A night with Bernie Sanders’s brother

6 February 2020

9:34 PM

6 February 2020

9:34 PM

Larry Sanders, Bernie’s literal bro, moved to England in the late 1960s and settled in picture postcard Oxford. I was told that Bernie visited Larry there some time ago and was taken to historic Blenheim Palace. Bernie walked around the galleries, he viewed the state apartments, he breezed around Hawksmoor’s library and strolled through Vanbrugh’s colonnades. We do not know if he stopped at the room where Winston Churchill was born. But we do know that Bernie, according to Larry, was not impressed by Blenheim. It didn’t do much for him. He had other questions. He pointed at the great lake in the grounds and asked who dug it, what tools they used and whether they were treated well. Whether Bernie expected 18th-century English workmen to have health coverage is not known. He may have been disappointed with the answer.

At the late age of 84, Larry, an occasional politician himself, is still energetically and (somewhat) cogently stumping for his brother on this side of the Atlantic. Last night he was in London to tell a ragtag assembly of the British left to begin the countdown to President Sanders. Alongside Larry on the panel were two of Corbynism’s biggest standard bearers — author-filmmaker-activist Paul Mason and activist-writer-tweeter and communist Ash Sarkar — as well as a guy in a t-shirt who looked like Zach Galifianakis. A promising evening beckoned.

Readers may recall that since 2017 many on the left-wing of the Labour party believed that History was proceeding — gorgeous, near-spiritualised and inevitable, without a downward glance at reality — towards a Corbyn majority government. In this glorious new era: Brexit revoked, the nuclear deterrent junked, the working week reduced to four days, the borders opened, the railways nationalised, the Scots given another vote on independence. Something Corbyn theorists called ‘fully automated luxury communism’ would be right around the corner.

None of it happened. Corbyn was trounced at the polls in December. The entire project was left like some disentombed figure from Pompeii, eternally frozen in the rigor mortis of failure. Given the many similarities between Jeremy and Bernie Sanders, a good way to spend the evening might have involved ruthless self-assessment and an unambiguous diagnosis of why the left keeps losing elections in the West.

But there was little appetite for that. The crowd of true believers I found myself wedged in, with their ponytails and their piercings, were not here for a struggle session. They were not sitting on the floor and hanging off the ceiling in a warm seminar room, after a long day of tweeting, to be told that they’ve probably misinterpreted every major political event of the last ten years. No, they wanted to bask in Larry’s second-hand glamour and first-hand knowledge of the man they believe deserves to be president.

And Larry couldn’t help but deliver. We were treated to Tales from the Early Life of Saint Sanders. Bernard, Larry always uses the full name, was not an ‘obvious politician’. Here was a kid from Brooklyn with ‘odd characteristics’, who would come home from school talking about space aliens flying over New Jersey. Bernard, said Larry tenderly, was ‘very gullible’. The crowd gurgled, they cooed, they made Instagram Stories. And if you closed your eyes for long enough and listened to Larry, with that throaty Brooklyn Fifties patter, you could just about imagine that the real presence of Bernard was in the room, rather than pulling his hair out somewhere in New Hampshire.

What of Bernard’s heart, asked one question, when it does not beat for the working man or Cardi B? Had that mighty organ recovered from its recent troubles? Larry philosophised: ‘Everybody worries about death’, and, he admitted, ‘I dunno about hearts.’ Vague on the issue of stents, Larry rippled indiscriminately into new areas of thought. What about cross country, he ventured. ‘Cross country, up hill, down hill, up hill, down hill.’ The crowd murmured approvingly: this was an apt description of the sport. ‘Bernard had stamina for it’, he said, running a ‘very good mile in high school, 4 minutes and 37 seconds. Bernard didn’t win though. He came third.’ On the edge of my field of vision I spotted a comrade slipping away into sleep. His head jerked back to wakefulness and he half-motioned to scratch his nose. Larry was politely asked to make his answers a bit shorter by the panel’s chair; by my watch he spoke uninterrupted for the next five minutes. Well, it’s not every day your kid brother (78) has a chance of being the next president of the United States is it?

Mason and Sarkar added their two cents. Sarkar admitted that she’d spent the morning googling ‘what is a caucus’. Mason warned that ‘bad shit’ would follow President Trump’s re-election, should Bernie do a Jeremy. Sarkar had advice for Brits who want to help Sanders, ‘get on Grindr and identify as a Bernie Bro’. Mason was in a more cosmic mood. The Green New Deal, he said, was the ‘landmark political document of our time’, Blackrock chief Larry Fink’s recent letter about fossil fuels was ‘a turning point in Western Capitalism’. Here were the imprecisions, melodramas, abstractions, and generalisations that marked the Corbyn project in full view.

If the Bernie people have any sense, they’ll keep their distance. Rhetorical overkill is much easier than winning elections.

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