What’s the Deal with Bernie and the Bros?
Updated: Jul 7
This post was originally published at smerconish.com
While most all of America is hunkering down, wondering when some small aspect of normality will return to their lives, there is another important event that is still going on, and will so for the next seven plus months, and that is the Presidential election. If anything should show Americans why it’s so important to have a president who knows how to be a leader, how to surround himself with the best minds and listen to them, how to reassure the millions of Americans who are facing possible financial Armageddon, how to have empathy for those who are frightened, and to understand that the number one concern is how the country, not himself personally, comes out of this, COVID-19 should do that.
To that end, for Democrats, whether progressive, moderate or conservative, young or old, urban or rural, or supported one of the other myriad of candidates who wanted to be the party’s standard-bearer, the choice has effectively been made. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Which raises the question, what are Bernie and the Bros thinking and why are they still preaching “their way or the highway” to a Democratic party that has moved on? Why can’t they simply realize that their ship has sailed, and join the rest of the party at help elect someone who the rest of the party believes is the best choice?
The answer is that it’s not in their DNA. Regardless of what many think, they are not doing this because they don’t care about the immediate future of the country, but rather they are steadfast in their ideology because they hold fast to a vision of an America that they believe to be perfect, and are unwilling to accept any alternative. There is a quote that’s attributed to a number of people, from Edmund Burke and John Adams to George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, that says, “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when old, you have no brain.” I personally believe that the nomenclature is slightly off, and that it’s not about being liberal or conservative but rather about being idealistic or pragmatic.
Young people who are socially active tend to look at the world around them and believe that there is a better way. And they’re not wrong. It’s just that they want that better way and they want it immediately, no acceptance of gradual change, it has to be all or nothing. They want that Unicorn and they want it now. Most of us as we grow begin to understand that change is not instantaneous, but often takes time.
Very few people change from being liberals to conservatives, or visa versa, as one’s political leanings are much like one’s baseball loyalties. It’s developed based on your surroundings, family and peers when you’re young. Over time you may become less passionate about your team, and if you move to a new city, become a fan of new franchise, but your core penchant is for that team from your youth. Only in rare occurrences will a Yankee fan become a Red Sox fan. In most cases, those young liberals who want change immediately and completely, become older moderates, who still want to see the world to change, but realize that it has to happen in steps. They don’t give up their ideals, they just moderate them. They understand what Voltaire meant when he wrote, “Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien,” the best is the enemy of good.
To that end, Bernie and the Bros is not a new phenomenon but rather something that has played out in society for generations. For those who are older enough to remember, this is very similar to 1968 and the devotion of many to Eugene McCarthy. The nation was involved in a war, a fight for civil rights, the emergence of the women’s movement and a generational culture war. The country as well as families were split. The young wanted change, they wanted the US out of Vietnam, the wanted equality for blacks and women and they wanted to show that they were, to use a term so popular today, they were more woke than their parents. And most importantly, the wanted it all to happen immediately.
In March of 1968, Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing that same George Bernard Shaw said, “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” While that captured the feelings of the young, Kennedy, understood that it was about striving to make changes rather than immediate change. When Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year, those demanding “a new world order” coalesced around McCarthy as the candidate of change.
1968 politics however were much different than today’s. There were only 19 primaries and Hubert Humphrey, the eventual candidate for president, didn’t even enter the race until late April, and he did not compete in any of the primaries, rather concentrating on the party leader controlled delegates and Favorite Sons, who were basically running for him in the few primaries that there were. At the convention that summer, played against a backdrop of thousands of antiwar activists in the streets of Chicago, and the police brutally beating them on live television, Humphrey easily captured the nomination of a divided party.
