“Jim, why does Bernie Sanders, an admitted socialist, have such a strong appeal to so many Americans?”
That’s the question I’ve fielded many times over the past five years, as that’s about when the Vermont senator really began to vault into the public sphere with his remarkable run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. And because Sanders won last night’s New Hampshire Democratic primary (albeit by a very slim margin) and because he’s now essentially the frontrunner in the race of the Democratic nomination, I know the question of why Bernie has such strong appeal is going to crop up again and again.
Fortunately, the answer to this question is not hard to discern. However, it’s also not obvious.
The relatively superficial answer to why Bernie Sanders is so popular has to do with what one of my colleagues calls his “free stuff” appeal. Yes, Sanders wants to alter society so that everyone gets “free” health care and “free” college tuition. He also wants to “free” individuals from their existing student debt obligations and wants to give “free” income to citizens via the hiking of the minimum wage to well beyond what minimum wage skills should command. And of course, Bernie wants to “free” citizens from the oppressive tyranny of the “top 1%.”
I use the term “free” here in quotes, because there is no such thing as a free lunch (as the great economist Milton Friedman famously taught us). This means that what Bernie really wants to do is to extract wealth from producers via physical force (a little process more commonly known as taxation) and redistribute that wealth into a big government, socialist plan that collectivizes America and makes us all virtually subservient to the dictates of the state.
Of course, as there are many people who like the idea of getting something for “free,” why not support the candidate who will dole out the most goodies?
Now, this is one explanation for Sanders’s appeal. However, it’s not by far the true philosophic reason for his appeal. And as you know, in The Deep Woods, we peel the intellectual onion skin off of any issue in order to get down to the essentials of what’s really animating things. The reason why is because the only way to truly understand an issue is to dig down to its foundational principles.
The way I see it, the reason for Bernie Sanders’ appeal is not just the prospect of getting free stuff. It’s not even the notion of punishing millionaires, billionaires and the top 1%.
The real appeal of Bernie Sanders is that he addresses these issues in moral terms.
This appeal to morality is something I noticed, and wrote about, some five years ago when Sanders was debating Hillary Clinton in their contest for the 2016 nomination. Nothing has changed since then, save for the fact that Bernie’s morality play has become even more deeply ingrained with his supporters over the years.
Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about when I say Sanders puts things in moral terms.
During the first Democratic national debate of the 2016 contest, held way back on Oct. 13, 2015, Sanders explained to CNN host Anderson Cooper that part of being a democratic socialist is putting policies such as universal healthcare, paid family leave, an increase in the minimum wage, the deregulation and breakup of big Wall Street banks, free college tuition for all, etc. into practice.
Then Cooper asked him, “You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?”
Sanders replied in the following manner:
Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.
Forget for a moment the merits of Sanders’s comments on how “so few have so much” and that “Wall Street greed” wrecked the economy. Neither of those premises is true.
Yet here again, the appeal of Bernie Sanders is not the truth of his premises.
The appeal of Bernie Sanders is that he is making a moral argument for justice.
While then-frontrunner Hillary Clinton, as well as all of the current crop of Democratic hopefuls, are for taxing the rich, spending that money on all sorts of government programs and demonizing the top 1%, it seems much more like a blatant vote-grabbing tool when they do so than anything rooted in morality.
In Bernie’s case, he is a true believer in the idea of collectivism as the most moral economic system. Sanders proffers the argument that government needs to be the tool for rectifying the injustice that he sees as being spawned from capitalism’s excess.
Here’s a direct quote from that 2015 debate that makes just that point:
…Democratic Socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.
There it is. Use of the terms “immoral” and “wrong” aren’t just political terms. They are moral terms — and hence the moral appeal of Bernie Sanders.
Now as you likely know, I vehemently disagree with the morality of collectivism and with Sanders’ view that government should be used to punish the highest achievers and redistribute that achievement to others. My moral assessment of that premise is that it is theft, and prohibition against theft is a moral principle that every society in history has abided by.
What I would like to see, and what I think is desperately needed in the liberty movement, is a political candidate that argues in favor of capitalism — not just on the utilitarian grounds that it produces the greatest wealth for the greatest number (it does do that), but also on moral grounds.
I want to see a candidate argue passionately for the morality that says that capitalism is the only economic system that supports individual rights, property rights and freedom from force and coercion, either by other individuals or, particularly, by a collection of individuals known as the government.
I want that candidate to argue that capitalism is the only economic system properly aligned with man’s defining characteristic — i.e., his status as a rational animal.
In short, capitalism needs a Bernie Sanders-style advocate. Someone who will argue for its virtue based on morality in the same way that Bernie Sanders argues against it.
Finally, while my longing for such a figure may be just a quixotic fantasy, it’s one that I still hang on to. The reason why is because the way that I see it, if Bernie can have the immense success he’s enjoyed from his moral appeal, why can’t someone whose morality is commensurate with reality enjoy that same appeal?
Keeping America Safe from the Taxing Hand of Big Government
A big part of becoming a Renaissance Man is living your life in focus and with a commitment to your productive purpose. And when it comes to living a life of focused purpose, there is perhaps no better example than anti-tax warrior Grover Norquist.
As president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover and his organization have been the intellectual point of the spear when it comes to opposing any and all tax increases.
In the new episode of the Way of the Renaissance Man podcast, you’ll learn about Grover’s successes on this front since the last time we spoke about a year ago. You’ll also here a deep dive into the issue of tariffs, why we both agree they are so destructive and why they’re a form of economic self-destruction.
Photo courtesy of Unlock Your Wealth TV
The conversation continues with a discussion of the current contentious climate in Washington, the nature of bureaucracy and the true essence of the so-called “deep state.”
Plus, Grover games the 2020 presidential contest, including his theory on why the race really comes down to just three battleground states. He also updates us on his adventures in stand-up comedy, his “frenemy” relationship with comedian Bill Maher and the state of the liberty movement.
If you want to hear a discussion between two men who focused on their respective productive purposes, then this episode is perfect for you.
The Wisdom of Slipping, Climbing, Rolling…
“He had slipped, climbed, rolled, searched, walked, persevered, that is all. Such is the secret of all triumphs.”
— Victor Hugo, “The Man Who Laughs”
A fountainhead of wisdom in dramatic form is what the great Victor Hugo’s novels are all about. In this quote from what I think is his greatest work (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” being second, and third being “Les Misérables”), Hugo describes what he sees as the key to success. And as he writes in today’s quote, that success really comes down to perseverance in the face of hardship.
Here we have a common theme in Hugo’s work, which is man overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in the pursuit of his values. If you want a fictional character to admire, you’d be well served to venerate “Gwynplaine,” a.k.a. the man who laughs.
Wisdom about money, investing and life can be found anywhere. If you have a good quote that you’d like me to share with your fellow readers, send it to me, along with any comments, questions and suggestions you have about my newsletters, seminars or anything else. Click here to ask Jim.
In the name of the best within us,