The Difference Between Bernie and Trump’s Populism? Human Rights.
Bernie Sanders is now the undeniable frontrunner for the 2020 U.S. Democratic Primary, after a sweeping victory in the Nevada caucuses. Yet many commentators — particularly those toward the supposed “center” of the American political spectrum — still seem skeptical of Bernie’s electability in the general election.
A common argument that we hear against Bernie’s chances is that his popularity stems from a populist message similar to that of Donald Trump, and moderate voters are turned off by populist candidates. Based on the history of U.S. elections, this opinion is fundamentally flawed on many levels, the most obvious being that populists win elections.
A candidate can be called “populist” if they meet two basic criteria. The first is broad appeal to the “ordinary voter,” which is an indispensable condition for any presidential candidate to win. The second is rejecting “the establishment,” running against the Washington elite, which most of candidates from both parties try to do, with varying degrees of success.
The important thing to note about populism is that it isn’t associated with any particular ideology. In other words, any candidate can be a populist just based on how they frame their argument, regardless of what their actual policies are. That’s why I would argue that Barack Obama — a fairly center-left candidate in American politics who, when in office, certainly didn’t rock the boat — was also a populist.
Many commentators born out of the Washington bubble tend to use “populist” as a pejorative, but populism is the vehicle, not the message. If one candidate is yelling their message into a megaphone from atop a soapbox on Main Street while the other is whispering into a microphone in a conference room on Wall Street, it would be foolish to focus our analysis on the voice amplification method.
Instead, I’d like to take a moment to contrast the populist messages of the two loudest candidates — who also happen to be the frontrunners — of the 2020 presidential election: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Who are we making great again?
I recently wrote about how the vicious cycle of American exceptionalism was impeding much-needed social progress in the United States, and how Bernie is the only candidate who seems able to do something about it.
A shrewd commentator remarked that Bernie also plays into some of the populist tropes of exceptionalism — namely that he claims Americans are entitled to a flurry of social benefits. It’s true that Bernie says Americans deserve Medicare For All, free access to public education, a decent wage and so on.
However, I don’t think that every form of entitlement is necessarily symptomatic of exceptionalism. If we look at Donald Trump’s message, it’s that Americans deserve the best because they are American, and being American is awesome (I’d like to emphasize that this is his message, and has very little to do with his actual policies). That’s where the argument stops — there is no explanation of why Americans in particular are so awesome. Trump’s brand of populism is hence intimately tied to American exceptionalism, and those who seek comfort in that narrative will find solace in his candidacy.
Bernie’s brand of populism is fundamentally different. He claims that Americans deserve health care, education and a decent wage not because they are Americans, but because they are human. He claims that universal health care is a human right — not an American right. However, he is not running for president of all humans, so his fight is to allow his potential constituents the opportunity to live a decent life.
Even though I’m not American, I personally find Bernie’s human rights-based approach to be fascinating, especially since I studied Human Rights Law and wholeheartedly believe in the universality of human rights. I truly wish that American media would look into the similarities between Bernie’s platform and the foundations of the human rights movement, but since they don’t seem interested, here’s a taste.
From the ashes of the Second World War
To understand why Bernie’s candidacy is so exciting for the international community, it’s important to understand a few basics about human rights. We’re not talking here about a loosely defined set of principles to which all humans should, in some ideal fantasy world, be entitled. International human rights are a very real and specific — albeit messy and complicated — set of rules, norms and principles. They are arguably the largest global effort to promote peace and human dignity, born out of the most gruesome time in our collective memory.
At the end of the Second World War, a community of nations came together, formed a union, and in unison pledged never again. Never again should humanity allow itself to open the door to the darkness, hatred and division that brought society to the brink of collapse. Never again should we allow contempt for another to extinguish the kernel of light in our soul that makes us truly human.
While still in its infancy, the United Nations knew that resentment, ignorance and fear-mongering could lead even educated and cultured nations down the path of darkness. Only by ensuring that every human, regardless of race, gender or creed, had inalienable, unassailable rights, could we begin to build an enlightened and resilient global community.
This was the zeitgeist, the global reckoning that in 1948 led the nations of the world to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, Human Rights Law has developed into an complex, dynamic set of international and national norms and principles. To begin to understand the sprawling architecture of this nascent legal framework, we must first look at the two major pillars at its foundation.
Two broad categories of rights
Fundamental human rights have been agreed upon by almost every country on Earth as the rights to which every single human should be entitled, simply by being human. There are then subsets of human rights that are specific to oft-discriminated groups of people, for example the rights of women, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, religious minorities and so on.
Fundamental human rights are divided into two broad categories: civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. While the distinction may seem confusing and arbitrary, it is in fact at the core of all of Human Rights Law.
Any country should in theory be able to implement civil and political rights immediately and without substantial time or effort. The most basic of these rights are listed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which entered into effect in 1976. Self-determination, right to life, right to a fair trial, freedom of thought — these are all civil and political rights. The U.S. only ratified the ICCPR in 1992, although many of its provisions have been a part of the U.S. Constitution since the Bill of Rights.
Economic, social and cultural rights are a whole different story. They have their own Covenant: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, and yes this acronym is atrocious), which also entered into effect in 1976. ICESCR rights are aspirational — they are the rights that the international community believes every human should be entitled to, as long as their respective governments has the means to provide them. Naturally, the biggest reason countries give for not implementing ICESCR rights is cost. Note that while the United States signed the ICESCR in 1977, the Senate has yet to approve ratification.
If you have a moment, I encourage you to read through Part III of the ICESCR — which, I remind you, was drafted in the 60s and has been in effect for nearly half a century.
Article 7 stipulates the right to work and earn a fair wage. Article 8 is the right to unionize. Article 12 is the right to education. Article 13 is the right to physical and mental health care.
Sound familiar? If not, try reading the whole thing again with a thick Brooklyn accent.
Why did we get billionaires before basic human dignity?
I’m always somewhat mesmerized when I hear debates on American television about Bernie’s brand of populism. If his positions are what qualify as left-wing extremism, then the so-called center of U.S. politics has drifted so far right that it’s beyond time for a wide-scale political realignment.
For his 2020 election platform, Bernie basically took the greatest, most progressive ideas of the global human rights movement of the 60s (which, funny enough, were his college years), updated them for modern-day America, and came up with a plan to realize them. He embodies not the spirit of Stalinism — which intellectually dishonest actors will increasingly accuse him of as he keeps winning primary states — but of global humanism. Bernie has become America’s de facto flagbearer for the “never again” movement.
Bernie’s argument boils down to this: Over half a century ago, the entire world came together and defined the bare minimum to which every single individual in the world should be entitled in order to live a decent life. Granted, some of these rights are expensive. But other countries have implemented them successfully, so America — the richest country on the planet — should be able to do so as well. If the United States cannot guarantee these basic human rights, it has no business allowing the insane and unsustainable accumulation of wealth that has brought into existence the billionaire class.
The practical implications of this ideological position are massive — but they are worth considering, and a source of inspiration for anyone who supports the universal human rights movement.
America is arguably hurtling toward a new Gilded Age, where the common essence of humanity and the invaluable nature of human life are once again being questioned. According to Trump’s brand of populism, American life is worth more than foreign life, rich life more than poor life, male life more than female life, white life more than minority life.
Bernie’s populism asserts that all human life has inestimable intrinsic value, and therefore deserves to be treated with respect and decency. If someone tells you that idea is too radical, perhaps invite them to reconsider their own values.