The Curse Of Eugene Debs: Sanders Loses On The 100th Anniversary Of Socialist’s Demise

Below is my column in USA Today on the significance of March 10th as the likely critical blow to Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the presidency. That was the day — 100 year ago — that Eugene Debs, the last major socialist presidential candidate, lost his bid for freedom. He would run his final presidential campaign from jail. Sanders seems to have fallen to the Eugene Debs curse not just in terms of the calendar but the response of the establishment. Liberal icons like Louis Brandeis would join in condemning him to prison and his presidential campaigns were harassed by a wide array of political and police forces. For Sanders, the only thing that has changed is the threat of criminal prosecution. The united front against his campaign remained the same.

Here is the column:

“That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that’s not the funniest part of it. As long as he’s around, I believe it myself.” That quote could have come from any of the number of Bernie Sanders supporters that I interviewed Sunday at his “yuge” rally at the University of Michigan. The statement however was about a man who last ran 100 years before Sanders: Eugene Debs. Not only is Sanders the obvious political successor to Debs, but the future of his candidacy may rest on the decision on Tuesday — the very anniversary of the final demise of Eugene Debs.

As the candidate for the Democratic Socialist Party, Debs was an ardent believer who led a national movement against the capitalist establishment. He was a dangerous man precisely because, when he spoke, others believed what had long been denied was possible to achieve. For his convictions and his following, Debs was arrested for sedition and, with the help of a shockingly complicit Supreme Court, he was convicted and sent to prison.

Alan Haber in the rally

Thankfully, Sanders is not facing prison for his principles, but he is facing the same type of concerted attacks from establishment figures. That is why I decided to attend Sanders’ rally at the University of Michigan on the eve of a primary that Sanders badly needs to win if he hopes for an upset in the Democratic race. What I saw is precisely what that Debs supporter described: palpable and contagious hope among as many as 10,000 supporters packed before the library at the University of Michigan.

I walked along lines that stretched around the campus to hear Sanders. In the crowd, I spotted one older man with a SDS button. The Students for a Democratic Society was a student organization for radical change in the 1960s whose national secretary was a young man named Bernie Sanders. The elderly man turned out to be Alan Haber, the first president of the SDS. Haber told me that Sanders was the only candidate who was not owned by corporate interests. Like Sanders, Haber has remained unbowed and undeterred through decades of struggle. Now his former SDS colleague is still in the running to be the Democratic nominee for president. What was unimaginable seems tantalizingly close to reality for both Sanders as well as Haber and millions like him.

In speaking with supporters in Michigan, you could not fail to get caught up in the sheer energy and passion of the crowd. This is not a political campaign, it is a movement. That is what his supporters believe that Biden and the Democratic establishment are united to prevent. However, Biden will have a tough time getting many of these people to the polls after bashing Sanders as a socialist supported by thuggish “Bernie Bros.”  Haber said that he would reluctantly vote for Biden over Trump but his wife Odile Hugonot Haber was not sure she could get herself to pull the lever for Biden. 

It was a view repeated by many. Sanders has extended the horizon of what is possible for many. And these people are not buying the usual compromise of the “art of the possible.” It was notable that the biggest boos in Sanders speech from the crowd came first at the mention of ICE and then at the mention of Biden and his “billionaire backers.”

Many supporters have been fundamentally changed by Sanders and his ideology of Democratic Socialism. One such supporter wore a self-made jacket showing Bernie and a cat with “Socialist Butterfly” emblazoned across the back. She said that she became a socialist after hearing Sanders in 2016.  She also balked at the notion of supporting Biden and the establishment.

Similar rhetoric

Sanders may be the candidate that Debs wanted to be. Their rhetoric is strikingly similar. Roughly 100 years ago, Debs told similar crowds that “I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.” Sanders for his part mocked the establishment figures and billionaires lined up behind Biden and against the Vermont senator. He declared himself unabashed and unbowed to the thrill of the crowd.

Tuesday could not be more symbolic for Sanders. It is not just the “mini Super Tuesday” that could break the momentum of his campaign. It is also the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Debs v. United States, a decision viewed by many of us in the free speech community as one of the lowest moments in the history of the Court.

