The “Liberal” Media’s Propaganda War on Bernie Sanders

Photograph Source: Steve Bott – CC BY 2.0

The “liberal” top-down class and propaganda war on the progressive populist Bernie Sanders is something to behold. It advances at least four master narratives.

Red Baiting

The first such narrative boils down to Red baiting. The Atlantic, recently gave space for the right-wing pundit David Frump to call Sanders a “Marxist of the old school of dialectical materialism” for whom “class relations are foundational” and “everything else is epiphenomenon.”

At ”liberal” broadcast media’s central Stop Sanders headquarters MSNBC (hereafter “MSDNC”), veteran political talk-show host Chris Matthews channeled Joe McCarthy before the New Hampshire Democratic Primary in a bizarre tirade linking the “socialist Sanders” to the supposed threat of “executions in Central Park” if “Castro and the Reds” had “won the Cold War.”

Last week, three days before the Nevada Caucus, MSDNC’s Stephanie Ruhle had on an old friend, former Diamond Resorts CEO Stephen Cloobeck, a major Democratic Party funder, to speak from Las Vegas. Asked about one of Ruhle’s favorite topics, the menace of “socialist Bernie Sanders,” Cloobeck called Sandersan anarchist” who “would love to burn down the United States” ” (When asked if he would support Trump if Sanders is the nominee, Cloobeck growled “anyone but Bernie, anyone but Bernie.”). She later gleamed while one or her many Republican guests, Jeb Bush’s former campaign manager, called for Michael Bloomberg to pour $100 million in negative campaign ads to stop the socialist Sanders.

This is how “left-wing” MSDNC rolls. Last year, advertising executive and MSDNC pundit Donny Deutsch went on the network’s “Morning Joe” show to semi-coherently say the following: “a socialist candidate [Sanders] is more dangerous to this company, country …than Donald Trump.  I would vote for Donald Trump, a despicable human being…if we have a socialist…because that will take our country so down… that’s not who we are. And if you love who we are and all the great things that we still have to have binders put on the side. Please step away from the socialism.

The dangerous Red Bernie storyline is promoted by competing Democratic candidates. During MSDNC’s presidential debate in Las Vegas last week, the mega-billionaire and longtime Republican Michael Bloomberg identified Sanders with “communism” while the billionaire-backed McKinsey Company veteran Pete Buttigieg claimed that the “radical” Sanders “wants to burn down the house.” Elizabeth “Capitalist to My Bones” Warren absurdly said that Sanders wants Democrats to “gambl[e] on a narrow vision that doesn’t address the fears of millions of Americans… who…want real change…[and] on a revolution that won’t bring along a majority of this country.”

After Sanders won Nevada running away, Chris Matthews agonized further on the “socialist” specter and analogized Sanders’ victory to the fall of France to Hitler’s Third Reich in 1940(forgetting perhaps that that Nazis were fascists, not socialists, though Matthews may not understand the difference.). Equally unhinged was MSDNC host Nicole Wallace, a White House Communications Director during the presidency of George W. Bush and a senior advisor for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. She expressed her wish for billionaire Tom Steyer to spend millions of dollars on stopping the socialist.

Former Chicago Mayor and ongoing corporate Democrat Rahm Emanuel and former Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie went on former Bill Clinton staffer George Stephanopolous’s “This Week” to lecture Democrats on their need to unite behind a single candidate to attack Sanders’ “socialist agenda” (Christie) “mano a man’ (Emanuel).

Buttigieg told Democrats to “take a sober look” at the radical threat posed by Sanders. He claimed that the Vermont senator “believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention as most Americans.”

These are telling perspectives on Sanders’ call for elementary, urgently needed reforms like Medicare for All, free public college, progressive taxation, the doubling of the nation’s inadequate minimum wage, the re-legalization of union organizing, and big federal green jobs programs.

Neo-McCarthyite class fears – bourgeois panic – lurks behind the insistent “liberal” Democratic calls (constant on MSDNC) for the “moderate” (corporate and neoliberal) Democrats to coalesce around a viable non-/stop-Sanders candidate “before it’s too late” and a dreaded radical “hijacks the nomination” on the model of Trump grasping the Republican nomination (more on the Sanders-Trump analogy below) in 2016.

“Values” vs. “Electability”

A second form of “liberal” anti-Sanders media and political bias is the constant narrative that Democratic primary voters must choose between a candidate like Sanders who embodies their values and policy preferences and a candidate who can beat Trump. At CNN last Saturday, morning host Michael Smerconish trumpeted the Democratic Party’s “superdelegates” – the nearly 15% of Democratic National Convention presidential candidate and platform selection delegates who represent the party’s establishment. Smerconish praised the unelected superdelegates for ensuring “candidate quality control through a form of peer review” and representing “the wisdom of party elders to hold back the masses” from “a populist surge” that would nominate a “disastrous” candidate who can’t “survive a general election.” The Democrats, Smerconish suggests, need to prevent Sanders from winning a majority of the delegates in the primaries and caucuses so that the superdelegates can help the sage “elders” check the deluded populist rabble (the voters) during the convention’s second ballot. (At least he didn’t call Sanders a communist).

This narrative pitting values and policy against electoral viability reflects a backhanded media acknowledgement that voters, especially younger ones, have moved to the progressive social-democratic and environmentalist left under the inegalitarian and eco-cidal ravages of neoliberal capitalism. It also advances a false dichotomy. Sanders’ leftish positions and persona actually make him the most electable Democratic candidate (ask the Democratic voters of Nevada) – the one most able to energize vast swaths of the electorate that have been demobilized by the corporate-neoliberal Democrats’ transparently fake progressivism and inauthentic opposition to concentrated wealth and power. Without a significant lurch to the portside, the Democrats cannot hope to remain viable.

