Where Does Bernie Go From Here?


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The assumption was that Bernie Sanders would have no chance of becoming the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. It was understood that he would get a few months to highlight the issues of austerity and inequality before quickly succumbing to the Clinton machine—probably right after the votes were counted in New Hampshire, if not Iowa.  He would then exit gracefully, assuring his supporters, with Hillary at his side nodding in agreement, that the important problems facing the “middle class” had been forcefully placed on the Democratic Party’s presidential agenda, that it was going to be wonderful for America to have its first woman president, and that the most important thing to do now was to make sure the goddamn Republicans don’t win.

I’m still betting we are going to hear that speech. Hillary mantains formidable advantages. She is the preferred candidate — Democrat or Republican — of the ruling class, and of the liberal commentariat. The latter has for decades been anticipating her ascension as the first female president, another jewel in the crown of equal-opportunity imperialism. Bernie’s internet fundraising has been great so far, but Hillary has unbeatable strategic depth in that regard. The capitalist elite that pays her $200,000 an hour for a speech will make sure she has all the money she needs to become President.

Then, of course, there is the un-Democratic Party’s superdelegate system, established precisely to prevent anyone remotely leftist from winning the nomination. The system gives Hillary 20% of the delegates before a single vote has been cast. Sanderista scenarios that imagine scores of those superdelegates peeling off into Bernie’s campaign after a couple of primary wins, as happened with Obama in 2008, ignore one crucial fact: Obama was not the leftist candidate the superdelegates exist to stop; Sanders is. Bernie Sanders is anathema to the ruling class, and it will be made quite clear to every Democrat that he or she will be pay a high cost for defecting to Sanders.

So Hillary is still likely to win, but the path to it is becoming considerably more complicated, now that Bernie has come from 50 points behind to a dead heat in Iowa, and has an insurmountable lead in New Hampshire.

I am not interested here in the serious problems leftists have with Bernie’s politics. Sanders is an FDR-New Deal-type American liberal who has been admirably progressive on many issues, but his limitations from a socialist, anti-imperialist, or anti-Zionist perspective are well-known. We should also note that even his FDR social politics is now seen as marginal and out of touch with reality within the Democratic Party, and that the Zionist lobby will do everything it can to make sure he doesn’t become America’s first Jewish president.

For the purposes or this discussion, I’m going to treat the Sanders campaign as a vehicle that has attracted and mobilized many good progressives for understandable reasons. My point here is to think about how Bernie Sanders might respond to the choices that arise from unexpected success.

Bernie’s biggest strength, of course, is the enthusiasm he generates among the party’s base, which is in inverse proportion to the disgust among that base with everything Clinton represents in the Democratic Party. Every scrap of neo-libservatism that Democratic voters have been force-fed for the past twenty years is being vomited up by large swaths of its base. Hillary is perceived as continuing the working-class –contemptuous neo-liberal agenda that betrayed the Party’s progressive values. Bernie is perceived as unbeholden to corporate and monied interests, and generally committed to what he calls “democratic socialism” – which, to the utter shock of the Democratic Party establishment and the media, may be more of an asset than Hillary’s commitment to capitalism.

In a nutshell, Hillary flies on private jets and defends the private health insurance industry; Bernie flies coach and fights for single-payer. In today’s America, that’s the kind of difference that gives Sanders a wide appeal to the whole party constituency, not just to millennials — and, in fact, not just to Democrats.

No matter what happens in the primary, there are going to be a lot of erstwhile Democratic voters who will just not pull a lever for Hillary. This is the fundamental dynamic that is now unfolding with the Sanders campaign, it is taking on some serious momentum, and it will be very hard to reverse.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Therein lies a big problem — not just for Hillary Clinton and not just for the Democratic Party, but for Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

For Bernie has also had a particular, cozy, relation to the Democratic Party. Though he’s always identified himself and run as an independent socialist, he has maintained close, reciprocally-supportive relationships with the Democratic Party. He participates in the Democratic Senatorial caucus, and the party defers to him in Vermont, never fully supporting a Democratic opponent for his Senate seat. Bernie may not formally be a Democrat, but he’s an Adjunct Democrat as least as much as he’s an Independent Socialist.

