Bernie Sanders’ Radical Past

In a general election, the attack ads would write themselves.

Bernie Sanders.
Republicans will be able to say Bernie Sanders, pictured in South Carolina on Wednesday, belonged to a communist political party that called for eliminating the military budget.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Monday, Politico published a story headlined “Sanders Once Urged Abolishing CIA.” Michael Crowley reports that in 1974, Bernie Sanders, then a 33-year-old Senate candidate for the anti-war Liberty Union Party, called the spy agency “a dangerous institution that has got to go,” one answerable to no one “except right-wing lunatics who use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.” Such rhetoric, Crowley’s article suggests, could prove damaging in a general election. “Sanders’ unexpectedly strong performance in the presidential race has party leaders increasingly alarmed that Republicans would make devastating use of his early career should he win the Democratic nomination,” Crowley writes.

The thing is, Sanders wasn’t wrong about the right-wing lunatics or the fascist dictatorships. As he has spent decades pointing out, the CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. It was complicit in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1961. In 1973, it assisted in the military coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, which eventually led to the murderous fascist dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

It’s perfectly understandable why a fiery young radical would want to do away with the CIA altogether. But it wasn’t just radicals who felt this way. In 1991 and then again in 1995, New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced bills to scrap the CIA and transfer its functions to the State Department. The liberal writer John Judis made the case for abolishing the CIA in the New Republic in 2005: “What is clear is that the CIA is broken. And to repair it, we may have to start from scratch.” Responding to Crowley’s story in the Intercept, Jon Schwarz reviews the history of mainstream opposition to the CIA and then asks, “So is it starting to sound to you a bit less like a scandal, and bit more like effective oppo research?”

When it comes to electability, however, Schwarz’s question is beside the point. Whether or not Sanders’ national security record would jeopardize the United States should he become president, it could jeopardize his candidacy should he become the Democratic nominee. Further, his CIA comments are only a small part of the case that can and will be marshaled against him. Sanders’ roots, as we all know, are in the radical left, and over the years he has said and done many things that are unexceptional in that milieu but will likely appear shocking to the uninitiated. Some of his positions, like calling for the dissolution of the CIA, are entirely defensible. Some appear nutty in retrospect and are probably far from his current beliefs. The details of this history have gotten only sporadic media attention. This would immediately change in the improbable but not impossible event that he won the Democratic nomination.

Take his relationship with the military. During the Vietnam War, Sanders applied for conscientious objector status, which at the time required religious opposition to all wars, not just the war in question. (Sanders’ application was eventually denied, but by then he was too old for the draft.) His campaign spokesman told ABC News that he was a pacifist then but isn’t now. In the 1970s, Sanders chaired the left-libertarian Liberty Union Party and competed in two Senate campaigns and two gubernatorial campaigns under its banner. “Liberty Union calls for a reduction of the U.S. military,” said the party’s statement of principles. That’s a wholly reasonable position, but it continued, “A return to the system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard would provide our nation with ample protection and also protect us from the imperialist impulses of our leaders.” That sounds a lot like getting rid of America’s standing Army.

There’s more. In 1980, Sanders served as an elector for the Socialist Workers Party, which was founded on the principles of Leon Trotsky. According to the New York Times, that party called for abolishing the military budget. It also called for “solidarity” with the revolutionary regimes in Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Cuba; this was in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis.

If Sanders ever truly supported disbanding the Army and defunding the Defense Department, he abandoned these positions when he got into national politics. Nevertheless, Republicans will be able to run ads saying that Sanders was part of a communist political party that called for eliminating the military budget, and fact-checkers will not be able to contradict them.

Once he was in Congress, Sanders called for deep cuts in military spending. “Mr. Chairman, it is my view that the United States can maintain its position as the strongest military presence on Earth, and still cut our military spending by 50 percent over five years,” he said on the House floor in 1991. Cutting the defense budget in half, unlike eliminating it, may be an entirely sensible position. It is, however, an extremely unpopular one. According to Gallup, 64 percent of Americans want either to maintain or increase current military spending; only 32 percent want to reduce it. Americans have more confidence in the military than in any other institution, including organized religion.

It is true that the electorate’s views can change and that many voters respect a candidate who stays true to his or her ideals rather than chasing public opinion, as Clinton seems to. It’s also true that Republicans will attack any Democratic candidate as a quasi-treasonous weakling. “I remember 2004 very clearly,” the historian Rick Perlstein tells me. “The reason that John Kerry was supposed to be the perfect candidate was because he was unattackable. Because he was a war hero. It was wishful thinking. He was attacked, and quite effectively.” As we’ve seen with Barack Obama, Republicans will call any Democrat a socialist. Still, it doesn’t follow that actually being a socialist is not an electoral liability.

In June 2015, Gallup polled American voters about the sort of people they would and would not support for president. Eight percent would not vote for a woman. Thirty-eight percent would not vote for a Muslim, and 40 percent would not vote for an atheist. Fifty percent would not vote for a socialist; it was the most negatively viewed characteristic in the survey.

A Sanders backer might retort that the candidate’s socialism is well-known and that he nevertheless has consistently high approval ratings. It is certainly possible that Cold War categories have lost their salience in American politics, and it is undeniable that many Americans are sympathetic to Sanders’ proposals. One poll found that more than half of respondents like the idea of Medicare for all, a cornerstone of Sanders’ campaign. Another found that 63 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which Sanders is calling for. There is strong majority support for breaking up the big banks.

We simply don’t know, however, whether this means socialism itself is losing its stigma. Sanders’ approval ratings may be misleading, because the majority of voters don’t have a fully formed idea of him or his political history. Most people don’t pay that much attention to politics; a recent poll found that a third of Americans didn’t know who Antonin Scalia was. So-called swing voters are particularly disconnected, since people who follow politics closely tend to have strong opinions about the two parties. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, says research suggests that about 10 percent of the electorate was undecided or persuadable in the runup to the 2012 election. “These are folks who tend to be less interested, less tuned in to the campaign,” he says. “These are not the good democratic citizens who are really trying to weigh their options. These are people who are really kind of out of it.”

They may thus be particularly susceptible to demagoguery. And it’s all too easy to imagine how gleefully Republicans would exploit Sanders’ youthful opposition to the CIA and his anti-military leanings if he were to be the nominee. In a time of widespread panic about terrorism, the attack ads write themselves. That is why, as someone who is broadly sympathetic to Sanders’ politics but terrified by the prospect of his nomination, I’ve struggled over how to write about his radical past. To fret about it seems like concern-trolling. It means assuming that voters whose lives and worldviews are remote from mine will be scandalized by a history that doesn’t bother me much at all. This posture may be elitist and condescending. The question is whether that makes it wrong.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.