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Bernie Sanders and the case for a Canadian left-populism

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Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Vallejo, California, 2016. Photo by Shelly Prevost/Flickr.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s crushing defeat in the 2019 UK general election, which saw the bifurcation of traditional Labour Party support over Brexit, Bernie Sanders’ stateside bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee in November’s race against Donald Trump stands as the anglophone left’s last great hope in electoral politics.

Now, amid confusion over results and some disturbing revelations following Monday’s Iowa Caucus, that hope seems to have reached a fever pitch. Buoyed by an army of volunteers and a record-breaking number of small cash donations in his campaign’s last fundraising quarter—and having weathered attacks from the Democratic Party establishment, the media, and other powerful corporate interests—the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist has emerged as the candidate to beat, possibly having won Iowa’s popular vote if not a plurality of the state’s delegates, pending a final count. Moreover, he appears to have trounced Joe Biden and continues to outpace the former vice president in early-state polls.

After the NDP’s abysmal performance in Canada’s own recent federal election—a performance which should not be seen otherwise in light of expectations that it might have gone worse—those seeking to push Canadian politics leftward must look to the movement behind Sanders for inspiration.

Given predictable hostilities and a lack of funding from corporate and ultra-wealthy private donors, Sanders’ campaign has necessarily taken the form of a massive grassroots movement, the unprecedented scope and intensity of which are seldom acknowledged by mainstream commentators.

Without its droves of enthusiastic and well-organized volunteers, who have been canvassing, phone banking, and otherwise preparing to get out the vote in each state’s primary for many months, piercing the fog of cynicism, disinformation, and institutional inertia would have been unthinkable. Equally unthinkable was, and remains, the coalescence of any such mass movement around NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. So long as this is the case, Canada’s only electorally viable left-of-centre party will either drift to the right or continue to lose—and, contrary to some party faithfuls, to lose is not to win.

Although direct comparisons between the political landscapes of Canada and the US can often prove misleading, the dynamism of the movement to elect Sanders exceeds such particulars. At this level of generality, the obstacles facing a long-marginalized and demoralized left are essentially the same on both sides of the border: weak or deradicalized labour movements, a widespread lack of class consciousness, and a growing disillusionment with politics as such. Likewise, when it comes to the best prospects for building genuinely democratic power in the face of capital, the situation differs only superficially.

To these ends, late last summer Sanders unveiled his “Workplace Democracy Plan,” which would aim to rapidly increase union membership and strengthen organized labour nationwide. “If there is going to be class warfare in this country,” the senator told his audience at a convention of the AFL-CIO, “it is time that the working class of this country won that war.” This is not the form of politics to which either Canadians or Americans are accustomed; it is the emergence of a new left-populism the likes of which we desperately need.

There is, however, a crucial irony at play here: for all Sanders’ undeniable verve, particularly given the American status quo, the positions he advocates are in many respects no further left than those of Singh. The “New Deal for People” proposed by the latter, after all, includes tax increases for the ultra-wealthy and corporations, the expansion of health care programming, and significant investment in green jobs and public housing. These substantial overlaps notwithstanding, the contrasts between Sanders and Singh and the tendencies they represent are not merely aesthetic. Or rather—their “aesthetic” differences are not insubstantial. These differences, for their part, fall under two interrelated categories: audacity and antagonism.

On the one hand, the demands made by Sanders and the movement surrounding him are, to reiterate, not particularly radical in themselves. As the senator himself constantly notes, many of his key policy proposals, such as single-payer public healthcare, have long been the norm in other parts of the industrialized world. Be this as it may, so entrenched are the private interests threatened by even modest egalitarian reforms of this nature that, within the context of both American capitalism and its corresponding political imagination, such proposals represent a truly dramatic departure from business as usual. Under these circumstances, which include a legislature that will for the foreseeable future remain dead set against any motion to abolish the usurious private health insurance industry while threatening the profits of pharmaceutical giants, the struggle for universal healthcare alone assumes epic proportions.

