Inside Bernie’s Mind

Two years ago around this time (the Super Tuesday primaries were on March 3, 2020), Bernie Sanders laid down arms. He did so not particularly reluctantly, but with high-minded support of the increasingly decrepit Joe Biden, his dear friend from the Senate. He turned down the divine gift of the pandemic, a once-in-a-century occurrence, to ride along with the party bound to make everything worse for millions of unsuspecting people. He went along with the pretense of “contesting” non-contested primaries in several states, signaling his legions of followers that he was doing so in order to extract the biggest pound of flesh he could from the neoliberals. An enthusiastic virtual appearance led to the formation of numerous “unity task forces” hashing out compromise in every area of policy between the conservative and progressive wings of the party. He campaigned more ardently than Biden or Harris themselves in the fall (as was true of his martyrdom in Hillary Clinton’s cause in 2016), and after the election continued to raise hopes, all through the course of 2021, of significant domestic policy achievements.

Now into Biden’s second year, we are at a moment where not a single one of Bernie’s policy proposals—from student debt cancelation to expansion of Medicare—came remotely close to fulfillment. Bernie couldn’t even get his beloved hearing, vision, and dental coverage for Medicare recipients through, despite being the Senate Budget Committee chairman! On the occasion of Biden’s predictably jingoistic and delusional SOTU address, in the wake of the Ukrainian “crisis” that Bernie’s party did everything to instigate and inflame, we are back to less than square one, because in addition to the absence of a single progressive policy reform we are also saddled with a rejuvenated empire initiating new exploits wherever it can with whatever it’s got left.

Who, exactly, is this man, to whom so many gave so much of their time and money? If, two years ago, a psychologist or novelist or documentary filmmaker were to have followed him around, what would he or she have discovered about the nature of this man’s charisma and the purposes to which it was put? More importantly, what does this man’s psyche tell us about those of his followers who were not from the working class and who have chosen to go on an extended brunch break ever since the bogeyman in the White House was de-platformed to their satisfaction?

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I never wanted to be president. What kind of a person wants to be president anyway? Well, me, for one. It’s a conflict I’ve had in my soul since the beginning, as the sixties and seventies went by, failing to injure and maim me. I was a political person in Vermont in my early days like a writer is a breadwinner, or a painter or carpenter a professional. I thrived in the daily give and take of politics, running in an independent party and fighting for workers, while having no conception of myself as a worker as such. You see, I was always an intellectual laborer, guilty about my privilege, and never quite knowing what to do about the shame. I have a hard time talking about my parents, because they truly believed in their condition as workers. That’s who they were, and they had no pretensions, while I, Bernard Sanders, lately the leader of a mass movement of tens of millions of young Americans, never had that conviction. Nor, to be honest, do I see that conviction, the worker’s mentality embodied in one’s every cell, in the young foot soldiers who’ve made of me something I never was and never claimed to be. I’m not, in the end, one of them, no matter the cathexis that takes place at huge rallies of tens of thousands of adoring fans. I look out at the crowds, Jane always by my side, as I have for five years, and shudder to think of the volume of guilt and shame and fear contained in that multitude. My role, if you’ll grant me that much credence, was to channel this anxiety in a way that didn’t harm these young people, that made them more whole, even if I never promised to make them whole.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Always I keep returning in my mind, especially as the journey draws to a close, to the faithful young man of very clear convictions I was in Vermont in those early days. True, there are pictures of me being manhandled at civil rights protests and I was certainly there at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” rally, but one can make too much of these things in the aftermath. And the aftermath, for me, has extended for nearly sixty years, since those days I spent holed up in the University of Chicago’s library, reading forbidden literature. You might think I absorbed loads of Marx and Marcuse in that period of solace, but what I was actually doing was feeling repulsion at how little any of the writings spoke to my condition. I was never part of the sixties (forget what Mayor Pete, that sanctimonious priest, said in that crucial debate between Nevada and South Carolina), I was never a revolutionary, though they’ve wanted me to admit that, especially in the last five years, and I do, to help make them whole. It’s not about me, this use of terminology, it’s about them. I dreamed in that library of working with my hands. Of growing food and raising cows and experiencing free love on a commune not reaching much farther than the nuclear family I was going to create. But I never felt comfortable in the role of father, though my son Levi has always credited me with being far more paternal than I ever claimed to be. When I look out at the throngs of delirious admirers, dying for M4A and the GND, debt forgiveness and free college, a chance at the American dream, I think of Levi, and what a kind and hopeful and pleasant person he is—my own son, who sprang forth from my loins as a rebuke of sorts, because I could never be a “father figure” to anyone even if I was one in the technical sense.

