuff could be – and was – worked out later.
So here we are, my friends: choose well, but choose. Your chance may not come again.