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The Real Trouble With Bernie


Sanders’ leftwing critics don’t get it: the trouble with Bernie is not that he can’t win or that his “socialism” is warmed over mid-century liberalism, or that, like other Democrats, he is an imperialist under the skin. This is all true, of course.

It is also true that if “by their views, ye shall know them,” unless we include candidates with no chance at all of winning even a tiny percentage of the vote, Sanders is, by far, the most progressive contender for the Democratic nomination since Jesse Jackson in the eighties, if not for many years before that.

So there it is: Bernie is bound to lose, he is soft on capitalism, and his views on American foreign and military policy leave much to be desired. At the same time, the best is the enemy of the good, and Bernie is about as good as it gets.

The way I add it up, the plusses win. I don’t see how anyone who is not morbidly doctrinaire could disagree. Yea Bernie!

But, since Hillary Clinton will be the nominee, and because she will then be sure to win in November, none of this matters in the ways one might suppose. Reflecting on the plusses and minuses can be instructive, but adding them up misses the point.

The problem is not just that, objectively, Bernie will be working for Hillary — by keeping “progressives” within the Democratic fold. It is that by not speaking out against her — by not helping the people who will eventually support her realize how dangerous she is — he is doing his part to disable the struggle ahead.

Perhaps he has not taken the full measure of the stakes involved. Or perhaps, like many eventual Clinton voters, he may just be trying to avoid the greater evil that the Republican Party will try to foist upon the world.

Let’s stipulate that his intentions are blameless. The problem is that, where Hillary is concerned, Bernie’s intentions are not the issue; what matters are the consequences of what he does and how he talks about it.

Stopping the Republicans – through Hillary, if there is no other way — is, of course, of paramount importance. But we don’t need Bernie for that.

With Donald Trump on the scene, and with the GOP able to field only pitiful flyweights and loony tunes to run against him, Republicans are doing themselves in – to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable a few months ago.

This is why it is crucial already to look beyond next year’s election.

When we do, it becomes plain that no good can come from being soft on the Clintons – not now, not ever.

Let me explain — starting with the plusses and minuses, before moving on to what the trouble with Bernie really is.  Spoiler alert: the problem is Hillary.

Bernie Can’t Win

A Democrat can defeat her. Hillary has the Party bigwigs and the mainstream media in her pocket, but she is not invincible. Barack Obama did it in 2008. The obstacles now are no more daunting than they were then.

However, a successful challenger has to be acceptable not only to the “billionaire class” that Bernie rails against, but also to the Party’s other corporate paymasters, and to the interest groups that are used to having Democrats do their bidding.

He or she must also be attractive to categories of potential voters (African Americans, Hispanics, youth) that lean Democratic, but that rarely turn out in large numbers to vote, especially in primaries. It helps also to be charismatic enough to have broad appeal.

In 2008, the race and gender of the two leading candidates, Clinton and Obama, were issues too.

On policy matters, the two of them seemed to agree about everything; race and gender factored in for identity reasons only. Clinton had lady parts, Obama did not; and Clinton was born and bred a lily white Midwesterner, while Obama’s father was an exchange student from Kenya.

These differences were important to some voters, though in different and complicated ways.

No one knows exactly how they affected the final outcome, however; the evidence is too hard to interpret. Did Clinton’s gender work in her favor or against?   Did being “of color” help or hinder Obama?  How much did voters care anyway?   Perhaps the only sensible thing to say is that it all canceled out in the end.

Since all the Democratic contenders this time are white, race won’t be an issue now.   But since Sanders is Jewish, ethnicity – and, even though Sanders is not religious, maybe religion too — might matter a little. Gender will matter a lot.

That the time is past due for a woman to break through “the glass ceiling” is hardly controversial, at least in Democratic circles. But there are Democrats, women “of a certain age” mostly, who think that electing a woman now is an urgent, even overriding, concern. For most voters, though, this seems unimportant. I would certainly agree; with apologies to James Carville, it’s the politics, stupid.

