“If Bernie Runs?” Wrong Question
Photo by Max Goldberg
Remembering Bernie Sanders at Prairie Lights
In late 2014 Bernie Sanders came out to Iowa City to speak before a large and enthusiastic crowd at that university town’s venerable independent Prairie Lights Bookstore. It was part of his exploration before finally committing to running for the U.S. presidency as a Democrat. Iowa City was a key spot – a big campus town bastion of liberal Democrats whose support would be needed in the pivotal first-in-the nation Iowa Caucuses in January of 2016.
Sanders spoke well and angrily against economic inequality and its terrible social and political consequences. He made a compelling case for single-payer health insurance, progressive taxation, the restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, and positive climate action.
It was a good progressive-populist talk with some nice identity politics thrown in for the university crowd. It made important points any leftist could applaud.
There were two things missing from Bernie’s presentation, however – a pair of deletions that made me wonder how serious he really was about fighting for the nation’s working-class majority and against the nation’s unelected dictatorship of capital. The first omission did not surprise me: any criticism of the American war and empire (“defense”) machine as a barrier to the progressive policies he advocated for “the middle class.”
The second thing missing was any reference to any Democrats being every much part of the American plutocracy as the Republicans. In his talk, Sanders skewered the evil racist, corporate, and climate science-denying Republicans again and again. He never mentioned corporate Democrats. It was left to a leftist film professor to stand up and politely remind Sanders that the Democratic “leaders” were also tools and agents of the American oligarchy.
I found Bernie’s silence on Big Business Democrats curious. I recalled John “Two Americas” Edwards denouncing “corporate Democrats” across Iowa in the long lead-up to the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Edwards was no leftist. He’d been a full-blown Democrat who had run on the same presidential ticket with the corporatist neoliberal John “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry in 2004.
The mainstream Edwards could say and denounce “corporate Democrats” – meaning, accurately enough, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd – in 2007, but the avowed socialist and independent Bernie Sanders could not in 2014? It seemed odd.
It wasn’t just that Sanders called himself (somewhat deceptively) a socialist and an independent. By late 2014, the nation was nearly six years into an Obama presidency that had richly validated Edwards’ 2007 description of Obama as a corporate Democrat. Surely Sanders was aware that Obama and top Congressional Democrats had protected the nation’s top parasitic bankers and had expanded the massive federal taxpayer bailout of the very financial institutions that had recklessly collapsed the economy – all this without advancing any remotely comparable rescue for ordinary working-class people. The nation had been given what William Greider called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. In a March 2009 Washington Post editorial titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak, Is He Listening?” Greider wrote about how “Americans watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide.”
Sanders certainly knew that Obama’s presidency, loaded with Goldman Sachs and Citigroup veterans, had worked with Congressional corporate Democrats to pass a Republican-drafted health insurance plan that only the big insurance and drug companies could love. And that Obama and his fellow corporate Democrats did nothing to honor Obama’s campaign pledge to re-legalize union organizing by passing the Employee free Choice Act
Bernie must have known that, in the summer of 2011, Obama offered the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” put forward amidst the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis.
Sanders undoubtedly understood that Obama and other Democrats across urban America had approved the deployment of federal and local police state to infiltrate and crush the populist, anti-One Percent Occupy Movement.
Sanders could not have been unaware that Obama followed his 2012 re-election by going to the Wall Street Journal CEO Council to brag about how he was “talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform,” Obama added, “is based on the private marketplace.”
Sanders surely saw that Obama was dedicating his second term to trying to get Congress to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-secretive, and global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Despite knowing all this, all Sanders had to say about Obama in Iowa City in late 2014 was how inspiring it was that Iowans had Caucused and voted for a first Black president and that Obama supported gay marriage.
