The socialist Senator from Vermont

Regardless of which party ends up controlling which houses of Congress in Tuesday’s voting here in the US, one milestone almost certainly will be the election of the first self-described socialist Senator in American history.

That would be Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It helps that Sanders’s Republican opponent is a billionaire who drives a $158,000 Bentley, that he has no Democratic opponent and that Vermont is not, say, South Carolina or Oklahoma. (Although Vermonters are sometimes ridiculed as elitist liberals, it’s worth noting that the state has had the second-highest National Guard mobilization rate of any state in the country, and has lost more soldiers in Iraq as a percentage of its population than any other state. Stereotype that.)

But most of all, Sanders will win because he has established a solid record on behalf of ordinary, non-socialist Vermonters.

bernie sanders.jpg

The 65-year-old known to voters simply as “Bernie” is Vermont’s lone congressman, a six-term independent with a photo of Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1912, on his congressional wall. He’s perhaps the most popular pol in the state and there’s nothing northern New England about him. Sanders was born in Brooklyn, raised by Jewish parents from Poland. His father’s family perished in the Holocaust. He chews on each syllable in an accent as Flatbush-inflected as the day he wandered north four decades ago.

“Look,” Sanders says, “you can’t be afraid of the people [pronounced: pee-PULL]. A lot of progressives sit around their homes and worry about being labeled or how to talk to people. I go out, I knock on doors, and I talk about economic justice and the oligarchy and what’s fair, and more people than you might guess listen to me.

I’m sure I could find several things on which to disagree with Sanders, particularly in the area of foreign policy. He opposed the invasion of Iraq and wants to set a deadline for withdrawing US troops. And I hope a deal he cut with Hugo Chavez to provide discounted heating oil to low-income Vermonters doesn’t mean the Venezuelan leader is off-limits to criticism from him. (It’s hard to criticize the deal itself, especially since our own government has done so little to provide affordable heating oil.)

On the other hand, Sanders is no Galloway clone. He voted to authorize military action against the Milosevic regime in 1999 and against the Taliban in 2001. And he supported Israel’s right to self-defense in last summer’s war against Hezbollah.

Most satisfying, Sanders has incurred the wrath not just of the usual gang on the Right, but also of hard-leftists at Counterpunch and members of his former party, who accuse him of betrayal. Well done, Bernie.