Had Elizabeth Warren been the Democrat pressing the case against neoliberal austerity, the genders of the main competitors would be moot. But Warren wouldn’t run; Sanders would. Poor guy: it isn’t his fault that he can’t break through that ceiling; he was born that way.

The crowds he draws are enthusiastic to a degree that Team Hillary can only dream of, but he is a septuagenarian, not a rock star, the way that Obama and Kennedy were. People come to his rallies to hear and applaud what he has to say; not because his looks, charm, and personality draw them in.

Few younger voters, male or female, have much time for Hillary, gender issues notwithstanding.   So far, however, few African American and Hispanic voters have had much time for Bernie. Their hesitations are not policy-driven or, for that matter, well thought out; austerity harms people of color most.

They support Hillary because the Clintons have been forging alliances with careerist black and Hispanic politicians for decades. It would be hard for anyone to overcome that.

It doesn’t help either that corporate media cheerlead for Hillary, and ignore or denigrate the Sanders campaign. Media that serve mainly non-white constituencies are the worst of all.

Even so, the Sanders campaign might have had a decent chance but for the fact that, unlike Obama and Clinton, Bernie does not have any significant segment of the ruling class on his side. Quite the contrary; they just want him to go away.

No surprise there! Financiers and corporate moguls like calling the shots. Even when they need to be saved from themselves, as they always do, they would prefer that the government keep out of their affairs – except, of course, when they benefit, as they often do, from the state’s largesse.

Also, they are not pleased when their villainy is exposed; and words like “socialism” get them incensed.

Bernie’s Milquetoast Socialism

Real socialists favor social ownership of major means of production. Sanders has never said anything to suggest that he would deprivatize, much less socialize, control or revenue rights over any productive assets. There is no reason to think that he would if he could.

He has not even staked out a clear pro-labor position that would distinguish his views from those of other Democrats.   No wonder that comparatively progressive unions like the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, and the NEA, the National Education Association, have jumped onto the Hillary bandwagon.

Sanders talks a slightly better talk, but, in the end, he and Hillary are on the same page on labor issues. Most likely, the most either one would do for unions is hold back further Republican onslaughts. Therefore, there is no percentage in going for the one whose words are more congenial; it makes more sense to go with the winner.

Even so, on almost everything else having to do with domestic politics, neoliberal, austerity-minded Hillary is no match for Bernie. “Progressives” may end up voting for her in November, and quite a few will support her in the primaries, but they don’t like her; how could they!

And how could they not like Bernie? He really does favor urgently needed progressive change. He may not be a socialist in the traditional sense, but he does want to retain the gains achieved by the New and Fair Deals and the Great Society, and, insofar as conditions permit, to expand upon them.

His views are in line with what pollsters seem to have in mind by the category “very liberal.” To the annoyance of leftists trying to answer their questions, this is usually the left-most description those pollsters make available.

It would be fair to say, though, that “very liberal” mainly designates what people in less constricted political cultures than America’s would call “center left. ”

In recent decades, as politics has veered to the right nearly everywhere, robustly leftwing political parties have been marginalized or gone missing.  Even so, the views of many “very liberal” Americans are not especially unusual. Only in America would anyone consider them extreme.

Clinton apologists used to say that Bill and Hillary came to Washington with ambitions similar to Sanders’, but that circumstances turned them into Eisenhower Republicans. This gives them too much credit, and Eisenhower Republicans too little.

The Clintons have always been enablers and protectors of corporate America. Banksters and hedge fund managers and others of their ilk who have called upon their services have almost always gotten their money’s worth.

However, at the same time, they have been as socially liberal as the ambient culture would allow. And, in words and symbols, if not in deeds, their racial politics has been progressive enough to keep most black leaders and the constituencies they represent on board. In these respects, the Clintons are, and always have been, ahead of Dwight Eisenhower and the Republican Party of his day.