I left the talk with the impression that Sanders would enter the major party presidential candidate circus as an adjunct to the Democratic Party’s inevitable nominee Hillary Clinton – a useful player to help the pre-selected Goldman Sachs candidate create the illusion of having won the nomination through a democratic contest instead of a corporate coronation. I also had the sense that Sanders would do better than the Clinton-Obama Democrats expected thanks to the undeniable resonance between his progressive-populist message and socioeconomic realities on the ground in a nation where – as Sanders tirelessly pointed out – the top One Percent (later amended to be the top tenth of the upper One Percent) had more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
Sanders did better than I expected, pushing the Clinton machine to the wall with essentially no support from Big Business – no small accomplishment in America’s money-drenched political system. Still, even after the Clinton machine and the corporate-/Clinton-captive Democratic National Committee had treated him with elitist abuse and clearly rigged the primary races and the Democratic National Convention against him, Bernie dutifully campaigned for her (as he promised to do from the outset) right up until the terrible Trump victory day.
“If I Run”
Listen four years later to an email that message Sanders just sent out to Democrats and Independents across the land:
Subject: If I run
Date: Thu, 27 December 2018
Whenever I am asked about running for president in 2020, I answer that if I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run. That is the truth.
If that happens, the political, financial and media elite of this country will stop at nothing to defeat us…they will …try to divide us up with attacks — some old, some new — and our political opponents will spend obscene sums of money on ads to defeat us.
I just did not expect the attack ads to begin before I even made a decision. But they have…
Right now, a group of Wall Street Democrats known as the Third Way is running ads in early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — calling me out by name and saying our ideas, like Medicare for all, are a path to defeat in 2020.
They not only want to discourage or defeat a Sanders candidacy, they want to make sure that the progressive agenda is not advanced by anyone. They want us to go back to their failed corporate approach which has led to a massive level of income and wealth inequality, a bloated military budget and a failure to address the crises of climate change, a broken criminal justice system and inhumane immigration policies.
Our agenda terrifies the political and financial establishment of this country….But the truth is, their agenda should terrify all of us…Our ideas will lift people out of poverty, they will guarantee health care as a right for every man, woman and child, and they will make certain that every person in this country with the ability and the desire can get the education they need, regardless of the income of their family.
Ours is not a radical agenda. It’s the agenda the American people want.
Their agenda, paid for by wealthy campaign contributors, has led to record levels of inequality, a health care system that costs more per capita than any other developed nation while leaving millions uninsured and underinsured, and grotesque amounts of student debt that rob many of our young people of their futures.
Theirs is the agenda that made Donald Trump possible. Ours is the agenda that will defeat him.
…In 2016 we faced the kitchen sink. If we run again, you should expect no less. But the political revolution is stronger and larger than ever, and they will be no match for us if we’re in this fight together.
Bernie’s statements that the Wall Street (neoliberal) agenda “made Trump possible” is accurate. “Wall Street Democrats” have repeatedly demobilized and antagonized the majority working-class electorate and thereby opened the ugly barn door to the ever more dangerously reactionary and racist Republican Party. It is thanks in large part to the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats’ corporate neoliberalism that two noxious George Bushes and the terrible Trump have held the White House.
But there are eight basic problems with Bernie’s email in my “ultra-radical” opinion.
First, Bernie’s tentativeness about whether he’s running or not is disingenuous. His people have already been spotted in Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s no “if I run” (as a Democrat) about it.
Progressive Populism or Anybody but Trump?
Second, Bernie needlessly steps back from arguing forcefully that he’s the winning candidate because he’s the progressive-populist. By saying (in his second sentence) that he’ll run only “if I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump,” he leaves the door open for later “sheep-dogging” behind a depressing corporate-neoliberal Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke (or Corey Booker or Kamala Harris or …fill in the blank) bid or a more hybrid progressive-lite Elizabeth Warren candidacy in 2020. Which is it: Bernie’s the one who can win because he’s the progressive-populist in the ring or Anybody But Trump, possibly even Joe the “Anti-Populist” Biden or the de facto Republican Beto, to mention the top two among the growing list of neoliberal Democrats (plus Warren, whose precise ideological nature remains unclear to this writer) lining up for the Iowa circus to carry on the Wall Street agenda that (as Bernie rightly says) “made Donald Trump possible”?