You see, I trip over myself whenever I talk about what made me who I am. An odd thing happened to me in Vermont in those eccentric seventies, when for that short period of time Americans were allowed to not just put on personas as temporary valves but adopt them as the essence of one’s being without any fatal consequences. I acquired a reverence for authority. It happened in dingy town halls all over the state when I gave speeches trying to build an audience for socialism among dairy farmers and electricians and housewives who’d read too many books for their own good of the Germaine Greer and Rosa Luxemburg variety. It was important in the New England of that era to show that you were beyond petty emotions, and so the crowds would feign solid indifference, turned in on themselves like Scandinavians in Ingmar Bergman movies, and I in turn would refuse to make eye contact with them in those (as I now think of them) sordid beer gardens and rancid community centers. And slowly, because I was speaking to myself in that hypnotic vein nobody hears from me anymore, they would warm up. Their faces would melt, their very bodies, as they would rise and cheer and clap, almost without realizing what they were doing. They still didn’t vote for me, as I have a whole decade of failure to testify to that, but I had struck them in their souls, and they would go back to their farms and businesses a little more chastened. I was building a movement even then, having none of the charisma of an Abbie Hoffman or Stokely Carmichael.

How long can a man be poor? At what point in one’s life does one acquire wisdom? Forty, according to scriptural parlance, and that seemed to work in my case, although when I became mayor of Burlington my 40 years on earth became more like 20. I shed age and gravity overnight, as though the intervening two decades had never happened. In politics, I acquired a form of innocence denied to me because of lack of charisma, or the kind of clout that goes with being a talented writer or artist or musician. That, God in his wisdom, withheld from me, so that I always had to climb slippery rocks on the words of others, which had the potential to betray me just when I thought I had a safe perch. This is why early on I decided to reduce my vocabulary to a very predictable set of formulations, in order not to surprise myself by what I said. That too is a form of reverence for authority, feeling proud of having vanquished the demon of logorrhea and prolixity without penance. You might think I speak a lot but I’m actually a man of few words. In fact, I’m a man of silence, I say nothing, I say the least possible to encourage in you a certain form of rage, to spark in you the same conflict toward stability and uncertainty that I learned growing up in my poor parents’ household of hard work and illumination.

In another few years when perhaps I start composing a serious retrospective history of myself, my two decades in what they call relative anonymity in the U.S. House and then the Senate will probably veer toward the official version of me as a gadfly who did little. Is “Amendment King” an insult or an endearment? Does it make me feel happy to hear that I was always “ahead of my time,” that I sound exactly as I did 40 or 50 years ago when I spoke about health care as a universal human right? What is the explanation for going to work in the U.S. House of Representatives just when the Cold War was winding down and Ronald Reagan was at last out of office, yet we were beginning a new form of life that would be magnitudes worse than the verities of the Cold War? I represented the state of Vermont as an independent when we had finished crushing overt socialist insurgencies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and when we were moving into the next phase of capitalist assimilation, the elimination of independent human consciousness itself, both outside the country and inside. Inside the country, for the first time really, in a new determined mode, as though the entire country’s petty bureaucrats had become supercharged J. Edgar Hoovers and James Jesus Angletons. I was never an anti-imperialist, as the label goes, how could I possibly be that way? Our way of life derives only from war, the financing and manipulation of it, managing its sequences and afterlives, and I was part of that, as is any American, but by then I had learned enough to quiet my mind not to make it an immobilizing factor.

You notice I’ve avoided talking about the present moment, but the pleasure of delay is something my staff and followers have denied me in profusion over the last five years, so I appreciate your indulgence. What, exactly, happened? How did I fail to take down Hillary Clinton? Why did I fail with an even worse opponent this time around? How could I lose it after almost winning it both times? Was I serious all along, did I really want to be president, did I have it in me to fight, or was my credibility as a prophet of some kind, a man who died on the cross for the sins of others and never complained, more important to my self-image? Did I lack the killer instinct, and if that were the case, how had I even come as far as I had, leveraging my House and Senate seats as an independent to the prominence of being the world’s leading left politician, launching serious campaigns to convert the authoritarian, neoliberal, capitalist to the core Democratic party into its ideological antithesis, dedicated to the working man and woman, committed to global peace and harmony—how had I come this far if I never had the killer instinct to begin with? After all, I had to have beaten some opponents to reach this position. Or had I just done it with no credible opponents or running for empty seats, elevated without no-holds-barred contests? I’ll leave that to historians to decide, but it’s possible that in those two decades of anonymity in the House and Senate my reverence for authority, so much at odds with the skepticism I learned in the sixties before I got married and had a child, quite possibly exceeded any other sentiment. I touched the American flag after 9/11 or the Great Recession with very different feelings than I did after the first Gulf War. I actually started feeling a connection, and my verbal range contracted further, down to fewer and fewer unpredictable ideas, until I thought I’d almost reached the level of pure silence both the Kabbalists and Buddhists call for.

