In the spring of 1997, a drive to form a union amongst the housekeeping, bookstore, landscaping and trades workers at the University of Vermont (UVM) was well underway. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union (UE) had been enlisted to help those of us in the UVM work force working on the union drive get organized. Their abilities had helped us move quickly and gain numerous signatures on cards. On March 8, 1997 International Women’s Day, we held a union rally. It was very well attended. The speakers built a crescendo of assent. I was on the list and gave a brief talk about the importance of the date for the US union movement and its relevance to our campaign. Then the lead organizer Kimberley Lawson took the stage. An excellent organizer and an inspiring individual, she introduced the last speaker. It was Bernie Sanders, then Vermont’s Congressman. The applause was stupendous. Chants of Bernie! Bernie! filled the room. After about five minutes of applause, Bernie began to speak. It was a good, if standard, stump speech about the rights of workers and the need for the university administration and Board of trustees to do the right thing and recognize the union.
Two years later, spring of 1999. Bill Clinton was under fire in Congress for his misguided and manipulative dalliances with Monica Lewinsky. The Dayton Accords concerning the growing civil war in Yugoslavia had created the intended scenario, leading Belgrade to insist on its historical right to keep Kosovo under its governance. In response, Washington and other NATO governments began an intensive bombing campaign. Bill Clinton and his war cabinet began an around-the-clock assault on the Serbian people. Liberals and progressives drank the kool-aid and offered their whole hearted support. Bernie Sanders made it clear he was completely on board with the action. Indeed, after antiwar activists in Burlington, Vermont marched through downtown Burlington stopping at the offices of each Senator and ending at Sanders’ office where they staged a sit-in, Bernie instructed his office staff via telephone to call the police and clear the office. A week later at an emergency town meeting on the bombing in Montpelier, Vermont Sanders showed up with a couple staff members and a panel of pro and antiwar speakers. Bernie vehemently defended the bombing and actually told at least two members of the audience to leave if they didn’t like what he was saying.
September 2001. After thousands of people are killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, President George Bush and Congress declared war on Afghanistan. Sanders joined the bandwagon and voted to adopt the joint resolution that authorized the President to use the United States Armed Forces against anyone involved with the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and any nation that harbors these individuals. In October 2002, after two years of war on the people of Afghanistan and a series of lies and misinformation, Congress and the White House (with help from Great Britain and a couple other governments) ignored the United Nations and world opinion and invaded Iraq. While Sanders voted against the original authorization to use military force against Iraq, he followed that vote with several subsequent votes authorizing funding of that war and the debacle in Afghanistan. The other piece of legislation passed that long ago September was the PATRIOT Act. Like the vote that sent troops to Afghanistan, that legislation changed the US forever. To his credit, Sanders voted against the original PATRIOT Act legislation and attempted to curtail its effect in subsequent votes. In a similar vein, Sanders voted against the original legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security, but by 2006 he had joined the majority of Congress in passing continued funding of that agency.
In 2006, Sanders was elected to the Senate. This transition gave Bernie a salary increase with potentially even less power than that he had in the House. His voting record changed little: voting for some war authorization funds while opposing others; funding intelligence operations while voting to remove immunity for communications companies involved in government surveillance; supporting contraception funding and funding for children’s health insurance programs; and opposing John Brennan’s appointment to head the CIA while supporting Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense. He continued authorizing grants and laons to Israel, even after Israel bombed Gaza, attacked the Mavi Marmara and supported illegal settlements in the West Bank. Most recently, Sanders joined ninety-seven other Senators and approved a $1 billion aid package to the coup government in Ukraine, a package that (when combined with International Monetary Fund loans) will most certainly further impoverish Ukrainian working people.
Beginning in 2010, Vermonters became aware that the Air National Guard base in Burlington was one of the top choices of the Pentagon to base the multimillion dollar F-35 fighter plane. Immediately, citizens began organizing against that possibility. Some members of the organizing group thought Sanders might be in support of their position. They were quickly disappointed. Indeed, as the campaign against the F-35s being based in Vermont grew, Senator Sanders support for the idea grew stronger and more adamant. By October 2012, after a series of victories by opponents of the plane, Sanders stated in part, “I’m very proud of the role that the Vermont National Guard has played in our state and I do not want to see that role diminished or eliminated…. The F-35, whether one may like it or not, is the plane of choice not only for the U.S. Air Force, but for the Navy, Marines and much of NATO. If the F-35 ends up not being located here, it will end up at a National Guard base in Florida or South Carolina. I would rather it be here.” As I wrote in an article after the Pentagon announced it had chosen Burlington to base the planes (VTDigger: The Pentagon gets what it wants (again)1/15/2014), “There is an alternative to the cynical attitude that rationalizes taking blood money since, after all, somebody will and it might as well be Vermont.”
If one believes Sanders’ fans, they expected him to be the politician who would create that alternative. Indeed, there are still those who excuse his failure to do so, even in Vermont where they should know better. After all, as the summary above of his voting record suggests, Bernie Sanders is if nothing else a shrewd politician. Like his colleague currently in the White House, Sanders campaigns on progressive and populist themes. Unlike Mr. Obama, however, Sanders usually sticks to his positions on issues relating to labor, veterans, children, corporate cheats, and certain social issues (marriage equality, for example.) However, when it comes to matters of war and peace, his record is at best a mixed bag and, more likely, representative of his ideas on how the United States can maintain its imperial role forever (or at least for a long, long time.)