Third, Bernie is too much about the crippling, insanely time-staggered election cycle, which advances a maddeningly shrunken definition of democracy as those brief moments every two or four years when some varying percentage of U.S.-Americans walk into caucus rooms and voting booths to argue and make marks for narcissistic politicos who falsely claim to be represent “the people” in government.
The next U.S. presidential election will take place roughly 670 days from now. That’s pone hell of a long time from now. In the meantime, Sanders ought to call for the removal of the malignant, criminal, corrupt, and dangerous Trump from the presidency through impeachment or the 25th Amendment. The orange monstrosity should be evicted from the Oval Office as soon as possible. We really can’t wait until January 20, 2021.
At the same time, we need a new day- to-day politics of people’s resistance in the streets beneath and beyond the quadrennial candidate-centered-big money-major party-mass media electoral extravaganzas and marketing campaigns sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. “The really critical thing,” the great American radical historian Howard Zinn noted after George W. Bush was first installed in the White House, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.” As Zinn elaborated in an essay on and against the “Election Madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy, an “election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls. …” Zinn acknowledged that he probably would support one major-party candidate over another “for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” But “before and after those two minutes,” Zinn wrote:
[O]ur time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…Before [elections] … and after … we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.
(This is why I was less than awestruck by the enormous outpouring of Americans who protested the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. Cable news talking heads marveled at the marches, calling them the “biggest social movement since the 1960s.” But what were those massive but polite, pink-hatted marches all about? While many of the chants and signs heard and seen at the historic marches indicated policy concerns, the clear and simple thing that had put millions in the streets was an election outcome. The new president hadn’t even made any policy yet. And what Trump has actually done as president has yet to generate protests remotely on the scale of the ones sparked by the Awful One’s entrance into the Oval Office. Most of the millions who hit the streets to voice outrage against the election of Trump would have stayed home if it had been the dismal arch-corporatist and “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton – a president who would have been differently but no less enthusiastically committed to eco-cidal corporate oligarchy and institutional racism than Donald Trump.)
The Gilet Jaunes aren’t waiting for 2022 French presidential election to call for radical policy and institutional change in their county. We could learn a thing or two from their bold activism – and from their call for direct democracy and fundamental transformation beyond elections.
Beyond protest and disruption there’s the pressing need to build alternative people’s institutions and a culture of popular resistance. As Andrew Levine recently argued on CounterPunch, the electoral obsession diverts us from critical organizational work without which nothing much can be accomplished beneath and beyond periodic personnel shifts in the nominally ruling elective offices:
There are distressingly many bona fide U.S. citizens who do not acknowledge or even understand how much of a menace Trump is…It is understandable that, when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, some voters thought Trump the lesser evil. They were wrong, but not crazy. Supporting Trump now, after so much about him has become clearer, is crazy. It defies understanding…Does it therefore follow that the main task now is to get to work electing a Democrat in 2020? I don’t think so. Defeating Trump or Pence or whichever other excuse of a human being Republicans nominate in 2020 is of paramount importance of course, but there are more urgent, politically consequential tasks calling for attention now…Laying foundations for building an authentically oppositional left political party is an example; so would be transforming the Democratic Party to such an extent that it is more than just a lesser evil…Focusing on electoral politics can be, and often is, a distraction in much the way that fantasy football is a distraction from real football. This is why becoming obsessed now with the 2020 primaries and caucuses is a snare best avoided – except perhaps by those who think the Democratic Party is salvageable and who believe that the thing for them to do is to work on salvaging it.
