ZNet, May 8, 2015. A shorter and earlier version of this essay appeared today on TeleSur English
Last February 19th, Vermont’s “socialist” U.S. Senator, the nominally independent Democrat Bernie Sanders, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in a downtown Iowa City bookstore. He had come to explore his potential prospects in Iowa’s upcoming “first-in-the-nation” Democratic Party presidential caucus-primary campaign.
Sanders began by denouncing U.S. economic inequality and plutocracy and expressing concerns about anthropogenic global warming in terms that any serious, environmentally astute leftist could welcome. He decried the horrific facts that six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of the U.S. population and that 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the top 1% during President Obama’s first term. Sanders cited and bemoaned terrible statistics on U.S. poverty. He condemned the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision for furthering the “corporate takeover of our democracy.” He deplored climate change and its deniers.
Deleting the Dollar Dems
I applauded politely along with everyone else after these statements. Then things went downhill. After complimenting Iowa City for helping elect a first Black president by supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and suggesting that the nation’s drift toward the embrace of gay marriage meant that it was ready to overcome economic inequality, Sanders repeatedly attacked the dastardly right-wing pro-business Republicans. As far I could tell, he seemed to think that the GOP and its big money backers alone were responsible for the hot plutocratic mess in Washington.
Unlike his purported hero Eugene Debs, he had nothing to say against the other great capitalist party. It was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his adoring Iowa City audience that the national corporate and financial oligarchy is a richly bipartisan affair in which dastardly pro-Big Business Democrats – including powerful people like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – are (to say the least) deeply complicit.
It struck me that here the “socialist” Sanders stood oddly to the right of the position taken in Iowa in 2007 by the former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards. Edwards denounced “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” in his call for “an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power.” He clearly and correctly included Hillary and Obama in the “corporate Democrat” category and mocked Obama’s promise to “get things done” by “reaching across the table” to business elites as well as the Republican Party.
Surely, I thought, an old Brooklyn “socialist” like Sanders knew that much of the nation’s disproportionately Caucasian ruling class loved the empty, identity-politicized, and fake-progressive illusion of change that the deeply conservative Obama’s election represented.
“My Friend Hillary”
Another warning sign came when Sanders said that he “liked Hillary” and considered her “a good friend.” Why, I thought to myself, would a “socialist” and “independent” politician and “activist” be “good friends” in a supposedly adversarial political culture with a fabulously wealthy and notoriously mendacious arch-corporatist and militarist major party politico like Hillary Clinton, who:
* Forcefully backed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
* Applauded her husband’s elimination of public family cash assistance for poor families through a vicious welfare “reform” (elimination) that has had disastrous consequence for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
* Helped lead the development of the neoliberal “New Democrat” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to abandon its last lingering commitments to labor unions, racial and social justice, and environmental protection.
* Voted (as a US Senator) for legislation advanced by Wall Street to make it more difficult for poor families to use bankruptcy laws to get out from under crushing debt.
* Said the following – in her role as the head of the Clinton administration’s failed corporatist health reform initiative – to a leading national physician and health care activist when he told her in 1993 that “Canadian-style” single-payer health insurance was supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace and was certified by the Congressional Budget Office as the most cost-effective plan on offer: “tell me something interesting.” (Along with the big insurance companies that the Clintons deceptively railed against, the “co-presidents” Bill and Hillary Clinton decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” [Obama would do the same exact same thing in 2009])
* Called (in her role as Secretary of State) the richly corporatist, regressive, anti-worker, secretive, authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “the gold standard in trade agreements” for “open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
* “Operates,” in the words of New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan, in “a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” – this while deceptively posing as a “populist” who is “in touch” with the concerns of everyday working Americans and is bothered that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich and powerful.
* Gives speeches to leading Wall Street firms (and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income – as part of her effort to build a preemptive “money machine” meant to block rivals from making serious primary and caucus challenges.
“It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully recently told The Hill about “Hillary, Inc.’s” campaign finance war chest. “The numbers will be astounding.” The dollar “numbers” are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Mrs. Clinton is running. Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:
“The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party…the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose…”
“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”
Hillary’s big Wall Street backers recently told the leading insider political journal Politico how they understand that their candidate’s “populist” comments are politically unavoidable, unsurprising, and even advisable. The language is merely a pose Hillary has to take to get elected; it presents no serious threat to wealth and privilege. “Populist rhetoric, many [of these elites] say,” Politico reported, “is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich.”