The difference, though, is mainly generational. For Eisenhower Republicans, social illiberalism and tolerance of attitudinal and institutional racism was par for the course. The Clintons passed through the sixties. While remaining “viable within the system,” as Bill famously put it, they partook of the spirit and internalized some of the values of the times.

But, on economic issues, Eisenhower Republicans don’t look so bad when compared to Clinton Democrats. Ike was hardly a reformer. However, unlike Hillary and Bill, he was adamant that there would be no backsliding; that New and Fair Deal gains were here to stay. Eisenhower Republicans were conservatives, but they believed in progress too.

And while they were hardly egalitarians, they did seek to keep the inequalities that inevitably arise in unregulated capitalist markets in bounds.

Under Eisenhower, tax rates on the rich were high (a good deal higher than Sanders says he would favor), labor unions were strong, and, while military spending was already superseding public expenditures that could benefit ordinary people, there was ample support for infrastructure and public works of all kinds.

The rich did well, but prosperity was shared; workers’ incomes in unionized industries rose markedly and, while the very poor were helped very little (hence, Johnson’s call, a decade later, for Great Society reforms), the middle class expanded and flourished. Public education was adequately funded; and higher education was affordable.

There were obstacles to progress, of course: institutionalized racial injustice headed the list. This was still the era of the Jim Crow South; and conditions for persons of color elsewhere in the Land of the Free were poor as well. Rural, especially Appalachian, whites also missed out on many of the social gains enjoyed by the majority of Americans. But, unlike now, progress was in the air.

The consensus view was that things were getting better for everybody. It was widely believed too that, in time, longstanding racial and regional injustices would be overcome, and that prosperity would someday be shared by all.

It was also understood that giving carte blanche to financial markets was a recipe for disaster, and that an affirmative state is indispensable for sustaining (small-r) republican and (small-d) democratic institutions and values.

Eisenhower Republicans were more pro-business than Democrats were; they were the party of Big Business. But the “economic royalists” that Franklin Roosevelt inveighed against were still in retreat; and the free market theology that has become the orthodoxy of our neoliberal era was still a relic of a bygone time.

Ike would never have said, as Ronald Reagan did, that “government is the problem.” Indeed, he and his fellow Republicans were not shy about deploying state power for beneficent ends.

Sanders lauds Scandinavian social democracy. Friendly critics have suggested that it would be more politic of him to draw on homegrown models from America’s radical past. Arguably, though, Eisenhower Republicanism – along with its contemporaneous leftish rival, Stevensonian liberalism — would be more apt points of reference.

Sanders’ socialism has little to do with Eugene Debs’ or Daniel De Leon’s, or with the anarcho-syndicalism of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. But it is of a piece with the settled views of conservatives and liberals in mid-twentieth century America.

Eisenhower seemed an old fuddy-duddy in the fifties; he is still thought of that way. But his boring, centrist (for the times) economic and social policies were, in many respects, more radical than anything that Sanders speaks of today – with one important exception.

Unlike Harry Truman, Eisenhower never tried to make universal health care a right that governments, at the state or federal level, are obliged to provide. In this respect, Sanders bests Ike. Bringing America up to world standards on health care provision is one of his signature issues.

But now that the for-profit healthcare industry, private insurance companies, and Big Pharma are enriching themselves off Obamacare, health care reform is probably a non-starter again; just as it was after Hillary’s corporate friendly efforts at reform foundered in the early nineties. Sanders deserves credit, though, for keeping the hope alive.

The rest of the developed world got universal health care around the time that Eisenhower ruled the roost. Unfortunately, we were too “exceptional” – too much under the thumb of interests with a stake in the status quo – to join the rest of civilization.

We therefore have a lot of catching up to do. Corporate media call Sanders a radical for wanting to get the process going.  In truth, though, his objectives are not radical at all.

Great American radicals, socialists and liberals alike, sought to move society forward. Because we now inhabit a world deformed by decades of Republican and Democratic misrule, Sanders’ goals are considerably more modest.