Bernie “if I run” (“I’m running”) Sanders has been consistently feeding that great electoral and candidate-centered distraction from what Noam Chomsky in 2004 called “serious political action. The main task,” Chomsky rightly noted, “is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”
As Levine may know, a cadre of former Bernie staffers and activists organized in The Movement for a People’s Party is already doing work to “lay foundations for building an authentically oppositional left political party.” It’s happening, with significant buy-in from key labor leaders. The work is led by young activists who have learned from experience in the belly of the Democratic Party beast that the Inauthentic Opposition Party (as Sheldon Wolin labeled the Democrats in early 2008) is beyond progressive transformation and salvaging.
It isn’t just an authentically progressive electoral institution – a party – that needs to be built and grown but a whole and many-sided popular-oppositional movement and culture functioning beneath and beyond the election cycle. Following in the footsteps of those Gilets Jaunes who are calling for a new constitution and government in France, this movement must demand a radical overhaul of the U.S. political system in such a way as to make U.S. elections worthy of passionate citizen engagement.
Bernie says “If I run.” We need to say when we revolt and need to start now.
Guns v. Butter
Fourth, it is gross understatement to call the US military budget merely “bloated.” For two decades at least, Sanders’ political career has been plagued by his failure to embrace Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s at once spiritually and fiscally elementary observation that we cannot advance social democracy and justice while spending the lion’s share of our federal taxpayer dollars on a giant war machine. Fully 56 percent of U.S. discretionary spending goes to the feeding of the giant and mass-murderous Pentagon System, itself a giant corporate welfare platform for high-tech “defense” (war) companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. This system accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending, floods the world with lethal weapons, and maintains more than 800 military bases across more than 100 nations. “Bloated” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors of the U.S. military budget.
A fierce advocate of the criminal US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, Sanders himself has proven unable to resist the perceived political benefits of “military Keynesianism” in Vermont. He continues to cite Scandinavian nations as his social democratic role models without noting that they possess tiny military budgets by comparison with the U.S.
Fifth, what’s wrong with having a “radical agenda”? These are radical times in which three absurdly rich people (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) have as much wealth between them as the poorest half of US-Americans. The plutocrats’ profits system (capitalism, if you like) is tipping humanity into environmental catastrophe. What’s really called for given the grave threats posed to livable ecology, peace, democracy, and hopes for a decent future is persistent mass and heroic, death-defying civil disobedience and creative radical organization to sweep away the power of the entire corporate, financial, political, and military establishment and to set up a government and society dedicated to popular sovereignty and the commons/common good. This was understood by Dr. King, who wrote in his last essay that “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” That was true in 1968, as the U.S.-led “Golden Age of capitalism” was tipping he world into environmental crisis. It is no less true today, when the literally cancerous bourgeois regime is now visibly ruining the planet for human habitation.
Radical times calls for radical demands, movements, and measures.
(In his own sick way, Trump showed that many US voters are hungry for audacious and even in a way radical campaigning. He gained huge “authenticity” points for being blunt and strident about what needs – in his own twisted opinion – to be done.)
A Wall Street Party
Sixth, as the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas recently wrote me: “just what faction of the Democratic Party leadership would not be properly defined as ‘Wall Street Democrats?’ Bernie has some very good ideas to get things started, but unless he somehow figures out a way of purging the Dems of Wall Street types, then he’s just another guy who probably should be teaching in a university someplace.”
Nothing against academics, but that’s a good point. Sanders is mistaken if he thinks the Third Way creeps are the only Wall Street-captive politicos in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are a deeply and widely corporate-managed, even corporate-owned entity and have been for many decades, and arguably even from the onset of the corporate era in the early 20th century.
Where is this Bernie Sanders “political revolution” that is “stronger and larger than ever”? Inside the Democratic Party? For the 2018 congressional midterms, the “CIA Democrats” fielded an unprecedented number of military and intelligence veterans as candidates. Of 107 contenders originally fielded in the primary season with endorsements from Sanders’ “Our Revolution” organization, just 44 made it to the general election, most of them in bright-red (Republican) districts where they hardly stood a chance. Twelve won their general elections. Of those 12, five were incumbent officeholders and five more were longtime party politicians in line for higher office. Only two insurgent Sanders-supported candidates opposed by the party went on to unseat establishment Democrats in their primaries—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Boston.
