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Wed Mar 27, 2019, 02:52 AM

Garrison Nelson: The vanilla socialism of Bernie Sanders

By Commentary
Mar 26 2019, 6:55 PM

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Garrison Nelson, who is the Elliot A. Brown Professor of Law, Politics, and Political Behavior Emeritus at the University of Vermont and senior fellow at the John McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston. He is the author most recently of “John William McCormack: A Political Biography.”


It was Sanders’ presidential campaign that got me out of semi-retirement, when I gave close to 100 interviews to reporters in the United States and foreign countries. American reporters were mostly interested in horse-race questions — How well will he do? Can he win? I found those questions tedious and repetitious. It was the international press that had the most interesting questions: Reporters from Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Japan, China, South Korea, and even Brazil were fascinated by Bernie’s candidacy. Since many of these countries had socialists in government, the question asked by most was about his commitment to democratic socialism. “What kind of socialist is he?” they would ask. And I generally responded, “Bernie is a vanilla socialist with a major focus on the concentration of wealth at the top and income inequality for the rest.” Bernie’s agenda had no far-reaching five-year plans. Collectivized agriculture and nationalized industry were not part of his program. This was quite dissimilar from the socialisms of many other countries. They seemed perplexed that Bernie’s mild socialism would be so controversial in the United States. My answer was simple: During the Cold War socialism was seen as the “gateway drug” to communism, the philosophy then espoused by our mortal enemy — the Soviet Union.


I watched in fascination as Bernie went on to win three more contests for mayor and to resume his statewide career in a failed 1986 campaign for governor against Madeleine Kunin and his close contest for the U.S. House in 1988 with ex-Lt. Gov. Peter Smith. Bernie’s race in 1990 was the only national race in Vermont that year; it was not a presidential year and neither Senate seat was up for election. Bernie’s narrow defeat two years earlier and Peter Smith’s electoral vulnerability made this contest one to watch. So much so that David Broder of the Washington Post, the nation’s most influential political reporter, came to Vermont to see for himself what the Sanders candidacy was all about. Broder and I had communicated earlier and I asked him, “Are there other candidacies like this around the country?” He replied “There is no other candidacy like Sanders’ anywhere in the country. And there is nowhere in the country other than Vermont where it has a probability of succeeding.”

As always, Broder was right. Bernie won election that year to begin his 29-year career in Congress — longer than any president had ever served in that body, including Lyndon Johnson. Now, as I work in my UVM office on a book detailing the oft-tumultuous relationships between presidents and speakers of the U.S. House, I no longer expect the torrent of interview requests that gobbled up much of 2015-2016. Others have chosen to be experts on the Sanders candidacy and I wish them well.

But he’s still a vanilla socialist to me.


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