As I pointed out elsewhere, Bernie Sanders might actually pose a bigger threat to Republicans and their free market agenda than to centrist Democrats like Hillary Clinton. Centrists, after all, have the option of simply agreeing with Bernie if his ideas start polling well; Republicans have the challenge of actually having to refute the Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont.
Sanders is a threat to Republicans because he is offering an alternative economic agenda at a time when many of the GOP’s policies on that subject have failed. In some ways, the Republicans are now in the boat the Democrats were in back in the 1970s and ’80s; they have no real ideas on economic policy.
The self-proclaimed socialist is the first Leftist in a generation to actively challenge the GOP’s free market agenda. To make matters worse, he is doing it on a practical level people can understand by concentrating on meat and potatoes issues like student loans.
How to Respond to Bernie Sanders
So how should Republicans tackle the Sanders challenge? My suggestion would be a twofold strategy:
- Concede that Sanders is right on some points. Debating income inequality would be fruitless because the statistics are on Sanders’ side. There are 46 million people on food stamps in America, and average incomes in 81% of the nation’s counties are lower than in 1999. Something is clearly very wrong here, and it needs to be fixed. Denying the reality will only give Sanders the moral high ground and allow him to shape the debate.
- Offer some policies to help address income inequality and create jobs to counter Sanders. One reason why Sanders is so successful is that nobody seems to be offering an alternative to his ideas. Here are a few:
- Two potentially popular measures that would help working people would be to abolish or at least roll back the payroll or FICA tax and create a nationwide right to work law. Why not let lower income people keep more or all of their income? This proposal would be a great way to counter liberals screaming for an increase in the minimum wage. If these people care so much about the working poor, why are they so happy with a system that takes a large portion of the working poor’s meager income for the government? Obviously, alternative sources of revenue would have to be found for Social Security and Medicare—very well then, so be it.
- There are many states where unions can mandate contracts that force all employees at a workplace to join their organization. This violates basic rights and lets union bosses take a cut of workers’ salaries. It disproportionally hurts the working poor because they are the ones most likely to have their salaries garnished to support the “labor movement.” Why not a federal law banning compulsory union membership? If unions are so wonderful, shouldn’t workers have the right to make up their mind whether to join them?
How Not to Respond to Bernie Sanders
There is a surefire way to lose the debate with Sanders, and I fear it is the strategy that Republicans and their allies in the media will employ. That stratagem is to attack Sanders as evil, undemocratic and un-American because he is a socialist and then to brand him as some sort of traitor because of his involvement with the New Left back in the 1960s.
This strategy will fail because it is just too last century. It was possible to brand all socialists as totalitarians back in the midcentury when there were two aggressive, violent and militaristic movements ready to use terrorist means to force their visions of “socialism” on the world. These movements were Nazism (The Nazi Party’s official name was the National Socialist German Workers Party.) and Communism, both of which are now thankfully on the ash heap of history where they belong.
In today’s world, socialism is epitomized by nations like Sweden or Germany, which are staunchly democratic, or super-capitalist, post-Marxist organizations like the Chinese Communist Party. None of these nations or groups is any sort of military threat to the United States. The world’s last true Communist regime in North Korea is a bad joke that nobody outside its borders takes seriously. Socialism is simply not a credible threat to the United States or its allies, so being a socialist is no longer unpatriotic.
Any attempt to label Sanders as a totalitarian or an enemy of freedom will fall flat on its face. Sanders himself can easily deflate such attacks by pointing to his opposition to the National Security Agency and his support of gay rights. After all, Sanders has often voted with Libertarian Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) on a number of issues, and the Senator from Vermont wins kudos from some of Paul’s supporters for his strong stand on civil liberties. There is simply no way to brand a person who agrees with Rand Paul on surveillance as a card-carrying party member.
The New Left stuff is even worse because it presumes the audience remembers the 1960s. The median age in the United States today is 37.8 years, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book. That means the average voter was born about eight years after the sixties ended (around the time Star Wars and not Easy Rider was playing at the local movie theater).
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The average voter neither remembers nor cares about what Sanders and his friends did back in 1968. Republicans might as well attack Sanders for being a Copperhead (a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War) or link him to the German American Bund (a comic opera organization of Nazi sympathizers active in the 1930s and ’40s) as to smear him as part of the New Left.
Even if such attacks were to succeed, they might backfire on Republicans because somebody with more mainstream credentials and appeal might simply pick up Sanders’ mantle. Not challenging Sanders ideas’ and smearing the man instead will on some level validate his cause.
It is obvious that Republicans and all friends of the free market have a serious problem in America today. The popularity of Bernie Sanders proves that we need to rethink our current version of capitalism and its effects on average people.