Bernie Sanders’ Problem With Public Fear and Friendliness

Sanders’s presidential campaign is often criticized because of its connection to socialism and his irascibe persona (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

By Kevin C. Peterson

In the wake of his under performance during Super Tuesday’s multi-state primaries, Bernie Sanders, presumed until now to be a presidential frontrunner, is facing two problems: fear and friendliness.

Let’s take fear first.

Sanders is an avowed socialist — which in theory, is not a problem. His brand of democratic socialism simply happens to remain an American problem, a shunned system of governance believed to be antithetical to the American way of life.

Socialism has for a long time been associated by Americans with communism. For decades, Soviet Union communism was used by US political leaders as an example against which American democratic exceptionalism has been highlighted. Opposition to communism and its socialistic tenets has become an American rite of political passage.

It was in the 1950s and 60s that Russian statecraft— and the brand of collectivist economic practices employed by nation states like China — that turned socialism into pariah political status on the international stage, where the priorities of centralized statism and the control of the means of production within the economy displayed a glaring contrast against American forms of individualism, capitalism and private ownership.

The problem for Sanders is that the themes he has constructed during his presidential campaigns are largely sifted from socialistic ideas that are preoccupied with efforts at social security: those ideas that promote free healthcare, highly subsidized university education and substantial rearrangements within the national economy that reduce income disparity. But it is unfortunate that these themes are tainted.

Americans, in response to their fear of European socialism of the kind practiced in the former Soviet Union and China, remain morbidly fearful of socialism because they were conditioned toward a great suspicion about its ability to solve basic human problems within the American society.

As an American politician Sanders’ ability to allay the fears of socialism so far has failed. The macro-orientation pertaining to managing economic and social conditions in the American state still preference laissez-faire slant, with only some modification. Bottomline: our country has remained allergic to strong socialist inclination.

Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishmentarian political tendencies have alienated him from the centrist sector of the democratic party.

Second, let’s look at friendliness.

Sanders has a problem that is mostly intra-personal in nature, which is important given how the American electorate is attractive to charisma and commercialism of self. Sanders seems to not connect directly with voters with the warmth of personality that would ultimately endear him to the electorate. His inability to practice the kind of political friendliness needed for success on the level of presidential politics is obvious.

This is why, perhaps, we witnessed the sudden shift of support of Washington DC insiders for Biden last week when it became possible that Sanders could win the party’s nomination blessings this spring.

Congressman Jim Clyburn’s powerful endorsement for Biden against Sanders is a clue to this.

A Boston Globe article last year raised Sanders’ unlikability as a candidate despite some otherwise attractive aspects of his political platform — which are adored primarily by young, idealistic white voters.

But Sanders’ personal campaign style can be described as somehwhat irascible and he projects himself in such a way as to be perceived by the public as cantankerous and unpliable. While this style has garnered him success among some voters, it has also led to his failure to win over would-be allies among the national democrats.

This winter, Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ rival during the 2016 presidential bid for the party’s nomination, famously said about Sanders in the New York Times that “nobody likes him.” The remark was cutting, but likely accurate.

Sanders has a problem with effectively engaging potential political friends for the most pragmatic purposes. While he may live heroically at the outskirts of left-wing American politics, Sanders does this at the risk of attracting potential powerful party leaders to his political cause.

Whether he knows it or not, Sanders will need gains reaped from pragmatic forms of politics to find widespread support within the democratic party. A deeper commitment to the particularities of transactional politics may buoy his support among controlling political potentates in the democratic party who favor policy gradualism.

For many Americans, former Vice President Joe Biden is the anti-Bernie Sanders. Biden is a centrist with an avuncular flare whose poses as an “comfy” alternative among democratic voters.

Where Sanders is laconic and a theorist, Biden is loquacious and awesomely likeble. Where Biden is common, Sanders is deemed as closed and cool. Sanders style, so far, doesn't lend itself to the inclusiveness needed to succeed electorally in the broadest sense.

To date, Sanders has achieved great success at articulating a clear political message, which is anti-establishmentarian. But his problems remain: can he sell that message with conviction and effectiveness that will make him president?

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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