Part I: A “Socialist” Mayor in a State of Hunters
(in 3 or 4 parts)
In the early 1960s, a young Jewish man from Brooklyn, New York, by the name of Bernard Sanders enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Sanders’ father was the sole member of his family to escape the Holocaust; in high school, Sanders reportedly ran for president of the study body and argued for “scholarships to war orphans in Korea.” His political awareness would be at once sharpened at the University of Chicago, where the student chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was just reorganizing itself as a chapter of the more militant Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been established in 1960, was similarly pushing American civil rights leaders into adopting more militant positions. Sanders plunged into this political ferment, assuming a position as chairman of CORE’s social action committee and committing himself to a struggle to integrate student housing at the university. Sanders led the first sit-in at the university in 1962 and, the following year, joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The political career of Bernie Sanders, who is now in the race to be anointed the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, has by now been thoroughly rehearsed: the narrative touches upon his unsuccessful run over a decade for various state offices in Vermont, the tiny northeastern state which he had adopted as his residence, before his election by ten votes as mayor of Burlington in 1981, eight two-year terms in the House of Representatives as Vermont’s only congressman commencing in January 1991, and his successful run for office as US Senator from Vermont, the position that he still holds, in 2006. Sanders’ decade in political wilderness, 1971-80, is associated with his candidacy for state offices as a member of the Liberty Union Party, which grew out of the anti-war, student, and popular movements of the 1960s. In his outlook towards third parties, Sanders may have been chastened by his early political failures; when he did finally win office, he did so as an independent and by defeating a six-term Democratic incumbent. His term as mayor of Burlington, in retrospect, anticipates Sanders’ ability over the decades to work within a capitalist framework and yet visibly lend his support to anti-establishment positions. In Burlington, Sanders, much to the surprise of many critics and commentators who did not expect him to last beyond the initial two-year term, successfully courted businesses and engaged in ambitious programs to revitalize the downtown district; but, rather unusually for the mayor of an American town, Sanders also visited Cuba and the Soviet Union. In his second term as mayor, Sanders did what few if any elected officials in the US would ever do: he invited Noam Chomsky to Burlington City Hall and then introduced him with the following remarks, “At a time when many intellectuals… find it more comfortable to be silent and to go with the flow as it were, it is comforting to find on occasion individuals who have the guts to speak out about the importance of issues of our time. And certain Noam Chomsky has been the person to do it.”
Sanders’ years as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, thus furnish in many respects the template for cues to his subsequent political career, pointing both to an uncanny will to political survival and advancement and the limitations that will almost certainly put a brake on his ambition to win the White House. Vermont is the second smallest state of the union, with a population of less than 650,000; the “city” of Burlington has fewer than 50,000 people, and the state is predominantly white. Leaving aside the question, which is scarcely unimportant, of how Sanders will reach out to African Americans and Latinos, large constituencies where his name is little known, the critical consideration is how far the experience of Vermont has shaped his worldview and political priorities. On the issue of gun control, for instance, Sanders has adopted positions that have sometimes earned him sharp rebukes from fellow liberals but plaudits from the Republican party where gun ownership is nearly an article of faith. Even among those who are sympathetic to him, he is sometimes described as a “gun nut.” Most critically, Sanders cast a vote—a decision that may come to haunt him—in 1993 against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandates federal background checks for gun purchasers, a minimum five-day waiting period, and greatly restricted access for felons to firearms.
The United States is, of course, exceptional among the wealthy nations of the global North in the rate of homicide by firearms, and in countries such as Holland or, better still, Japan—where over the last few years the number of homicides by firearms is about ten each year—it would be a laughable proposition that the Brady Act should be construed as a “progressive” piece of legislation. And, yet, Sanders could not bring himself to vote for an exceedingly modest legislative intervention in a public sphere dominated by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters. Sanders may claim in his defense that he represents the entire state of Vermont, not just progressives and liberals, but the fact remains that Vermont has a high gun ownership rate, a culture of hunting, and comparatively lax gun control laws; the state allows anyone to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Though Sanders has also cast votes for measures that would increase minimum sentencing for gun crimes and ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, his tacit support for the gun lobby is nowhere more apparent than in his egregious support of the NRA-backed Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a piece of legislation, introduced by the Republicans in 2005, which shields gun manufacturers and dealers from liability when their firearms are used for criminal activity. Reportedly, Sanders is said to ascribe to the view that “there’s an elitism in the anti-gun movement”; or, in a different language, on this measure at least he stands with small-town America.
(to be followed by Part 2)
(First published in a revised version, including subsequent parts, under the same title in Economic and Political Weekly Vol 50 (24 October 2015).