The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders sank to a new low during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last week, courtesy of mega-billionaire Mike Bloomberg. Responding to the Vermont senator’s charge that Bloomberg’s employees were at least partly responsible for his business success, the former Republican New York City mayor replied: “We’re not going to throw out capitalism. We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
This wasn’t the first time Sanders has been smeared in this fashion. Indeed, as I noted in a Truthdig column posted in May 2016, pundits and politicians affiliated with both major parties attacked Sanders relentlessly the last time he ran for president.
Among Sanders’ earliest and most vicious antagonists was Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, who is now one of MSNBC’s deep stable of neoliberal cheerleaders. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show in June 2015, McCaskill complained, incredulously, that major media outlets were giving Sanders a pass compared to their reporting on Hillary Clinton. “I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he’s a socialist,” McCaskill cracked. Declaring that Clinton was destined to become the party’s nominee, she blasted Sanders for being “too liberal” and “too extreme” to be elected.
By early 2016, as Sanders showed no sign of folding, other Clinton supporters and surrogates joined McCaskill in sounding the alarm at the prospect of a real challenge.
Martin also included comments from Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who said that a Sanders candidacy “wouldn’t be helpful outside Vermont, Massachusetts, Berkeley, Palo Alto and Ann Arbor,” and from McCaskill, who insinuated, “The Republicans … can’t wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle.”
True to McCaskill’s prediction, Republican operatives soon joined the jingoistic chorus. In an interview with — wait for it — Bloomberg News reporter Sahil Kapur in April 2016, GOP strategist Ryan Williams asserted that Sanders would be a weak general election candidate because “Bernie Sanders is literally a card-carrying socialist.”
Over the course of the 2020 campaign, this red-baiting has grown even more desperate and unhinged.
Perhaps the leading fearmonger of this election cycle has been MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, whose talk show, “Hardball,” airs five nights a week. In a special late-night panel discussion broadcast after the New Hampshire Democratic debate earlier this month, Matthews implied that if elected, Sanders would destroy democracy and initiate a dictatorship with deadly consequences. “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed,” he rambled. “I don’t know who Bernie Sanders supports [sic] over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialism.”
Two days later, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, who anchors the network’s Sunday morning and weekday afternoon program “Meet the Press,” upped the ante, approvingly citing an article by right-wing columnist Jonathan Last of The Bulwark that described Sanders’ online supporters — the purportedly menacing “Bernie Bros” — as a “digital brownshirt brigade.”
Not to be outdone by Todd, Matthews exploded on air in an anti-Semitic meltdown following the Nevada caucuses, comparing Sanders’ landslide win to Nazi Germany breaking through the Maginot line — this despite the fact that the Vermont senator’s family was slaughtered in the Holocaust.
Matthews and Todd are by no means alone. In a recent column titled “Bernie’s Angry Bros,” conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens detailed a conversation he had with former California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer about Sanders. “There is so much negative energy; it’s so angry,” said Boxer, a staunch backer of Hillary Clinton in 2016. “You can be angry about the unfairness in the world. But this becomes a personal, deep-seated anger at anyone who doesn’t say exactly what you want to hear.”
Clinton herself could barely contain her disdain for Sanders while promoting a new documentary series on her life set to stream on Hulu in March. “Nobody likes him,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “Nobody wants to work with him.” The implication, once again, was that Sanders is too left-wing to be elected.
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Red-baiting did not originate with Sanders, of course. It has a long, inglorious history in the United States that began with the persecution of anarchists in the late 19th century, continued through the Red Scare of the World War I era and came to full flower in the form of McCarthyism during the late 1940s and 1950s.
But while the attacks on Sanders contributed to his defeat in 2016, they proved less effective than the red-baiting of old. In an effort to understand why, I reached out in 2016 to Ellen Schrecker, professor emerita of history at Yeshiva University in New York City. Considered by many the nation’s foremost authority on McCarthyism, Schrecker is the author of numerous essays and books, including her highly praised interpretive monograph, “The Age of McCarthyism” (1994), and more recently, “The Lost Soul of Higher Education” (2010).
Schrecker voted for Sanders in her state’s 2016 primary, and the longstanding socialist is still going strong at age 81, providing expert commentary in the new PBS documentary “McCarthy: Power Feeds on Fear.”
To understand why the attacks on Sanders were less damaging than they might have been, Schrecker said in a phone interview, we must look to Sanders’ base of support: America’s youth. “I think red-baiting is losing its bite, particularly among the young, because they don’t know what communism was, and, as a result, baiting has lost its Cold War sting,” she said.
“The fragmentation of American politics [in the internet era] is also a factor,” she continued. “In the ’50s, we had three TV networks and a few major newspapers. It was easier to marginalize left-wing figures. Now, we have a proliferation of outlets. There are so many other things today people can be made to fear besides being a socialist: terrorism, transgenderism, guns or the lack of them.”
Schrecker added, “Bernie Sanders has made it safe to be a socialist in American politics. That could very well be his most important long-term achievement. He has offered a way of thinking about politics that we haven’t considered in 50 to 60 years. And he’s done so in sync with what people feel at a gut level. The Occupy Movement brought the issue of income inequality to the forefront, and it has stayed there. Sanders has given the issue a public face.”
Public-opinion research appears to bear out her observations. A Pew poll from June 2015 found that 69% of voters under 30 were willing to vote for a socialist presidential candidate, while a Gallup poll released in November 2019 revealed that attitudes toward capitalism have declined dramatically among 18-to-39-year-olds. Socialism is now almost as popular as capitalism among that demographic.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Sanders currently enjoys the highest net favorability ratings of all the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, topping the list at 51%. (His next closest rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are at 49% and 47% respectively). Contrary to the Bernie Bro narrative, Sanders is actually more popular among minorities than he is with white people, and just as popular among women as he is with men, per a pair of polls from Harvard-Harris Poll and Morning Consult.
None of this means that the moderate and right wings of the party are politically obligated to abandon their efforts to nominate a candidate more to their liking. If the centrists and business interests want to argue against Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, substantial increases in the minimum wage, bringing an end to big money in elections, imposing significantly higher taxes on the super-rich, forgiving student debt and any number of other uplifting Sanders-backed policies, let them have at it in a fair primary fight.
But if Donald Trump is to be unseated in November, the red-baiting of the Democratic frontrunner and the demonizing of his supporters must end — full stop, once and for all.