So, Bernie Sanders made his call. He is going to run for President of the United States and he is going to do so as a Democrat. Even if he wins the nomination, one can be quite certain that the reactionary forces of US capitalism will oppose him in every way they can. Additionally, and more insidiously, so will a fair number of liberal champions of US capitalism to his right in the Democratic Party. Yet, he has made his claim and it is one he will have to live with, no matter what price he ends up paying. Given the nature of national electoral politics in the United States, his chances of winning the party nomination are small, much less the presidency itself.
Who is Bernie Sanders and what does he stand for? Now that he is a candidate, it’s fair to assume that his biography will be dissected across the media spectrum. To much of the US population, he is still the most radical politician from the Left they have ever seen. This is especially true for anyone who came of age politically since Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. What interests me more is the gradual transition he has made politically from socialist (more or less) to social democrat and from that to liberal Democrat. The anecdotes that follow reveal something of that retreat.
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, it was the 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 antiwar members of the audience to leave if they didn’t like what he was saying.
September 2001. After thousands of people were 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. 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 loans to Israel, even after Israel ruthlessly attacked Gaza (two such operations), 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. He is on record opposing US ground support for the war against ISIS and Al Qaida, as well as opposing arming Syrian mercenaries.
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.”
In a recent interview I conducted with Left progressive authors William Grover and Joseph Peschek regarding their book The Unsustainable Presidency, I asked them if Sanders could actually move the US leftward and institute policies for working people and other disenfranchised. The key part of their answer was “(No.) He would be among the first to admit that. Indeed, in an interview last week he did just that: “We can elect the best in the world to be president, but that person will get swallowed up unless there is an unprecedented level of activism at the grassroots level.” The question I have for Mr. Sanders is this: How does he expect to create radical change in the US if this radical grassroots activism he correctly states is needed is hijacked by the Democratic Party–a political entity that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the very same banks and corporations he claims to oppose. After all, it’s been many years since the progressive George McGovern was the Democratic candidate for President. It’s been almost as long since the conservative wing of that party formed the Democratic Leadership Council and changed their rules so that no one with politics like McGovern’s would ever be their nominee again. Ask Bill Clinton about that. After all he was the first candidate chosen by that council to win the White House. His wife may be the next. There are those who say Sanders will “at least move the discussion leftward.” That is not enough. Conversations are meaningless without bold, concrete action. The Democratic Party has proven over the past six and a half years that not only is it incapable of bold action in favor of the vast majority of working people in this country, it is barely capable of concrete action. How else does one explain the disastrous austerity policies taking place in the United States?
The majority of Vermonters still like Bernie Sanders. In fact, he wins election with a substantial majority every time he runs. 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.) Remember, 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 recent mass movement against the epidemic of police murders of (primarily) young Black men has exposed a gaping hole in the myth that comprises the United States. Racism, which Barack Obama’s election was supposed to have placed in the dustbin of history, is arguably greater now than at any time since the 1960s. Because of the aforementioned movement, the nature of the criminal justice system, the laws its enforcers enforce and how those laws are enforced, and the prison system have all been brought under well-deserved scrutiny. No politician has come up with any genuine programs that will check police brutality and remove killer cops from the streets. Nor have many politicians seriously addressed the fundamental role neoliberal capitalism plays in the impoverishment of America’s working class, especially its non-white members. Bernie Sanders’ attacks on the excesses of Wall Street and its cohorts are usually addressed to the “middle class,” that US ideal. Indeed, Sanders was one of many Congressmen who voted for the 1995 Omnibus Crime Bill that its author Bill Clinton recently acknowledged placed too much emphasis on mass incarceration and barely any on keeping young people out of prison or rehabilitating them if they ended up there. Failing to conduct a critically honest discussion that includes solutions to this problem that are not predicated on making profit would be a mistake for Sanders or any candidate. It will prove interesting to watch his moves in this area.
After all is said and done, the 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.
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 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. By beginning his campaign as a Democrat one wonders if he even wants to.
(This piece originally appeared in the May 2014 print issue of CounterPunch with the title “Bernie Sanders Cannot Save US.” It has been modified to reflect the current situation.)
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.