It is difficult to imagine the number of voters required to defeat Trump backing an arrogant classist, racist, and sexist oligarch like Bloomberg (who has already spent $450 million blanketing the nation with commercials even before entering a single primary) – or getting behind a dismal. dollar-drenched centrist like the stale, old gaffe-machine Biden or the “fresh,” young and silver-tongued Buttigieg. If the self-financing titan Bloomberg snuffs out Sanders’ historic grassroots campaign (powerfully funded with an average individual contribution of $18), buying the nomination out from under the Sanders movement with the help of the “super-delegates,” millions upon millions of potential Democratic voters will sit the election out or vote for a third-party candidate. There will be “hell to pay” for the Democratic Party as Trump coasts coast to a second term.

Trashing Medicare for All

A third variant of anti-Sanders “liberal” media conduct is the constant claim that Medicare for All will destroy peoples’ existing health insurance and bankrupt the nation. The fear-prompting soundbite – ubiquitous across the “liberal” media landscape and in the campaign rhetoric of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg – is primitive in its reptilian simplicity: big bad Bernie wants to take your medical coverage away and tax us all to death.

This is transparent bourgeois nonsense. Sanders’s plan makes quality health care a human right by replacing a burdensome, expensive, and poorly performing for-profit health coverage racket with a streamlined system that abolishes the administratively burdensome and cost-inflating parasitism of corporate health insurance. In a recent study published by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, leading epidemiologists from the Yale School of Public Health, University of Florida, and University of Maryland School of Medicine find that a Single Payer system would slash national health expenditures by 13 percent – more than $450 billion a year – and save 68,000 lives a year. By replacing premiums, deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket costs with a progressive tax system, the researchers determined, Medicare for All will save the average U.S. family $2,400 a year and give lower-income household new access to medical services they need. Republican and corporate-Democratic objections to Single Payer based on the prediction of rising costs are not based on empirical reality. Economics and actuarial outcomes aside, the authors believe that it is a “moral imperative to provide health care as a human right, not dependent on employment or affluence.”

The “liberal” mantra that Sanders’ programs are “fiscally irresponsible” and “too radical” for the American people are false. Sanders pays for his popular programs (hardly radical or all that “socialist” when compared to policies in place in numerous other rich nations) with increased taxes on the absurdly under-taxed American rich and their absurdly under-taxed corporations and financial institutions – and by rolling back massive public subsidies (accurately described by Sanders as “socialism for the rich”) government grants Big Business.

False Equivalence with Neofascist Trump

A fourth form of “liberal” Democratic bias against Sanders is the recurrent media suggestion of basic underlying similarity between Trump and Sanders, with the latter portrayed as the Democrats’ “own Donald Trump.” That description comes from Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who recently attacked “Sanders and his fleet of Bernie Bros who slash and burn, attack and smear other Democrats” in a column ripping on the “disaster” that is Sanders’ “Trump-like campaign .”

“Liberal” politicos and media operatives now habitually make snobbish parallels between the two, portraying both as blunt and tough “populists” with authoritarian instincts and “bitter” and “angry” white-guy followers. Never mind that Trump and his base are neo-fascistic racist, Nativist, sexist and eco-cidal, and authoritarian fake-populists whose essence is hatred and division in service to the wealthy Few while Sanders and his backers are progressive populists, social democrats, and environmentalists who oppose racism, nativism, sexism in the name of popular, working-class solidarity against the reigning capitalist “billionaire class.”

Every Trump rally I have watched (at least ten by now) has been a prolonged racist, nativist, sexist, and authoritarian hate session dedicated to advancing a sick cult of personality and dividing up the country to more effectively rule it from the top down. By contrast, every Sanders rally I have attended (five by now) has conveyed an egalitarian message of love and solidarity combined with the notion that everyday working-class people need to reach across their differences to unite in a movement opposed to corporate and financial plutocracy.)

The equation of Sanders and Trump and their respective campaigns and bases is ruling class gaslighting whereby “elite” (neo)liberals identity progressive and democratic values with precisely their opposites.

Russia-Linkage and Other Stories

Besides these four master narratives in the “liberal” corporate media’s propaganda war on Sanders, other storylines and modes of bias deserve mention: the evidence-free suggestion that Bernie is also (like Trump) a “Russian asset;” the under-coverage of Sanders’ rallies, platform, and victories; the repetition of other candidates’ claims that Sanders is personally responsible for every incident of online abuse committed by those purporting to be his supporters; the false claim that Sanders is a friend of the National Rifle Association; the claim that Sanders has a big race problem (ironic since he’s the top-level candidate with by far the strongest anti-racist record and the best platform to meet the needs of the nation’s non-white citizens); the claim that Sanders isn’t a Democrat (he’s Caucused with Democrats in Congress since the 1990s and he’s run for president as a Democrats for the last five-plus years); sniping at Sanders for “not getting much done in Congress” (hardly surprising given the role of corporate lobbyists and campaign contributions in stifling progressive policy proposals in Washington); false claims that Sanders would be a “down-ticket” disaster for Democrats running for Congress; pretend shock over Sanders’ acknowledgement that there’s a Democratic Party establishment opposed to him; and weak analogies between Sanders and the failed British Labour Party candidate Jeremy Corbyn.

Do not be surprised if the Russia angle becomes a master narrative in coming weeks. In a hint of things to come, perhaps, MSDNC responded to early signs of Sanders’ Nevada victory by bringing on the self-described Democratic campaign “hack” James Carville, who calls Sanders “a communist,” to claim that Sanders’ triumph was pleasing to Vladimir Putin.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).