Michael Saenger
Michael Saenger
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Bernie Sanders and the Boundaries of the Conversation

The US senator is willing to be evenhanded in pursuing reason as a guide to political conversation
In this photo taken June 24, 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. speaks in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
In this photo taken June 24, 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. speaks in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

For months since the victory of Donald Trump, Americans of the Democratic persuasion have been going through a version of the standard stages of grief. Shock and denial were followed by collective mourning, anxiety and solidarity. The most recent waves have marked a change of tone. While there is still a strong flow of catharsis–particularly in the form of late-night comedians delivering viral ‘smack-downs’, and prominent politicians showing their courage by using profanity, there has been a more productive, but more difficult turn more recently.

If the Left is looking for signs of hope, it is emerging now, in the form of genuinely critical discussions of what went wrong. The disconnect between the coastal base of the Democratic party and the less affluent center of the US has been a growing problem for years. And Democrats’ first reaction to electoral defeat was, perhaps predictably, to pin their defeat on a lack of intelligence in the American heartland. How could these working-class whites not see that they were voting against their own interests? That argument is probably not a good way to shirk the charge of condescension.

More recent pieces have focused on basic errors in political thinking. Indeed, one of the most glaring missteps of Democrats has been to allow academic culture, over which Democrats exert overwhelming control, to become increasingly one-sided. Anne Coulter is just about as offensive as a political commentator can get, but the fact that she was blocked from speaking at UC Berkeley means that the Left has accomplished the rather impressive feat of out-doing her: by threatening her with violence and cancelling her speech, the Left lost the ability to have a productive debate, and gave her a rather strange moral victory.

Israel fits into this. The sinking ship of old-fashioned liberalism is still Jimmy Carter, who lapsed into a fervent anti-Israel passion in his old age, serving to legitimize anti-Semitism as it circulates on the Left.

Bernie Sanders would have been an interesting opponent for Donald Trump, and he marks a very different kind of leftism. He has strongly supported Anne Coulter’s right to speak publicly, and he has more recently stood up to efforts to delegitimize Israel on Al-Jazeera.

The question now is whether the American Left will choose to engage more fully in this conversation. Sanders is willing to be evenhanded in pursuing reason as a guide to political conversation. The bias in employment compensation for men and women is real. The difference in the application of the death penalty is real. How can we see these biases, and see that they have a history and that they matter, and not see the bias in the UN toward Israel? UNESCO has repeatedly pursued efforts to deny a Jewish historical link to Jerusalem. That is potentially worse than fake news: it is fake history. It’s also patently absurd, akin to denying the connection of Egypt to Cairo or France to Paris. Sanders doesn’t deny that Palestinians also have a connection to Jerusalem or that they have a right to have a state alongside Israel.

This is important because if one accepts that Israel has a history in its own region, then Israel cannot be a colonizer in any coherent sense of the word, and the moral certainty of the BDS Left cannot hold. The continuous Jewish life in the Middle East over millennia troubles any attempt to understand the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of occupation. Israel is actually quite unlike South Africa and more like the modern state of Armenia, which has sheltered Armenians in an otherwise volatile region while relying on assistance from a diaspora of emigrants abroad. These analogies are, at the very least, worthy of serious debate and consideration.

A year ago, Bernie Sanders was the hero of the Left. For all the same reasons he was celebrated then, he is even more valuable now, as he articulates not just what we should believe, but also how we can shape an honest conversation. The question is whether the people who voted for him then will listen to him now.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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