Sam Harris on Bernie Sanders

With the sudden relevance of the subject, we thought we’d track down opinions of Sam Harris on Bernie Sanders. It turns out, Dr. Harris has a pretty strong opinion on the presidential hopeful. We’ll detail those opinions and try to fact check what can be fact checked.

During the run-up to the 2016 election, Sam Harris was adamant in his endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Now there were plenty of reservations about electing Hillary that most of those on the left shared, Sam did argue that Bernie Sanders simply wasn’t going to be elected president as an open socialist. While it should be noted that Sam’s position on Bernie Sanders is basically one of practicality, he nonetheless has policy concerns about the Senator from Vermont.

Taken from Sam Harris’ Ask Me Anything #3 on his podcast (then Making Sense) Harris says:

“I don’t think he has thought about foreign policy very much. He certainly hasn’t said much about it. The little he has said about it has been somewhat infected by Noam Chomsky’s worldview. Which I think is the moral blackhole swallowing everything on the left side of the political spectrum.”

Let’s break it down because there’s quite a bit of inside baseball here if one is not familiar with the name’s referenced above.

Ever since his first book The End of Faith Sam has long argued that religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to western democracy. While critical of all religions, including Christianity, Harris has argued that Islam is currently the greatest threat to civilization because of the language found in the text. The neuroscientist and author says as much in the next sentence:

“I don’t know whether we can trust Sanders to be wise on what I consider to be the most crucial question of foreign policy: the fight against global jihadism.”

Meanwhile key figures on the left, such as Chomsky, have argued that Islamic terrorism in the west is primarily a result of U.S. interventionist policies. This position has caused some painful run-ins (for readers and listeners) in the creation of the famous email exchange between Sam and Noam. As well as the infamous episode, ironically named Best Podcast Ever, with Omer Aziz. All of that we can table for another article, but just note that this is what Sam is referencing above.

**In an undoubtedly ill-fated attempt to stop these fruitless dialogues, we’ll interject that there’s no reason to think these two positions are mutually exclusive. A perfectly coherent position could be that a fundamentalist adherence to Islamic doctrine fuels the need to find a target of oppression. Meanwhile U.S. interventionist policies provide fundamentalists a target for martyry producing attacks. Alright let’s get back to it. 

Sam Agrees Wealth Inequality is a Major Issue

Sam qualifies his criticism of Sanders by noting that key issues for Bernie, such as wealth inequality, are problems and important problems to be solved at that. However he believes that Bernie is writing a check he can’t cash: “Sanders is making promises he can’t possibly keep. He’s clearly an idealist and that Idealism is going to smashed when he deals with congress.”

It should be noted, there is a decent amount of reasons for one to be understandably skeptical of the revolutionary claims of Bernie. In an interview with the Daily News on April 1, 2016 the senator was unable to say exactly how he would accomplish some of his goals. In fairness to the senator, it should be noted that this was an interview (one of thousands he did in the run up to the election) and may have had a momentary lapse in memory. That said, when asked about the particulars of how he was going to “break up the banks”, Senator Sanders was fairly evasive. 

Bernie Sanders: “All I can tell you is that if you have Goldman Sachs paying a settlement fee of $5 billion, other banks paying a larger fee, I think most Americans think, “Well, why do they pay $5 billion?” Not because they’re heck of a nice guys who want to pay $5 billion. Something was wrong there. And if something was wrong, I think they were illegal activities.”

Daily News: Okay. But do you have a sense that there is a particular statute or statutes that a prosecutor could have or should have invoked to bring indictments?

Sanders: I suspect that there are. Yes.

Daily News: You believe that? But do you know?

Sanders: I believe that that is the case. Do I have them in front of me, now, legal statutes? No, I don’t. But if I would…yeah, that’s what I believe, yes. When a company pays a $5 billion fine for doing something that’s illegal, yeah, I think we can bring charges against the executives.

Sam Hammers Bernies’ Electability as a Socialist

The real thing that seems to be driving Harris’ criticism is that “American’s are not going to elect someone that’s openly socialist.” Perhaps envisioning the mail he would/did receive, Sam preemptively responded to the criticism that Bernie is beating Trump in Trump vs. Bernie polling:

If he were the democratic nominee, a billionaire apparatus would do nothing but emphasize his identity as a socialist. There is no way that this country is electing somebody that has to nuance the term ‘socialist’ in a general election. It’s worse than being an atheist. It’s not the only strike against him, but it is a devastating one.

Update 2020: Sam appears to have continued his belief that the U.S. will not elect a socialist by saying that he believes Bloomberg has a better chance of winning the election (presidency, not nomination) than Bernie Sanders.

In many ways, Sam’s arguments agains Sanders’ are, to a certain degree, insulated from falsification. If the argument is that a year (and change) of advertising that associates Bernie with Socialism were to play out, the claim would seem to elude falsification. In all fairness to Harris, we all have to live with this reality. If parties knew who was going to be electable at the time of nomination, there’d be little debate to be had now. 

On the other hand, repeated polls have shown (in the midst of the pre-Super Tuesday primaries) that Bernie is the only canddiate that beats Trump in the general election.

As always, should we become aware that Dr. Harris has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. 


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