Opinion: Bernie Sanders jokes about the ‘mental health’ of Republicans

Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in  Kalamazoo, Mich., on Monday.

(Bryan M. Bennett / Associated Press)

 Did Bernie Sanders insult mentally ill people in Sunday’s debate with Hillary Clinton?

The Ruderman Family Foundation thinks so. The foundation, which describes itself as “a national leader in disability inclusion,” condemned the senator from Vermont for saying during the debate in Flint, Mich.:

“You know, we are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health. And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.”

“When millions of Americans deal with issues of mental health it was highly inappropriate for Sen. Bernie Sanders to use a real disability as a joke in last night’s Democratic presidential debate,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation. “He should issue an immediate apology to Americans with mental health disabilities.”


I understand the complaint: Sanders seemed to be implying that Republican policies were the result of mental illness. As one offended viewer put it on Twitter: “I’m part of the 18.2% of American adults with mental health problems. Bigotry is not a mental illness.”

In 1992 Ross Perot, an independent candidate for president, turned the tables on people who called his ideas crazy by adopting the Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline song “Crazy” as his campaign theme. Suppose Sanders had called the Republican positions “crazy.” Or suggested that Donald Trump suffered from “delusions of grandeur.” Would those expressions also have been offensive?

Probably not: They don’t have quite the same clinical connotation as “mental health.” Still, I don’t think Sanders was suggesting that everyone with clinical depression or bipolar disorder is at risk of voting for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. He was making a joke about wrong-thinking — crazy! —Republicans, and it backfired.

That’s one reason to cut him some slack. Here’s another: Bernie Sanders is from a generation that wasn’t as punctilious about language (notice I didn’t say “politically correct”) as younger folks. He was born in 1941 — the same year as the satirist/disc jockey Barret Eugene “Barry” Hansen, better known as “Dr. Demento.”


Today Sanders could probably get away with calling Republicans “demented” (dictionary definition: “1. crazy; insane; mad. 2. affected with dementia.”). But a candidate running in 2020 might be taking a risk.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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