In the 1950s, Jewish-American Communists who grew up in 1930s New York sent their kids away for the summer. The kids were called Red Diaper Babies, and their vacays were called Socialist Summer Camps.
Bernie Sanders grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s but his family was not part of the activist community. He was not a Red Diaper Baby, and he did not spend his summers singing the Internationale. For Bernie, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who in 1957 decamped with the team to Los Angeles, was the Enemy of the People. Sanders found his activist voice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s while moonlighting as a student at the University of Chicago.
This past Wednesday night, Sanders had a “gambling in Casablanca” moment when he savaged electoral upstart and multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg for introducing money into politics. The former mayor of New York reportedly has spent close to half a billion dollars of his own money thrusting himself into the race with the single-minded goal of removing Trump from office. His exchanges with current front-runner Sanders were illuminating and relevant.
Sanders said that a billionaire has no place in government. He considers the very idea of a billionaire immoral and should not exist. When Bloomberg was asked if he did have the right to exist, he returned fire, asking why Bernie as “America’s leading socialist” owns three homes. Somewhat abashed, Sanders explained that he had one in Washington, “where he works,” another in Burlington, Vermont, his home state, and a vacation home, which in Vermont is called a summer camp. Socialist Bernie Sanders got his Summer Camp after all.
Sanders was not chastened by the exchange, but it did slow him down momentarily. He could not dismiss that he had amassed considerable wealth; sufficient to own, rather than rent, three substantial residences. It’s unseemly when the working class, the object of the Sanders movement, includes, “more than a half a million people sleeping out on the streets,” to quote the senator. The Summer Camp — on the banks of Lake Champlain — demonstrates that wealth is incidental to American political power even for Bernie, a millionaire who scorns it. Although a million bucks are not what they used to be, it’s a lot more than most Americans will ever have.
Undaunted, Sanders continued to pound away at the evil of corporate wealth. He scolded Bloomberg for failing to recognize the employees who helped him build his business empire. He even championed the idea of workers serving on corporate boards such as Bloomberg’s.
The plutocrat’s reaction was priceless. His facial expression registered that Sanders’ position was more lamentable than loathsome; that Sanders was so out of touch with the American mainstream, that he did not realize the implication of his proposal. With a look of frustration and sadness, Bloomberg responded. “I can’t think of a ways (sic) that we make it easier for Donald Trump to get re-elected than to listen to this conversation. This is ridiculous,”
In fact, Sanders had reached beyond FDR’s social safety net. Sanders was breaking new ground in expressing his bolder vision for the future, one that moves into the more disputed arena of shared power between equity holders and workers.
“We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” Bloomberg continued. “We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”
This was a moment worth preserving in amber. The debate audience gasped, and Sanders accused Bloomberg of a low blow. In fact, it was a fair shot. Bernie’s proposal pushes out past the Socialist Lite that Americans unwittingly have come to cherish. Bloomberg correctly observed that Sanders had hit the Third Rail of American politics, and if he pursues that agenda his candidacy is doomed.