With the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary looming just ahead, it seems like a good time to turn from my regular European beat to the situation at home in the United States. The Republican contest is too appalling to contemplate, but on the Democratic side the race between heir-apparent Hillary Clinton and insurgent challenger Bernie Sanders has everyone riveted and quite a few excited. Who would have thought that a self-described socialist from Vermont would give the former first lady, former senator, and former secretary of state a run for her money?
With hindsight, of course, everyone has a theory about why a Sanders surge was inevitable. Wall Street has recovered from the Great Recession, but Main Street hasn’t. People are tired of the Clintons and their real or alleged abuses over three decades. Progressives are deeply disappointed with the Obama administration and this time want to elect an authentic radical. Of course nothing will get done because Congress will remain in Republican hands, but putting a genuine lefty in the White House will “send a message,” Sanders supporters say, and help build a popular movement that will gradually shift our political discourse to the left up and down the ticket and across the land.
I have a theory of my own. It goes like this. The deepest division in politics is between those who think you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs and those who believe politicking is akin to sausage-making and therefore ought to be entrusted to, or fobbed off on, people who know how sausage is made and are willing to do what it takes. (And by the way, although the old saw about omelets is sometimes attributed to Lenin, in reality it was first uttered in French—on ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs—by François de Charette, who was not a revolutionary at all but a counterrevolutionary justifying the devastation he left in his wake.)
Egg-breakers believe that the brighter tomorrow they so vividly imagine cannot emerge until the brittle shell of existing arrangements is shattered and its fragments are replaced by something entirely new, if still rather oozingly inchoate. Bernie has mobilized a phalanx of the mainly young tired of the status quo and convinced that the time has come to break eggs. “Let’s make a clean slate of the past,” French revolutionaries used to say, and that is what Bernie’s people want: a new beginning.
By contrast, sausage-makers are convinced that it’s wishful thinking to believe the past can simply be erased. Reform, no matter how ambitious, inevitably preserves elements of the old order, so the best you can do is grind up the more unpleasant parts and mix them up with a few new ingredients in the hope of achieving a more palatable mix.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing Bernie to Lenin or Robespierre. He is what he says he is, not a revolutionary but a “democratic socialist,” who has had the patience to endure a lifetime of preaching the necessity of radical transformation in a system expressly designed to thwart it. Since virtue is hardly its own reward, such Sisyphean perseverance undoubtedly deserves compensation of some sort, and Sanders’s late-life apotheosis as the inspiration of a generation that sees him as the tribune of its frustrations and aspirations rather than a lonely voice in the wilderness is surely just recompense for a career devoted to “the slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber famously characterized the political grind (Jeet Heer associates this Weberian description with Clinton rather than Sanders, which is correct in its way, but Hillary experienced many thrills and spills as she bored away, while Sanders until now has reaped mainly sawdust from his indefatigable labors). Despite these decades of toil with little to show for it, Sanders has now been embraced by a younger generation drawn to his promise that everything can and will change, even if it means breaking a few eggs.
I don’t begrudge him his success, though I don’t share the confidence of those who can already taste that omelet. Nor do I believe that by obliging Mrs. Clinton to veer slightly to port on her course to the White House Bernie will change history, any more than the Occupy Wall Street movement did, despite similar cheers from the same galleries of enthusiasts, who are wont to overestimate their number. Bernie Sanders, who says he spent his college years at the University of Chicago reading “Jefferson, Lincoln, Marx, Engels, Debs, and Trotsky,” would no doubt be able to explain to his cadres of earnest canvassers the difference between a revolutionary moment and a moment of plangent protest at the glacial pace of progress.
To his impatient supporters, Bernie’s call for free college tuition for all, single-payer health insurance in lieu of the indigestible hodge-podge of Obamacare (sausage!), and curbs on the maleficent influence of great wealth no doubt comes as welcome relief. So what if his plans for the transition from here to there remain a bit vague? So what if his sweeping overhaul would plunge the health care system into turmoil? So what if he, no less than Clinton, finds himself stymied by an intransigent opposition and a host of constitutional roadblocks? In the end a beautiful omelette aux fines herbes will grace the American dinner table, at the cost of just a few dozen broken eggs.
Sanders enjoys the advantage of purity. His hands have never touched the sausage mix, while Clinton is in it up to her elbows. No big banks were queuing up to offer Bernie whopping speaker’s fees, but then why would they? Power corrupts, but purity comes easily to those who until now never sought power but wished only to represent a neglected and undervalued point of view. There is honor in keeping faith with conviction, but purists and pragmatists cannot be judged by the same standards. “There is no king,” Shakespeare wrote, “be his cause never so spotless … can try it out with all unspotted soldiers.”
Meanwhile, the propaganda machine of “the vast right-wing conspiracy” has gone into high gear reminding us of Clinton’s undeniable spots and inventing new ones (as well as saddling her with her husband’s—she is a woman, after all, and women have of course been held responsible for their men’s sins since Adam and Eve). But thus far the calumniators have mostly laid off the man from Vermont, no doubt because any damage he inflicts on his opponent will redound to the benefit of the eventual Republican nominee, who will need to capitalize on the other team’s fumbles if he or she hopes to make it to the goal line. This forbearance has allowed Bernie to scamper all but untouched to midfield, encouraging the illusion that if only Hillary would get out of the way, he could complete his miracle run from end zone to end zone.
But imagine for a moment, per impossibile, that Sanders does emerge as the Democratic nominee. If elected, he would not only be the first socialist president but also the first Jewish president. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee what the Republican propaganda machine would do with Sanders’s college reading list. “So you read Marx, Mr. Sanders. What do you think of On the Jewish Question? What do you think of Marx’s contention that ‘all criticism begins with the criticism of religion?’ You describe yourself as a ‘secular Jew,’ Mr. Sanders. Do you belong to a synagogue? Do you attend services? Do you even believe in God? You worked on a kibbutz when you were young. Do you think you can negotiate with our Saudi allies? Do you think we should even have Saudi allies? What is your position on Israel? You were a leftist Zionist, but what do you think of the Zionism of Likud? What is your opinion of the bourgeoisie? Do you think there is class war in America?” Imagine a “secular Jewish socialist” from Brooklyn in a race with Ted Cruz, who has already launched a nefarious attack on “New York values,” or with Donald Trump, who accused Ben Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, of being out of the American religious mainstream. And this would only be the public face of the anti-Semitic and anti-socialist venom that a Sanders candidacy would engender. In the farther reaches of the Internet, the subterranean fever swamps of the paranoid extreme right, the invective would know no limits. True, “godless Communism” ceased to be public enemy number one in 1989, but the epithet will be revived, you can be sure, if Bernie is the candidate. And his Jewishness will be used against him in two ways: not being a Christian, he is not truly in tune with the majority of Americans, they will say, but despite being Jewish he is more reluctant to use force in defense of Israel and therefore not truly a friend of the Jews.
Many voters would rightly slough off such vicious innuendo, but some would not. Sanders’ free ride would in any case quickly come to an end if he were to emerge as the candidate, and his current general-election poll numbers, remarkably high primarily because so many potential swing voters suffer from both Clinton fatigue and Trump terror, would quickly plummet. The country is, I think, ready for the innovation of a woman president. It might be ready for the innovation of a Jewish president, if he or she were of a more conventional stripe than Bernie Sanders. But a secular Jewish socialist president with a Brooklyn accent? As much as I wish I could imagine the possibility, I cannot. In my admittedly fallible estimation, the nomination will go to the sausage-maker. The omelette aux fines herbes will have to await a calmer time and a different chef de cuisine.