The Bernie Sanders Campaign Is About Freedom

Though commentators like David Brooks see the rise of an authoritarian left, Bernie Sanders's message is that formal rights are essential — but they're insufficient if most people are denied the resources necessary for their realization.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Los Angeles, California, March 1, 2020. Ronen Tivony / Echoes Wire / Barcroft Media via Getty

In a recent New York Times piece, anti-Trump Republican David Brooks explains that while he could stomach voting for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump — on the grounds “she does not spread moral rot the way Trump does” — he draws the line at Bernie Sanders.

Brooks presents Sanders as dangerously extreme, cooperation-averse, and sympathetic to totalitarianism, the antithesis of liberal values such as “reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism.” Liberalism is “horrified by cruelty” writes Brooks, implying that Sanders, whose driving mission in politics is ensuring everyone can afford insulin, is not.

Brooks is far from alone in preferring to shadowbox an illiberal, antidemocratic figment of his imagination rather than critique Bernie Sanders as he actually exists. Perhaps because intellectual honesty would require opponents of the Vermont senator to acknowledge a discomfiting truth: Sanders’s platform is the closest thing to a genuine realization of liberal values that US voters have ever been offered. Where his policies seem to depart from those favored by mainstream liberals, it is they, rather than he, who have betrayed their claimed ideological foundation.

Brooks cites freshman reading list staples John Stuart Mill and John Locke as intellectual forefathers of the liberal tradition. To those names I would add Isaiah Berlin, who famously distinguished between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. The former focus on freedom from external constraints, particularly laws and other restrictions created by governments. The latter ask what we are, in reality, free to do. Yes, we all have the legal right to own a private jet. No, you probably can’t actually afford one.

This basic idea, that a lack of material resources is a significant restriction on freedom, is a fundamental plank of Sanders’s worldview. After visiting Havana in 1989, he praised certain achievements under Fidel Castro’s rule in areas such as health care and literacy. Speaking to local Vermont newspaper the Rutland Daily Herald, Sanders explained that while Cuba “is not a perfect society,” he saw some truth in Cuban claims that Americans were not genuinely “free” in a society with high levels of homelessness and hunger.

What makes allegations of illiberalism particularly outrageous, though, is that for Sanders, it has never been acceptable to prioritize one form of freedom over another. As he further mused in 1989, “the question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society.”

This is the synthesis Sanders has worked towards his entire career. And contrary to Brooks’s allegation of intransigence and stubborn ideological purity, this has sometimes involved reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans — for example Senator John McCain, with whom he wrote “one of the most sweeping veterans bills in history.”

In a country with an entrenched private health care industry, Medicare for All — nationalization, not of actual health care provision, but of health insurance — is the most moderate, minimally disruptive possible method of providing genuinely universal health care, and securing a host of basic freedoms. The freedom to leave your job without worrying you will lose access to medical care. The freedom to live unencumbered by massive medical debts. The freedom to stay alive, even if you are diabetic or asthmatic and struggling to make ends meet. The freedom to exist in the world without fear of the financial consequences of a single wrong move.

Ending at-will employment would give workers the freedom to stand up for themselves against bullying, sexual harassment, and unfair, exploitative working conditions. A livable minimum wage would give people currently working two or three jobs, just to keep their head above water, the freedom of leisure time. Rent control and a “just cause” for evictions would be similarly liberating for tenants, many of whom are handing over the majority of their paycheck to landlords who refuse to do the bare minimum to ensure properties are fit for occupation, and threaten to make homeless any tenant that complains.

Alongside this bevy policies intended to uplift and liberate the working class, Sanders also has a number of plans that address more conventional liberal concerns. He intends to increase funding for public defenders, to ensure everyone has the right to a fair trial before the state can take away their liberty. He wants to abolish the death penalty, end mandatory minimum sentencing, and ban the police from using facial-recognition software, technology which should alarm any liberal believer in the right to a private life.

He’s also the only Democratic candidate who wants to extend voting rights to prisoners — reasoning, as many liberal theorists have, that people being punished according to democratically created laws cannot legitimately be excluded from that demos.

Far from being opposed or indifferent to the formal rights of liberal democracy, during the Civil Rights Movement he was arrested while protesting against the exclusion of black Americans from voting and other such basic freedoms. And lest you think that Sanders cares only for the rights of progressives, this is a man who has publicly defended the freedom of speech of right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter, telling the Huffington Post in 2017: “Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous — to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.”

Whenever Sanders has been accused of endorsing totalitarianism, a closer look reveals his comments to have been far more measured and nuanced. While he’s often praised Communist countries for specific achievements, such as the provision of universal health care, he’s also been quick to condemn, for example, the absence of free and fair elections. Perhaps most crucially, his positions have always been based in an understanding of the wider context: the circumstances endured by working people prior to the revolution, the conditions of residents of comparable countries with different types of leadership, the likely outcomes if the most powerful opponents of the existing order were to triumph, and the level of suffering inflicted on civilians as US-backed anticommunist forces attempt to seize power.

This ability to think in a nuanced way, to acknowledge and understand context, is curiously absent from Brooks’s assessment of Sanders’s historical statements. He contends that “a liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist [such as Sanders] reality is white or black, friend or enemy.” Yet just a few paragraphs earlier he accuses Sanders of “excusing the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens” on the basis the Vermont senator vigorously opposed US government backing for the indiscriminate, sadistic violence of the right-wing Contras who sought to overthrow the Sandinista regime, attempted to act as a diplomatic envoy to allow Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega and President Reagan to resolve things peacefully, and suggested that American media coverage “hadn’t reflected fairly the goals and accomplishments of [the Sandinista] administration.”

It’s a strange quirk of self-proclaimed moderate pundits that the caution they urge in their discussion of domestic policy — the trumpeting of lesser evils and distaste for moral condemnation of political opponents — is rarely present in their assessment of events overseas, where stark black-and-white moral lines abound. For Brooks, the Sandinistas were the enemy so anything other than blanket denunciation is heresy and proof of an incipient totalitarian. To even acknowledge the crimes of the prior Somoza family dictatorship, or any improvements in living standards under communist rule, is to be complicit in every crime of the Sandinistas.

Of course, if you applied this logic to Brooks himself — arguing perhaps that his support for the Iraq War, which he believed was a lesser evil to allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power, makes him complicit in every atrocity committed by US soldiers — he’d likely decry you as exactly the sort of illiberal populist from which America needs defending.

Like other prominent liberals, David Brooks fears a Sanders presidency — yet it’s their version of liberalism that created the conditions in which Trump rose to power. Sanders recognizes that formal rights are essential, but insufficient if most people are denied the resources necessary for their realization. His platform has the power to unite a diverse spectrum of voters for their common benefit, a crucial counter to Trump’s divide-and-rule approach.

Above every other candidate, it’s Sanders who is pursuing a genuinely liberal, and liberatory, agenda.