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The Moral Leader of Our Nation: Bernie Sanders and Martin Luther King Jr.

What Martin Luther King Jr., the Christian, did for racial justice, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist, plans to do for economic justice. The night before he was assassinated, King correctly pointed out that America has “got some difficult days ahead.” In 2016, Americans have a difficult choice to make as to who will lead their country. Bernie’s hopeful and passionately ‘moral’ message of tackling the worsening reality of inequality represents a continuation of the legacy of the Civil Rights era, when the fight for equality and justice came to define a generation.

“At this time, I have the honor to present to you the moral leader of our nation.” Asa Philip Randolph, civil rights activist and union organizer, spoke these powerful words to introduce Martin Luther King Jr. on that late-August day when hundreds of thousands marched on Washington singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. King’s historic ‘I have a Dream’ speech in front of the Lincoln memorial came one hundred years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation wherein he declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State…[shall be] thenceforward, and forever free”. The desire for equality is firmly rooted in the American tradition, dating all the way back to the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson stated that “all men are created equal.” 

Standing in that massive crowd to hear about King’s dream of advancing the cause of racial justice was none other than Bernie Sanders, a man who would later run for president of the United States with a hopeful message of social and economic justice.

In an article lambasting Bernie’s “die-hard communist” and “un-American ideas,” political commentator Paul E. Sperry demonizes Bernie by claiming he is a “traitor” who is attempting to import “what he admired in the USSR, Cuba, Nicaragua, and other communist states to America.” The narrative that Sperry is spinning harkens back to the McCarthy-era during the Cold War, when fear and paranoia over the creeping spectre of communism had consumed American society. While such attacks against Bernie are likely to continue from the Right, Bernie’s gradual rise in support vis-a-vis his rival Hillary Clinton’s slowly diminishing lead has led some Democrats to accuse him of “sympathizing with communists and not believing in capitalism.” Republicans and Democrats seeking to prevent Bernie from becoming president will arguably keep insisting that Bernie’s views are extreme — thereby rendering him unelectable.

While the fear of socialism (the voice of Reagan warning Americans against “socialized medicine” comes to mind) may persist even today, we are left asking: how ‘socialist’ is Bernie? In a thought-provoking article, Joseph Waters downplays the argument that Bernie is a socialist in the traditional sense. Rejecting the term ‘Marxist’, Bernie has labelled himself a ‘Democratic Socialist’. Rather than addressing the ‘working class’, he speaks about the ‘middle class’ and ‘working people. Rather than embracing an internationalist vision of social revolution, he is leading a distinctively American ‘political revolution’.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Noam Chomsky claimed that while Bernie may like the word ‘socialist’, “he’s basically a New Dealer” whose ‘revolution’ grounds itself in an unyielding faith in American institutions and the possibility of bettering them to better serve the interests of the American people.

One of the most insightful interpretations of what Bernie Sanders represents for America in the twenty-first century has come from the conservative-libertarian commentator Glenn Beck: “I figured out Bernie Sanders, I figured out what his appeal is. It’s not socialism. It’s morality… Morality becomes a political device…He spoke more about what was moral and immoral than anybody on the Republican platform…He’s speaking the language of a generation that does not have God in their life anymore…You listen to how he spoke about capitalism and he talked about it being immoral.”

In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel last October, Bernie was asked: do you believe in God? “I am who I am.” These words spoken by God to Moses, the Hebrew lawgiver and liberator in the Book of Exodus, were the very same words Bernie used to answer Kimmel’s question. While Sanders certainly is no God, the idea of liberation that is so central to Moses’ mission has its parallels in the American story. The notion of liberation has marked key moments in American history, from the Founding Fathers inspiring a revolution against Britain to free America from colonial rule, to Lincoln’s call for the freeing of slaves, to the Civil Rights Era’s non-violent resistance inspired by the dream of liberating African-Americans from racial injustice and segregation.

Being both culturally Jewish and a non-believer, Bernie’s faith can be summed up as a prophetic or religious zeal for justice. As he told Kimmel, “what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together.” As human beings, “we cannot turn our backs on the suffering of other people.” While his focus on wealth and income inequality, ending poverty, guaranteeing healthcare and paid medical leave for all may draw the ire of conservatives who accuse him of increasing the power of the federal government to the detriment of individual liberties, what nevertheless defines him as a  candidate is his moral vocabulary that builds on the American tradition of promoting equality and justice for all.

–Steve Santerre

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