I almost wondered if any of the big Clinton donors interviewed by Politico had read the still left Christopher Hitchens’ book No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999, 2000) – a study of the Clintons. The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted:
“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”
Later in the same chapter, Hitchens noted that “at all times,” the Clinton administration’s “retreat from egalitarian and even ‘progressive’ positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.” Kind of like Sanders moving back fully into the corporatized Democratic Party while saying nice things about gay marriage and praising liberals for supporting a Black presidential candidate.
Why Hillary Welcomes Bernie
I thought back to Sanders’ talk in Iowa City last February and reflected on Politico’s report when Bernie announced last week his decision to run in the Iowa Democratic Party presidential caucus. It is not a worthy endeavor. Both of two dominant U.S. political organizations stand well to the right of the citizenry on numerous key issues. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. (Bill and Hillary Clinton helped see to that during the last quarter of the last century.) With its last positive links to its long New Deal interlude pretty much swept into the dustbin of history (thanks in part to the Clintons and other “New Democrats” since the 1970s), its leadership and funders will never allow a candidate who is sincerely committed (as I think Sanders is) to socially progressive domestic policy goals – much less one who has called himself a “socialist” – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or (in the odd event of her departure) some other fully corporatized Democrat in the summer of 2016.
All of which raises the question: why help these dismal dollar Democrats disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had “a full and open debate” over the issues that concern ordinary Americans in the nation’s caucuses and primaries? Why help the Democrats seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to Hillary’s effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism”? Why help the Clinton machine deny that it is anything other than the pre-selected choice of what “the hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup, 2008)? Why help the dollar Dems put fake-populist lipstick on the nation’s plutocratic pig of a party and elections system?
But that, I suspect is the point. It’s not for nothing that, as the New York Times reported last Saturday, “Mrs. Clinton cheerily welcomed Mr. Sanders into the race.” Of course she did. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Sanders’ “good friend” Hillary Clinton is pleased to hear that Bernie is throwing his hat in the ring. The Clintons are very smart and calculating political actors. They know that the only real threat to de-rail Hillary (as Obama did in 2007 and 2008) on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination this time is (perhaps I should say “was”) U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose “populist thunder” Mrs. Clinton has been working to steal in a very systematic way in recent weeks. But with Warren appearing to mean it when she says she’s not up for a presidential run (not ready for fighting Hillary’s daunting money machine, perhaps) and with little else to contest her ascendancy on “the left” (Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb…seriously?), Hillary now faces a rather different political and public relations problem. She is in danger of enjoying an all-too obviously Wall Street-funded dynastic coronation as the Democratic nominee. She probably sees it as useful to face a progressive challenge from a progressive candidate like Sanders who could never receive the funding or corporate media approval required to make a serious bid for the nomination. That way her pre-selected nomination can look less transparently plutocratic and more like a passably “democratic” outcome of “a real debate.” Ashley Smith puts things very well in a trenchant analysis on SocialistWorker.org:
“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat. She knows that the election business follows the golden rule: Whoever has more gold, wins. Clinton is expected to amass a war chest of more than $1 billion, mostly from Wall Street and Corporate America, to pay for advertising, an army of paid staff and Astroturf support. This will overwhelm Sanders’ fundraising goal of $50 million and his underdeveloped volunteer infrastructure….In fact, Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lackluster at best. He will also help her frame the election in populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it….No wonder Clinton celebrated Sander’s entry into the race.”
Bernie Will Not “Push Hillary to the Left”
I am hearing hopeful statements from Iowa progressives who claim that Sanders will “help pull Hillary to the left.” That’s a very naïve thing to believe. Hillary Clinton is a dedicated corporatist and hawkish imperialist (last summer she praised her “friend” Henry Kissinger for his supposed grand commitment to democracy) who will never go left beyond the Machiavellian requirements of campaign oratory (what her Wall Street backers call “good politics”). At the same time, as the liberal commentator Paul Woldman noted in the Washington Post last week, “Sanders isn’t going to pull her to the left because she was already moving that way” – at the level of rhetoric, that is. The specter of Elizabeth Warren and an angry, progressive-majority populace already did the job.
