I get it, Progressives. You’re butt-hurt that Bernie Sanders threw his support to Hillary Clinton after he failed to win the Democratic nomination to oppose Donald Trump in the 2016 election. I’m disappointed, too. But this temper-tantrum of trash talk has to stop. It’s not productive and it signals that we now live in a “binary” political climate: if you’re not a savior, you’re a traitor—or you were in league with the forces of darkness to begin with!
In case you slept through the events leading up to the surprisingly legitimate appointment of Trump by the anti-democratic U.S. Electoral College, allow me to put my spin on the story.
As usual, the Republicans fielded some truly laughable candidates. Yet the craziest clown in the clown car eventually became their nominee: the reality TV star and fake populist, Donald J. Trump. For her part, corporate toady and warmonger Hillary Clinton, who certainly had the résumé and the experience to manage a nation (at least for the benefit of her backers), seemed destined, even entitled, to win the nomination and the election. This may explain why her campaign was so boring and her rally crowds so thin, even as her campaign “war chest” (a telling descriptor) boasted twice the mostly corporate cash of her closest Republican rival.
But along came this relatively obscure Vermont Senator, who was still the longest-serving Independent in the history of the United States Congress, and who dubbed himself a Democrat for convenience (because Independents are precluded from voting in many state primaries). Bernie Sanders refused to run from the “socialist” label—only correcting it to “democratic socialist”—and he announced his candidacy by saying some very interesting things, things no Democrat had promised in many years, even though they would not be novel to FDR.
Sanders told Rolling Stone in November 2015, “We need millions of people to stand up and fight back, to demand that government represents all of us, not just the one percent. I’m trying to create a movement.” More specifically, the Sanders “movement” touted some incredibly popular ideas – not popular with the Establishment, of course, but popular with the populace:
Sanders refused to establish a super-PAC and instead generated a substantial campaign treasury through individual donations from his supporters. “I will work for my donors,” he seemed to be saying. “Be wary that my opponents will work for theirs.” And that message caught on, catapulting Sanders to win 22 state primaries and caucuses, mostly in open-primary states where Independents and people disgusted with the Democratic Party actually could vote.
But then the “system” took over. The Democratic Party’s “superdelegate” system was stacked against Sanders from the beginning of the contest. It was then revealed that the DNC was tipping the scales toward Clinton instead of remaining neutral, as their charter promised. Clinton finally acquired the required number of delegates and clinched the Democratic nomination. On July 12, 2016 (one year ago today), after he uttered five words—“I am endorsing Hillary Clinton”—Sen. Sanders suddenly became a traitorous, backstabbing sell-out.
Why did he do it? In his own words, Sanders said, “our country, our values, and our common vision for a transformed America, are best served by the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of Hillary Clinton.” But many former Sanders supporters chose to believe either (a) Sanders was “threatened” by the DNC or that (b) Sanders was a “plant” to grab the all-important progressive vote and herd it into the Establishment DNC corral; that he was part of a conspiracy from the get-go.
Option (a) is a real possibility, but would have been a bad show for the DNC. As for option (b), I am reminded of the words that are attributed to Joseph Stalin: you cannot “fake” power. If Sanders was a decoy to trick progressives into supporting Clinton, it was a dangerous game at best and an utter failure in the event. Not only was nobody fooled; not enough Sanders supporters crossed over to Clinton!
Furthermore, there was his message, which was also not fake. Sanders then, and Sanders to this day, still causes heartburn among Establishment Democrats by saying and supporting things that the DNC would just as well leave alone. At last month’s People’s Summit in Chicago, Sanders reiterated his judgment that “the current model and the current strategy of the Democratic party is an absolute failure” and that “Trump didn’t win the election, the Democratic Party lost the election.” It seems that, after all, Bernie was the real deal. And Clinton?
Was it Russian interference that cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election? If so, did Russia write the emails showing the DNC’s thumb on the scale against Bernie Sanders? Or blow off Sanders and his voters? Did Russia make Hillary Clinton the most unpopular Democratic candidate in history? Did Russia make Clinton ignore her working class base in favor of her corporate masters? Did Russia force Clinton to make speeches to her banker buddies? Did Russia persuade Clinton not to campaign in three “swing states” she desperately needed to win the election?
Russia is bad, but they’re not quite that bad (or that good). Contrary to the DNC’s favorite narrative, echoed by their friends in corporate media, Clinton lost the 2016 election without Russian help. All the “evidence” is hearsay, based on secret sources. And, as St. Christopher (Hitchens) pointed out, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
But was Bernie a spoiler? Bernie changed the DNC’s game: he got Clinton to change her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he moved Clinton toward his college tuition proposal, he got the DNC to change their superdelegate rules (binding a much larger percentage of them to the popular vote winners of state contests), he got the DNC to endorse its “most progressive platform in history.” Bernie even got some of his supporters positioned inside the DNC machine.