I watched with wry amusement as a very eloquent young African American senator with just two years of real experience ascended to the presidency. Barack and I were friends, and my respect for him remains untouched, no matter how Machiavellian (my campaign manager Faiz Shakir’s consistent description of him) he has been in consolidating the opposition, and essentially taking the nomination away from me by doing Biden’s work in a way that Biden could never have done. I do feel hurt, how else could I feel as a human being, but I don’t resent him—no, not even now. Barack did what he had to do to remove the ultimate prize away from me, and if somebody does that behind the scenes it’s not my role to overcome that. I can only speak the truth and stand in front of the people rather than engage in the effort to kill conspiracies that take me for a fool and my followers too. Yes, I’ve said it’s NotMeUs but that doesn’t mean that the campaign is omnipresent. It would be a mistake to think so, the human mind has room for lots of other kinds of planning and progress. NotMeUs means for you to think for yourself and take positions, chart your own way forward, and I don’t mean in the local sense that politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want you to think about it, but in a way that puts you in a category beyond definition. You’re a millennial who joined because you wanted the government to help you with debt and college and healthcare and a better wage? Fine, I’m all for that, but it doesn’t really make me happy that that’s how you interpret NotMeUs. Anyway, I had to respect Barack a dozen years ago for making so much out of so little, and raise himself to the ultimate position of power, and I don’t begrudge him for maintaining that power by way of Biden. He’s the king, or the kingmaker, and how would the world operate without such indispensable characters?

I adopted the posture of prophetic silence in front of my opponents on the debate stage. So many of them, and so odd, Kamala and Kirsten and Michael and Amy and Cory I knew from the Senate, even if they weren’t close friends, but the rest? Andrew Yang, who wanted to leap over my democratic socialist agenda by having so much more faith in the people than I could ever manage, because unlike him, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I was a nobody in Vermont for too long to respect my own prowess in saving myself from my worst instincts. And then Tulsi, who threw in her lot with me in 2016 but became more and more nationalist, or just showed those stripes more—with the kind of crew Faiz and the campaign chairs had assembled for me this time Tulsi just wasn’t going to work. I have no feelings toward her, positive or negative, I don’t operate that way. Tulsi wants to avoid fighting wars overseas, but what does that mean in an era of internal decline? More than that, I can’t engage with her emotionally or intellectually because she would want me to go to a place—of pacifist neutrality, of elevating the so-called white working class’s moral values—I left behind when I committed to the 2020 campaign in the form it took. I’m not who I was in 2016, I’ve raised the stakes, can’t you see that? Can’t Tulsi see that? Can’t Jeff Merkley and Chuy Garcia and Raúl Grijalva, some of my other consorts from 2016? Can’t my own former campaign staff and allies, those who decided not to join or left during 2020, see that?

And then there was Marianne Williamson, who would have been me had I not evolved in the direction of authority and symmetry and balance after the sixties, if I’d remained frozen in place. At times, listening to her talking about the dark evil that stalked the land, and the insufficiency of any plans (Elizabeth’s) or programs (mine) to displace Trump from the king’s perch, made me deeply uncomfortable. Thankfully Jane, sitting in the audience, wouldn’t recognize my discomfort because she knew me only after I became mayor of Burlington, that is to say, only after I was a respectable public figure and in no other guise, but Marianne had a way of getting under my skin that I don’t think any of my campaign staff understood. It is only now—after this weekend’s funeral of a parade, the ensemble of local Volvos and Subarus that went past our modest house in Burlington, welcoming the all-but-dead brave warrior back to his forlorn homestead—that I can permit myself to have thoughts about what truly made me uncomfortable in these past five ceaseless years of being declared the savior who would bring everyone to their senses.