At the same time, we should note that Sanders shows no interest in attempting to pull Hillary or anyone else leftward on the problem of the U.S. military Empire, which accounts for 57% of federal discretionary spending and nearly half the world’s military spending while functioning as a massive system of corporate welfare for leading high-tech U.S. corporations like Boeing and Raytheon. As TeleSur English commentator and U.S. military veteran Vinny Emmanuelle recently noted, “whether we’re talking about Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, any serious discussion of the US Empire is still off the table.” Sanders agrees with other “liberals like…Obama” that “the US Empire is essential, yet should operate differently. In some ways, they view the Pentagon the same way Donald Rumsfeld did: as an entity to be reformed, modernized and streamlined” (But Sanders is not sufficiently committed to “defense” reform to reject the Pentagon’s decision to base a fleet of highly wasteful F-35 fighter jets in Vermont – a move Sanders endorsed in the name of jobs.)
One Iowa left-liberal recently wrote me to say the following: “The third party approach has proven to be futile. Why condemn Sanders for trying something different?” Something different? Forget that Sanders essentially abandoned his (Eugene) Debsian third party roots and became a de facto Democrat (despite his nominal “independent” status) once he entered the U.S. Congress in 1991. As the veteran campaign manager, Black Left political commentator, and Georgia Green Party co-chair Bruce Dixon explained during a conference on independent Left electoral action in Chicago last weekend, Bernie is getting ready to play an old “sheep dog” role. It’s nothing new: progressives understandably stray from the dismal dollar Democrats (the Clintons being perhaps the ultimate historical example of such) from one election cycle to the next thanks to the party’s underlying captivity to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. In the primaries the Democrats send out some “sheep dogs” to corral such folks back into the fold. The “sheep dogs” lose in the primaries and then give their voters and resources over to the officially nominated major party corporate candidate. Think Dennis Kucinich and Obama in 2008, Jesse Jackson and Mondale in the 1980s.
Anyone who doubts that Sanders will hand over his voters, delegates, and money to Hillary once he’s through in the primaries hasn’t been paying attention. “No matter what I do,” Sanders said last January, “I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as president of the United States.”
Wasted Energy, Deepened Futility
Leftists should consider two additional forms of harm that could be inflicted on the progressive cause by Sanders’ “run for the White House.” First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to soak up most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic change beneath and beyond the great “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” that are staged “as yet another method of marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 2004). This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa (and New Hampshire) eighteen months prior to the actual election date.
Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness likely to be engendered when Sanders is defeated. The fact that Sanders will be the only candidate to run seriously on behalf of populist, social-democratic domestic policies that most U.S. citizens support but will be badly creamed threatens to help the “mainstream” (corporate) U.S. media and politics culture obscure the fact that most of those citizens are actually left-leaning progressives in their policy preferences. It may further the deadly illusion that those social-democratic policies lack popular support (“we just don’t have the numbers”) and thereby deepen progressive activists’ sense of futility and isolation.
Blowing Off Vermont and Single Payer
If Bernie really wanted to impact policy on behalf of working people through electoral action, he had a much better option than enlisting as a populism-manipulating sheep dog for his “good friend” Hillary Clinton in the national presidential electoral racket. As Ashley Smith explains, he could have made a likely successful bid to win single-payer health insurance for the people of Vermont by running as the Progressive Party candidate for governor of that state:
“He could have set a very different example, with a far greater chance of success, if he ran for governor in Vermont against the Democratic Party’s incumbent Peter Shumlin, who has betrayed promises to implement a single-payer health care system, create green, union jobs and much more…Sanders is Vermont’s most popular politician. With the backing of the Progressive Party, he could have run for governor as an independent and easily defeated both the Democratic and Republican nominees, and never faced the accusation of being a spoiler that is inevitably thrown at any third-party challenger. A victory for a truly independent campaign by Sanders would have been even bigger than Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council as an open socialist. In so doing, Sanders could have built momentum for a national third party alternative to represent workers and the oppressed.”
Eugene Debs would not be pleased by Bernie’s choice.
Postscript: Sanders declared his candidacy on April 30, 2015. Wouldn’t a genuine socialist have waited just one more day to announce on May First, May Day – the day of the international working class dating back at least to the workers’ Left-led Eight Hour struggle in Chicago 1886?
Paul Street is an author and political commentator in Iowa City, IA, where he “enjoys” a front row seat for the latest “quadrennial extravaganza.” His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).