The lifelong lover of socialism seems incapable of changing his mind about the worst positions of his youth, says columnist Bret Stephens.
Most of us go through life revising our opinions. At 16 I thought “The Fountainhead” was a great book. At 18 I realized it was rubbish. At 25 I thought Bill Clinton should be thrown out of office for lying about a consensual dalliance. At 46 I don’t know what I was thinking.
In 2040, assuming I’m still kicking, I’m sure I’ll have misgivings about some of what I wrote in 2020. Maybe that will include this column.
To have our convictions knocked sideways by stronger arguments, fresh experiences, contrary evidence, maturing judgment, or simply the honesty of a second-guessing mind, is how we become educated. The alternative is intellectual stagnation, puerility and arrogance. It takes a fanatic, or a fool, to believe that the person who’s most right is the one who almost never admits to being wrong.
Which brings me to Bernie Sanders.
There was a moment in last week’s generally awful South Carolina debate in which I briefly warmed to the senator from Vermont: when he acknowledged casting a bad vote in 2005 in connection to gun manufacturers. It wasn’t that he changed his position to something more congenial to my views. It’s that he changed his position at all.
Otherwise, the presumptive Democratic front-runner communicates a sense of moral and ideological certitude — unrelentingly sustained for decades — that seems to thrill his followers but terrifies me. Other candidates have changed their views on one thing or another over the years, albeit with varying degrees of sincerity: Joe Biden on the war in Iraq; Mike Bloomberg on stop-and-frisk; Elizabeth Warren on super PACs.
Not Bernie! The young man who joined the Young People’s Socialist League as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s on the hoary notion that “capital” should be in the hands of workers, not capitalists, is now the old man who rails compulsively against “the billionaire class” and wants to nationalize the health insurance industry. The guy who was angry about the downfall of Salvador Allende’s Marxist regime in Chile in 1973 is still angry about it today.
He isn’t entirely letting go of Fidel’s achievements, either, even if it risks Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Yes, literacy in Cuba (largely for purposes of indoctrination) is high, and Sanders thinks he has a moral obligation to affirm this.
This isn’t to say that everything Sanders ever thought as a young man — and still thinks today — is wrong. At Chicago he helped force the university to end racial segregation in its private housing. He made the definitive case, in the pages of the college newspaper, for the right of students to have sex. He joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
These are things of which the senator can be proud. Other things, not so much.
He was affiliated with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party when it was shilling for the Khomeini regime during the Iran hostage crisis. He shilled for the Ortega regime in Nicaragua in the 1980s, while denouncing skeptical journalists as “worms.” In 1985, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he made the case for bread lines: “Sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is because people are lining up for food,” he said. “That is a good thing! In other countries, people don’t line up for food. The rich get the food and the poor starve to death.”
This isn’t just a callous comment. It reveals a whole substructure of political ignorance and moral idiocy that was altogether common among Sanders’ wing of the political left, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some members of that wing, like Germany’s Joschka Fischer or France’s Bernard Kouchner, came honestly and openly to grips with their youthful errors, which commends them, and, more important, changed their minds on fundamental questions.
I know of no similar decisive break by Sanders with his past comments and associations. Yes, he now downplays his association with the SWP and clears his throat about his opposition to the Castros and Ortegas of the world. Good for him, and it’s not for me to doubt his sincerity.
But I do doubt his seriousness. In America’s 46-year Cold War with some of the vilest regimes in history, Sanders’s main contribution was loudly to find fault with America while remaining remarkably mum about the sins of the other side — when he wasn’t finding occasions to praise them. The least he can do is acknowledge that he was wrong.
The Cold War is long over, and Sanders deserves to be judged chiefly on the merits of his proposals and the strength of his character. I have serious doubts on the first score, but that’s for future columns. For now, what needs saying is that a man who refuses to make an honest break with the worst convictions of his youth should never be entrusted with the presidency.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.