Sometimes the absurdity of the United States’ reigning corporate-managed media and politics culture really knocks me out. If you’ve been following the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race, you probably recall when a corporate media operative (I forget which one but I’m not sure it matters) running one of the televised debates (or “town halls”) confronted Bernie Sanders with the findings of a June 2015 Gallup poll showing that just 47% of U.S. citizens would vote for a socialist as U.S. president.
By stark contrast, the media operative noted, Gallup found that 93% would vote for a Roman Catholic, 92% for a woman, 92% for a Black person, 91% for a Hispanic, 91% for a Jewish person, 81% for a Mormon, 74% for a gay or lesbian person, 73% for an evangelical Christian, 60% for a Muslim, and 56% for an atheist. How, the talking head wanted the self-described “democratic socialist” Sanders to explain, could Bernie think he had any chance of being elected to the White House given these numbers?
The first absurdity here was a problem of apples and orange. With the possible and very partial exceptions (relating to matters of government and religion) of “atheist” and “evangelical Christian,” none of the categories tested by Gallup for political viability other than “socialist” suggested anything in the way of political, policy, r social program. All of the categories except “socialist” refer to identities of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Not being a matter of officially sanctioned identity politics, “socialist,” was the orange in Gallup’s apple barrel, making the comparison a little bizarre.
What would the Gallup poll have looked like, I wonder, if it had included any or all of the following categories: “capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “war hawk,” “militarist,” “imperialist,” “friend of Wall Street,” “corporatist,” “agent of corporate America,” “fossil fuels champion,” “corporate welfare advocate,” “recipient of huge big business contributions,” “fake populist,” “fake progressive,” “police-state champion,” “financial deregulation advocate,” “standardized test champion,” or “corporate privatization advocate”? For what it’s worth, most of these terms accurately describe all of the truly viable presidential candidates in this and past U.S. presidential elections. And it is likely that “socialist” would post better numbers than any of these categories if Gallup had tested for them.
This is certainly true among younger voters, who Gallup found five years ago to respond more favorably to the word “socialism” than to the word “capitalism” (a reflection among other things of U.S. capitalism’s frankly miserable performance for all but the already well-off in this century). In its poll last June, Gallup found that fully 69% of younger voters (18 to 29 years old) would vote for a socialist presidential candidate.
A second absurdity is that candidates combine multiple identity politics markers along with different policy agendas and ideological positions. Does it help Sanders overcome his “socialist” problem (47%) that he’s ethno-culturally Jewish (91%)? What are the chances for a lesbian (74%) socialist (47%) and Muslim (60%)? How about a gay (74%) “Hispanic” (91%) atheist (58%) who is a Catholic (93%) or an evangelical (73%) or a Muslim (60%)? What about a female (92%) war hawk (I’m guessing 10%), imperialist (10%?) corporatist (8%?), capitalist (30%?), and neoliberal recipient of huge business campaign contributions (7%?) like Hillary Clinton?
A third absurdity is the assumption that Bernie Sanders is actually a socialist. Why, because he occasionally says so? I can call myself a Deadhead because I like the Grateful Dead’s music and take a very occasional hit of marijuana but I didn’t follow the band around on its concert tours and I don’t get stoned on anything remotely like a frequent basis. I’m no Deadhead.
In a similar vein, Bernie is no socialist, despite his own stubbornly absurd if occasional reference to himself as one. He’s a New Deal liberal. In Western Europe he would be at most a right-leaning social democrat. His vision for America is one in which commanding heights economic decisions and ownership remain firmly in private, profit-taking hands while the government intervenes to a limited extent with the purpose of partially regulating some business activities and distributing income and wealth and social benefits in a more egalitarian and humane – less neoliberal – way. As William Blum, an actual American socialist, recently reflected:
“Social democrats and democratic socialists [like Bernie Sanders] have no desire to get rid of the profit motive…In defining what democratic socialism means to him [in a speech at Georgetown University last November], Sanders said: ‘I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.’…I personally could live with the neighborhood grocery store remaining in private hands, but larger institutions are always a threat; the larger and richer they are the more tempting and easier it is for them to put profit ahead of the public’s welfare, and to purchase politicians. The question of socialism is inseparable from the question of public ownership of the means of production. The question thus facing ‘socialists’ like Sanders is this: When all your idealistic visions for a more humane, more just, more equitable, and more rational society run head-first into the stone wall of the profit motive … which of the two gives way?” (William Blum, “Is Bernie Sanders a Socialist?” Anti-Empire Report, #143, February 5, 2016)
Answer: the profit motive. The “private sector” still rules under Bernie’s recommended “political revolution.” He can call himself a socialist but he says nothing about the need for a social revolution to expropriate the expropriators and remove the masters of wealth and property from the disastrous private ownership and control of economy, society, politics, and culture – from private/corporate ownership and control of the means of production, finance, distribution, and communication.
It isn’t just that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. It is also that his liberal-progressive New Deal Keynesian agenda would present a danger to actual socialism if was enacted (a rather fantastic possibility under the currently existing balance of class forces in U.S. politics and policy) in the name of socialism. As another actual American socialist, Gary Leech, recently noted on CounterPunch, “not only aren’t Sanders’ [social-democratic] 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.” (G. Leech, “Why America’s Next President Will Not be a Socialist,” Counterpunch, January 25, 2016).
Leech didn’t need to worry all that much about the threat. Sanders had only slightly more chance of becoming the next U.S. president than I did of becoming the Grateful Dead’s lead keyboardist.
The real tragedy beyond all this farce is that the United States and the world very much need democratic socialism, the real thing, not the neutered variant that Bernie has been selling. The profits system, rooted in private ownership of the means of production (among other things) is pushing humanity and other living things over the cliff of an environmental catastrophe that has frankly emerged as the biggest issue of our or any time. There are simply no viable environmental or social solutions – no chance for a decent and democratic future – under the continuing half-millennium rule of the world capitalist system. It’s global eco-socialism or mere barbarism (already well underway) if we’re lucky, to update Rosa Luxembourg for the age of melting ice caps and poisoned coral reefs. Put that in your pipe and smoke it as the Sanders campaign fades in the well-worn rear view mirror of plutocratic U.S. political history. Mourn the Bernie thing if you must (no tears here) and then organize, organize, organize.