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Larry Donnelly: Bernie’s out, but he leaves a lasting legacy

Sanders didn’t lose because of his socialist leanings, he did so because of his praise for Castro and criticism of JFK, writes Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

BERNIE SANDERS, THE self-proclaimed democratic socialist from the beautiful state of Vermont, has abandoned his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.  Many within the party’s leadership will say it’s about time and be delighted to see the back of him.

Indeed, the battle for delegates was well and truly over.  Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, has a big lead and is way ahead in the polls in virtually every state where primaries may or may not ultimately transpire as officials scramble to maintain democracy in the midst of a pandemic.  The chaos in Wisconsin, where in-person voting went ahead this week, is worth noting in this regard. It was a disaster and an affront to the principles upon which the country of my birth was founded.

The decision of Wisconsin’s elected Supreme Court that the primary had to proceed sadly illustrates some of the myriad flaws in American democracy.  For instance, it is bizarre that those jurists are elected. The reality that judges in many states must seek monetary contributions from not disinterested individuals and entities in order to finance runs for a sacred office in the administration of justice is downright incomprehensible.

A lasting legacy

Bernie Sanders’ career in politics has been built on highlighting all that which makes many of us look askance when we hear the “this is the greatest nation on earth” mantra and the related exceptionalism that are part and parcel of America’s civic religion.  And the New York City native turned Vermonter has been a transformative figure.

The leftist philosophy he never shrank from made him something of a lone wolf in the US House of Representatives and then the Senate for decades.  His stances certainly made him persona non grata with the lobbyists and the moneyed interests they advocate on behalf of in Washington, DC. Yet two of his proposals, when articulated to a broader audience, resonated with people of every ideological stripe.

First, a growing majority of Americans struggle to understand why every other advanced western country strives to make healthcare a right, not a privilege, for its citizens.  They do so at lesser cost and with superior outcomes for their men, women and children who face illness and disease.

While it is true that most of those who have good jobs and are well off in the US have faster access to better healthcare than anyone else in the world, they have family and friends who do not.  Accordingly, the opinion surveys increasingly show that the “Medicare for All” Sanders favours is an idea whose time has finally come in the land of largely unfettered capitalism and rugged individualism.

Second, Sanders argues for some third-level training to be free and for student loan forgiveness.  The current costs are astronomical and leave all but the children of the super-rich with often crippling levels of debt.  By way of personal example, I was fortunate to receive a superb undergraduate education at one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the US, the College of the Holy Cross.

Tuition, including room and board, in 1995-1996, my senior year, was $26,500.  That’s a lot of money. As they scrimped and saved from the minute I was born, my parents could manage it, barely.  Had I been born 25 years later, it would cost them $72,080. They could not pay that much under any circumstances. I would have been denied a phenomenal opportunity unless I was prepared to mortgage my future.

On this front, Sanders is far more in touch with millions of American parents who want the best for their kids and are currently being ripped off.  Free-market Republicans believe that these institutions should be able to charge whatever they like; Democrats are dependent upon campaign contributions from a typically sympathetic and well-ensconced professoriate.  This may be a glib explanation for it, but at any rate, neither party has been willing to tackle what is, to put it bluntly, a travesty.

A socialist to his core

Notwithstanding what has been collectively drilled into us, Americans like the sound of socialism when it comes to affordable healthcare and higher education.  That he raised these subjects and offered alternatives will be Bernie Sanders’ political legacy. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for doing so.

Those who say his second bid for the White House has failed on account of his policies being too radical are wrong.  In my view, Sanders eventually came up short because of his praise for Fidel Castro, castigation of John F Kennedy and oddly idealised honeymoon in the Soviet Union.  Democrats, concerned about electability above everything and desperate to defeat Donald Trump, knew that his past would be scrutinised in the months ahead to devastating effect.

Observers have cast divisions within the Democratic Party as a fight between the establishment and insurgent wings.  The Clintons, Biden and Obama represent the former. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” embody the latter.  They may have a point. But politically speaking, this is poor framing for Democrats. It is a different internal debate they should be having.

In truth, the Democratic Party could take back the presidency and have majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate rather easily if they were willing to pivot politically. How?

Embrace the economic populism of the insurgent wing.  Reject the corporatism of the establishment wing. Repudiate the left-wing extremism on cultural issues from both wings in favour of an outlook that respects, not ostracises, the views of Americans who oppose abortion, attend religious services regularly and enjoy hunting.

The party won’t do it: money talks!  If they did, however, I believe they would soon leave the GOP in the dust.  But if Trump gets a second term – perish the thought – Democrats might, at last, listen to someone who sounds like Bernie Sanders on “bread and butter” issues and who doesn’t intentionally repel pro-lifers or gun owners.

Even in these dark days, hope springs eternal.

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Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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