The weirdest of all was Elizabeth, my Senate colleague, against whom I decided as a prime early directive never to target a word of criticism. Not because I’m particularly fond of her as a person or her policies, which don’t go nearly far enough to dismantle the scourge of extremist capitalism, or because I have any great faith in her to build a progressive movement. She’s not a movement kind of person anyway, she’s a cold technocrat, of the kind I never was and never wanted to be. She gives Jane the heebie-jeebies, and I can reveal that some of my most partisan staffers, David Sirota, Nina Turner, and the like, distrust her with a passion I could never muster. She was the Trojan horse, according to them, who would bring down the campaign, and we had to have a response for her. I refused to go along, not because of any sentimental feelings for her or any faith in her technocratic fixes, but because I don’t see myself as having an exclusive purchase on morality. My inborn sense of shame just won’t allow that kind of arrogance. I’m not a Marx or Lenin or even Huey Newton or Bobby Seale, I can’t put myself in that position of authority, even if, as I’ve been saying all along, I have a deep reverence for authority. Is it true that I reached out to her to endorse me as a final possible bulwark against Biden and the establishment? Is it true that I was deeply hurt when she refused? Yes, and yes, and it’s not naïveté on my part, though you may call it such; it is, as Jane well understands, and as do the campaign staffers and Senate aides who believed in me so strongly in 2016, the source of my strength. If I persevered in futility, if I expected things of people they cannot deliver, I would instantly become a shadow of a man—perhaps I might accomplish a few petty things, a few legislative advances, but it would amount to nothing, and leave me broken, and I don’t want to be broken. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m broken after what happened this time either—after, as they like to say now, we “came so close to victory,” within a hair’s breadth of it after Iowa, New Hampshire, and of course Nevada. There’s no such thing as coming close, you either win or you lose, and I’m not one to interpret a loss as a win, or to convince myself that something other than what actually happened happened. I have no feelings of anger or resentment toward Elizabeth, I think of her as Tulsi no doubt thinks of me now.

We had a lot of discussion on the night of Iowa—we’d really had great hopes, Faiz believed we had sown it up and Pete and Amy were going to crash out—when the Shadow app debacle happened. What now? There was a lot of angry talk in the campaign that night, which was the last time I allowed that kind of free-for-all discussion, but by the time we got on the plane for New Hampshire we’d all settled into a numbness familiar from 2016—for me, not as painful as for some of the newcomers. One school of thought had it that we should protest, and another that we should protest harder. Nina went ballistic, putting me in an awkward position, while Faiz acquired that night a new form of deference toward me that only I understood as a form of resignation. No, we were not going to take down Tom Perez and the DNC, I went on a Unity Tour with Perez after all, those were the terms and conditions, we either won under them or lost, and you couldn’t reset the rules at that late date. That’s just not how the game is played, and I wasn’t going to do it. You might go so far as to say that I’ve had no further meetings of any substance with my campaign staff since February 3, although of course we met and talked all the time, at least until the virus erupted—but in essence we ceased talking and the different kinds of warriors slunk into their corners to lick their wounds and fester in silence. I can’t say that I’m entirely averse to that form of protest.

By the time Joe won in South Carolina and there was that weekend before Super Tuesday when everyone dropped out like flies and endorsed Biden we were in no position to take quick action, such as announcing our own vice presidential pick—I can reveal it now, I was always partial toward Barbara Lee of California, even if some said that two aged candidates on the ticket wouldn’t go down well—because we were not that kind of campaign, I was not that kind of campaigner. They either had to give it to us on our terms, or not at all. We were not going to try to out-endorse them, or play some super Machiavellian game exceeding theirs. After everything I’ve told you about me, after all you can view in plain sight, do you expect anything else? It pained me to see young voters in Texas and California disenfranchised, having to wait in seven-hour lines and encountering closed polling stations, but this sort of discussion, about voter suppression, or the odd results in states like Virginia and Massachusetts, is not the type of thing I do well. Why not, you might ask? If you’re such a warrior for M4A and the GND, then why not protest voter suppression? To whom, I might ask. Tom Perez and the DNC? On what grounds? And at the risk of creating dissension and chaos that might unleash forces I might not be able to contain? At moments like these, my essential status as a figurehead came to gnaw at me. I had bad dreams where I was exiled to some land of grinding poverty, a strange country of my forefathers where nobody knew my name and profession, and I had to explain all over again, each time, who I was and why I was there. What if I were to be reduced to begging for a livelihood? I had produced a son, even got married to a different kind of woman, once upon a time in Vermont when I believed that I had something different to offer than the charismatic radicals who were taking the world by storm, but my dreams suggested that I did not want to be in that position. I was no longer a stranger, don’t you see? I didn’t want to return to that, it would be a fate worse than death, and my seven sweet grandchildren, for one thing, wouldn’t forgive me for that.

