ZNet, February 1, 2016
Iowa City, Iowa
Many corporate media commentators are surprised at the success that the self-declared “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders (actually a social-democratically-inclined New Deal liberal and imperial militarist, something quite different from a socialist) has been showing in polls leading up to the first presidential caucus (Iowa, Monday February 1st – today) and the first presidential primary (New Hampshire, February 9).
Here in Iowa, a Sanders win is a distinct possibility. The final, semi-authoritative Des Moines Register poll finds that Hillary Clinton leads Sanders among likely Democratic caucus-goers by a mere 3 points: 45 to 42 percent.
I am not at all surprised by Sanders’ progress for seven basic reasons. First, look at the current New Gilded Age U.S. citizens inhabit, courtesy of neoliberal capitalism (well, courtesy of capitalism, if you prefer). As Sanders likes to point out, the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. The Wal-Mart heirs (the Walton family) together own more wealth than the bottom 42 percent. The U.S. middle class (defined as households with income 67 percent to 200 percent of overall median household income) is no longer the nation’s majority, the Pew Research Center recently determined.
This is a time and place in which Sanders’ basic stump speech against economic inequality and its plutocratic consequences is going to find millions of supporters. Because (to use one of Sanders’ more annoying recurrent phrases) guess what? You can’t have a decent society or a democracy when a “small class of billionaires” owns that much.
Second, Sanders is running on progressive policy ideas that have been supported by most Americans – we might call them the silent progressive majority – for many years, even for decades: single-payer, genuinely progressive taxation, a significantly increased minimum wage, etc. Imagine that.
Third, Hillary is the other (and some say smarter) half of the Clinton couple and the Clintons are fairly well and accurately understood by many middle and working class Americans to be part of a corporate and Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party that sold the white working class (remember that most Iowa and New Hampshire are very predominantly white) down the river. As Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently argued, in a passage that merits lengthy quotation:
“Why did the white working class abandon the Democrats? The conventional answer is Republicans skillfully played the race card…The bigotry now spewing forth from Donald Trump and several of his Republican rivals is an extension of this old race card, now applied to Mexicans and Muslims – with much the same effect on the white working class voters, who don’t trust Democrats to be as ‘tough.’”
“All true, but this isn’t the whole story. Democrats also abandoned the white working class. Democrats have occupied the White House for sixteen of the last twenty-four years, and in that time scored some important victories for working families – the Affordable Care Act, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example. But they’ve done nothing to change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that has rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top, and undermined the working class. In some respects, Democrats have been complicit in it.
“Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ardently pushed for free trade agreements, for example, without providing the millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well. They also stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class. Clinton and Obama failed to reform labor laws to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated them, or enable workers to form unions with a simple up-or-down votes.”
“…What happens when you combine freer trade, shrinking unions, Wall Street bailouts, growing corporate market power, and the abandonment of campaign finance reform? You shift political and economic power to the wealthy, and you shaft the working class.”
You don’t have to be a pie-in-the-sky Sandernista to acknowledge that Bernie stands somewhat genuinely if very imperfectly outside that neoliberal history, to its left, within (never actually outside) the corporate-captive Democratic Party.
Fourth, Hillary remains is a horrible, wooden campaigner and inveterate, all too transparent liar who lacks her husband’s maddening, fake-populist ability to shake off the Clintons’ immersion in the world – and the neoliberal world view – of the super-rich on the campaign stump and the convention hall stage. She is plagued with closets-full of skeletons and her campaign is deeply flawed, as in 2007-08. It’s even been clumsy enough to spoil one of its few warm and fuzzy assets. It actually turned poor little Chelsea into a vicious and idiotic attack dog by having her absurdly charge that Sanders’ single-payer plan will strip vulnerable Americans of their desperately health insurance (Medicare and Medicaid).
Fifth, there’s no charismatic and telegenic fake-progressive Democrat like Barack Obama or John Edwards running this time to profit from Hillary’s liabilities. The path for Bernie to become the not-/anti-Hillary go-to candidate opened up when Elizabeth Warren deigned to enter the race. Biden’s stand-down helped as well.
Sixth, the Cold War has now been technically over for nearly a generation and – as the recent excellent movie “Trumbo” reminds us – it’s been nearly six decades since the Hollywood Blacklist lost its legitimacy in the U.S. Americans just aren’t anywhere near as scared as they used to be to see and identify themselves as “socialists” (whatever they might mean by that, exactly). That and the miserable performance of neoliberalism/ capitalism is no small part of why a recent poll shows that 43 percent of Iowa Democratic Party Caucus-goers call themselves “socialists,” as opposed 38 percent who identify as “capitalists” (whatever they mean by those terms, exactly).
Seventh, the nation’s rabid right-wing FOX News-Republican noise machine has done a great deal to mainstream the term “socialism” by constantly and absurdly calling Barack Obama and other center-right corporate Democrats socialists. The right’s anachronistic, pejorative, and neo-McCarthyist use of term has helped dilute its potency as a smear.
For these and other reasons, the nominal socialist Sanders could prevail in both Iowa and New Hampshire, thereby possibly compelling the mass media to pay as much attention to him as it does to the dangerous, proto-fascistic Donald Trump (whose success is also a reflection, in an obviously different way, of the nation’s stunning inequalities.)
Still, the yellow-brick road to a Sanders presidency darkens after New Hampshire, thanks to the Clintons’ steep advantages in money, media, identity politics (of race and gender), and super-delegates. Given the apocalyptic dysfunction of the Republican Party at the presidential level (the GOP retains its majority in the U.S. House and the state assemblies of the nation largely due to gerrymandering, Koch brother money, and other forms of war on genuine electoral democracy), the smart money is still on a Hillary presidency, though nothing is for certain these wild days of hyper-inequality and mass super-alienation.
I personally and politically find the likelihood – not at all the certainty – of Sanders’ ultimate defeat on the path to the Democratic nomination less depressing than do my less radical “socialist” friends. This is for three reasons. First, Sanders’ domestic social program is nowhere nearly as left as what is actually required to put the nation and world on a decently just, equitable, and sustainable path. It leaves basic societal command decisions, ownership, investment, and managerial prerogatives in the hands of big business elites who are quite frankly and clearly running the world into social and ecological ruin. Only actual democratic socialism can liberate us from those nefarious masters. More than merely not being a socialist (Sanders is a social democrat and hence a capitalist), a Sanders presidency would very possibly to deal damage to the socialism we need. As Gary Leech recently noted on Counterpunch:
“Sanders’ policy proposals represent a welcome and long overdue challenge to the right-wing neoliberal rhetoric and policy agenda that has dominated US politics since the Reagan years. But not only aren’t Sanders’ policies socialist, they actually pose a threat to socialism. If elected, Sanders’ policies would likely moderate the capitalist model both domestically and globally, but they would leave intact the fundamental global injustices inherent in the capitalist system. And when those capitalist policies implemented by a self-proclaimed socialist ultimately fail to address these global injustices in any meaningful way, it will be socialism that will be discredited.”
Second, there’s the guns versus butter problem created by what numerous left commentators have shown to be Sanders’ basic alignment with the hugely expensive American Empire Project. Sanders cannot pay for his progressive domestic policies without taking serious whacks at the “defense” (empire) budget, which accounts for half the world’s military expenditure and 54 percent of US federal discretionary spending. His attachment to empire and the warfare state – intimately related to his attachment to capitalism (Leech reminds us that “from its birth capitalism has required an imperialist global structure”) – cancels out his dream of a Denmark-like welfare state in America.
Third, serious Left political action isn’t really about backing presidential candidates inside the two party system. Far more meaningful is the development of powerful rank and file social movements for serous reform and revolutionary change beneath and beyond the quadrennial candidate-centered major party electoral extravaganzas that tragically pass for “politics, the only politics that matters” in the U.S. If one wants to vote for a president, which takes about 10 minutes every for 4 years, why not invest that moment in supporting an actually Left candidate who promises (among other things) to fund a “Green New Deal” in part with money taken from the permanent war machine– someone like Jill Stein, who will be on the ballot in many states this November?
Bernie Sanders said something good during the last Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina last Sunday. “We have to deal with the fundamental issue,” Sanders proclaimed, “of a handful of billionaires who control the economic and political life of the country. Nothing real will happen unless we have a political revolution where millions of people finally stand up.” But that underestimates the problem of class inequality and dictatorship, which goes much deeper and wider than just a “handful of billionaires.” Further, we need a social and not merely a political revolution if we are going to build a decent, just, and sustainable world. At the same time and most fundamentally for my third point here, there’s a different and more serious form of mass politics rebellion than caucusing and voting for major party political candidates once or twice for very short periods of time once every four years. As Noam Chomsky explained in a 2004 commentary published on the eve of that year’s presidential election:
“Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics….During the primaries, before the main event fully gears up, candidates can raise issues and help organize popular support for them, thereby influencing campaigns to some extent. After the primaries, mere statements make a minimal impact without a significant organization behind them. The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centers of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years….in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome…”
Flash forward eleven years, and three months. Here is how Chomsky recently applied this analysis in relation to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in a teleSur English interview that some liberal Democrat put up on YouTube under the rather misleading title “Intellectual Noam Chomsky Endorses Bernie Sanders for President”:
Abby Martin (teleSur English): “There’s this huge amount of grassroots energy, donations, around getting people elected who are believed to be able to give us solutions to the problems that we face now. What do you think we should be focusing our energy on?”
Noam Chomsky: “Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I think is important, impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He’s organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election’s over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error. The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle. It’s an extravaganza every four years. “
I concur. Some of my devoted readers (all 5 of them) who know that I live in Iowa City may be wondering if I will participate, looking to make a “sensible choice” in the Iowa Democratic Party presidential Caucus tonight. Strange as it might sound, I couldn’t go even if I wanted to. I’ll be working, for – imagine, comrades – wages between 2 and 10 pm today. Like tens if not hundreds of thousands of fellow workers in Iowa I do not get a free pass from the employer class to go hang out with mostly middle- and upper middle-class white liberal and progressive Democratic politicos in a Caucus process that generally engages no more than 10 percent of the state’s eligible voters – this even while the state swarms with reporters claiming that the Iowa Caucus is a great experiment in popular democracy.
The sooner the candidate madness fades the better, as there are numerous issues and problems around which to organize serious Left movement action beneath and beyond quadrennial big money electoral spectacles.
Paul Street lives in Iowa City, Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)