Was Hillary Clinton really so godawful a fallback choice? As Bill Maher pointed out in his May 6 New Rules segment, this “lesser of two evils” was quite a bit lesser. As Maher asked, rhetorically: Would Clinton have appointed a racist attorney general? An education secretary who knows nothing about public education? A Supreme Court justice who will roll back reproductive choice rights? Would she even consider a Muslim ban? Or a border wall? Would her cabinet look like elders from a KKK rally? Would Clinton be doing less than nothing to address the existential issue of climate deterioration? Or less than nothing to improve the nation’s health care system? Or worker rights? Or voting rights?
As political satirist Jimmy Dore pointed out regarding Jon Ossoff’s recent loss in Georgia’s 6th congressional district: “So if you run a campaign about nothing,” says Dore, “it turns out people won’t vote for you. You got Ossoff, a Democrat who’s against single-payer and against taxing the wealthy, against a Republican, [Karen Handel], who’s also against single-payer and against taxing the wealthy. So, when the voters are given a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they choose the Republican every time!”
Dore suggests that telling America how bad Trump is, and investigating his Russian connections, won’t get voters to the polls. That’s not a campaign strategy. This is: Getting corporate influence out of political campaigns, supporting a living wage for all workers, providing Medicare-for-all single-payer health care, repairing America’s crumbling infrastructure, ending crushing debt for higher education, breaking up the large financial institutions, ending endless wars, and addressing the existential crisis of climate change—that will get voters to the polls. And you know what? Those policies will also create jobs.
Whether within or without the Democratic Party, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” is not a winning strategy. To paraphrase Jonathan Winters as Officer Norman Jonas: “Democrats have... GOT... to get organized!”
Is the Democratic Party beyond reform? I don’t know. But one thing that cannot happen is change from the top. Change always comes from below, from the grassroots. The Tea Party understood this: it was the seed of their success.
The Vermont Senator received more than 12 million votes in the primaries. Bernie pulled together a coalition of liberals and progressives and even somewhat conservative citizens who are weary of the pro-corporate, two-party duopoly. He demanded that the oligarchs of both parties listen to the vox populi and remember that it is the vox dei.
Here is what the Bernie Sanders candidacy accomplished:
As at least one writer has pointed out, there is a certain Democrat hypocrisy on making an opportunity society. That’s because it involves taxing corporate Democrats alongside their corporate Republican counterparts. Getting Democrats on board with that idea will be a struggle. But maybe we need a struggle. Maybe we need a little class warfare. As the Founders recognized in 1776, six years after the Boston Massacre, when they finally issued their Declaration of Independence, we’re already in this struggle. The struggle only needs our Declaration and support.
Let’s be clear. Bernie Sanders never said he was the only man who could lead the “political revolution.” What Bernie wanted was allies, not dittoheads. Of course he is seen from the right wing as a threat to corporate privilege. But some from the left (such as it is in the USA) see him as soiled, tainted, a “controlled opposition” and a tool of the corporate Democrats. This is what I don’t understand. Most of us, I believe, support ideas, not people. In a sense, Bernie himself is irrelevant, only a vessel for progressive change. That does not stop the Bernie-bashing.
The fact is, Sanders doesn’t get six-figure book deals every year, so his income average, year after year, is below the “1% threshold.” Finally, Sanders has been known to donate excess income from book sales. You can’t say that of many millionaires.
But that Chicago meeting also featured the likes of Naomi Klein (author of the 2015 climate-change, anti-capitalist warning This Changes Everything), the head of National Nurses United (the summit’s sponsor), activists Nina Turner, Bill McKibben and Eve Ensler, as well as writers Thomas Frank (author of the 2016 Democrat critique Listen Liberal), David Sirota and Zephyr Teachout. These are hardly captives of the corporate Democrats or the “ruling class.” In fact, the “political fraud” faction go so far as to claim “By backing Clinton… Sanders helped hand victory to Trump”—forgetting, perhaps, that if Sanders didn’t back Clinton, Trump would still have become President. But perhaps the Bernie-bashers would have felt better about it.
Were you expecting purity? I have something to say to the Progressive whiners about that.
I come neither to praise Bernie nor to bury him. I really don’t care if he runs for the presidency again or he doesn’t. But I am getting weary of the unjustified, self-defeating Bernie-bashing: most of us support the ideas over the man. Bernie-bashing is bad enough, though totally expected from the Right. It is frightening coming from the left. In fact, I can’t help but think that the Bernie-bashing from the “left” is really progressive whiners, wittingly or unwittingly, doing the work of corporate Democrats and Republicans.
Liberal purists need to remember that not getting everything isn’t the same as getting nothing. Liberal purists against Bernie Sanders should never have, as Voltaire said, let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Want proof? Liberal Bernie-bashers have never suggested a viable alternative that maintains their liberal purity aside from (a) sitting out the election in a snit, (b) voting for a no-hope-in-hell third party candidate in a snit, or (c) voting for Trump. That’s what ideological purity gets you: Donald Trump.
