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[Excerpt] ‘Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics’

Far from being totally alien to the American way, the sort of socialism Bernie advocates was commonplace where he grew up.

By Theodore Hamm

[Eds. note: This is the introduction for a forthcoming book being published June 4 by OR Books. We will post Chapter One on Monday.]

After Bernie Sanders won the popular vote in the Iowa caucus, the first primary in the 2020 presidential election, panic among Democratic Party elites and their allied corporate media commentators reached a fever pitch.

“Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat,” exclaimed Bill Clinton adviser James Carville, adding that Sanders has “never been a Democrat. He’s an ideologue.” Carville specifically called Bernie’s plan for free college tuition “a stupid thing.” One of Carville’s colleagues from the 1992 Clinton campaign then opened the New Hampshire televised primary debate with a similar focus. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos prodded Joe Biden into explaining why he had asserted Sanders is “too big a risk for the Democrats,” to which Barack Obama’s vice president replied, “Bernie has labeled himself…a democratic socialist.”

Shortly thereafter, Stephanopoulos—whose salary is $15-17 million per year—asked for a show of hands among the six candidates if they “were concerned about having a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket.” (“I’m not!” Bernie declared.) While only the centrist candidate Amy Klobuchar echoed Biden’s concern, had oligarch Michael Bloomberg been on the stage, he surely would have joined in.

After the debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a former top aide to longtime Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, jumped the shark, comparing Bernie to Fidel Castro and raising the specter of “executions in Central Park” if Sanders takes the White House. And during that same week, 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton continued her vengeful crusade against Bernie, warning that it was not “responsible” for any candidate to “promise the moon.”

The contempt for Bernie’s democratic socialist vision is further illustration of how far the Democrats have moved from FDR and the New Deal. Like many key figures in his administration, Roosevelt was a Keynesian capitalist, not a socialist. Neither were the coterie of middle-class reformers FDR brought to Washington from New York City’s settlement house movement of the Progressive Era. But the New Deal’s policies were not simply the handiwork of far-sighted technocrats. Instead, FDR’s team responded to pressure exerted from below.

The Great Depression had spawned both labor militance, leading to a strike wave that shut down the West Coast waterfront in 1934; and social movements, including the retirement pension campaign led by Dr. Francis Townsend that had launched a year earlier. In 1935, both efforts helped create two of the New Deal’s most enduring legacies: the right for unions to organize and strike (as stipulated by the Wagner Act) and the Social Security system. Yet when FDR and prominent allies such as New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia spoke of the president’s “social security program,” the lowercase term referred to far more than simply pensions.

As FDR outlined in his “Economic Bill of Rights” (1944) and other speeches, he viewed it as the federal government’s responsibility to provide jobs, health care, and secure housing for the American people. Rather than democratic socialism, FDR created a blueprint for social democracy akin to what exists in many European countries today.

Many fundamental elements of Bernie’s 2020 agenda—including free college tuition, rent control and massive federal investment in housing, and vast public works projects that provide public-sector jobs (now the Green New Deal)—were realities in the Brooklyn where he grew up. Although FDR viewed health care as a right, and his successor Harry Truman began to push for national health insurance soon after he took office in 1945, no universal medical care system was implemented. But New York City had a vast, low-cost healthcare network that was accessible to both union members and non-union households such as the Sanders family.

While Bernie’s proposal for Medicare for All is thus an extension of a landmark initiative of the Great Society, LBJ’s administration essentially continued to enact FDR’s domestic blueprint. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein demonstrates in Fear City (2017), the Wall Street-led response to New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s helped launch the neoliberal agenda of privatization within the Democratic Party. The same Clinton crowd that championed neoliberal “Third Way” rollbacks of New Deal policies not coincidentally loathes a candidate that adheres to FDR’s principles.

As Bernie, who was born in 1941, stated in a November 2015 campaign speech at Georgetown University about democratic socialism, FDR stressed in his Second Bill of Rights speech that “real freedom must include economic security.” “That was Roosevelt’s vision seventy years ago,” he declared. “It is my vision today.”

During that same campaign Bernie’s older brother, Larry (b.1935), explained that the siblings and their peers grew up “in an environment where New Deal politics were quite normal. It was widely understood that the government could do good things.” With post-Reagan Republicans deriding all social spending, and post-Clinton Democrats fetishizing private sector solutions to public problems, the origins of the Sanders brothers’ view of government’s positive potential is well worth exploring.

Socialism, of course, comes in many different varieties, and the one that most influenced the Sanders brothers in their early years was distinctly tied to their religious heritage. By 1950, nearly one million Jews lived in Brooklyn. The Sanders family was part of a Jewish enclave near Kings Highway in Midwood, which was then considered to be a section of the larger neighborhood of Flatbush (which had a large Irish Catholic population). While Larry and Bernie’s father, Eli Sanders, had immigrated from modern-day Poland in 1921, their mother, Dorothy “Dora” Glassberg, was born in New York City and went to high school in the Bronx. Dora’s father was a committed socialist and a union activist in the garment industry.

As the historian Daniel Katz has argued, the perspective that grew out of that working-class milieu during the early twentieth century is best understood as Yiddish Socialism. Rather than a doctrinaire set of views regarding political strategy, adherents shared a strong set of cultural values, including that government should provide basic necessities, all ethnic and racial groups should be treated equally, and all people should be able to develop their full potential through education. Such aspirations became signature features of the New Deal’s “social security program.”