All he wants to do is bring American domestic politics back to where it was – and where it was heading – before the Vietnam War put progress on hold, and before the neoliberal turn that began in the waning days of the Carter administration revived efforts to undo its achievements.

The Clintons have never been dedicated neoliberals, just inveterate opportunists. But no President, from Reagan to Obama, did more to put the country and the world on a neoliberal track. They did it because the paymasters and interest groups that own them demanded it, and because they could; because, as liberals, they could bring potential opponents along.

Hillary is itching to take up where she and Bill left off.

This is a major reason why, when she is in the White House again, Obama will be sorely missed. Their differences are temperamental, not political. Because of his timidity, and because Congressional Republicans have it in for him, with the full and active support of the retrograde and racist forces they represent, Obama is cautious, almost to a fault. But, at crucial moments, he acts thoughtfully and with restraint.

Hillary shoots from the hip.

Imperialism, Bernie Style

That Sanders is more of an old school liberal Democrat or Eisenhower Republican than a bona fide socialist is no reason to regret casting a protest vote against Hillary by voting for him in the Democratic primaries. What he has to say about domestic politics is better by far than what she will do once she gets the chance.

Neither is the fact that he has not articulated a principled anti-imperialist foreign policy a reason not to vote for him.

Were there any chance that he might actually win the nomination, it would be worth pressing the point that nothing much can be accomplished on the domestic front while the United States spends billions on war and preparations for war.

It would make sense to remind him and his supporters that the guns and butter days are over. LBJ learned that bitter truth the hard way, more than half a century ago, when the treasury had a lot more money to throw around than it does now.

But since Sanders will never be in a position to try to do what Johnson could not, there is no reason to pursue this line of argument when reflecting on his candidacy. It makes more sense to accentuate the positive.

Needless to say, any socialist or left liberal project that stops at the nation’s borders is flawed. That Sanders is a mainstream Democrat in foreign affairs therefore does impugn the cogency of his message.

But it does not prevent him or his campaign from bringing democratic socialism, as he conceives it, into the national conversation.  And, as imperialists go, Bernie isn’t that bad.

From the little he has said about foreign affairs in the campaign so far, it would be fair to infer that he is more of an Obama or, better yet, a James Baker imperialist, than a Lindsey Graham or John McCain type who thinks that war is the answer for everything.

Sanders seems to understand the limits of American power. When Hillary is President, there will be no understanding at all; she hasn’t a clue.

Therefore, score one more for Bernie; his irredeemably imperialist line on foreign policy could be a lot worse.

It could be Clinton’s line.

To Bernie’s shame, however, his supporters, the ones who will stand by him to the end and the ones who will defect to the inevitable winner before long, would never know this from what he says.

They need to know; precisely because Hillary will be the winner. Nothing in this on-going electoral season is more important.

This is why Bernie doesn’t get a pass, after all; why, in the end, despite whatever good comes from his (futile) candidacy, he does have something to answer for.

The Real Trouble With Bernie

Sanders deserves condemnation for letting the Clintons off the hook – not for their politics, awful as it is, but for their role, Hillary’s especially, in spreading murder and mayhem throughout the Middle East and Africa, undermining stability in the region, and causing terrorism to flourish. He deserves condemnation too for not opposing Hillary’s efforts to breathe new life into the old Cold War.

That was Bill Clinton’s schtick in Yugoslavia; now Hillary is taking up the cause. Sanders, it seems, could care less.

To be sure, he is not and never will be in a position actually to hold the Clintons legally or politically accountable. He is therefore blameworthy in the way that he is praiseworthy – for the words and ideas that he is, and, in this case, is not, interjecting into the political conversation.

Other Democrats are guilty too, most of all “progressives” like Sherrod Brown and Bill de Blasio who have endorsed Hillary already.   But being the standard bearer for what is ostensibly a new and potentially constructive departure in Democratic Party politics, Bernie’s responsibilities are greater.