In the case, the Court upheld the conviction of Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917 for opposing World War I. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for a unanimous Court that included the great civil libertarian Louis Brandeis. The Court dismissed the obvious protected speech under the First Amendment. In directly addressing the jury, Debs repeated his opposition to the war as the product of capitalism and corruption. The Supreme Court said that that was enough since the words had the “natural tendency and reasonably probable effect” of deterring people from supporting or enlisting in the war. Debs would never fully recover from his prison stint even after Warren Harding later commuted his sentence.

Voters will go to the polls on the anniversary of that decision to determine the fate of a man who has followed and eclipsed Debs in a way that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. His critics have declared him too old, too feeble or too radical. But for his supporters, Sanders is also one thing that Biden is not: authentic. To paraphrase the Debs supporter, he is simply the “old man with the [Bernie] eyes.”

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

29 thoughts on “The Curse Of Eugene Debs: Sanders Loses On The 100th Anniversary Of Socialist’s Demise”

  1. Marxism as a mass movement is no different. If we wish to understand the appeal of Marxism we should do well to pay less attention to its purely intellectual qualities than to the social and moral values that inhere in it. To a large number of human beings Marxism offers status, belonging, membership, and a coherent moral perspective. Of what matter and relevance are the empirical and logical refutations made by a host of critics as against the spiritual properties that Marx offers to millions. Have not all the world’s great religious leaders pointed to a truth that is bigger than, and elusive of, all purely rational processes of thought? “The Quest for Community” Robert A. Nisbet

  2. Johnathan Turley: Clueless On Sanders 

    The results of yesterday’s primaries confirm that Democrats are uniting against Bernie Sanders.  Black voters, in particular, have absolutely shunned Bernie.  I suspect their aversion to Sanders is due in part to Donald Trump’s frequent expressions of sympathy towards Bernie.  The feeling is that any candidate Trump cites with ‘honorable mentions’ is a candidate to avoid!

    Four years ago, at this point in the primaries, I noticed that Bernie Bros were unusually mean-spirited on social media.  Their attacks on Hillary Clinton went far beyond the norms of inter-party opposition.  One meme, in particular, seemed to represent the ‘standards’ of Bernie Bros: a photo-shopped image of Hillary climbing the steps to a jetliner with a large brown smudge across the seat of her dress.  Bernie Bros gleefully posted this meme by the thousands to show their ‘dedication’.

    This year Bernie Bros set about attacking Elizabeth Warren with the same ferocity they turned on Hillary.  However the ‘Me-Too’ movement had dawned since 2016.  Consequently vicious attacks on women are now seen through a different prism.  Therefore all the snake emojis Bernie Bros posted to Warren’s Twitter feed convinced real Democrats that Bernie Bros are scarcely more than leftist deplorables.

    The realization that Bernie Bros are intolerant fanatics has gone mainstream in recent weeks.  This explains why Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobucher were so prompt in their endorsements of Biden.  It also explains why Elizabeth Warren has yet to endorse Bernie and probably has no mind to.  But because he dwells in the rightwing bubble, Johnathan Turley has yet to get these notes.  Hence the reason Turley keeps singing his “Poor Bernie” song.

    Interestingly Bernie Sanders is now falling short of his 2016 performance in almost every primary.  Michigan, in particular, represents a stunning loss.  It is major state where Bernie edged out Hillary four years ago. Florida now looms as a possible Waterloo for Sanders.  A poor showing there could mean the effective end to Bernie’s campaign.

    1. Just Turley’s obvious attempt to distract from Trump’s incompetence, and to whip up his right-wing base.

  3. (music to tune of Hello Mudder, Hello Fader..)
    Hello Mudder…hello fader..
    Here I am in…
    Camp Grenada.
    You remember.. I was in Cuba.
    All the folks down there were fishing tuna.
    I’m a Commie. I’m a traitor…
    I live in Very Mont …like a gator.
    Hello Mudder, hello Fader now I’m back in
    Camp Grenada!

  4. In speaking with supporters in Michigan, you could not fail to get caught up in the sheer energy and passion of the crowd. This is not a political campaign, it is a movement.