As Katz explains, in the wake of the anti-Communist hysteria of the early Cold War period, the native-born generation of Jews coming of age in the 1950s like the Sanders brothers experienced the “transition from Yiddish Socialism to Jewish Liberalism,” which tempered expectations surrounding the role of government in creating equality. Although neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor her close ally—and two-time Democratic presidential candidate—Adlai Stevenson were Jewish, both were revered figures in Bernie’s neighborhood. The first political event Bernie recalls attending was a Stevenson rally held at his elementary school when he was in eighth grade.

During the New Deal through the end of World War II, the two most important political figures in New York City were FDR and his close ally, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1934–1945). With FDR’s administration providing a steady stream of funding, La Guardia and the urban planner Robert Moses built modern New York City. Among the “good things” La Guardia’s administration constructed during the period were the city’s grand W.P.A.-funded outdoor swimming pools, as well as hundreds of playgrounds, including one right around the corner from the Sanders family’s home.

After New Deal money dried up amid the war effort, La Guardia and Moses created a blueprint that the latter enacted after the war, which included vast expansion of the city’s public housing system, what’s now JFK Airport, and a dizzying array of expressways (many of which proved to be not at all good for the neighborhoods they sundered). Led by its dynamic labor movement, New York City in the two decades after World War II became what historian Joshua Freeman has called “a social democratic polity . . . committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality, and popular access to culture and education.”

As just one of many examples, the City University of New York (CUNY) underwent a vast expansion in the 1950s and 1960s and did not charge tuition until the aftermath of the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. For working-class people and lower-middle-class families like Bernie’s, CUNY provided the opportunity for social mobility. In the mid-1950s, Larry Sanders attended Brooklyn College, where he became politically active and influenced his younger brother to follow suit. While their mother was ill, Bernie attended the same CUNY school, where he was first introduced to the work of his favorite historical figure, Socialist leader Eugene Debs.

While New York remained a social democratic city through the 1950s, Brooklyn became a central presence in American culture. In American arts and letters, on the baseball diamond, and in living rooms across the country, Brooklyn was a familiar place. By the early 1950s, Brooklyn-based novelist Norman Mailer, playwright Arthur Miller, and poet Marianne Moore were household names. Eli Sanders, a paint salesman, directly identified with the struggles faced by Willy Loman, Miller’s signature character. In April 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in America’s national pastime at Ebbets Field, a place frequented by Larry and Bernie.

From the middle of the war through the early 1950s, Woody Guthrie called Coney Island home. The songwriter memorably depicted a place full of summertime joys but also residential segregation, a practice enforced by his racist landlord Fred Trump. Woody’s music would travel with Bernie through Vermont onto the 2016 campaign trail. By the time Bernie graduated from high school, most of the leading cultural figures of the past decade had moved out of Brooklyn. And so too had the Dodgers, a betrayal that scarred a generation. Like many of his peers, Bernie left Brooklyn during his college years and returned only periodically. But in ways far deeper than simply his accent and mannerisms, Brooklyn never left Bernie.

One of the remarkable features of New York City in the middle three decades of the twentieth century was the plethora of political parties that wielded influence. There were the Democrats, still controlled by Tammany Hall in Manhattan along with similarly Irish-led machines in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Republicans of the era had a vocal Progressive wing, of which La Guardia was the most prominent figure.

Vito Marcantonio, who eventually took over La Guardia’s East Harlem congressional seat, became a leading figure in the American Labor Party, which had been formed by FDR’s allies in the garment unions in 1936 in order to minimize the influence of the Norman Thomas-led Socialist Party. The Communist Party worked closely with the ALP, which caused the split within the latter party in 1944 that gave rise to the Liberal Party.

The mix produced very strange bedfellows, with the ALP joining Governor Tom Dewey’s Republicans in supporting the campaign of Woody Guthrie’s Communist pal Jimmy Longhi for a Congressional seat representing the Brooklyn waterfront. The ALP also helped Dewey, a pro-big business Republican, enact New York’s statewide system of rent control in 1950. La Guardia’s successor, Brooklyn Democrat William O’Dwyer, left amid scandal that same year. For the next four years, City Hall was controlled by a candidate who had won on the ballot line of the newly created Experience Party. The numerous parties and unexpected alliances placed the period in sharp contrast to the staid two-party politics that have dominated both New York City and the nation for the last several decades.

What follows is a journey into the complex politics and lively culture of the Brooklyn that produced Bernie Sanders. It is meant to be a popular history, aimed at conveying key moments as they were experienced by Bernie, Larry, and their peers. There are both major events affecting everyone in the city and smaller details documenting Bernie’s youth. What happened behind the scenes in the city and borough’s corridors of power is not a primary concern. For example, most of Robert Moses’ backroom dealings during the period only came to light upon publication of Robert Caro’s landmark work The Power Broker in 1975.

Throughout the 1950s Moses certainly made many enemies in the Bronx and Greenwich Village, but his direct impact on Bernie’s neighborhood was minimal. While they certainly help shed light on the important events of era, neither the New York Times nor the Brooklyn Daily Eagle were read in the Sanders family’s home. Instead, the paper of choice was the then-liberal New York Post, which during Bernie’s high school years featured an all-star lineup of political columnists (Max Lerner, Murray Kempton and Eleanor Roosevelt) and sportswriters (led by Milton Gross and Jimmy Cannon). Under publisher Dorothy Schiff and editor James Wechsler, the paper’s Cold War liberalism helped shape the sensibility of Bernie’s generation.

In addition to the recollections provided by Larry and those published elsewhere from Bernie, the following chapters include insights from a number of friends of Bernie and a variety of peers. Brooklyn was a quite remarkable place in the mid-20th century. Onward into its past we go. 

Theodore Hamm
Theodore Hamm

Theodore Hamm is editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn. He writes about New York City politics and culture for The Indypendent and Jacobin. Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.