I’ve got to give Bernie Sanders credit.
Last week, one of the favorite boogeymen of the American left passed away. David Koch was a phenomenally successful business leader and generous philanthropist who also happened to be politically active. He espoused a strongly libertarian philosophy, even running for vice president under the Libertarian Party banner in 1980 against Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Koch reentered the GOP fold afterward, but detested Donald Trump.
Both in 2016 and recently, Sen. Sanders would assail Mr. Koch (and his brother Charles) on the campaign trail. Others on the left have followed suit.
With David Koch’s passing, the ugly underbelly of American politics came to light. At the Minnesota State Fair, crowds began to cheer the death of Koch. Sanders — rightly — scolded the crowd. Politics can be a rough-and-tumble sport, but hopefully we have not yet reached the point where the death of another is cause for celebration.
But stop and think about that. A presidential candidate counseling a crowd to “not cheer death” is enough of a story to generate national headlines. That says something about our politics.
No one expects a self-described “democratic socialist” to find much common cause with a former Libertarian candidate for vice president. The former hews to an ideology that is inherently collectivist, while the latter finds virtue in the freedom of the individual. They posit government regulation versus the inherent forces — the “invisible hand” — of the market, among numerous other differences.
In our nation’s earliest days, similar battles were waged. “Federalists” lined up behind John Adams, while “Democratic Republicans” rallied with Thomas Jefferson. Jeffersonian partisans famously attacked John Adams’ “hideous hermaphroditical character” in newspapers. The two Revolutionary leaders — and co-members of the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence — had a falling out over the course the country should take. Yet, in their waning days, they mended old fences.
It is a lesson likely to be told in a forthcoming new book by former secretary of defense, former Marine General James Mattis. He offered a preview in the Wall Street Journal. “All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment — and one that can be reversed. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”
That tribalism can mean many things. It is the setting apart of the body politic into two camps engaged in rhetorical warfare. It is the tearing asunder of time-honored traditions upon which the stability of our government is based. And, yes, it is celebrating the death of the other side’s powerful “warriors” and “chiefs.”
Indeed, despite their complicated history and political strife, Jefferson and Adams passed away on the same day. Reflecting something far better than tribalism and in keeping with the highest calling of the American experiment, Adams’ final words were hopeful for his rival: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Unfortunately for Adams, he was mistaken; Jefferson had died five hours earlier.
Sanders and Koch did not have the shared experience of forging a new nation following the destruction of a monarchical yoke. It is unlikely that the late Koch’s final words were a hopeful “Bernie Sanders still survives.” And Charles Koch will probably continue to oppose “democratic socialism” as well as President Donald Trump’s trade policy.
Yet despite these sharp political differences, death is not something which should be cheered. When it is, the “American experiment” will have faded away into petty tribalism, and the legacy of Jefferson, Adams, and countless generations will be lost.
So I’ve got to give Sanders credit. He didn’t celebrate death. And, for some disappointing reason, that is a worthy development in the political environment of 2019.