And just how “revolutionary” are these two new congresswomen? It was nice to see them join a Congressional protest on behalf of the urgently needed Green New Deal. It’s good to see Ocasio-Cortez fight back against vicious right-wing attacks from the likes of the recently defeated corporate-Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). Despite their instant “radical” celebrity, however, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley both endorsed the multimillionaire arch-neoliberal Nancy “We’re Capitalist and That’s Just the Way it Is” Pelosi as the House speaker. Neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Pressley spoke out when Pelosi marked the Democrats’ midterm victory on election night by promising to advance “a bipartisan marketplace of ideas” with the white-nationalist Republicans and their horrific, creeping-fascist president.
As the MPP’s Nick Brana noted right after the 2018 mid-term elections, the contests ought to have been “a serious wake-up call for progressives” who dream of gaining power by taking over the Democratic Party. By Brana’s account, “The blue wave [was] a corporate wave that…swept in the same kind of Democratic politicians that drove working people into Donald Trump’s arms after eight years of Obama. When Democrats busy themselves serving the wealthy again, the result will be an even sharper lurch to the authoritarian right.”
Meanwhile, corporate forces in the Democratic Party have solidified and enhanced the power of anti-democratic Convention superdelegates, many of them corporate lobbyists, while moving to eliminate party caucuses, seen as too friendly to progressive insurgents in the Sanders mode. They have also imposed a neo-McCarthyite “loyalty test” that empowers the DNC to advance-veto any presidential nominee deemed insufficiently faithful to the Democratic Party. All of these steps and more aim to further insulate the party from another dreaded populist insurgency.
Bernie Could Boast a Bit More
Seventh, I fail to see why Sanders isn’t more boastful about how close he came to un-seating the Goldman Sachs-Citigroup candidate Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee in 2016 …and how did that while relying completely on small working- and middle-class donations (a remarkable feat)…and how every match up-poll during the primary season showed him doing far better against Trump than Hillary in a general election contest.
Sanders could learn a bit from Trump here. He should just say it: “If the corporate Democrats hadn’t rigged the primaries and convention against me, I would have been the Democratic nominee and I would have won and Donald Trump would not be our president!” (He might also want to mimic Trump by threatening to go Independent in the presidential election).
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Sanders to say this. He’s too polite – and too scared, perhaps, of the corporate Democratic blowback.
The Russian Dog That Ate Their Homework
Eighth, Sanders ought to say something about how the corporate “progressive-neoliberal” Democrats – and that’s pretty much all the Democrats (not just the nauseating Third Way group) – have cultivated and exploited Russia-Gate as the “dog ate my homework” excuse for handing the White House to a dangerous monster. “Progressive neoliberalism”– the curious mixture of corporate-financial allegiance and bi-coastal bourgeois and metropolitan identity politics that lay at the heart of the Clinton-Obama-Pelosi Democratic Party’s “leadership” and world view) – should have been finally discredited and defeated by the moral and strategic fiasco that was Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Whatever the truth or falsity of charges that Putin’s government significantly intervened in the 2016 election (I have been alternately skeptical and agnostic on that matter), Russia-Gate has been the corporate Democrats’ great device both for casting a pall over the certainly pall-worthy (racist, nativist, sexist, eco-cidal, authoritarian/creeping-fascist, infantile, militarist, and pathologically mendacious) Trump presidency and for keeping Sanders’ progressive-populist “revolution” at bay. It has played this role by providing an external explanation for the debacle of the “progressive neoliberal” Inauthentic Opposition. Hillary’s defeat was richly home-grown and largely self-imposed. Insofar as Russia’s interference was relevant (if at all) to her loss, that too was largely of her own doing — predictable blowback from her provocative advance of Western military expansion in Eastern Europe.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.