Berning Down Wall Street

I don’t know where this will end but every time I write about a book on Bernie Sanders, somebody sends me a larger one. At least my arms are getting stronger from lifting the things. One point is clear to me: if the media ever wanted to catch up on all the coverage of Bernie’s campaign that it has foregone, it could do it with a minimum-wage staffer reading aloud from books — reducing the need to find corporations opposed to oligarchy to buy the advertisements. The reporting is in books, it’s just not in newspapers or boob tubes.

The latest is Bernie: A Lifelong Crusade Against Wall Street & Wealth by Darcy G. Richardson. Like the last one was, it is now the most substantial reporting I’ve seen on Bernie’s political career. It also does the most to include the voices of Bernie’s critics from the left (see Chapter 1). In addition it, by far, includes the most information on Bernie’s foreign policy actions, good and bad, over the decades. The book is a bit too heavy on horse-race coverage of each of Sanders’ past elections for my taste, but people who like that stuff will eat it up.

Having written elsewhere today about public diplomacy by towns and cities, I was particularly struck by Richardson’s chapter titled “International Diplomacy,” which covers, not Bernie’s career in Washington, but his time as mayor of Burlington, Vt. It is safe to say that when it comes to foreign policy Bernie was better then than he is now, was better then than any current mayor in the United States, and was better then than possibly any other mayor ever. I say that while continuing to condemn the horrible things he did, including arresting peace activists for demanding conversion of weapons jobs to peaceful ones.

Mayor Bernie denounced the Pentagon budget, explained its local relevance, demanded nuclear disarmament, opposed apartheid in South Africa, and sought to improve U.S.-Soviet relations. “We’re spending billions on military,” he said, touching on a theme that today he wouldn’t prod with a $10 billion screw out of an F-35. “Why can’t we take some of that money to pay for thousands of U.S. children to go to the Soviet Union? And, why can’t the Soviets take money they’re spending on arms and use it to send thousands of Russian children to America?”

Mayor Bernie backed a successful ballot initiative telling the U.S. military to get out of El Salvador. He denounced the U.S. attack on Grenada. The Burlington Board of Alderman voted to encourage trade between Burlington and Nicaragua, in defiance of President Ronald Reagan’s embargo. Mayor Bernie accepted an invitation from the Nicaraguan government to visit Nicaragua, where he spoke out against U.S. war mongering, and from which he returned to a speaking tour letting Vermonters know what he’s seen and learned. He had also set up a sister city relationship for Burlington with a city in Nicaragua. He led an effort that provided $100,000 in aid to that city.

Again, articulating basic common sense wisdom that he wouldn’t come near today for love or the presidency, Mayor Bernie Sanders said, “Instead of invading Nicaragua and spending tremendous amounts of tax dollars on a war there, money which could be much better used at home, it seems to me that it would be worthwhile for us to get to know the people of Nicaragua, understand their problems and concerns, and see how we can transform the present tension-filled relationship into a positive one based on mutual respect.” Just try to imagine Senator Sanders saying that about the people of Syria or Iraq.

Richardson’s book is of course largely devoted to the topic of taking on Wall Street greed, on which Sanders has been stellar and consistent for years and years. But we do also catch glimpses of Sanders’ evolving foreign policy from his opposition to the war on Vietnam (which was more serious than other books have suggested) through to his proposal that Saudi Arabia “get its hands dirty” and kill more people. At the time of the Gulf War, Sanders was far more hawkish than a simple look at his No vote on invasion suggests. He supported the troop build up and the deadly embargo. He backed the NATO bombing in Kosovo. He opposed until very late any efforts to impeach Bush or Cheney.

But on the matter of Wall Street, Sanders has been as good in the past as he was in this week’s speech. He warned of the danger of a crash years before it came, and questioned people like Alan Greenspan who brushed all worries aside. He opposed repealing Glass-Steagall. He opposed credit default swap scams. He opposed the appointments of Timothy Geithner and Jack Lew. His “big short” was perhaps to stay in politics until it became clear to all sane people that he’d been right on these matters, as on NAFTA and so much else. His favorite book in college, we learn, was Looking Backward. He found the root of most problems in capitalism. He developed a consistent ideology that makes his growing acceptance of militarism stand out as uniquely opportunistic and false.

By that I most certainly do not mean that he is a candidate for peace strategically pretending to be for war, as many voters told themselves about Barack Obama on even less basis. When Bernie was good on foreign policy he campaigned promising to be good on foreign policy. As his performance worsened, so did his campaign promises. Any elected official can be moved by public pressure, of course, but first he’d have to be elected and then we’d have to move him — something millions of people have taken a principled stand against even trying with President Obama.

One note in Sanders’ defense: Richardson cites a rightwing newspaper article claiming that Bernie and his wife together are in the top 2 percent of income earners. It’s worth noting that were that true it would not put them anywhere at all near the top 2 percent in accumulated wealth. It also seems to be an extreme estimate on behalf of the author of a sloppy article. Another source places the Sanders in the top 5 percent in income, while noting how extremely impoverished that leaves them by the standards of the U.S. Senate.

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