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Taibbi writes: "The practice of painting dissident challenges as selfish, hypocritical acts - as opposed to the selfless altruism of corporate-funded candidates - has been going on forever."

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -VT) attends the National Action Network's annual convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -VT) attends the National Action Network's annual convention on April 5, 2019 in New York City. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


Bernie Sanders and the Science of Smears

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

17 April 19


The media’s focus on personality is designed to shift attention away from dangerous ideas

he satirist Ambrose Bierce, author of the Devil’s Dictionary, once defined radicalism as “the conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.”

What Bierce wittily captured — that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s normies — means that at any given moment, the current political establishment will be fighting off the inevitable.

The Brahmins of today don’t battle with ideas, because as Bierce pointed out, their belief systems are usually regressive and unpopular, only they don’t know it yet. The battle is almost always waged instead over personality, because while certain “radical” ideas may be unstoppable, individual politicians are easily villainized, delaying change — a little.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made headlines this week by taking on the Center for American Progress, long known as a messaging arm of the mainstream Democratic Party. Sanders wrote a letter criticizing the CAP board for playing a “destructive role” in the “critical mission to defeat Donald Trump,” a critique seemingly crafted in response to recent efforts by ThinkProgress, a news site founded by CAP, to paint Sanders as a hypocrite for being a millionaire author.

The Sanders letter to CAP formalized the rift between the Democratic establishment and the labor-based movement of millions Sanders represents. That we’re talking about a petty PR battle and not the hardcore disagreement about policy and (especially) campaign funding sources that created this divide is Exhibit A proving the old propaganda method is still working.

The practice of painting dissident challenges as selfish, hypocritical acts — as opposed to the selfless altruism of corporate-funded candidates — has been going on forever. Long before Sanders was framed as a thin-skinned, cranky narcissist who’s “all about himself,” Dennis Kucinich went through the same thing.

Kucinich was/is living proof of the Bierce aphorism. When he announced his run for president in October of 2003, the Ohio congressman “stood up against corporate interests,” promised to revoke NAFTA, endorsed decriminalization of marijuana, called for universal health care and trumpeted “amnesty and legalization for illegal immigrants.”

He was the only candidate promising to withdraw troops from Iraq, and in those jingoistic years after 9/11, he not only brought an imam on stage for his launch, he took a shot at Columbus Day. From the New York Times account:

“The Cleveland event had a tailored multicultural appeal, starting out with prayers from a rabbi, an imam and a Baptist preacher. The speakers were racially diverse, and Mr. Kucinich took a moment to acknowledge the American Indian communities on Columbus Day.”

Many of these ideas are now blue-state orthodoxy. “Universal health care” is an official goal of the Democratic Party, even if the party doesn’t mean it in the same way Kucinich did. He was right about Iraq — he was the only one right about Iraq in that field — and significant parts of the electorate are beginning to suspect he was right about NAFTA, the legalization of marijuana and a bunch of other things.

Kucinich may even have been ahead of the curve on Columbus Day: four states and 50 cities now celebrate “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” instead.

But back in the 2000s, when Kucinich still had a small voice in national politics, he was routinely denounced as something worse than a radical: a kook, nut and egomaniac. I covered both of the Kucinich runs for the presidency and saw how frustrated he became over time as his ideas were ignored and his campaigns were denounced as indulgences.

What little coverage he got tended to be stuffed below the fold, and focused on him as a “lower-tier” eccentric, a vegan who dabbled in ventriloquism, wore wing-tips and was too short (the standard modifier attached to him was “elfin,” as in “the elfin peace candidate”).

Reporters from 2008 will remember the “hot mic” debate exchange between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, when the contenders whispered about thinning a field of eight that included Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

“We should try to have a more serious… smaller group,” Edwards offered, leading to the following exchange:

Clinton: Well, we’ve got to cut the number, because they are just being trivialized.
Edwards: They are not serious.
Clinton: No.

About the seriousness: when asked later that year by Wolf Blitzer why he was the only candidate who’d had a chance to vote on the Patriot Act to vote against it, Kucinich shot back, “Because I read it.” He was probably right that none of the others had.

But he was seen as the unserious one. By 2010, when he was opposing the Affordable Care Act for many of the same reasons driving today’s Medicare-for-All movement, even would-be liberal commentators like Markos Moulitsas were denouncing him. He was a modern Nader, pushing “unrealistic” and “self-defeating” politics, someone who’d never accomplished anything.

