How to argue with your family about: Bernie Sanders

By: Dylan Matthews

Bernie Sanders is almost tailor-made to be a great topic for Thanksgiving dinner table arguments. The presidential candidate is an avowed democratic socialist, which is enough to raise the hackles of any right-of-center person old enough to remember the Soviet Union. He wants free college tuition and is huge on campuses, making the 19-year-old college kid a natural supporter, though Sanders's testy relationship with Black Lives Matter might sour things. And he's a leftist who came of age in the '60s, which ought to make Aunt Kathy the aging hippie a big fan.

So when the yelling commences, here's what you should yell back.

Your father-in-law says:

"He's a filthy red! He'd turn America into a Soviet hellhole."

He'd turn America into a Scandinavian hellhole (or utopia, depending on your view of things). Sanders has repeatedly said that what he means by "democratic socialist" is that he supports the policies in place in social democratic countries, particularly Northern European ones like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. Not only are those countries not USSR-style totalitarian regimes, they're also economic success stories.

In 2012, the relative poverty rate — the share of the population living on less than half the median income — was only 9 percent in Sweden and 5.4 percent in Denmark. In the US, by contrast, it was 17.9 percent. Infant mortality in Finland is roughly half that in the US, largely because poor Finns get better health care than poor Americans.

Disposable income for the poorest residents — those at the 5th, 10th, or 20th percentile — in Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden is higher than for their US counterparts. And while some of these countries, notably Denmark, have unfortunately restrictive immigration policies, others, like Sweden, have managed to maintain generous welfare states while being relatively welcoming of refugees.

These countries aren't without their problems — high unemployment and the recent intense backlash against immigrants being prime among them — but they, in many ways, provide a better life for their most vulnerable residents than the US does.

Your sister says:

"If Bernie gets elected, we'll have single-payer health care and free tuition and will finally tax the rich the way they should be taxed."

That's optimistic. Most of Sanders's agenda entails the creation or expansion of big social programs and requires raising taxes substantially. Raising taxes requires Congress, and Sanders will not have Congress on his side.

Democrats have very little chance of retaking the US House next year. Even commentators who think it's possible concede the odds are "just a couple ticks greater than zero." Their odds of retaking the Senate are better, but unless Senate Democratic Leader-to-be Chuck Schumer is okay with ending the filibuster entirely, Democrats would need 60 votes in the upper chamber to pass legislation, which is definitely not going to happen.

Sanders's supporters argue that gridlock is not inevitable. Sanders could start a political revolution, they insist, bringing people who wouldn't otherwise vote to the polls to elect a progressive majority in Congress to pass progressive legislation.

Maybe! This has never happened before, so it's hard to prove it's impossible. But historically, the left-leaning demographic groups with lower-than-usual turnout are less educated and nonwhite, while Sanders appeals largely to white "wine track" voters with college degrees.

His supporters also cite his record of working with Republicans in Congress, but Senator Obama had a number of notable collaborations with Republican colleagues, too. The presidency is a polarizing institution, and there's no reason to believe any congressional Republicans will help any Democratic president.

That doesn't mean that Sanders couldn't do anything. He could push tougher financial rules by appointing aggressive regulators, use the National Labor Relations Board to make it easier for unions to organize, and otherwise use the administrative state to further his goals. He could appoint judges who'd uphold those tough financial regulations, back unions, and overturn the controversial Citizens United campaign finance ruling. But he's definitely not going to make single payer happen.

Your cousin says:

"Bernie Sanders doesn't care about black people."

Realistically, the correct response to this debate is to stand up, exit the room, go out the front door, drive to an airstrip, rent a small propeller plane, fly to the nearest mountain range, parachute over the highest cliff, and build a new life for yourself up there in the snow.

If you refuse to do this, however, maybe try something like, "Yes, Bernie Sanders has said some tone-deaf stuff. But his actual views on criminal justice policy are improving."

All campaign, Sanders has been taking flak from Black Lives Matter activists for placing more emphasis on economic issues than on criminal justice and racial equality, especially as the latter set has come to occupy a bigger role in national politics following the Ferguson protests.

In early May during the Baltimore protests, Sanders told Wolf Blitzer that solving youth unemployment was ultimately what mattered, suggesting that he viewed racial injustice as a subcategory of economic injustice rather than a separately important matter.

At the Netroots Nation conference in July, Sanders faced Black Lives Matter activists and defensively responded, "Black lives of course matter. But I've spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights. If you don't want me to be here, that's okay," which sounded to some activists like he was dismissing them and unwilling to listen. Sanders did attend the March on Washington in 1963, but of what relevance is that to anyone now?

In Sanders's defense, though, he's responded to the criticism by focusing more on the issue and attempting to listen and learn. The Marshall Project's Eli Hager explains:

[Sanders] now speaks of the "four types of violence waged against black and brown Americans"—not only the economic, but also the physical, political, and legal. In late August and early September, he actively consulted with stakeholders in criminal-justice reform, trying to learn as much as he could. He "asked us questions like, ‘How are private prisons defined?’; ‘What's a halfway house?’; and ‘Tell us how to lower rates on phone calls to inmates,’" says Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, and one of the experts consulted.

He's also subsequently introduced legislation that would end private prisons in the US. That's not a huge part of the US mass incarceration problem (only about 8.4 percent of prisoners are in private facilities), but it's a sign that he's taking criminal justice issues more seriously, and it helped push Hillary Clinton to call for the end of private prisons as well.

The comparative aspect is important here, too. Sanders has a decent claim to being to Clinton's left on criminal justice. He opposes the death penalty, for one thing, while she has expressed support in the past and has mostly been silent recently. While he voted for the 1994 crime bill that contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, he has said he did so because it included the Violence Against Women Act and a ban on assault weapons, and at the time he took to the House floor to warn against increasing incarceration:

Clinton, by contrast, supported the bill at the time and still insists it made sense then, even as she's expressed support for rolling back parts of it now.

There's no doubt that racial justice isn't Sanders's central motivating concern. He has always come from the strain of leftism that views class conflict as central and racial and gender oppression as outgrowths of economic oppression. But that doesn't necessarily mean that he'd do a bad job, or a worse job than Clinton, on these issues as president.