By putting himself in the Democratic Party to run for President, and pledging his support to any nominee it chooses, the contradictions of that relationship have come to a head:

 STEPHANOPOULOS: So if you lose in this nomination fight, will you support the Democratic nominee?

SANDERS: Yes. I have in the past.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Not going to run as an independent?

SANDERS: No, absolutely not. I’ve been very clear about that.

Anybody who understands the Democratic Party as an obstacle to substantive progressive policies, including the ones Bernie champions, understands that there are huge problems and contradictions in that position. Especially when, as Bernie knew, it’s Hillary Clinton that Stephanopoulos was likely talking about.

Still, Bernie is stating something here that is consistent with his whole political history. He entered the race to make sure certain issues were aired publicly and put on the Democratic agenda, but his top priority is prevent the dreaded Republican victory, which means making sure those all those disaffected voters go out and pull the lever for the Democratic candidate, even if it’s Hillary.

If, as was expected, Bernie were to lose quickly in early primaries—without a long “contrasting” fight that generated increasing enthusiasm for him and disgust with Hillary, without it appearing that he was cheated out of it by the superdelegates, or the money, or the establishment—that outcome might go down more smoothly. But once that situation changes dramatically, once it becomes clear to Bernie and his supporters that he no longer has to content himself with being the warm-up act for the “real” Democratic nominee, but has a shot at top spot himself, Sanders will be forced to make choices he does not want, and probably did not expect, he would have to make.

Bernie Sanders is the dog who’s about to catch the car.  We all thought it would pull away too quickly, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. If he catches it, he’s going to have to turn into a helluva ferocious beast, or let it go.

Let’s do consider the shitstorm that will engulf the Democratic party—if Hillary’s campaign is tanking, and Bernie has built a powerful momentum, and the media can no longer ignore him, and the imagined black “firewalls” in South Carolina and elsewhere start melting away. What will the Democratic establishment do? It has already started after the Iowa dead heat, but from the second the polls close on a decisive Sanders defeat of Clinton in New Hampshire, the Democratic Party will begin to split in an obvious and serious way, and that split will intensify exponentially through a long primary season, and through the general election if Bernie wins the nomination.

It is certain that the Party will go into full-spectrum attack mode to derail him, but everything they do or say to reject him, especially relying on the superdlegates, will be further proof to the base that he’s the real alternative to the status quo. If they have to, they will, of course, go fishing around for another “moderate” Democrat who can put a stop to all this “socialist” nonsense. But who, this late in the game? Who, with enough street cred among the riled-up progressive base to stop the momentum of the Bern? Al Gore? Return of the Living Dead, I’m afraid. Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps?

Whatever the party leadership does in that effort, it’s going to be too obvious that they are acting against the wishes of the party base. As more and more Democratic bigwigs proclaim the need to stop Sanders at all costs, it will become too clear to too many of the party’s progressive constituents that the Democratic Party will always trash any remotely leftist contender, and will never move in any direction but right.

The party will split radically, and not because Bernie won’t support any other Democrat, but because a lot (most?) of the Party establishment, following the wishes of the entire ruling class, will not support him. It is not his message, or anything the Republicans have to say, but that sabotage by the Democrats that can most hurt his “electability.” If he knows this, which I hope he does, he must worry about it.

But what will Bernie do? The Bernie who wants to make sure that as many as possible of those disaffected voters who were rallying to him go out and pull the Democratic lever in November?

Here nub of it: Is Bernie running to win the presidency or to defeat the Republicans? To start a political revolution or to ensure a Democratic victory?

Does Bernie Sanders want to win the nomination and contest the general election in a fight that will — even through no fault of his own — split the Democratic Party, if he thinks that will risk allowing a Republican victory?

