I want to look at the two old men from both parties whom I believe (hope, anyway) represent the future of American politics. They are Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul, and I will examine a speech from both.
I came into American politics in media res, and as soon as I was able to understand political science, I could see that the US no longer has a real Left and Right anymore. At least not in terms of how it used to be and how it is in other countries. As I’ve said several times, it’s my firm belief that true leftism died in the US with McGovern’s humiliating (and undeserved) blowout loss in the 1972 election. The Old Left coalition was breaking up anyway, and the Democrats learned the wrong lesson from the magnitude of the landslide. The DNC bigwigs determined that to survive going forward, they better pivot to the right.
Soon after, Reagan completely redefined the Republican paradigm in 1980 and with it the entire spectrum. No longer were Republicans fiscal conservatives so much as supply-side neoliberals, wanting to privatize everything and steamroll any barriers to the money flow (outsource jobs, free trade deals, etc). I believe the last true paleoconservatives (maybe we’ll call them “Rockefeller Republicans” or “Eisenhower Republicans” were John Anderson and Bob Dole, and the latter’s similarly lopsided defeat in 1996 marked the last gasp of the “Old Right” in America. In any case, since Clinton’s Third Way/triangulation policies of the ’90s, both parties have increasingly followed the same practices of neoliberal supply side (“trickle down”) economics and neoconservative militant foreign policy. All that separates them are: the slight details of how to implement this agenda, social wedge issues, as well as the dog-whistles and talking points they use to appeal to certain single issue voters. In that regard, the GOP makes appeals to Social Conservatism/Evangelicals, gun owners and lower taxes while the Democrats cater to women, minorities and coastal “limousine liberals.”
If you’ve been following me through my ongoing series, you already know that. This is backstory. What’s changing nowadays is people are getting sick of it on both sides. We’re sick of expensive wars, sick of corporations milking us for every last cent, and we’re sick of the dual monarchy of the Bushes and Clinton’s who’ve been VPs, President or SOS since 1980 making it happen. It goes without saying that the surprising popularity of Sanders, coupled with the rise of Trump represents the beginning of a change. The difference between those two is that Sanders has a clear ideology and policy goals (whether you agree with them or not) while Trump is just pure populist demagoguery, with the desire to burn it all down and maybe figure out the rest later. But there was a predecessor to Trump, who also embodied frustration with the way things are but who did have a clear agenda of his own, and that man was Ron Paul.
I’ve said privately that if the GOP were smart, and thinking long-term, they’d drop the Social Conservatism/evangelicals and focus on fiscal conservatism, small government and personal responsibility. They already claim to support these principles, but in practice, they run up huge debts bigger than any Democrat (Reagan, Bush II, Trump), increase the size of government (every president ever), and give welfare to the rich while fucking over the poor (that’s what trickle down is, plus the bailout). Ron Paul is more libertarian than the old Rockefeller Republicans. But I think that is the long-term future of the Right after the post-Trump, post-evangelical growing pains are ironed out.
Bernie represents what the Democrats used to stand for in their heyday (1932-1972). They used to be the party of ambitious public works projects and social welfare programs that made everyone’s lives better. The modern iteration of the party abandoned that proud heritage after McGovern and even more so post-Bill Clinton’s Third Way ideology. We are the only major country now without a Labor party that looks out for the working man and wants to level the playing field. The sooner we fix that problem the better we’ll be. Even if you don’t like Bernie’s ideas, the Overton Window in America has skewed so far to the right that it’s dangerous and unsustainable. Obama and the Clintons would be considered Center-Right in any other developed country, and would have been Republicans had they run in the 50s-70s. But here in modern America, they’re made out to be radical Communist Anti-christ analogues. Bernie isn’t even as far left as the press made him out to be, and on the Political Compass’ website he’s listed as just barely left of center. For the record, Hillary is solidly in the Authoritarian Right quadrant and the Republicans are all very, very close to the very top-right corner.
Like Trump, I had a bit of a back and forth with Bernie in 2016. At first, I loved him unconditionally for campaigning in favor of policies I’d always wanted but long since “knew” no politician would ever support. I got somewhat disappointed when I saw all his frustrating campaign blunders during the primaries, and not fighting harder at the convention even with Clinton’s emails and DNC collusion making her nonviable. I think the first chink in Bernie’s armor came with that embarrassing rally where those two women hijacked his rally. That made him look weak and was when I noticed his momentum first starting to slow down a bit. Then, he didn’t play up his connections to MLK or adapt himself to the South during the primaries. There were other missteps but those were the biggest.
