OPED: Bernie offers little beyond making us 'mad as hell'

Tribune News Service
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"Things have got to change. But first, you've got to get mad! You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'"

— Howard Beale

Forgive me, but I can't help comparing Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign to Howard Beale, the fictional news anchor in the 1976 film "Network" who sparks a movement based on anger. Let me stress that my comparison ends there. Sanders isn't really like the suicidal character so magnificently played by Peter Finch. But the "Feel the Bern" movement is similarly based on people getting angry with the status quo.

"The subtext of this campaign is called a political revolution," Sanders said this week in an endorsement meeting with the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board. "It's too late for establishment politics," he said. "I think the bottom line is that American people are really tired of establishment politics and establishment economics."

I agree that people are tired of politics as usual, and many are angry about it, but I'm not sure that Sanders has the right answers.

Having been a socialist independent for most of his political career, the senator seems to have become accustomed to leading efforts that may not succeed. He seems very good at pointing out what people should be mad about, but has not been so good in outlining how a President Sanders would succeed after the "revolution."

Maybe that's why Sanders' presidential campaign decided to turn negative. Gone is all the politeness that once preceded criticism of Hillary Clinton's shortcomings. But Sanders' proposals to continue the "revolution" after his election sound like bait for a Congress that at this point he can't count on changing from majority Republican.

"I guarantee. Write it down. Bernie Sanders is elected ... the Democrats will win the United States Senate," he said. Maybe. But will that majority be large enough to withstand a Republican filibuster of legislation he supports?

Bipartisanship doesn't seem to be Sanders' principal goal. "Don't look at these issues just within the context of politics, what it is today," he said. "When I talk about a political revolution, what it means is involving millions of people in the political process in a way that we have not seen in many years."

I like it when Sanders uses buzzwords like "revolution," "ruling class," and "cult of money" to get people excited about the need to shake things up. But when he talks about what happens after the revolution, I am reminded of banana republics, where people trusted their hearts to revolutionaries who didn't know how to govern.

The dearth of details in Sanders' speeches is particularly intriguing to African-Americans like me who have grown tired over the years of hearing that black people vote with their hearts rather than their minds. It's white voters, especially younger ones, who seem to have fallen so in love with Sanders that they ignore his faults.

For example, Sanders won the Wisconsin primary Tuesday by 56 percent to 43 percent. Clinton won 74 percent of the black votes in the election, but that was fewer than 10 percent of the total votes cast.

Sanders won 81 percent of Wisconsin voters ages 18 to 29, but that's understandable. If any segment of the American electorate should be angry, it's young adults, who have been told over and over that their generation can't expect to be as secure, economically or otherwise, as their parents or grandparents.

But anger alone solves little. This would still be a segregated nation if Martin Luther King Jr. thought black people's anger at being treated like second-class citizens would be enough to get a Southern president to push for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In fact, angrily focusing on Clinton's negatives has drawn attention to inconsistencies in Sanders' narrative. He lambasted Clinton for taking donations from people in the oil and gas industry, but he has accepted funds from them, too. Neither amount — $54,000 for Sanders compared with $308,000 for Clinton — is more than a drop in the millions in campaign contributions they have received.

Sanders never misses a chance to criticize Clinton for voting with the majority that gave President George W. Bush authority to attack Iraq in 2002. But four years earlier the senator had voted in favor of a resolution that said, "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."

Obviously, somewhere along the way Sanders changed his mind about regime change in Iraq. Clinton, too, in retrospect says voting for the Iraq war was a mistake. But instead of fighting the last war, she is ready with a plan that addresses the situations that exist in Syria and Iraq today. Sanders, in comparison, mostly decries war in general, providing more detailed answers only when pressed.

Similarly, he only reluctantly admits that trade pacts have also created jobs for American workers by opening new markets to U.S.-made goods. He admits that trade agreements in place now will have to remain so until and unless they can be renegotiated. Yet his stump-speech rhetoric suggests a quicker, easier solution.

Few things worth fighting for are easily or quickly obtained. I think Sanders, like Howard Beale, misleads people to believe that all they need do to change the world is open up a window and yell, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" You need a better plan than what he has provided so far for what comes next.

— Harold Jackson is editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board.