Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance by Bernie Sanders

Books by serving politicians in which they purport to describe their beliefs and vision of the future are seldom of any value. The author is in a rush, and imagines that words which elicit applause when spoken at a rally of the faithful can be transferred without further effort to the printed page.

Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and is contemplating another run in 2020, is as lazy a writer as the rest of them. His book reads at times like a parody: “I have said it a million times, but I think it bears repeating. The campaign that I ran for president was never about me.”

Here is another grave problem with the campaign book as a genre. It is all about me, but the candidate is anxious to demonstrate how ordinary and unassuming and decent he is, so he (or she, though still most often he, for this kind of vanity comes more easily to men than to women) advertises his homespun humility, while also reminding us at frequent intervals that he is morally superior to the other side.

Sanders dismisses Donald Trump as “the most dishonest and reactionary president in the history of the Republic”: a formula which makes one wonder how much American history he knows. But it is true that the really disgraceful presidents are often passed over in silent embarrassment by the historians.

And then we are into the campaign rhetoric:

“Our job, for the sake of our kids and grandchildren, is to bring our people together around a progressive agenda.

“Are the majority of people in our country deeply concerned about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we are experiencing? You bet they are. Do they believe that our campaign finance system is corrupt and enables the rich to buy elections? Overwhelmingly so.

“Do they want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and provide pay equity for women? Yes they do. Do they think the very rich and large corporations should pay more in taxes so that all of our kids can have free tuition at public colleges and universities? Yup. Do they believe that the United States should join every other major country and guarantee health care as a right? Yes, again. Do they believe climate change is real? You’ve got to be kidding.”

To dismiss this because of the style would be a mistake. In Britain, Conservatives thought it was sufficient to be contemptuous of Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to foresee that in the 2017 general election he would be rather good at persuading people to vote for a socialist.

In the United States, Sanders, who is eight years older than Corbyn, was likewise dismissed as an out-of-date Leftie whose socialism could have no popular appeal.

But Sanders was in many ways a more attractive candidate than Hillary Clinton, who inspired even in her most devoted supporters deep misgivings, and who managed to beat him only because she had the Democratic machine behind her.

Sanders actually appeared to believe what he was saying, for with eccentric obduracy, or if one prefers admirable independence of mind, he had stuck to it even for long periods when he might with advantage have modified his views.

It was obvious to most people that however much Clinton claimed to have the interests of the struggling poor at heart, she had come to feel more at home in the Hamptons.

She herself was beaten in 2008 by Barack Obama, a candidate with a better ear, and a more plausible claim to be in touch with the wider public. His campaign book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, is in a different league to Sanders’ effort.

And Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, written ten years before he became well-known, so when he still had time to write a proper book, is better still.

In The Audacity of Hope, Obama describes a conversation he had over lunch in late September 2001 with a media consultant who was encouraging him to run for office:

“‘You realise, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,’ he said as he picked at his salad.

“‘What do you mean?’ I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

“‘Hell of a thing, isn’t it?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…’ His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signalling the waiter to bring us the check.”

As it happened, Obama with his strange name possessed the touch of implausibility which Americans sometimes warm to in a presidential candidate. So, in his unbelievably boorish way, did Trump.

For either of them to get to the White House was amazing, and in that sense a dream come true. They were outsiders who knew, in quite different ways, how to appeal to anti-Washington sentiment, which is generally the prevailing sentiment in the United States.

Clinton, as the wife of a former President and a woman who had come to enjoy the company of the rich, could not run an anti-Establishment campaign, and looked hypocritical when she pretended to do so.

Sanders is not open to that charge of hypocrisy. He genuinely believes that billionaires (his favourite target) should pay more tax, the pharmaceutical industry should charge less for essential medicines, assault rifles should not be on sale to the mentally ill, and they in turn should receive proper medical treatment at public expense rather than being incarcerated in America’s shamefully extensive prison system.

In this book, one starts to feel that Sanders, though not immune to the charge of senatorial self-importance (he has been one of Vermont’s senators since 2007, and was before that in the House of Representatives), is a refreshing change from the careerists who infest American as well as British politics.

The new and younger version of Sanders is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. According to Sanders,

“Progressive ideas are now mainstream in America. That’s what the people want, especially Democrats… When there is political excitement in the air, when ordinary people sense hope for the future, they will come out and vote, and Democrats will win. The simple truth is that ‘moderates’ or ‘centrists’ do not generate that level of excitement.”

We shall see. Lord Ashcroft has pointed out that a candidate who makes Democrat activists feel good might “drive uncommitted voters back into the arms of Donald Trump”.

But Trump is enough to give plutocracy a bad name, and Sanders here mounts a fierce attack on the in his view undeserving rich.

Once one has adjusted to his manner of speaking, one finds he is lucid and sincere in his account of where America has gone wrong and what a bad deal many hard-working Americans get. His opponents as well as his fans should pay attention.