Or (This would be the really strong position!) is the 74-year-old Sanders confident that he can win the presidency against any Republican challenger, whatever upheaval occurs in the Democratic Party, and relentlessly build an administration that will confront and transform Congress, and catalyze a “political revolution”?

We should consider the possibility that a Bernie Sanders who answers any of those questions in the negative, and who has defeated Hillary Clinton decisively in New Hampshire, will be pleaded with, and be tempted to, slow down his own momentum, in order to avoid splitting the party and risking a Republican victory in November. Everything in his political history suggests he would be susceptible to such concerns. Is not the reason he refused to run as an independent: because his purpose is to keep discontented progressives in the Democratic Party? Will he continue to run to win, to engage in the inevitably furious knockdown fight it will take, if doing so would endanger that?

Let’s consider the kind of thing that’s going to happen if it looks like he’s about to catch that car.

It will be a whole array of meetings and conversations and feelers, but let’s imagine it all at once in one room — the Bernie intervention. Every powerful member of the Democratic Party, from Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi on down, will lean into to him and say: “We will lose the general election if you are our party’s nominee.” He will say, “No, my message, more than that of any Republican, will resonate with the people.” — and he will be right. They will then bring in the A-Team of  prominent “progressive” Democratic mayors and governors and emeritus politicians, and the leaders of prominent liberal civil society groups and establishment liberal NGOs and (yes, horrifically) labor unions and prominent liberal businessmen—you know, the good guys, the progressives from Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the media and the law firms. They will point out to him that many of them, and many of their colleagues, who would support some other Democrat, will not give him their full support in the general election. “There will be a lot of Democrats — Not me, of course! — who will perfunctorily say they’ll vote for you, but will just sit back and watch you feel the burn.” They will remind him that he will get very little financial support and very few media endorsements, while the Republican candidate will capture a windfall. “So, no,” they will say, “You won’t win. No matter how attractive your message is to the people, you know very well what edited version of that message will be transmitted to them, and through which channels. No matter how right you are, you will lose.”

They will remind him that, parallel to his weakened support among Democrats, there will be a mass offensive by the ruling class to steer the Republican race to produce a “moderate” nominee. If Trump is leading, and they’re afraid of how he will run in the general election, the Donald will be approached and told that there are billions of dollars of deals awaiting him, if he can find a way to lose the race to Marco Rubio or whomever and get back to business.

They will, then — it’s tough love, but a friendly meeting — offer Bernie some serous incentives for him to get out of the race, according to how far he’s already got. Understanding that he is too honest to bribe, they will offer some real ameliorative policy proposals for the “middle class” — the extension of Medicare to 55, increases in student aid and lower interest on student loans, maybe a big infrastructure spending project, etc. — perhaps even the right to name the Secretary of Labor or of HUD.  “You have already achieved so much. Now don’t blow it by jeopardizing our chances in November.”

Bottom line of the pitch will be: “Bernie, if you win the nomination and take it, it will split the Democratic Party and ensure a Republican victory in November. Do you really want to crash the car?”

Now I may be wrong, and perhaps Bernie Sanders will say: “Fuck you and the limos you rode in on. I’m going to win this election, create a political revolution, and change the direction of this country—your mayors and governors and NGOs and labor unions and newspapers and television stations be damned. It’s on.” — but, mmm, I don’t think so.

You can say that’s too cynical, and it’s only a possible scenario, but I think it’s reasonable to infer—from Bernie Sanders’s political history, and from the position he has put himself in (an integral part of Democratic Party politics!), and from what he has said during this election—that his main goal is to prevent a Republican victory, and if he thinks his presence in the race will risk that, he will find a way to get back to being America’s favorite “socialist” senator.

Politics. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

This is an updated version of two posts on my site, The Polemicist:  What Does Bernie Want? and What Does Bernie Want, Part 2

Jim Kavanagh edits The Polemicist.

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