Yet, after seeing Bernie’s speech at the DNC and how moved the crowd was for him and him alone, then seeing Hillary’s campaign get worse and worse, with scandal and gaffe one after the other, I realized again what a good thing we lost. You’ll get all kinds of shit from the Clinton apologists for saying it, including blaming us for every bad thing that happened to her, but Bernie should’ve been the nominee. He was the clear people’s choice, and by this point we have evidence that Hillary cheated in the primaries, and that the DNC displayed irresponsible favoritism towards her.
Looking all through past candidates from the Democrats and third parties too, I can really appreciate what a good thing we turned our back on with Bernie. He had an amazing platform, was a great orator, and inspired a passionate following which doesn’t come often in politics. Not only is his voice booming and powerful, but his speeches are very eloquent and effective. He wasn’t the first, but he is definitely one of the best progressive candidates history has ever offered us—don’t let anyone tell you different. I’ve seen many Hillary supporters on Reddit and Facebook knock him down at every opportunity, dismiss anyone who says they loved him as a stupid kid and asking “is this your first election?” in a condescending way. As someone who’s spent a year studying every Presidential election in depth, watched every major debate and speech, I can now definitively say their smugness is completely unwarranted.
Listen to Bernie talk about FDR here, arguably the greatest and indisputably the most successful Democratic president of all time. You never see Hillary or the modern Democrats do that today. Maybe they’ll throw out a quote, but they don’t dive into what Roosevelt actually did, how it would be called “socialism!!!” today, or how it would help us now. Bernie balances the emotional appeals with cold hard facts and figures of how the US stacks up short in terms of quality of living not just compared to other countries, but our own past. People who just dismissed Bernie and his supporters as entitled brats wanting free stuff are the ignorant ones. Bernie offers a powerful stump speech which meticulously outlines every problem and every need one by one. My favorite part of the speech is when he brings up FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. I had never heard of that speech before, but it really inspired me to spread information about our past and hopefully call us to a higher standard again. Typical Democrats today will quote the tired, cliché platitudes from Roosevelt like “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” while ignoring his actual progressive policies and rhetoric. The fact that Bernie dug deep into the nitty gritties here shows he’s the real deal.
I haven’t just looked at debates, but the speeches of every candidate I’ve deemed progressive (and for whom speeches can be found online) and I’d say Bernie’s stump speech is by far the best.* It’s more exhaustive in its list of grievances, more charismatically delivered, and strikes the perfect balance between calling out the past (FDR) and looking towards the future. Between emotion (my favorite was mentioning how most Americans have no time to spend with loved ones anymore) and objective reality (we’re the only country that doesn’t offer guaranteed maternity leave). I love the shout-out to an overlooked, misunderstood political ethos, Democratic Socialism. I think using Bruce Babbitt’s phrase, “workplace democracy” might be better for a term to Bernie to use, because you avoid the stigma and fear-mongering about the dreaded S-word. But then, there’s some disagreement over whether Bernie is really a Democratic Socialist or a Social Democrat (similar names, but very different.) The former is about giving workers democratic control over businesses, the later is more generalized and says that government should take a more proactive role in Social justice and economic egalitarianism.
Another thing which shows how Bernie is the real deal, is in the way he calls out the CIA and past US administrations for meddling in foreign governments. He specifically calls out our overthrow of the Iranian government in the past and the unintended consequences our foreign nation building often has in world affairs. Many Democrats will denounce the Iraq War, (after voting for it, *cough*Hillary*cough*) and say they want to bring the troops home and all that. And it gets applause. But by acknowledging our long, bloody past, playing the world’s police and king-maker, it shows Bernie isn’t gunning for cheap accolades, he understands how screwed up the whole rotten system is.
*ASIDE: It’s a shame I couldn’t find any full McGovern speeches from 1972 besides his DNC acceptance address. He’s still my overall favorite candidate in history because I believe his platform was even more progressive than Bernie’s, (Basic Income for example) and considering that was 40 years earlier, it’s even more incredible. So, I cannot say whether McGovern or Bernie are better in this regard. I think, just comparing their convention speeches though, that Bernie was better at going more in depth on the issues (but then again, there’s more that’s broken and has to be addressed today than back then). Yet, McGovern was better at the call to arms soundbites and being charmingly folksy. Nothing beats that simple chorus of “Come Home, America!”
