Have a little sympathy for the Sanders set.
Following Bernie Sanders around Iowa earlier in the season, I got a pretty good idea of who he is and what he is about: He is a man with a palpable desire to punish, to make them pay, a fellow who read Discipline and Punish back in the 1970s and cheered for the jailers at the Mettray Penal Colony. He calls himself a “democratic socialist,” but we know the kind of socialist he is: Stefan Löfven on the stump, Mao Zedong in his heart. You can see that from a mile away, and his performance on the stage tonight only confirms that. His politics are driven by hatred.
Senator Sanders I get, and I got in a minute, in that anybody who knows a little history knows the type. But the Sandersnistas mystified me. I think I’m starting to understand them.
Outside the Democratic debate tonight, on the Vegas Strip in front of the Wynn (perfect venue for the Democrats’ presidential debate, incidentally, full of daft old decrepit white people in thrall to base fantasies and willfully ignorant of the fact that the numbers are always against them) my personal two-minute survey found the Sanders signs outnumbering the signs for Herself 53 to 19. Most of the people I spoke with were (you will not be surprised) unionized government and health-care workers, but Vegas’s big kahuna, Culinary Union Local 226, was not to be seen. (Culinary historically has no love for Herself, and endorsed the other guy last time around, but hasn’t endorsed yet in this primary.) Sanders already has won the endorsement of National Nurses United, and there was a big nurses-for-Sanders to-do before the debate.
The nurses all told basically the same story: They are doing fine for the moment, with a good union that secures for them good paychecks and good benefits. But they worry that the day after tomorrow something could suddenly change, that their hospitals and clinics will go under or be sold to evil hedge funds and that the terms of their employment will change radically for the worse, that their houses will for some reason be foreclosed on even though they’re current on all their payments, that college tuition will triple between now and the time their kids finish up at UNLV, that something bad is going to happen.
That’s the Sanders voter, and, I think, the Democrat at large: terrified.
It isn’t just them. I was speaking with Sanders supporters almost literally in the shadow of a giant gold tower bearing the name “TRUMP” on the side—it is something of an achievement to create one of the tackiest things in Las Vegas—and the Trumpkins, like the Sandersnistas, are terrified: The big Mexican is gonna come and get them, the scheming Chinaman is gonna take their jobs, the surly Negro is leering at the white women. At both ends of the spectrum, we see terrified—terrified—Americans praying that Big Daddy will provide for them and smite their enemies. With sometime messiah Barack Obama having failed to deliver the goods, they’re turning to Government As God the Father Himself.
Over and over again: Sanders is on our side, Sanders will make them pay. Sanders hates who we hate.
The United States isn’t really a winner-take-all society. Life’s actually pretty easy in the middle here, and nobody is sleeping in the street or going hungry because of economic failure. (Failure of the mental health care system, yes, economic failure, no.) But, as I have been arguing for a while now, not everybody is temperamentally cut out to be a clever, constantly adapting player in the 21st century economy. Those old factory jobs in the 1950s that everybody is so nostalgic about paid crap in real terms and were dreary and soul-crushing. But they were—or they seemed—stable. Those nurses for Bernie are living well. But they’re afraid that their good times will come to a sudden end.
The conservative who can figure out a way to address that without unnecessarily impoverishing the United States (which is what trade restrictions do) or creating new classes of public wards will have a real weapon in his hands. It won’t get these Vegas union drones to pull the “R” lever—they’ll vote as they’re told to vote—but it’s a big country.