I said that there were no campaign meetings after Iowa as such, and this was certainly true when it came time to debate Joe in our only face-to-face meeting. I was supposed to be the killer who would destroy him and his career, lay waste to his half-century in the halls of power, delegitimize his association with our only black president, pin him down as a bankruptcy and mass incarceration and war demon. I just couldn’t do it, Faiz didn’t expect me to, Jane didn’t, and though I signed off on emails from staffers who had all sorts of cute takedowns of Joe’s record as senator and vice president, I wasn’t going to go there. If the country wants me on my terms, they can have me—otherwise not. Not only is Joe a friend of mine—I can never forget how gracious he was to me when I entered the Senate, helping me avoid faux pas and silly gaffes that would have embarrassed me no end—but I envy him, I deeply envy him for the instantaneous respect he earns among the white and black working class. The millennials are my bailiwick, I know how to get to their hearts, but I can never do what Joe does with older black or white working-class congregations. He can call them lying dog-faced pony soldiers to their faces, he can go to poor black churches and actually brag about mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and they love it and eat it up and forget about health care for all and a living wage and everything I’ve been raving about for half a century, if it even registered in the first place. You go into their lairs and insult them to their faces and they fall over backwards to show you love. Love is a strange thing, often it accrues as a response to hate, and part of me—yes, you’ll be surprised to hear this—accepts it for what it is, and appreciates its manifestation in Joe. Joe is a mensch, come on, he’s not afflicted by dementia or anything, he’s a consummate politician who managed wildly disparate egos as judiciary chair and foreign relations chair which would have ground a lesser soul into dust.

And then the virus happened. The literal plague which some said endorsed my entire agenda, every single part of it. A more Biblical script couldn’t have been devised by the most unhinged fiction writer. It happened before the primaries ended, when I still had a chance, and as I heard in emails and phone conversations with campaign officials across the land, hopes were revived that with God’s own intervention—that’s actually the language I heard most often—we could still pull it off, regardless of the humiliation of Super Tuesday. I was supposed to run a coronavirus campaign now, which meant to my advisers yet another full-throated attempt to destroy Obama and Biden and the DNC. I took Faiz with me to Burlington and we had some interesting solitary conversations, just he and I, face to face by the fireside, candidate and campaign chair, confronting the truth of the plague and what it meant for the country. I can assure you that we hardly ever talked about the campaign at that point. The emails and phone calls from around the country, which by this point I’d taken to either deleting or ignoring, wanted me to return to the Senate and put a hold on the multi-trillion dollar stimulus bill and advocate for full payment of wages by the government and a rent and mortgage and utilities and debt freeze for four months. If not, the millennials should be prompted into a general strike, all hell should break loose upon the land, as we would empower forces that might well make the country unrecognizable. Imagine doing that in the middle of a plague, after all that you know about me!

In this trying period of time, Barack Obama was a great consolation. I began to understand, in a way I never had even during the 2016 disappointment, what a great force it was to experience spiritual empowerment by way of the exercise of temporal power. Isn’t that what the Biblical God is in essence? Though he’s three decades younger than me I began to treat him as a father figure and to listen to him for hours on the phone as he started putting the previous few months behind me in a way that no one else could have done. Pete and Amy and Elizabeth, merging into harmless Joe for the greater good of the country, which I understand is pablum at the essential level but still holds a grain of truth, in his mellifluous tones that created equal parts envy and admiration in me. I couldn’t deny the country’s only black president when he was calling me to be the good soldier, even if my definition of it happened to be different. I couldn’t deny him anything, and I’m glad to report that at last I might be shedding the duality tearing me apart, the gnawing burden of shame and guilt that never left me for fifty years of politics.

And what now? Is the movement “leaderless,” with me at age 78, staring at the end of my final Senate term in four more years? I’ll be 82 then, blessed with seven adorable grandchildren, by no means an inheritor of the kind of legacy the Kennedys left behind—in fact, their antithesis, in every way, failing to seize power, which is not a form of empowerment. I won’t lie to you, only power is power, but power comes to only a few people, and it is not earned, it is not gained by lifelong struggle on behalf of the truth, but as a gift from the Gods. Some are given it, and some are denied. The “movement,” whatever that means, will go on with or without me, and to be frank, I honestly don’t care at this point. I can feel the end beginning to come on, back to those nightmares I avoided during the hectic times of Ralph Nader and Timothy Leary and Mario Savio and Eldridge Cleaver, as I can’t stop marveling at the charisma I acquired over time just by reciting the same plain facts over and over again. Was I the greatest of those radicals from the sixties then? You know me well enough to know that I entertain no such thoughts. Yes, I became a father figure to many, but perhaps they looked in the wrong place. I’ll miss those rallies though. They made me feel alive in a way that nothing else ever has, not even the most erotic charge, not the most intense communion with Vermont’s sublime landscapes and harsh wintry desolation, not even, finally, the love of my family. I’ll miss the young people in the millions who came into their own just because they saw in me something that wasn’t there. I’ll miss them, God I’ll miss them, and may God help them.


Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism