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What David Brooks gets wrong about Bernie Sanders

The New York Times columnist is an exemplar of the baseless centrist freakout about Sanders’s supposed authoritarianism.

Bernie Sanders at a South Carolina rally.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Since Sen. Bernie Sanders’s commanding win in the Nevada caucuses, the panic about a Sanders presidency among certain sectors of the American establishment has hit a fever pitch. They have cast him as a menace to American democracy, citing his awkwardly positive comments about social policy in authoritarian communist states as proof that he is secretly the second coming of Fidel Castro.

David Brooks’s Friday column in the New York Times — titled “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever” — is the perfect distillation of this freakout. It frames a Sanders victory in the most apocalyptic terms imaginable. And much like other similar anti-Sanders screeds, it’s grounded in assumptions about and perceptions of Sanders that are just not backed up by evidence.

The core of Brooks’s argument is that Sanders is illiberal: not in the narrow partisan sense, but the deeper philosophical one. (As he puts it, “He is not a liberal, he is the end of liberalism.”) Sanders, in his view, rejects the liberal ideals of democratic compromise and individual rights in favor of a crushing populism that has swept the globe in recent years:

He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.

Liberalism celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism. Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

What’s Brooks’s evidence for the claim that Sanders is an authoritarian populist boogeyman?

He cites Sanders’s record as a member of Congress, arguing that he did nothing because he doesn’t believe in incremental political change. That’s in stark contrast to another avowed progressive, Elizabeth Warren. Brooks can tolerate Warren, but not Bernie.

“Liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators [because] they worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics,” Brooks writes. “Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.”

But Brooks doesn’t cite any specific legislative failures to support this claim. This may be because much of Sanders’s actual voting record goes the opposite way.

Consider his work on veterans health care reform with John McCain, a detailed piece of legislation that by its nature required compromise. Such work is, as my colleague Matt Yglesias explains, more the rule than the exception. “Sanders has always talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts,” Yglesias writes.

Sanders may talk a lot about political revolution, but as a legislator he has a surprisingly long record of quiet, pragmatic accomplishment.

An authoritarian in waiting?

Next, Brooks argues that Sanders’s economic agenda represents some kind of authoritarian power grab:

A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.

It’s totally fair for Brooks, a conservative, to object to Sanders’s spending programs on the grounds that they’re too expensive. But supporting big federal spending programs does not an authoritarian make. If Medicare-for-all were some kind of neo-Stalinist ploy, then Canada and much of Western Europe would be totalitarian nightmares.

Brooks darkly hints that the Europe comparison is off: “Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing.” But Brooks does not point to any concrete difference between the Sanders platform and those countries’ policies that makes him more authoritarian, no evidence that he’d turn the US economy into his personal fiefdom. Plus, there’s the little problem of Congress — which would likely block Medicare-for-all, let alone some kind of proposed seizure of the means of production.

Brooks’s final argument is at once his most dumbfounding and revealing — that Sanders would tear down America’s political institutions:

These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.

There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.

As it happens, Sanders has weighed in on the modern-day liberal debate over whether to expand the Supreme Court. Here’s what he said: “I do not believe in packing the court.”

In fairness, he has given some support for a different Supreme Court reform policy — rotating judges between appellate courts and the Supreme Court. But the plan is hardly a centerpiece of his campaign, which is actually less inclined to eliminate counter-majoritarian constraints on policymaking as compared to some of the other 2020 hopefuls.

The filibuster is the best example. While other Democrats have proposed eliminating it entirely — including Brooks’s supposedly more compromise-minded liberal, Warren — Sanders has suggested he’d prefer keeping it. “I’m not crazy about getting rid of the filibuster,” as he put it in one interview. “Donald Trump supports the ending of the filibuster. So you should be a little bit nervous if Donald Trump supports it,” he said in another. He does have a somewhat dubious plan for getting around the filibuster to pass his signature legislation — but, again, the prospects of him being able to go through with it are vanishingly slim.

I’m not trying to say that Bernie is some kind of squishy moderate. He is an authentic leftist who proposes a radical rethinking of the American economic model. Some of his most radical proposals, like giving workers 20 percent ownership over large corporations, have scarcely been discussed in the 2020 race.

But his leftism, his self-consciously “democratic socialism,” sees itself not as opposed to core liberal values but as an extension of them. He sees himself as engaging in a political revolution, not a violent one — an effort to change liberalism from within for the better.

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Richmond, Virginia
Sanders at a campaign rally.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

“The Sanders campaign is an effort to make real the principles of personal dignity, autonomy, free association, plurality, & self-development that liberalism prizes,” tweeted Columbia law professor Jedediah Britton-Purdy. “To say the opposite sells criminally short both liberalism and Sanders.”

Sanders’s centrist critics like Brooks are attacking a phantom of their own creation. They have a stylized vision in their mind of what a self-identified socialist must believe, and deduce Bernie’s policy positions from this vision rather than engaging with his actual record — one of an economic radical but a political liberal with a history of working within America’s institutions to reform them. Instead of trying to understand why Sanders might have praised, say, Cuba’s literacy policies and engage in a more nuanced critique, they simply conclude he’s secretly in favor of its totalitarian political model, because that’s who socialists are.

It’s true that some of Sanders’s Twitter fans might actually court such alarmist appraisals from the likes of Brooks. If the centrists are panicking, they think, then their candidate must be doing something right. But the candidate is not his supporters, and his record is demonstrably different from what you’d expect from a would-be caudillo.

Of course, there is such a figure in American politics today: Donald Trump. The idea that Brooks and anyone else who styles themselves a liberal would equate a man who seems to be purging the Justice Department of disloyal figures with Sanders, as Brooks does, is absurd. Their knee-jerk worries about socialism are keeping them from seeing Sanders clearly — a candidate who, if nominated, will be the only option for defending American liberalism against its worst enemy.

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