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I see a Barry Goldwater in Bernie Sanders

  • Published at 12:03 am September 24th, 2019
Web_Bernie Sanders at a rally
Photo: REUTERS

Can the unorthodox Democrat change his party for the years to come?

Entertaining a comparison of this sort automatically necessitates a clarification: That Bernie Sanders -- independent senator from Vermont and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate -- will have a similar, singular effect on the long-term character of the Democratic Party as Barry Goldwater did for the Republicans back in late 60s and early 70s, is purely an association of symbolic reciprocity.

If, indeed, as his successor in the senate, John McCain had strenuously claimed in his praises, Goldwater had “laid the groundwork” for their later Reaganite successes, it is only an understandable urge on the part of the Democrats to envision a future where a certain progressivism sweeps out the coarse, group-think populism prevalent in the US now. 

Of course, one cursory look at all the candidates running in hopes of being able to take on Trump in the general election and seeing the relative popularity of Sanders and those in his lane over the centrists towing the line of the Clinton-Obama Third Way (with the big exception of Joe Biden), is an added element to latch onto. The equation seems to them infallible: Bernie will bring in a lasting change, it is already happening.

Implicit in this is the real angle of the argument.

Bernie, they say, might have an enduring impact, but he himself would fail. Of course, Goldwater, who had run against Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 general election, had lost spectacularly as well, but he was at least fortunate enough to get his party’s nomination. Bernie, it seems, might not even be allowed this. 

Lyndon Johnson, banking partly on the recent assassination of John F Kennedy and partly on Goldwater’s radical support of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, had defeated Goldwater in a landslide, branding him an extremist with the infamous “Daisy” commercial, where a little girl named Daisy is implied to have been blown off in a nuclear bomb -- the only possible outcome, the insinuation being, of a Goldwater presidency. 

The commercial was only shown once, before being taken off, yet it sealed Goldwater’s fate, precipitating the modern rise of negative political advertisements in American politics. While the political brilliance of “Daisy” is indisputable (even Lee Atwater, the closest to a real life Alex P Keaton the US will ever get, could not have thought something like this up), it is worth understanding that 1964 America was veritably different. 

After all, Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act, and was widely supported by the KKK. In contrast, as we all have no doubt already seen the images circulating wildly on the internet, Bernie was fined for resisting arrest when protesting against segregation in Chicago Public Schools. As for Bernie’s extremism, it only surfaces in the eyes of Fox News. In Europe, he would almost fit right in with the liberals of the middle. 

A point-by-point evaluation, however, of all the ways Sanders and Goldwater are quite opposite in policy and morality is irrelevant, for it is not their respective positions but what they succeed in overthrowing that should be emphasized. Goldwater had competed against Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican Party’s nomination, where he rallied against the liberal, urbanite Republicans who were, as Rockefeller ardently was, decidedly moderates. 

Goldwater’s realignment of the Republicans’ character was an achievement so strong it persisted even when he lost. Even now it persists in one form or another, though Goldwater himself in his later stages of life had turned into a libertarian, supporting abortion and LGBTs in the army.

Will Bernie manage the same with the moderate centrists of his party? The first two debates did see Bernie and his ilk locking heads with outlying moderate candidates, doing Biden’s grunt work for him, but when the coating of TV theatrics are all peeled away, the biggest question that remains is whether the democrats who will vote “want” (note I didn’t say “need”) the middling liberals gone the way the Republicans did? 

Bernie Sanders’ only real fault, however minor it is, seems to be his eager, enthusiastic belief in the state’s ability to replace and function just as well, if not better, than the “greed-based,” private institutions in place, without a more comprehensive thought towards the admirably American tendency to, as Will Buckley would famously say: “Stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” 

In a wider literary and cultural sense, then, it is inevitable for this comparison to hold ground -- after all, it has the all the necessary “narratives,” to use the ugly word, to satisfy our often overlooked penchant for history to repeat.

Is Bernie Sanders really the Barry Goldwater of the Democratic Party? Yes, but perhaps not in any way that would substantively matter. 

Shubhogoto Hom is a freelance contributor.