Reject the Nationalism of Bernie Sanders

One of the central principles in Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Presidency is a belief in equality. It lies at the heart of his critique of the American economic system and the billionaire class. It’s part of his criticism of the healthcare system in which poor people cannot access the same kind of treatment as richer individuals. It’s also fundamental to his criticism of the criminal justice system, in which poorer individuals and minorities tend to be treated differently and worse.

In short, it’s everywhere.

But a closer examination reveals that Bernie doesn’t really believe in equality for everyone. He only believes in equality for Americans. Bernie Sanders is a nationalist as surely as Donald Trump is. And thinking people should oppose this.

Before we get into the details of this argument, let’s first address some likely objections.

The other candidates are nationalists too. Why pick on Bernie?
It’s certainly true that Bernie Sanders is not the only candidate that’s a nationalist. We’re focusing on Bernie because he is perceived to be consistent and principled in a way the others are not. Additionally, Bernie’s degree of alleged consistency is sometimes compared to Ron Paul, which I for one, find to be a grave distortion of reality.

Bernie is running to be President of the USA, not to lead the UN.
Obviously true. But we must acknowledge that many policies that are allegedly in the interest of Americans are directly opposed to the interests of citizens of other countries. My purpose is to argue that any sincere belief in equality requires one to care about their interests as well.

Those issues aside, we’ll proceed by first defining equality, and then highlight two policy positions that highlight Bernie’s indifference to it.

Defining Equality

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll adopt a definition that is hopefully acceptable to libertarians and liberals alike. Thus, a belief in equality means supporting equal treatment and equal consideration of an individual’s interests. By equal treatment, we’re referring primarily to treatment under the law. So, for example, we want a white person and black person to be accorded the same due process rights. By equal consideration of interests, we mean acknowledging that like interests should be treated the same. But we also must acknowledge that some types of interests are inherently superior. For instance, a Lockheed Martin executive’s interest in making a profit by selling bombs to the US government is clearly inferior to a civilian’s interest in not being struck by said bombs and remaining alive.*

So why do we believe in equality? There may be many good answers to that question, but the answer is most definitely not that we believe all people are literally equal. Our experience in life disproves this on a daily basis. Whether we consider charisma, intelligence, creativity, height, etc., the fact is all people are not equal. It’s also true that we can statistical trends across different races or ethnicities as well (e.g. people of German or African dissent tend to be taller than Chinese people). But in spite of this, most of us still think they should be accorded the same basic respect and treatment.

The real reason is because we don’t believe in punishing or treating people differently based on factors outside of their control. That’s the essence Martin Luther King’s dream one day people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” You can’t control your race, ethnicity, or many other characteristics you are born with, so you shouldn’t be treated worse as a result of them. You can only control your actions, so that’s the only thing you can be judged on.

Of course, there are some of these basic characteristics that we have some control over, but the barriers to doing so are pretty high. People do change religion, for example, but the enduring geographic distribution of religions suggests most people stick to whatever they were born with. Similarly, some people now physically change their sex, but doing so requires a significant amount of money. Again for the most part, people remain whatever they were born as. Thus, many people (as well as US law) treat these things as a given and hold that members of any group should be offered the same basic treatment and respect as anyone else.**

I would argue that nationality belongs in this same category. People can’t control where they are born. And they can only change their nationality after great personal expense and successfully navigating often complicated immigration rules. If we accept this principle then it follows that at least, ethically, we cannot prioritize the interests of Americans over others and still remain consistent with our belief in equality.

And note that the fact you or I happen to be American is not a defense. To see this, consider the following phrase: “Well, I favor Americans because I’m American.” When you replace American with white, Christian, etc., you realize you have the exact same justification as every powerful group that has ever persecuted a minority. Clearly, that’s not an argument we can embrace.

So if you want to be consistent and you really believe in equality, that belief has to extend to people beyond US borders.

Bernie’s Nationalism
All of this brings us back to Bernie Sanders. One of the major platforms of Bernie’s campaign is his opposition to major international trade deals. There are good reasons one might oppose these deals, if they gave handouts to established corporations for instance. But this is not Bernie’s focus. Rather, his concern is that these trade policies have driven down American wages and cost US jobs. And in certain industries, this is probably true.

But why did this happen? Well, people in China and Mexico and elsewhere were willing to work for a lower wage. And given that both of these countries have a lower standard of living than the US, we should assume that the average person there was actually more desperate. Thus, on what ethical basis can we prioritize the American’s interest over theirs? I would argue there isn’t one. And this is particularly true when one acknowledges the dramatic increases in productivity created by freer trade, that have made all of us richer on average.

Now a potential objection here may be the working conditions in these other countries. And to be sure, they probably are worse than the prevailing conditions in the US. But unless we assume the workers in these countries are being forced against their will to do so,*** that means these individuals perceive a low-wage job in less-than-ideal conditions to be the best opportunity available to them. We can be sad about that. But it still means that denying them that opportunity would make them worse off.

Moving beyond economic policy to foreign policy, this distinction becomes even more clear. To take one example, Bernie Sanders has said that he will continue the use of drone assassinations. This is a policy that has undeniably killed many civilians, and none of the actual targets are ever proven guilty anyway. So even in the best case scenario, the drone program amounts to assassination based on probable cause for the target. And for the inevitable bystanders, it’s assassination based on their association with an alleged bad actor.

In contrast, Sanders has made criminal justice reform a key platform position in the US. He has specifically focused on ending police brutality and disparate sentencing against minorities by the criminal justice system. And he has also expressed opposition to the death penalty in general.
Obviously, it goes without saying that these views are basically impossible to reconcile. Is capital punishment no longer capital punishment when it’s done by a missile instead of a syringe? Is there an Arab exception for due process that I don’t know about? If there was an alleged terrorist sitting in Central Park, should we drone strike them?

The questions answer themselves. The difference between drone assassinations and police brutality, is that one set of victims are Americans living in America. The others are not.  That’s nationalism at work.

Summing Up
As we said at the outset, Bernie’s nationalism is not unique among presidential candidates. He’s only unique in that he’s perceived as holding consistent principles, while the others are not. But a closer examination reveals that Bernie’s not consistent either, and his candidacy shows us how nationalism is fundamentally incompatible with a belief in equality.

*The general formulation is an extension of the one offered by Peter Singer in “All Animals Are Equal,” which is really an exceptionally thought-provoking piece even if you don’t buy the full vegan argument.

**I’m here assuming that the growing trend of Islamophobia consists primarily of people that weren’t too concerned with equality in the abstract beforehand. And again, I’m using equality in the narrowly defined way above.

***I’m not denying here that this may exist in some cases and some countries. But by and large, the scandals surrounding outsourced labor that I’m aware of relate primarily to poor working conditions rather than slavery.

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