Ron Paul is by far my favorite Republican candidate from the new millennium and one of the few post-Reagan Republicans I actually have respect for. Hugging the religious right and absorbing the old Dixiecrats through the Southern Strategy allowed the GOP to dominate the ’80s and remain powerful through the present day. Even though they’ve now lost the popular vote of 6 of the last 7 elections, they’ve dominated state legislatures, governors, and Congress through a combo of this coalition, gerrymandering and outrageous DNC incompetence. It’s the ultimate example of selling out your morals for power. Call me partisan, call me dramatic, but I truly believe if Lincoln or even Eisenhower could see what their party has become today, they’d weep.
It won’t last forever either. The millennials are by far the most tolerant and open-minded generation yet and the modern GOP is poisonous to most of them. People dismiss this with “people get conservative as they age!” but in the first place, that’s a proven myth and in the second, that won’t happen anyway if the GOP continue to brand themselves as the rich old Christian white men party. After 2012 the GOP famously wrote an autopsy of why they lost, and determined that their best bet was catering to Hispanics. (Then in 2016, Trump happened.) Personally, I think the autopsy could’ve just been two words: Ron Paul.
Seriously, it’s not that hard. Just drop the racial dog whistles and gay bashing (abortion will continue to be controversial for the foreseeable future though.) Become the actual party of fiscal conservatism, personal freedom and small government. When social issues come up just say “it’s not the government’s business what consenting adults do with their free time.” Don’t be a phony like Reagan or the Bushes, talking a big talk about it and then running up unprecedented debt and policing people’s personal lives (like the war on drugs) once in office. Despite claiming to be a disciple of Goldwater, Reagan did almost the opposite of what Goldwater stood for in 1964. And for myself, even though I dislike several of Goldwater’s ideas, I’ve always gotten the impression you could at least have a productive and civil conversation with him. His treatment of George McGovern after the ’72 election, and trying to team up and trim the military budget the same decade shows Goldwater wasn’t a showboating demagogue pandering for votes to get in power. Goldwater, agree with him or not, was a reasonable, principled man whom I have disagreements with; it’s always been my impression Reagan and the Bushes would talk over me or sing a pretty song and then do the opposite behind my back. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even dignify me with a face to face civil discussion due to my being LGBT.
Goldwater is out of living memory for most, but Ron Paul was a big deal in two of the last three elections, and I’d argue he’s truer to the spirit of Goldwater and fiscal responsibility than anyone currently in the top tier of the Republican Party. Libertarianism has appeals to both the left (government out of marriage, legal weed), and right (small government, hands-off on the economy). I think the Right wing appeals to Ron Paul and the Libertarian Party are stronger, so it makes sense for Paul to have campaigned as a Republican. Just as it made more sense for Sanders to campaign as a Democrat even though the party has long since abandoned the leftism he represents.
Now, looking at Paul’s oration…I don’t think he is as good as Bernie. He has more of a simple country boy manner of speech which is charming enough. But his voice isn’t as booming and commanding. He has a McGovern-ish folksy twang to his voice. It’s not a problem, I just don’t think it’s as effective for rallying crowds. Paul also gets stuck on his words here and there. Not a big deal, but it’s noticeable enough to be distracting. You can see from the crowd that Paul’s still ridiculously effective in spite of these minor shortcomings.
Notice too, how similar a lot of his talking points are to Bernie’s in spite of their significant differences. Paul wants to go back to the way things were, not in reference to FDR, but in the gold standard and rolling back invasive government regulations and surveillance. Both are staunchly anti-war as well. One of the things Bernie left out in his policy speech which I’m glad to see Paul bring up, is the post-9/11 unconstitutional surveillance state. Another important issue Paul focuses on is the overuse of executive orders and line item vetoes. The office of President has become far more powerful and dictatorial than it was ever meant to be and it’s great to see someone campaign on being a hands-off, quiet president. He’s absolutely right that freedom should never be sacrificed for (the illusion of) security…but I think Paul’s talk of allowing guns on planes is pretty ridiculous.