The treatment of Kucinich was pure high school. I used to get an unpleasant pang of recognition listening to the cool kids on the press plane laughing at the “lefty elf” who refused to get the hint he wasn’t wanted on the debate stage.

Back when Sanders didn’t seem like a threat to win anything, he got much of the same. He was dismissed as a geek and a wallflower who’d be defined by whether he chose to be a help or a hindrance to the real candidate, Clinton. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy in early 2015 mock-welcomed Bernie to the race, insisting the entrance of the “loner” would be a “plus” for the Clinton campaign, since he would “occupy the space to the left of Clinton, thus denying it to more plausible candidates, such as Martin O’Malley.”

It wasn’t until Sanders started piling up delegates that he began to take on the villainous characteristics for which he is now infamous. After he won primaries in 2016, suddenly reporters ripped him as a divisive narcissist with three houses who was the ideological mirror of Donald Trump, boasting racist, sexist and violent followers.

This was all part of the age-old technique of focusing on the person instead of the ideas or the movement behind them. Sanders wasn’t winning in 2016 because Bernie Sanders is some great stump act — he isn’t. A fair portion of his support was coming from people who were fed up with both parties even before he decided to run.

The easiest way to avoid dealing with uncomfortable truths is to create an ick factor around the politician benefiting from them. That was Sanders in 2016 and it’s still him, mainly. However, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii have also been pre-emptively dipped in the ick this cycle, cast as crippled politicians whose mere presence in the race will “undermine” Democrats in the end.

Additionally, and I could see it coming even a year ago, politicians benefiting from domestic discontent with the status quo are being denounced as Kremlin favorites as well as selfish agents of division.

On the day Gabbard announced her run for the presidency, MSNBC ran a story claiming Russian-linked social media accounts were pushing a “possible campaign of support” for the Hawaii Democrat. The story was sourced to the firm New Knowledge, which had been caught by the Times faking an almost identical story about Russian trolls and Alabama Republican Roy Moore.

Sanders was described as the Kremlin candidate in the Washington Post just a few days ago. This was unsurprising since the Post was asking as far back as the fall of 2017 how Democrats would respond to Putin playing dirty tricks for Sanders in 2020.

There are people who will protest that descriptions of such Russian activity boosting Sanders are rooted in fact, as efforts to reach his supports are described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency. That’s fine. I would counsel anyone who thinks Russia is responsible for the rise of Sanders or people like Gabbard or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should go out and interview voters around the country, especially in remote areas.

The anger toward the political establishment that drives support for such politicians began to be visible over a decade ago, long before Sanders or Gabbard were factors in any kind in national politics.

Those voters aren’t selfish, or hypocrites, or Kremlin favorites, and they’re not going anywhere. What a lot of DC-based reporters and analysts don’t grasp is that if you remove Bernie Sanders from the scene, there will still be millions of people out there mad about income inequality. Remove Gabbard, and discontent about the human and financial costs of our military commitments will still be rampant. Removing Warren won’t cancel out anger about Wall Street corruption.

Covering personalities instead of political movements only delays things for a while. Sooner or later, the conservatism of tomorrow arrives. You can only delay the inevitable for so long.

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-33 # dlet60 2019-04-17 13:42
Don't know about Bernie, he had my vote in the last primary but when he was railroaded by Hillary and turned around and supported her he lost my confidence. Let's see if has the balls to support Assange. If he doesn't he will never get my vote. Tulsi is the 1st, maybe the only, candidate to support Assange.
 
 
-9 # AldoJay69 2019-04-17 15:41
If wikileaks can't survive without Assange, then it's been nothing but his short-lived vanity project.
 
 
-11 # Robbee 2019-04-17 18:07
Quoting dlet60 2019-04-17 13:42:
Don't know about Bernie, he had my vote in the last primary but when he was railroaded by Hillary and turned around and supported her he lost my confidence. Let's see if has the balls to support Assange. If he doesn't he will never get my vote. Tulsi is the 1st, maybe the only, candidate to support Assange.

- the real issue is whether dickhead has the balls to support ja! - the businessman whose sequential wikileaks kept dickhead's campaign in the news, a new headline every other day, for months!

if putin has anything else to leak? to support dickhead? - then i bet dickhead supports ja and his leaks!
 