Back in his Nobel Laureate days, when Obama still seemed to be a well-intentioned, though spineless, liberal up against terrible odds – before he morphed into President Drone, the whistleblower’s scourge, the Deporter-in-Chief, the surveillance wallah, and all the rest – it could be said of his already “disappointing” Presidency that it began to sour when, as President-elect, he declared that he would eschew justice in order to “look forward”; in other words, when he declared that he would protect, not prosecute, George Bush, Dick Cheney and the war criminals they empowered.  This was his administration’s Original Sin.

Sanders cannot undo this fatal mistake, but, as a Senator and Presidential candidate, he could lead progressive Americans onto a different track. He could hold Obama’s foreign policy team to account not just for continuing, but also for compounding Bush and Cheney era war crimes.

Of the whole sorry lot of neocons and humanitarian interveners, Hillary, because of her prominence and her position as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term, is the most culpable.

The horror that Libya has become is on her more than anyone else; so is the decision to try to undo the Assad government and therefore the Syrian state, the best, indeed the only, bulwark there was against the rise of the IS.

Hillary did to Libya and tried to do to Syria what Bush and Cheney did to Iraq.   Their arrogant and self-defeating machinations were worse, because they set the process of regime dissolution throughout the region in motion. But what she did is no less noxious.

The “vast rightwing conspiracy” that Hillary used to complain about has always had it in for the Clintons – for the wrong reasons. The Congressional hearings on the murder of American diplomats (or were they actually spy-masters?) in Benghazi were just the latest episode.

But now is the time to go after the Clintons, Hillary especially, for the right reasons – for what she did to Libya, and for what she set in motion in Syria, and for what she and the neoconservatives she empowered have been trying to do in Russia.

For improving the national conversation, this is more important even than making the word “socialism” acceptable again, and making it respectable to talk about affirmative state actions dedicated to restoring past social gains and moving beyond them.

This is important, even crucial at this point in time because, as President, Hillary will be a modern day Annie Oakley, but with nuclear weapons, not six shooters. It is a frightening prospect.

That woman is a clear and present danger. If she cannot be defeated, then she must at least be restrained.

Mobilized public opinion can restrain her. She is not an ideologue or a fanatic, just a rank opportunist who is good at figuring out where her best interests lie. She can therefore be made offers she cannot refuse — not just by plutocrats, though this has been the Clinton way, but by an aroused and organized citizenry as well.

How wonderful it would be if Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont, would propose that the Senate investigate how Hillary’s Libya War went so disastrously wrong – with consequences for that devastated country, for Europe, and, by playing into the hands of radical Islamists, for the entire world.

Hearings on the Syria policy she launched would be enormously instructive as well.

Running against Donald Trump or whichever goon is the last Republican standing, Hillary will be the Lesser Evil in next year’s election. But she will be a great evil nevertheless.

The best thing Sanders could do now would be to work to mitigate the harm she will do when she and Bill resume their perch on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Not taking Hillary on here and now, not holding her accountable, will only make it harder later on, when the need to fight back becomes too obvious for current Sanders supporters to ignore.

Bernie is doing just the opposite, however; he is making it clear that when the time comes, when there is no longer any chance that the nomination will not be hers, that he will be by Hillary’s side.

This is wrong. Not doing all that he can to fight back against that amalgam of neoliberal and neoconservative policies that define Clintonism – fighting back for the right reasons, and in ways that “very liberal” people naturally understand — is unforgiveable.

All the other shortcomings are outweighed by the good Bernie’s campaign is doing – now and in the long run; they can all be forgiven. Being soft on the Clintons cannot.

This is his counterpart to Obama’s decision not to bring Bush and Cheney et. al. to justice, his Original Sin. It colors everything else.

The trouble with Bernie is therefore not that the plusses don’t cancel out the minuses, or don’t cancel them out enough. The trouble is that, for him, Hillary is a rival, when she ought to be a foe.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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