In one sentence, Ben Domench captures Bernie Sanders: “He’s Occupy but with a smartphone donation app.”
While the nation’s adults were asleep, the academy was awake and indoctrinating a younger generation in the beauties of socialist ideals. No matter the distance between the ideals and reality. The young, ripe for causes but unripe in history or economic understanding, are tilting—have tilted—away from free enterprise and toward socialism. Bernie Sanders is their paladin, not a crank from the fringe but a knight errant riding to rescue the 99% from the corruption and avarice of the stinking 1%.
One of the best discussions of Sanders’ popularity among a generation devoid of historical memory is Ben Domench’s column “The Return of Socialism” in the latest issue of Commentary. [It requires a subscription to read in its entirety but is well worth the price.] The excerpt below illustrates why:
Just a few years ago, the idea that Bernie Sanders, former member of the Socialist Party of America, would be contending seriously for the Democratic nomination for president would have been ludicrous. When did it become acceptable for Americans to back an avowed socialist? What changed in America, and why did it change? . . .
Socialism has always been a philosophy on the fringe of American politics, but in the years between the First and Second World Wars it was considered a respectable element of the ideological left. With the coming of the Cold War, that ceased to be the case. During the Cold War, Americans could look out into the world and see the logical end result of fully consistent socialism. It wasn’t just the military threat from the Soviets or the gulags and secret police. It was also the ever-present specific economic examples of how terrible life was under their model. Expressions of liberal sentiment in Hungary led to Soviet occupation in 1956. It was lost on no one that in 1961 East Germany had to build a wall in Berlin to keep the population of its half of the city captive. When Czech Communists rose in 1968 with the explicit desire of creating “socialism with a human face,” the tanks from the East rolled in and made it clear the only face would be Big Brother’s. The suppression of dissident writers and artists in all these countries was well-known, as were the desperate attempts at defection by leading musicians, performers, and athletes whenever they were permitted to travel abroad.
Even so, throughout the Cold War, socialism retained a significant cultural foothold in the United States. Yes, explicit socialism was something that became largely unacceptable for most Americans given the context of the Cold War. It always remained acceptable, however, in the cultural industries that disseminate ideological context to the rest of America—foremost the academy, but also a credulous news media and an entertainment industry always hungering after fashion and significance. Every few years the rise of a socialist leader or regime would be greeted with favor and optimism, from Tito in Yugoslavia to Mao in China to Castro in Cuba to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Each of these cases was challenged in the court of public opinion by masses of evidence about the repressive totalitarianism they were imposing, often with the help of the Soviet Union. This very public back-and-forth ensured that whatever the fashionable qualities socialism might have possessed, it would remain a fringe element of mainstream American politics. But it was always there, hiding in the background, frozen in cryogenic suspension, biding its time until the generations that lived through the Cold War began to be supplanted by the generations that had not.
That antagonism toward a capitalist system and corresponding attraction to socialist structures winds back to the nineteenth century. The utopian impulse that feeds it, and that exhilarates the young, goes further back than that. While the word utopia did not exist until Thomas More coined it in the sixteenth century, the impulse dates from ancient Greece and Rome. The images below witness the persistence of socialist yearnings, in whatever form they take, over two centuries.
Youthful idealism lends itself to exploitation. In September, 1944, in the seductive terms of a Pied Piper, Hitler Youth Leader Artur Axmann proclaimed:
As the sixth year of war begins, Adolf Hitler’s youth stands prepared to fight resolutely and with dedication for the freedom of their lives and their future. We say to them: You must decide whether you want to be the last of an unworthy race despised by future generations, or whether you want to be part of a new time, marvelous beyond all imagination.
The poster below is for the Bern, who is proud to call himself a democratic socialist: “Democratic socialism means we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very rich.” (Spoken at Georgetown University, November 19, 2015)
Who was it who said that when fascism comes to the United States it will come in the guise of liberal egalitarianism?