Senator Sanders is often called a socialist in the mainstream and progressive media. While this may have been true once, it would be hard for even the most generous reader of Karl Marx to honestly say this was still the case. It is not my plan here to argue for or against Sanders’ socialism, though. However, the history of socialism in the US includes adamant anti-imperialists like Eugene Debs, who went to prison for opposing the World War I and his counterpart Meyer London, who supported US entry into that imperialist maelstrom. The situation during World War II was of course different, given the fascist enemy. However, there were those who remained stoutly antiwar during that conflict, too. All US wars involve a defense of the capitalist economy and, consequently, a belief in that economy’s superiority. Bernie Sanders actions make it clear he shares that belief.
After the bombing of Yugoslavia had ended and the US plan to Balkanize the Balkans neared its completion, I received many emails and calls regarding the abovementioned sit-in at Bernie’s office and the protesters’ opposition to his politics of war. Most of these messages came from outside of Vermont and considered what the protesters did to be counterproductive. After all, the messages stated, Sanders went to Chiapas to support the Zapatistas and he’s against the various free trade agreements and the WTO. He’s more of an ally than a foe, isn’t he? My answer to these challenges is that I’m not sure. So called progressive politicians who do not draw the link between corporate America’s wars and its attack on social security, health care, the minimum wage, forty- hour work week, and other issues working people consider important are doing us a disservice. The wars fought by the US military are ultimately fought for one reason only–to maintain and expand the power of corporate America at the expense of workers and the poor around the world. Didn’t neoliberal writer Thomas Friedman write during the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force Navy and Marine Corps.” (New York Times 3/29/1999) Sanders must understand the connection. Hence, his support for those elements of the war machine that allow him to support labor in the manner he does.
The deeper question here is not whether Bernie Sanders is the progressive savior so many people want him to be. Instead, it is whether or not such a politician can even exist in the United States. I am one of the first to admit that Sanders’ record on labor, veterans, and most civil liberties issues is mostly decent, especially for someone who is part of the ruling elite (even if he doesn’t see himself that way.) However, this fact is probably irrelevant. The system in place in the Executive Branch is implacable and essentially without redemption. Barack Obama’s two terms should make it clear to any but his most fervent supporters the truth of this statement. With the exception of a very few social issues, Obama has done very little that is any different from his right wing predecessor or the neoliberal champion Bill Clinton who preceded George Bush. In part, this is certainly because Obama is not a leftist or even a progressive. The primary reason, though, is because politicians who do not agree with the US insistence on military superiority and economic hegemony rarely get to Washington, much less to the White House.
On a related note, electoral politics in today’s United States tend to be the least effective way to create social and economic justice. The political power of the corporate-financial-military nexus is so pervasive, especially in the world of elections, few leftist candidates stand a chance even in municipal politics. Liberals like Sanders are few and far between on the national stage. That being said, if Sanders does run for president, he should do so as an independent. Regarding this question, a column by progressive Tom Hayden (of SDS and Chicago 7 notoriety), appeared recently on The Nation magazine’s website. In the article titled “Bernie Sanders Could Be the 2016 Democratic Candidate We’ve All Been Waiting For”(Nation.com 5/14/2014), Hayden supports the idea that Sanders run as a Democrat in the hope that his campaign will push the Democrats supporting Hilary Clinton to the left. Hayden mentions the Jackson campaigns of the 1980s, writing “that the Democrats are stronger if their progressive wing is strengthened against the Wall Street wing of the party.” However, the fate of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Dennis Kucinich the past couple decades more accurately describes the true fate of progressives who take a bite from the Democrats’ poisoned apple.
In a John Nichols interview with Sanders that appeared in The Nation April 7, 2014 print issue, the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1984 is also mentioned as a template for Bernie’s potential presidential run. As anyone involved in that campaign might remember, Jackson’s progressive and populist politics were succeeding beyond his (and his supporters) dreams. Then the establishment moved in. Anti-Palestinian and big business donors and media commentators took a private comment made by Jackson out of context and splashed it across the pages and television screens of America. Racial code words began being heard in relation to Jackson’s name. Soon, his chances of winning the Democratic Party nomination were gone. Instead, the party limped out of San Francisco that summer with the Cold War liberal Walter Mondale as its loser candidate.
The mention of Jesse Jackson by these two writers reminded me of Bertram Gross’s classic 1980 text on US politics and the power elites titled Friendly Fascism. In between discussing the nature of fascism, the likelihood it will come to the United States, and the growth of the corporate state, Gross discusses what happens to “anti-establishment” candidates that might reach the White House. The candidates he had in mind as examples were George McGovern and, Jimmy Carter (yes, Jimmy Carter was considered extremely liberal and anti-establishment in 1976.) In the rare instance that such a candidate did get elected President and did not change his tune to harmonize with Wall Street and the Pentagon, Gross suggests that, ultimately, the person would be killed by those whose interests were threatened. Even without the conspiratorial angle, the reality of US politics in the current age is that any progressive in a position of power must temper their left-leaning politics if they want to keep their power. The more powerful their position, the more compromise is required. The anecdotes related above suggest Bernie Sanders understands this all too well and acts accordingly. So, even if the reader might believe President Bernie Sanders could bring us back from the precipice we find ourselves on the edge of, the very nature of the US economic and political system ensures that he can not.
Addendum: On June 20, 2014, the Burlington, VT CBS affiliate WCAX-TV reported that in response to a question about Obama’s decision to send at least 300 military advisors to Iraq in summer 2014. Sanders “says he can support the president’s decision to send advisors.”
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.