Yes, Donald Trump. If Bernie had gone third party in 2016, and refused on principle to endorse Hillary, he would have split the Democratic vote and made a Trump victory a certainty. Bernie would have been a spoiler. So Bernie endorsed Hillary Clinton and many “Bernie-or-bust” voters exercised mostly options (a) or (b)—a snit—thereby handing Trump his victory. If you think that outcome was better than a Hillary Clinton presidency, please refer to my citation of Bill Maher above.
Worse, if Bernie had refused to endorse Hillary Clinton, the corporate Democrats could have, and probably would have, removed Sanders from committee assignments and worked vigorously to unseat him. If only Democrats could vent that venom against Republicans! Indeed, if Bernie had gone third-party, his candidacy might as well have gone into the Witness Protection Program. There is an old saying, refined from Menander by Oliver Goldsmith: “For he who fights and runs away / May live to fight another day; / But he who is in battle slain / Can never rise and fight again.” (ἀνήρ ὁ ϕɛύγων καὶ ράλίν μαχήɛṯαί)
So what now, Liberals and Progressives? Should we “Draft Bernie”? Should we reform the Democratic Party? Both? Neither? I have no answers, only observations.
First, the opposition and reformation needs to be united. I think the Democratic Party is about to be co-opted by the Republicans. They are largely indistinguishable from the Republicans even now. It is as if Democrats say to minority communities and Progressives, “Sure, we ignore you, but the Republicans will actively hurt you. And, anyway, where else are you going to go?” That arrogance could get you killed as a political party. A better party is coming, but it is not here yet.
Bernie understands this. Butt-hurt progressives and Bernie-bashers haven’t figured this out to this day: to end the two-party duopoly, you do not start at the top but at the bottom. That takes a “political revolution.” And what other politician counsels his supporters to undertake one?
Second, Bernie Sanders is Jewish (like Jesus); but he doesn’t walk on water and he is no Messiah. All he counseled was a political revolution, with or without him. And this, again, is why liberal/progressive Bernie-bashing is so unproductive. On all of the issues, Bernie was way out in front of anybody else with political experience and electability. And any candidate who can fill a stadium with tens of thousands, based solely on his ideas, at least stands for something the people want to see happen. Compare Bernie’s crowds (and Trump’s) with Hillary Clinton’s during the 2016 campaign. Need I say more?
Apparently, yes, and this is point three: Democrats are their own worst enemy. As Jimmy Dore is fond of saying, and this is borne out time and again, the Democrats would rather lose to a Republican than support a Progressive. When you campaign on nothing—surprise!—voters don’t show up.
But Bernie-bashing Progressives are also their own worst enemy. They think everybody is corrupt: politicians, journalists, even scientists. They trust not even the (small-d) democratic institutions erected to protect them: they believe all of them to be corrupt, too. This refusal to trust any politician or institution is not “enlightened” or “woke.” We should call it what it is: it is nihilism.
And, so far, Liberals, Progressives and Socialists have not organized anything. They’ve not even organized their own disparate discontents. You want change? Stop whining and start organizing.
Most important, liberals and Progressives need to shit-can the purity test for politicians. Insisting on “political purity” will get you pureed. The perfect is the enemy of the good. You have to start somewhere, anywhere, and build upward. Starting at the top, without a strong foundation is like building on shifting sand.
It’s not easy fighting both the Republicans and the Democrats (and the mainstream media) to install a Progressive agenda. If you don’t like or trust Bernie Sanders, fine. Don’t support him. But can you at least get behind his platform? Not Progressive enough? Granted. But get done what is politically possible first, then build on that. This is a negotiation, not a dictate. Leave that to the Republicans and their Tea Party “Freedom Caucus.”
Progressives need their own version of the Powell Memorandum.* We can't afford to play nice; we need strategy and tactics, a long game. That doesn't mean accepting corporate contributions, but Bernie Sanders showed how donations from just people can finance a national campaign. It means being aggressive and pushing our agenda by all legal and necessary means. If we adopt the tactics of the opposition, as the Democrats have done, we will become as corrupt as the opposition.
Unless, of course, nihilist Progressives don’t believe in democracy and the rule of law, either. Remember that the Occupy Movement was shut down under a Democratic president, in tandem with Democratic mayors—all “Establishment.” The Founders broke away from monarchy and established a republic for a reason. And that republic became “progressively” more democratic over time. It’s a journey, but don’t stop believing. That is a history we Progressives should strive to repeat.
*The Powell Memorandum (1971) is “a confidential memorandum for the US Chamber of Commerce that proposed a road map to defend and advance the free enterprise system against perceived socialist, communist, and fascist cultural trends… titled ‘Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,’ [characterized as] an anti-Communist, anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America,” written by Nixon-appointed Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. (see Wikipedia).
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, May 20, but 206 years ago, my namesake, John […]