The dismissive attitude with which the Beltway Media as well as political pundits and leaders are treating Bernie Sanders has sounded, in a way, reminiscent of the way in which people – including myself – viewed Ronald Reagan in 1980.
People are constantly calling Bernie an “extremist” and a member of the “leftist fringe” whose views represent “radical liberalism”. Bernie Sanders is usually introduced as “a self-described socialist” – as if that alone is enough to disqualify him. They say he comes from a small white, rural Northeastern state and talks with an unapologetic Brooklyn accent, and so he is unfit for the national stage. And he is OLD.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan was viewed as a “radical conservative” whose views had been too far right for the American mainstream. He was a “cowboy” rancher whose political base was a bunch of white retirees living in Southern California. There was no way he would be taken seriously in the Northern and Eastern States. And he was OLD.
Politically, it was thought that Reagan was out of step: in California he had tried to take the world’s greatest free university system and make it charge tuition. He was rabidly anti-union; he said Medicare would “lead to the destruction of American democracy.” And at a time when everyone was talking about conservation and looming environmental disaster, Reagan was preaching the 1980 equivalent of “drill, baby, drill”.
I remember the summer of 1980 quite well as I had just finished my sophomore year at Harvard and I spent that summer studying and travelling in Europe. Reagan was a favourite topic of conversation. I was often peppered with questions like “who is he? Is he really the actor who starred with that monkey?” and above all, “is he really that much of a conservative?”
In my Ivy League hubris I assured them of two things: first, I explained that Ronald Reagan was indeed a far-right lunatic and a fascist (a word which really meant something to Europeans, especially then) who was un-American in his beliefs, his militarism and his radical conservatism. Secondly, I told them that they need not worry, because Reagan would never be elected – he was far to the right of Nixon, and he was dangerously bellicose – indeed, I often closed by saying that Reagan’s election would inevitably lead to World War III.
That fall after the election I found myself wondering how many of my European acquaintances were getting their affairs in order, building shelters, or moving to Australia.
The pundits, the media, the common thinking – and I myself – had all been wrong.
Reagan wanted to take the USA back exactly 50 years, to a time before FDR and New Deal Liberalism. Now, Bernie Sanders wants to take the USA back exactly 50 years, to a time before Reagan and Trickle-Down Conservatism.
I am just glad that I have lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back, at long last, towards sanity.