Ted Rall: Bernie Sanders and the American Left

by / Jan. 20, 2016 1am EST

Ted Rall is an editorial cartoonist, graphic novelist, columnist, and reporter whose work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers, earned him a passel of awards, and ranged in subject matter from the wars in Afghanistan (where he has traveled extensively) to the diminution of the American Left in national politics.

His last two books have veered into biography: In November he released a cartoon-and-text book about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; this week he has released a book about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose surprising candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president seems to have breathed life into the progressive movement for which Rall has despaired in his previous work. In the Sanders biography, Rall charts the history of the rightward drift of the Democratic Party over the past 50 years and its apparent sudden change of course.

Rall comes to town to discuss both books next Thursday, January 28, at Burning Books (420 Connecticut Street), at 7pm. We caught up with Rall by phone late last week.

How long have you had your eye on Bernie Sanders?

I actually have been paying attention to him for a long time, because he’s a weirdo. I’m 52, and for most of my life there’s been this strange socialist guy, the only self-identified socialist in American politics.

Socialism is a part of American politics; the New Deal was socialist. But socialism and communism get no play in our schools or in our media—which has no problem hosting writers like Bill Kristol, who is basically a lite fascist, or Pat Buchanan, who is an anti-Semite. Such people and their extreme right-wing views are commonplace in the American media, but even moderate socialist views are not permitted any exposure. To be labeled a socialist or a communist is considered political death. 

So here you have a guy who’s willing to categorize himself as a democratic socialist and still consistently be reelected. (I don’t think he’s really a socialist in the European sense; he’s really just a McGovern liberal Democrat.) With Bernie, you’re looking at this guy who was an outlier. Okay, there’s not going to ever be a lot of legislation passed that’s sponsored by this guy. He’s not going to be very effective. But how does he keep getting reelected? And elected to higher and higher office? The only explanation has been, “Well, it’s Vermont.”

But after 2009 and the financial crisis, there were polls that showed about 39 percent of Americans actually wanted to abolish capitalism and favored socialism and communism as economic systems. There’s a lot of people who feel that the economic system has failed them or is failing them, and they want something else. Bernie is the only voice in electoral politics who articulates these ideas, and that’s why he is of interest to me.

Specifically, this is really a followup to my Edward Snowden book. It’s in the same exact format. And the Snowden book, like the Bernie book, is a reaction to a criticism of my work that people have made for a long time, and which I think is probably fair—which is that I’m very negative.

The Bernie book especially has a sort of hopefulness to it, which, because I know you, I found strange and alienating.

[He laughs.] Something bad will happen, I promise. 

But really, people are always asking me, “Who’s your idea of a great president,” and I say, “I don’t know—Jefferson?” I don’t have any heroes really. In Edward Snowden I found as unvarnished a hero as couple possibly be—a guy who risked everything to tell us what we needed to know. So I thought, instead of picking people apart—like Obama or Clinton—here’s a role model: Edward Snowden is what we should try to be. Someone who is willing to put important ideas ahead of his individual self-interest.

After that book, I thought, are there other heroes? Are there other people we can look up to? Are there other people who are trying to effect change, albeit in other ways? Snowden is a consummate rebel: He’s a guy who is so outside of the system that he’s wanted and faces life in prison or even execution.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is an insider who has nevertheless been willing to be an outsider within the inside. He’s been in the Senate for a long time, and even though a lot of Republicans like him, no Bernie Sanders ideas are going to be allowed to reach the floor unless he’s willing to change his emphasis on income inequality and economic injustice. 

He’s not willing to. His stance has been consistent. He’s almost boring as subject of biography because there’s no political evolution. He’s been this guy since the early 1960s. What’s remarkable is that, because the economic crisis and its consequences have not really been resolved, it’s his moment. There is now a credible path to the Democratic nomination for him.

But in the early 1960s there was room for him on the inside of the Democratic Party. And you’re saying that circle of inclusion drifted one way and now perhaps it’s drifted back?

 I think that’s right. He’s a reflection of the American democratic cycle. We’re just getting back to roughly the early 1970s. There’s still no organization or movement like there was back then, but I think that’s right.

I think I’m critical of Sanders where he deserves it—on, for example, the way he responded to Gaza, the fact that he gives a blank check to Israel, or that he’s certainly not willing to criticize Israel very harshly. Although he does favor a two-state solution, which is where I think most of the American Left is now. 

The important thing to understand about him is that he reflects a really important historical moment: the restoration of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has been in exile since 1972, even though most progressives and leftists have been in denial about that.

Recently, The Atlantic published a piece by Peter Beinart positing that the popularity of the Sanders and Donald Trump candidacies indicates a shift to the left in the American electorate. By which I think he means a rise in populist sentiment. Does that make sense to you?

They are not the same thing, but in a Venn diagram there is overlap. There are people who could vote for Sanders or for Trump. In fact I’ve seen interviews with people like that from Vermont.

This is a year about authenticity, and that’s why Hillary is in trouble all of a sudden. Whenever people start paying attention to her, they just always see this packaging. It’s interesting to me: She has so much money, you’d think she would be able to hire better advisers. If I were working for her, I’d say, “Hey, listen, you have made this entire campaign about you: ‘If I’m elected, then I will be a historical moment, and won’t it be great for me to be the first woman president.’ Well, first of all, what about other women? What are you going to do for women? And there is a whole other half of the population, and you’re going to need their votes too.

