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Bernie Said We Could Govern Ourselves

What made Bernie Sanders different from any major presidential candidate in our lifetimes was that he didn’t pitch himself as the most qualified pilot — he demanded that we pilot the plane ourselves.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo introduces Senator Bernie Sanders to the New York delegation at the Democratic National Convention on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

At every step, Bernie Sanders’s political opponents have contrasted themselves to him by appealing to their own competence and expertise. Clinton: “I’m a progressive who gets things done.” Warren: “I’ve got a plan for that.” Biden: “Let’s talk about progressive. Progressive is getting things done.”

Andrew Cuomo — the newest celebrity of the Democratic Party, a close friend and ally of its presidential nominee, and an increasingly likely 2024 presidential candidate — has risen to stardom on just such an appeal. Propelled by widespread (though highly dubious) praise of his management of the pandemic, his approval ratings and public image have taken flight.

Cuomo has long cultivated the aura of managerial effectiveness. When his challenger Cynthia Nixon pointed to decades of activism as her qualification for office, Cuomo replied that the governorship “is not a job about politics. It’s not about advocacy — it’s about doing. It’s about management.” Last year, he told a reporter:

I know how to do what everybody’s talking about doing. They’re all talking about how to fly an airplane. None of them have flown. And that’s a big difference when you get in the seat and you buckle the seat belt. And we just had a guy who spoke about flying a plane. And never flew. It’s not as easy as it looks.

This is a seductive and soothing vision of leadership, especially in turbulent times of impending crashes. We so badly want leaders who “know what they’re doing,” who have access to some kind of expertise — managerial skill, the right cadre of expert advisers, a capacity of political judgment we can’t specify because, after all, we haven’t had to “make those calls” ourselves — that qualifies them to steer the helm.

We need specialized expertise in government, of course. But what made Bernie different from any major presidential candidate in decades was that he didn’t just pitch himself as the most qualified pilot. He demanded of us that we pilot the plane ourselves.

He didn’t soothe or reassure us — he roused us to work. That work now continues. It will be long and hard going. And it will take overcoming our fears that we aren’t qualified, that we’ll crash the plane unless we leave it to the experts.

This is what “Not me, Us” always meant. It’s why we always planned to be in the streets, win or lose. It’s why our campaign was aligned with grassroots groups like the Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America, through which we will continue to build our movement beyond 2020.

We’ll be told that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we’re “blowing smoke” and are “blue-sky puffers” (whatever that means), as Cuomo recently characterized Bernie in contrast to Biden’s supposed no-nonsense pragmatism. We’ll be equated with the Trump 2016 supporters who cast themselves as heroic passengers wresting back control from the hijackers of Flight 93, even as we expose and defuse ersatz populism by offering the real thing. We’ll be mocked for presumptuousness — maybe the New Yorker will rerun its cartoon of a boorish man in an airplane standing up to exclaim, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

Politics does require technocratic know-how and expertise; part of what it means to pilot the plane collectively is to appoint those among us with the requisite training to operate the flight controls. It’s hardly the populist left that needs this reminder: on the most consequential policy issues — from health care to deficit spending to, most strikingly, climate change — it is the Left that offers the informed and pragmatic way forward, while the “moderates,” intoxicated by ideology, ignore the experts and fly the plane straight into the ground.

Yet the problem with the establishment is not that it doesn’t have enough policy wonks on the payroll. To critique it primarily on grounds of inefficacy or incompetence would be to buy into the premise that the current pilots, at least of our preferred airline, are trying to take us where we want to go, that they have different theories on how to avoid storms and harness winds and utilize limited fuel and do whatever else pilots do, but are all aiming at basically the same place.

Bernie lost because Democratic voters bought that premise. They agreed with him on the issues, but were persuaded that Biden was a more amiable and effective means toward the same ends. Among the most urgent tasks for the Left, then, is to show that the establishment is not oriented toward the people’s interests or responsive to their will.

Cuomo’s record is a good place to start. The austerity budget he just forced through the New York legislature — cutting Medicaid in a pandemic, locking up thousands in death-trap prisons, leaving the homeless to fend for themselves with only the added company of thousands of soon-to-be-evicted tenants, starving the state even as it confronts the world’s worst economic contraction since the Great Depression — shows that we are not in safe hands. The problem is not that the establishment doesn’t know how to fly; it’s that it’s flying in the wrong direction.

The pilots cannot be trusted. We have to storm the cockpit.