 
+17 # ljslotnick 2019-04-17 20:36
"turned around and supported her he lost my confidence" is such a simplistic statement ... demonstrates you have little understanding of the world that Sanders has chosen to occupy every day of his Senatorial career as an Independent. I'm not going to bother explaining this further.... see jwb110
 
 
+2 # Cat Mom 2019-04-20 22:14
Yes, we forget the truth that politics is the art of compromise. Note. Art. And it is not easy to create the right times and places and issues upon which to compromise. Again, let's look at the issues.
 
 
-17 # margpark 2019-04-17 21:24
Too bad so many didn't support H. Clinton. I had my reservations but she was a much better candidate than Trump. But many Sanders supporters got on their high horses and refused to support her. So we have very bad man as president.
 
 
+10 # Billsy 2019-04-19 11:29
Scapegoating Sen. Sanders simply doesn't work, ignoring the various other reasons for Clinton's shameful loss: her insincerity, her past voting record, her botched militaristic foreign policy (the Libyan mess for example), her financial support from Wall Street whores like Goldman Sachs, and her refusal to address the needs of rust belt voters in the states she lost but should have won (MI, WI, PA). Failure to learn the lessons of the past dooms us to future failure. Clinton's 1990s style campaigning is a proven loser. Move on.
 
 
+6 # jimbeama 2019-04-19 18:51
The notion that Sanders' supporters didn't vote for Clinton en-mass is not fact. I'm sure there were some. However there were more Clinton supporters who refused to vote for Obama than Sanders' supporters who refused to vote for Clinton. I'm tired of that BS continuing to be hauled out promoted over and over.
 
 
+8 # rural oregon progressive 2019-04-20 00:53
Accurately statede, jimbeama... it is a false narrative that "so many Sanders supporters voted in such a way as to deny Clinton the presidency", the true fact has been repeatedly borne-out that it was Clinton supporters who voted for McCain in hopes of denying Obama the presidency 8 years earlier... I guess that the Clintonistas believe that because they behaved that way, then everybody else did the same thing (8 years hence). They cannot accept that Hillary lost to Obama, and then lost to Trump. They and the rest of the Establishment will stop at nothing to ensure that popular, people supported ideas championed by Bernie Sanders will not disrupt their corporate-gravy -train money... Accordingly, the smears will continue to escalate. Status quo policies are killing the middle-class, and the working poor. If the Establishment screws Bernie again, I will hold the entire Democratic Party responsible, and will no longer support ANY down-ballot Democrat, unless they have a proven record of modern-day progressive attitude. If they are working against the interests of everyday Americans, and slopping at the trough of corporate interests, I have absolutely NO USE for THEM. If the neolibs keep this up, it is time to burn down the establishment that call themselves Democrats, and start a real progressive party.
 
 
+2 # Cat Mom 2019-04-20 22:18
Agree basically although I don't think we can quite go to that extreme even if necessary. for some time now, I have sent no money to the national Democratic committees on the basis that Schumer still leads the Dems in the Senate. Start by ridding ourselves of him...and Perez.
 
 
+32 # Kootenay Coyote 2019-04-17 13:52
Right on target.
 
 
+92 # jwb110 2019-04-17 14:39
When Sanders threw his support behind Clinton he was trying to keep a monomaniacal goofball, Trump, out of office. Sanders is a political animal. He knew what was at stake. The Nation. CLinton may have only been the lesser of two evils but the the lesser was the better choice. The Dems lost the last election because, once again, they ran the wrong candidate. I voted for Hilary but only because she wasn't Trump. I don't know who is running the DNC but they need replacing.
I think that Sanders stood a better chance in the last election than Hilary did. That's water under the bridge. The real issue was the people who would have voted progressive just couldn't bring themselves to vote for someone who Democratic Establishment decided was THE candidate before the first primary vote was cast. The DNC got it their way and we got Trump. Thanks a lot.
 
 
+5 # kyzipster 2019-04-19 20:14
Had Sanders run as an independent, he would have been successfully blamed for Trump's win imo. Right or wrong, that is what would have happened more than likely.

Instead, Hillary was blamed for her own loss (mostly) and Sanders has continued promoting his agenda, his movement is stronger than ever. He's a smart politician, not a sellout.
 
 
+16 # Mainiac 2019-04-17 15:09
To dlet60 and Kootenay Coyote: It is the practice and the tradition of the Democratic Party for those who lost out to the nominee to support him or her in the general election. Otherwise, you have a fractured, divided Party.

Now, some will say but Bernie isn’t a Democrat. True. But he used the Party’s infrastructure during his campaign. Otherwise, he would have had a lot of work and expense to gear up for a third party run.
 
