When most politicians are faced with negative elements from their past, they turn to one or more tried and true political strategies in order to deal with it. They may attempt to simply bury their past (see: Trump, Donald or Clinton, Hillary), or they may attempt to rebrand past negatives as actual positives, if you really think about it (see: Harris, Kamala).
Failing these, they may turn to cultural or generational relativism, the idea that negatives from the past are not really all that bad since they were more socially acceptable at the time. For example: When Roy Moore was running for Senate in Alabama, some of his supporters suggested that it was not a problem he was a pedophile, since pedophilia was more socially acceptable in the 1950s and 60s.
Roy Moore aside, it is a strategy which often gains some traction. Think of the idea that opposing gay rights in the 1990s, as Hillary Clinton did, is not as reprehensible as doing it in 2019, when even Hillary has come around, or the idea that authoring a racist crime bill in the 90s, as Joe Biden did, is excusable since at that time the country was (allegedly) clamoring for ‘tough on crime’ legislation.
But if we agree that standing on the right side of history is sometimes difficult, particularly when most of those around you are standing on the wrong side, then surely we can agree that someone who has managed to stand on the right side of history, particularly when it was unpopular, is deserving of praise, right?
Enter Bernie Sanders.
As a young man in the 1960s, at the same time as Hillary Clinton was dabbling in Goldwater, Bernie Sanders was a civil rights activist. He marched with Martin Luther King in the March on Washington, was elected chair of his university’s chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), “literally helped lead the first known sit-in in at the University of Chicago” while fighting against housing segregation on campus, and was, on at least one occasion, arrested while chained to another human being (an African-American woman) for protesting against a racially discriminatory education system.
In the 1970s, as many of his peers were losing their radical ambitions, Bernie moved to Vermont, became a youth counsellor and carpenter, and joined the Liberty Union Party, a socialist, anti-war party whose platform included the legalization of all drugs and abolishing the CIA. Four consecutive times he ran under this banner for Governor or Senator in Vermont, losing, of course, each time.
Then, in 1981, as Reaganomics was sweeping the nation, Bernie was elected Mayor of Burlington, unseating a 6-term incumbent by only 10 votes to become the only “socialist” Mayor in the nation. In his inauguration speech, Bernie railed against “giant banks and multimillion-dollar corporations.” Seven years and four elections later, on his way out of office and after endorsing Rev. Jesse Jackson for President in 1988, Bernie stated on C-Span his belief that the next President must “recognise that we have an extreme disparity between rich and poor, that elections are bought and sold.”
In between, and aside from revitalizing the city of Burlington, Bernie used his modest pulpit to write letters to world leaders urging things like military disarmament and, while it was still supported in the United States, the end to South African apartheid. Margaret Thatcher received a letter condemning her government’s treatment of Irish prisoners, while Ronald Reagan received many letters condemning US interventionism in Central America.
More significantly, in 1983, at the start of the AIDS epidemic when anti-gay sentiment was on the rise across the country, Bernie Sanders supported Burlington’s first ever pride parade. To this vigorous and homophobic local opposition which arose, Bernie responded:
“In our democratic society, it is the responsibility of government to safeguard civil liberties and civil rights — especially the freedom of speech and expression. In a free society, we must all be committed to the mutual respect of each others lifestyle.”
Two years later, continuing a fight which had been so important to him in his youth, Bernie passed legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing. It gave legal protection to the elderly, people with disabilities, families, people on welfare, and, yes, the LGBT community, which led to Burlington becoming what has been called a “Trans Mecca.”
Speaking of which, in the mid-1990s, as Bill Clinton was signing openly anti–gay legislation into law, and ten years before then-Senator Hillary Clinton told Congress that marriage was “not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman,” Bernie Sanders stood on the floor of Congress, by then a member of the House of Representatives, and passionately defended who another member had just called “homos in the military.”
“Was the gentleman referring to the many thousands and thousands of gay people who have put their lives on the line in countless wars defending this country?”