    Of course there’s energy and passion; that’s the point. Christian revivals, riots, flash mobs all have roots in the psychology of mass movements. Your comment reminded me of a book I read in my youth in the 70’s called The True Believer by Eric Hoffer.

    Hoffer states that mass movements begin with a widespread “desire for change” from discontented people who place their locus of control outside their power and who also have no confidence in existing culture or traditions. Feeling their lives are “irredeemably spoiled” and believing there is no hope for advancement or satisfaction as an individual, true believers seek “self-renunciation”.Thus, such people are ripe to participate in a movement that offers the option of subsuming their individual lives in a larger collective. Leaders are vital in the growth of a mass movement, as outlined below, but for the leader to find any success, the seeds of the mass movement must already exist in people’s hearts…Mass movements aggressively promote the use of doctrines that elevate faith over reason and serve as “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world”. The doctrine of the mass movement must not be questioned under any circumstances.

  5. I used to play bridge at the Methodist Center at Arizona State in the early 60’s and the SDS had their office on the 2nd floor. On our campus they were thought of as ineffective dolts and lousy bridge players.

    1. Paul, bridge in the 60s, so that makes you, what…65-80 yo + ~50-60 years = 115-140 years old????

      Dang, I need to know the deets on this one. Your secret, por favor

      1. WW33 – start with the fact that I started school at 5. Math is hard. 😉

  6. “Like Sanders, Haber has remained unbowed and undeterred through decades of struggle…In speaking with supporters in Michigan, you could not fail to get caught up in the sheer energy and passion of the crowd. This is not a political campaign, it is a movement. ”
    Thankfully and hopefully, our cabinet maker nee anarchist nee Weatherman wannabe will continue to struggle since, as an anarchist, he’s a definitional anathema to anyone supporting law and order. JT’s gushing account of a small gathering of radical effuse is at odds with his stated admiration for those civilizations based on law. Do we need to get JT a tie-dyed shirt, daisy headband and a bong? Oh and a movement? As in “bowel.”

  7. Anyone recall the call the Joe McCarthy era?
    That Joe would have called Bernie a Communist.

  8. See Wm. Donohue’s book on the American Civil Liberties Union. For the left, invocation of ‘civil liberties’ has been instrumental, a way of attacking the legal buttresses which assisted in sustaining a bourgeois culture informed by Christian moral teaching. They don’t actually care about liberty per se.

    Note, the professional-managerial class ideology which goes under the name ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ has no interest in civil liberties because they fancy their opposition consists of stupid and bigoted people, who should have no influence over public policy and should be shut up if they attempt to influence it. NB, see Hugh Thomas work on the Spanish Civil War. Manuel Azana held to a similar view. There’s a reason he died in exile.

  9. The formal name of the Debs-Thomas socialist party was ‘Socialist Party of America’. It was consequential in Wisconsin and a few other states. Elsewhere, it was from 1901 to 1948 rather like the Libertarian Party today, not consequential but having a six-digit population of adherents and articulating a distinct viewpoint. After 1948, it remained consequential in Wisconsin for about a dozen years but was an odd little hobby organization everywhere else. After 1959, it was just a hobby organization. It decomposed in 1971 into three successor organizations, one run by Max Schachtman and Penn Kemble, one run by Michael Harrington, and one run by David McReynolds. Bernie Sanders was never a member of any of the successor organizations and when asked ca. 1983 was dismissive of Harrington’s outfit (then the largest). Penn Kemble died in 2005 and his letterhead organization died with him. Harrington’s outfit looked as if it would expire 20 years ago (see the period article in Harper’s but has been oddly prosperous in recent years; their claimed membership is about 8x what it was in 1982. McReynolds outfit still exists, but by some accounts has fewer than 2,000 members.

  10. Jonathan Turley is a great constitutional scholar but haven’t read anything about the USA Freedom Act set to expire this Sunday. One overlooked factor in all of these unconstitutional surveillance laws is that, with current technology, these records are retained for at least 8 years. Future database infrastructure will allow forever database of each and every one of us. So exploiting just one national emergency every 8 years or so, gives up information from the previous 8 years. Literally, America’s new Cold War style Stasi May be punishing you (covertly) for a Facebook post or email from 8 years ago. The Fourth Amendment and First Amendment will be dead if this practice continues.

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