What’s in it for us? She can’t articulate that. Her husband didn’t give a shit about any of us but he was able to pretend. She somehow is not even able to pretend. She doesn’t care and she can’t even fake it.

Bernie Sanders clearly does care about economic injustice. And as my book shows, he will readily tell you that a lot of this comes out of his personal experience. Certainly he’s no longer poor—he’s not rich, but he’s no longer poor—and he could just forget all about it and say, “I’m in the Senate, I’ve got mine.” But he remembers what it was like, and he thinks it sucks, and he wants to fix it. And that, I think, is why he’s catching fire.

The Trump phenomenon is intriguing because he drips of authenticity in a fake way. I mean, he was a Democrat basically. So why is he running as a Republican? That’s not very authentic.

Economic populism is huge. I think what we’re seeing is the chickens coming home to roost because Obama bailed out the banks and not Main Street. People are so pissed, not only because they were not helped to keep their homes, and there was no pressure on the banks to free up credit, and no pressure on employers to keep jobs here or to hire more people, and there’s been no jobs program. 

They are pissed off enough about those things, but what really pisses them off is their invisibility. People hate being invisible more than anything. Every month they’re having trouble paying their bills, which are getting bigger and bigger, and the rich are getting richer, while their income is stagnant or shrinking. But nobody talks about their problems. Nobody addresses them. Obama never addressed them, never proposed any solutions to their problems.

Trump and Sanders are the only two mainstream candidates who are talking about these issues in a credible way, and that’s why they’re getting so much traction. Trump does it by blaming immigrants, saying they’re taking way your jobs, but the point is he’s addressing the issue. He’s lying, but he’s addressing the issue.

They’ve found traction in the year leading up to the primaries, but do you imagine they can sustain their popularity through the spring and into the general election season?

Primary voters are different from general election voters, for sure—for one thing there are far fewer of them. But that doesn’t matter because the choices they make are the choices the rest are stuck with in the general election.

I think we’re looking at a likely Trump nomination. Ted Cruz appears to be self-immolating because of this loan thing. [Cruz funded his election to the Senate with a $1 million loan from Goldman Sachs, where his wife is employed.] This is a year when people don’t want corruption. All Donald Trump has to say is “I’m a billionaire; I don’t have to borrow a million dollars from some sleazy bank.” And I think that’s the end of Cruz. 

Marco Rubio has faded, Ben Carson is gone. And you can’t dismiss the one guy who has led the polls for six months. You just can’t.

So now the attention must focus on the Democratic side. It seems pretty clear at this point that Bernie can carry Iowa and New Hampshire. And Hillary should carry South Carolina. The question is what happens after that. Obviously there are going to be shades of 2008 if she loses Iowa. People will say she was not supposed to lose Iowa. And the political classes will say that it shows Bernie has a ground organization, that’s it’s real, and that Bernie has cash.

Also people tend to vote for people they think will win; even though that’s stupid, it’s what they do. As momentum shifts to Sanders, I think there’s a credible path. Last week I would have said he had a three-to-one chance of being the Democratic nominee; now I would have to say it’s like 55-45 in favor of Hillary. We’re still two weeks away from Iowa; that’s an eternity.

Now, if you have Sanders-Trump matchup, first of all: best election ever.

Maybe for you and me. For journalists it will be fun. Maybe not for the country.

Well, it’s going to be bizarre. Trump is such an asshole and Bernie is such a gentleman. How does that debate play out? Do people watch Trump trying to eviscerate this courtly man and think, “God, what a dick,” or do they just see Bernie twisting in the wind? 

I don’t know. According to the Real Clear Politics matchups, right now Bernie beats Trump. But that’s a million years from now, so who knows? What’s notable is Bernie is viable. That’s a fact; there’s no question. 

I agree that Trump is dangerous. I think he does have the hallmarks of a fascist lite. He has the ability to tell people whatever they want to hear—a little from the left, a little from the right. Those are the signs of a demagogue. People compare him to Huey Long, but Huey Long had a detailed program, he had a whole reform package. Trump has absolutely no programs whatsoever, no policies, nothing. Just malarkey.

A lot of people are wondering when the Republican establishment—the big donors, the the powers that made Mitt Romney the party’s standard-bearer in 2012—will try to marginalize Trump and coalesce around a candidate palatable to them.  Do you see the Democratic establishment trying to pull down Sanders that way?

They just can’t. He’s kind of bulletproof. You look like a jerk if you attack him too hard. Which Hillary’s SuperPAC just started doing. She has started to lie about him, too. She says that he would dismantle the Affordable Care Act—well, yeah, because he wants to replace it with a single-payer system. She says this guy wants to get rid of your current salary—well, yeah, to give you a raise.

Historically the Republican Party tends to fall in line behind their insurgents once they become inevitable. Like when Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California in the recall against Gray Davis. They didn’t want him. They had other people in mind. But when it became clear he was leading in the polls, they got behind him. I think the Republicans always fall in line. If they nominated Ted Cruz, they’d fall in line. If they nominated a potato, that’s the best potato and we should all vote for him. With Bernie there’s a danger—or maybe it’s a blessing—that the DNC will sit on its hands and give less than full-throated support for him. But I think that might help him. It will help his reputation as authentic and an outsider. There aren’t too many US senators who can run as an outsider, but he can. 

And he’s pretty much done this his way, without making some awful compromises. And he’s an interesting reflection of this moment: The American people have been programmed to hate the Left, and yet the Left seems to be alive within the Democratic Party for the first time in years.

It’s interesting that Hillary doesn’t get it.