In Richard Nixon, Humphrey faced a candidate who ran on the themes of “law and order” and “American values”, rhetorical words to let the older white-middle class that he would put a stop to student protesters and activists, and to Southern racists who were opposed to the civil rights gained under President Lyndon Johnson. You would think that against this background, the McCarthy supporters would coalesce around Humphrey for the “good of the country”, but no, much like the Sanders group today, they felt that if they couldn’t have McCarthy leading them into the promised land, then any other result, Humphrey or Nixon or even George Wallace who ran as a Third Party candidate, wouldn’t make a difference. In the end Nixon edge out Humphrey 0.7% and while the support of the McCarthy people might not have made the difference, it certainly didn’t help.
Which brings us back to 2020 where the Bernie Bros, consisting fundamentally of the young idealistic and the now older McCarthy people, still clinging to the notion of all or nothing all these years later, still yearning for that Unicorn. They believe that if Bernie could become President, that on day one he would sign laws to abolish private health insurance and make Medicare For All the rule of the land, that he would alleviate student debt, raise taxes substantially on the wealthiest one percent and end the excessive pay gap between top executives and workers. When confronted with the reality that, that’s not how the system works and that he can’t just do that, their answer is not unexpectedly, “Well that’s how it should work!” It goes without saying that if Sanders had won the nomination and then the presidency, in four years his base, rather than still being the devoted to him, would be disenchanted with what little actually changed and have moved on to some other generational candidate who was promising them the Unicorn.
It’s not that Bernie is completely wrong with what he believes. In fact much of what he believes a perfect America should look like, with some moderation and reality checks, is what probably would be a better America, but he is wrong in convincing his followers that nothing less than everything is acceptable.
Which brings us to the big problem with Bernie and the Bros. Though they proclaim that Trump is the biggest threat to America and they declare that they will do everything possible to lead to his defeat, they are in fact, doing the opposite. Rather than accepting reality and declaring his support for Biden, thereby giving Biden and the DNC seven months to build the support system they need to put the party in the best position to win, Bernie insists on continuing to inflict potential damage on both the candidate and the party. He wants to have more debates, where he can tell any Democrats who are still watching, what is wrong with their candidate, and give the GOP more talking points.
Worse yet are his supporters, many of whom I know and think of as friends, who use Facebook and other forms of social media to inform me daily that the DNC is cheating and robbing Bernie of the nomination. That Biden wants to destroy Social Security and Medicare, eliminate safety nets for the poor, reduce taxes on the rich, and that all the polls show him losing badly to Trump, even though that is not the case. Worst still, is the daily stories about his suffering from dementia. I get that one almost every day, with a video showing him making a verbal gaff, as proof, ignoring the fact that he’s been doing that ever since the public first became aware of him almost 50 years ago and that it’s been explained by experts countless times that is a result of dealing with lifelong stuttering problem. As George Bernard Shaw said in yet another quote, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”
The attacks on Biden by the Bros is relentless and over the top, but what makes it worse, is that it comes from people you basically agree with. If Sean Hannity tells you that Biden is suffering from dementia, it’s easy to ignore, because, well, that’s what Hannity does. But when your good friend, a loyal and dedicated Democrat tells you that, well, it makes you wonder.
It’s similar is some aspects to what happened in 2016. While Hillary Clinton had problems as a candidate, when I would ask Democrats why they thought she was the worst candidate ever, they would respond with Benghazi, emails and other Republican talking points. All their “problems” with her were what the GOP had been telling them were her problems, but when you hear that from people you agree with, you often buy into it. As Lee Atwater said when he was the campaign manager for George Bush in 1988, “Perception is Reality.”
So for the foreseeable future we have three campaigns on our hands. Biden versus Trump, Trump versus Biden and Sanders versus Biden. The good news is that unless Sander’s goal is to make himself a pariah to everyone in politics, he will eventually have to end his campaign. And hopefully, many of his supporters, who truly hate Trump, and have grown to realize the danger of perfection over better, will hold their noses and vote for Biden.
So what have we learned? First of all, while the idealistic young will attend rallies in order to listen to their heroes, when it comes to showing up to actually vote, they're not as passionate. Secondly, demanding the Unicorn is probably not the best thing, especially if you live in an apartment. And finally, that Shaw guy certainly seemed to know a lot.