Three years earlier, when the War on Drugs, supported by both parties, was going into hyper-drive, it was Bernie Sanders who told Congress:
“I’ve got a problem with a president and Congress that allows five million people to go hungry, two million people to sleep out on the street, cities to become breeding grounds for drugs and violence. And they say we’re getting tough on crime. If you want to get tough on crime, let’s deal with the causes of crime. Let’s demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living. Let’s not keep putting more people into jail and disproportionately punishing blacks.”
“How do we talk about crime when this Congress is prepared, this year, to spend 11 times more for the military than for education; when 21% of our kids drop out of high school; when a recent study told us that twice as many young workers now earn poverty wages as 10 years ago; when the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider, and when the rate of poverty continues to grow? Do you think maybe that might have some relationship to crime?
But it is also my view that through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming today tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence. And Mr. Speaker, all the jails in the world, and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country, and all of the executions in the world… will not make that situation right. We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance.”
Further, when Republicans and Democrats worked together to dismantle welfare around the same time, again it was Bernie who said.
“The bill, which combines an assault on the poor, women and children, minorities, and immigrants is the grand slam of scapegoating legislation, and appeals to the frustrations and ignorance of the American people along a wide spectrum of prejudices.”
At the start of the 90s Bernie spoke out against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which both parties were working towards signing, predicting its eventual failures, and calling out its inherent problem:
“An agreement that will be a disaster for working people, for our farmers, and for the environment in general. Our nation, and this is an untold secret, is becoming a poorer and poorer nation.Our working people in the last twenty years have seen a significant decline in their standard of living because our nation has turned from a manufacturing economy into a service industry economy which is paying our workers extremely low wages. One of the reasons our standard of living is declining is that major American corporations like General Motors, General Electric, and many others, have thrown hundreds of thousands of American workers out on the street as they run to Mexico, as they run to Asia, to hire desperate workers there and pay them starvation wages. We do not need a fast track agreement; we need a new industrial policy which provides good paying jobs for our workers.”
At the end of the 90s, as both parties worked towards the deregulation of Wall Street, once more it was Bernie Sanders who said:
“This legislation… will do more harm than good. It will lead to… taxpayer exposure to potential losses should a financial conglomerate fail. It will lead to more mega-mergers… and further concentration of economic power in this country.”
It was Bernie Sanders who asked of the banks:
“What happens if they fail? Who in God’s name is going to bail them out?”
Similarly, when George H.W. Bush led the country into the first war in Iraq in 1991, it was Bernie who warned it would “lay the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come,” and proclaimed:
“It is also a tragic day for the future of our planet and for the children, 30,000 of whom in the Third World will starve to death today as we spend billions to wage this war – and 25 percent of whom in our own country live in poverty in our country because we apparently lack the funds to provide them with a minimal standard of living.”
When George W. Bush led the country back to Iraq 12 years later, again it was Bernie who warned “a long-term American occupation of Iraq could be extremely expensive,” and asked:
“Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority be exacerbated?”
Put it this way: If we are going to attempt to excuse the past indiscretions of certain politicians as naive forays into a particular cultural moment in time, then we must certainly heap additional praise on those who, despite the overwhelming pull of group-think, managed to stand on the right side of history.
Nobody is perfect, of that much we can all be certain. But where most politicians, when confronted with the pressing issues of our time, are forced to explain away their negative pasts — that is, explain away their explicit roles in the creation, continuation, and exacerbation of the problems we face most tangibly as a society — Bernie Sanders is someone who has consistently existed on the right side of history.
Consistently … and quietly. As Shaun King noted at Bernie’s official campaign kickoff rally in Brooklyn, “Bernie hates telling these stories, and he’s resisted using them for political capital across the years, even when we’ve told him, ‘Bernie you’ve got to tell your story!’”
Most of us know the gory details of Donald Trump’s sordid past. It’s time that the ‘quiet’ part of Bernie’s history has the volume turned up.