And yet, contrary to the likes of such champions of “progressive” capitalism as Elizabeth Warren, who remained a registered Republican until 1996 (a year before she was touted as the “first woman of colour” among the professoriate at Harvard Law), it is precisely the “utopian” quality of Sanders’ unequivocal stance on Medicare for All—a stance Warren has abandoned—that best exemplifies not only the abstract superiority of his politics, but also, paradoxically, the practical advantage thereof. Indeed, that the campaign’s demands could not be executed with the swish of a pen, were Sanders elected president, is why they and the campaign itself are so effective in the first place.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks at the Canadian Club of Toronto. Photo from Flickr.

The functional capacity of such “impossible” demands does not come down to a riddle, however. As socialists who support Sanders no doubt appreciate, calls to decommodify essential services like healthcare are a means to an end: namely, a direct confrontation with the power of capital.

The role of a Sanders presidency, then, would not be to resolve contradictions so much as to clarify them—and clear they would be, with a political apparatus controlled by elites refusing to endorse one popular initiative after another. At this point, the mobilization of an ever more outraged populace would become instrumental, as Sanders’ plan to use his bully pulpit for rallying Americans against ruling-class recalcitrance appears to imply. In this way, struggles spearheaded by the movement around Sanders find their ultimate significance as a ferment out of which broader, more durable forms of working-class solidarity might take shape. At the same time, there is no telling what a coordinated mid-term effort to purge “moderate” Democrats from the House and Senate could accomplish.

Outrage, for its part, has no substitute amid such a process. Whatever the fears of liberals who flinch at the unruly, unprofessional, and above all, unsanctioned spectre of populism, it is increasingly obvious that today’s left must draw the energy needed to rebuild itself from the as-yet unfocused discontent of those for whom the status quo means alienation at best and slow death at worst. Leftists, in turn, must concentrate on channeling this outrage into a politics of antagonism. Only by turning against the class of capital can the dispossessed majority develop a politics for itself.

Sanders, of course, embodies more than rage. Like Singh, he is inclined to preach a message of unity and love. Yet whereas the former aims to arrive at unity through conflict, and at love by way of animus, Singh’s rhetoric tends to devalue these intermediary terms.

An iconic episode from the last NDP leadership campaign encapsulates this tendency. Confronted by a deranged audience member shouting racist and Islamophobic conspiracy theories, Singh (who is not Muslim) told the heckler that “we welcome you” and “love you,” enjoining his supporters to “show people how we would treat them with love”—to which many responded by chanting “love and courage,” the candidate’s slogan and eventual memoir-title.

While the (now) Burnaby South MP’s calmness under pressure remains admirable, the subtext of this sequence has become plainer with time: that love can appear by fiat; that passive aggression is adequate to the active antagonism required for the transformation of those conditions whereby love, in its collective sense, cannot be realized except as a kind of joke. Although lone paranoiacs are no agents of the ruling class, Singh’s prime-ministerial rivals were and are—and premature appeals to harmony, in the form of an unwillingness to venture beyond the language of “fair shares,” are similarly insufficient to the fight for a just society.

None of this is to suggest that Singh could not, in theory, become who he needs to be if he is to lead the Canadian left toward power. The point only amounts to this: that whoever succeeds at formulating the type of universalist, class-based political vision that could bring together a coalition capable of challenging the forces driving us to ruin will be someone who, like Sanders, embraces “impossibility” and recognizes we are engaged in a fight that is nothing short of existential—a fight against the subordination of life to profit and those few who have pledged themselves to its logic above all.

The “utopian” demands that we democratize our economy and do what we must to avert ecological collapse—by immediately euthanizing our fossil fuel industries, investing massively in a green energy transition, and rehauling our foreign policy in keeping with these aims—are the only kind that could potentiate the mass movement necessary to gain ground in the electoral arena. Likewise, it is only such a mass movement, charged with an enthusiasm that “sensible” demands will never succeed in generating, that could pave the way for a formidable left politics beyond the bounds of electoralism as such.

Whatever happens in the months ahead, the Canadian left must take seriously what the movement behind Sanders has revealed thus far: that we can only become pragmatists by being “idealists” first; that love is an end for which the courage to oppose our enemies, and to insist on their being as much, is the indispensable means and absolute precondition.

Carson Hammond is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Toronto and a volunteer with Toronto for Bernie. If you or anyone you know is an American living outside the US, please learn more about the consequential Democrats Abroad Global Presidential Primary, which runs from March 3 to March 10 at hundreds of voting centres around the world.


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