 
+8 # ktony 2019-04-18 19:07
Quoting Mainiac:
To dlet60 and Kootenay Coyote: It is the practice and the tradition of the Democratic Party for those who lost out to the nominee to support him or her in the general election. Otherwise, you have a fractured, divided Party.

.....

I could well be mistaken, but I think Kootenay Coyote may have been endorsing the article itself, not someone else's comment.
 
 
+41 # dbrize 2019-04-17 15:18
Taibbi is right. He usually is because he is one of the few genuine reporters currently working. He is a man of the left who nonetheless reports honestly and accurately even when it opposes the party line.

Though the cult of personality has always been a major part of political life it took an exponential leap forward with the help of Lee Atwater and the Bush syndicate. We need look no further than our present TDS afflictions to see its dominance over reason, policy and common sense.

Trumps greatest achievement is the recognition that personalizing every issue and opponent by demeaning, trivialization lures them into the trap of similar response. An ongoing oral combat where he not only controls the discussion, but camouflages the issues and separates the opposition.

Few would argue with the notion that our republic is gone. Morphed by hook and crook into global empire with the requisite demands of militarization, wasteful economics and ever increasing diminution of freedom and liberty. It will end like all other empires, broke and forlorn.

The few who have understood, Robert Taft, post WW II, George McGovern, 1972, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul a decade ago and Tulsi Gabbard and Rand Paul today, a cross section from left and right, all were/are met with personal attack and demonization. Who needs issues?

Someday historians will ask, why did no one listen to them? They would do well to read Taibbi. He gets it.
 
 
0 # Cat Mom 2019-04-20 22:22
I agree with your support for Taibbi. And empires...such as our declining one...do cave from within. Oh, how I fought for Kucinich. Even met him once at a small campaign gathering and he seemed much the same in microcosm as in macrocosm.
 
 
+54 # tedrey 2019-04-17 16:07
I'm glad there is a good word here for Dennis Kucinich. He was the most sincere and relevant presidential candidate before Bernie Sanders, and I wept when the selfish hpocrites in the DNC tore down what could have been the most progressive president of our time.
 
 
+17 # NAVYVET 2019-04-17 21:03
I campaigned for Kucinich as long as possible, and agree he was the best Dem candidate before Bernie Sanders. I hope he's healthy and thriving!

I voted for Hillary ONLY because Bernie shamed us all with a strong message that we'd waste our votes by voting for a 3rd party candidate (I thought he meant that unqualified, never a winner, Green candidate) or on not going to the polls at all. All my friends at Bernie HQ in my city felt almost exactly the same way and I know we all voted--for Hillary. With an idiot like Drumpf, or any of the other Repub candidates, too, what choice was there? But not enough people thought about the results--and now we and the rest of the world are suffering.
 
 
+17 # Ahimsa 2019-04-18 19:10
It's funny how the Rethugs are calling Bernie a hypocrite for being a millionaire. He has served the country as a politician for many years and has had a deserving salary for his work. I'm sure he knows the right people to advise him with investments. His books are selling well and he is making his share as an author. He has NOT earned, that I can see, his millions by not paying taxes(Bezos, et all), or dodging taxes. Nor has he taken advantage of his employees with poor salaries and short changed hours. I hear my righty friends saying in a free capitalist economy, its fair to make millions honestly--which is what Bernie is doing-yet they criticize him....who are the hypocrites here?
 
 
+2 # Jude 2019-04-20 00:04
Ahimsa, I think if you read this para from the article again, you will see it is saying it is the Democratic party establishment who are vilifying Bernie for being a millionaire, not, in this case at least, the Republicans:
"Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made headlines this week by taking on the Center for American Progress, long known as a messaging arm of the mainstream Democratic Party. Sanders wrote a letter criticizing the CAP board for playing a “destructive role” in the “critical mission to defeat Donald Trump,” a critique seemingly crafted in response to recent efforts by ThinkProgress, a news site founded by CAP, to paint Sanders as a hypocrite for being a millionaire author."
 
 
+1 # DongiC 2019-04-21 04:51
There is a massive disconnect developing between the mass media, the DNC, the dark state on one hand, and the Democrat-Social ist state on the other. The energy and enthusiasm of the latter is a sight to behold; it will provide a tremendous impetus to the progressive causes involving the environment and the general welfare of ordinary people. Get ready for a blue tsunamis to sweep the land.
The electorate is finally beginning to see who their real champions are. (They aren't in the GOP!)
 

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