Interjections on Bernie Sanders

A Response to David McReynolds

I never cease to be amazed by U.S. major party and candidate-centered electoral (and especially presidential) politics’ continuing power to muddle, mystify, and mar liberal, progressive, and even Left hearts and minds. Recently the very clever, decent, and likeable U.S. democratic socialist and pacifist David McReynolds (himself a former Socialist U.S. presidential candidate) published an essay titled “Why Bernie?’ It is a thoughtful reflection in support of Sanders’ campaign to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination – a campaign whose early successes I (unlike McReynolds and from the vantage point of Iowa, ground zero for the “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” in the third year of the four year U.S. election cycle) find thoroughly unsurprising. It is especially provocative coming from a self-described pacifist for reasons that I hope are clear in what follows. What follows is a detailed response through staggered interjection to McReynolds’ defense and support of the Sanders presidential run.

McReynolds: “There has been debate and discussion about the Bernie Sanders candidacy – I’m backing him, here are my reasons why, and the probable limits of his campaign…Back in the 1960’s when Michael Harrington was pushing the argument that we should all go into the Democratic Party, I thought he should have entered the New Hampshire primary, as a socialist, running for the Democratic nomination. I didn’t urge this in a mocking way – I thought it would be very healthy for a democratic socialist to press the flesh, meet ordinary folks, let them see what a socialist looked like, and what socialism stood for. He wouldn’t have won the nomination, but he would have introduced a discussion of socialism into the public dialogue. He was a charming guy, a good speaker, and might actually have helped shift the Democrats away from the their support of the Vietnam War (alas, as followers of socialist history know, Mike’s approach to the Democratic Party was to support the war, until in 1972 he shifted).”

Street: I notice three differences between Harrington and Sanders right off the bat. First, Bernie is not particularly charming; in fact, he’s pretty prickly and outwardly pissed-off (which is fine, but it’s a difference). Second, I seem to recall Harrington in his public presentation always self-identifying as a socialist. Sanders doesn’t generally do that (a point to which I shall return below). Third, while antiwar Leftists might (or might not – I really don’t know the full history here) have had reasons in the early-mid 1960s to think that Harrington might oppose the Vietnam War (my understanding is that his pre-1972 failure was quite predictable in light of his earlier positions vis a vis the early New Left), Sanders has (while opposing “bad wars” like George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq) pretty much advance-aligned himself with the American imperial military project during and before the global war on/of terror. He supported the bombing of Serbia, the bombing of Libya, Israel’s vicious U.S.-equipped attacks on the people of Gaza, the $400 billion F-35 fighter jet project, and more. Beyond some carping about military bloat, he utters barely a word against the planet-cooking Pentagon System, which eats up 57 percent of federal discretionary U.S, spending, accounts for nearly half the military spending on Earth, and maintains more than 1000 U.S. military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations.

It is healthy no doubt for “ordinary” Americans to come into contact with a charismatic (charming or not) “democratic socialist” who denounces economic inequality and plutocracy. But it is not particularly healthy for ordinary Americans to be encouraged in the false belief that progressive, even socialist ideals and programs can be meaningfully advanced through U.S. electoral politics and either of the two capitalist political parties (once rightly described by the great American Socialist Upton Sinclair as “two wings of the same bird of prey”). As the International Socialist Organization’s Lance Selfa shows in his carefully researched history of the Democratic Party, “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (the Democratic organization) has “time and again betrayed the aspiration of ordinary people while pursuing an agenda favorable to big business and U.S. imperial ambitions.” It has also proven itself time and again to be the leading graveyard of grassroots protest and social movements beneath and beyond the nation’s recurrent staggered electoral spectacles, which are deceptively sold to the populace as the only politics that matters. As Noam Chomsky noted eleven years ago:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses…Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics….The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

McReynolds: “Now we have another socialist doing what I thought then, and still think, is a good idea. Bernie Sanders, whom I met in 1980, and who kindly came down to New York City to speak to a Socialist Party convention (I have lost track of the year), and who put together real coalitions of real people and got elected as Mayor of Burlington, then as the Congressman from Vermont (they only have one member of the House) and then as Senator, is off and running, to huge and enthusiastic crowds.”

Street: I’ve heard a number of Sanders speeches since he announced his presidential candidacy. He does not call himself a socialist. He does not call for socialism. He is not running as a socialist. More importantly, perhaps, he does not criticize or even refer to capitalism or the profit system, the underlying political-economic regime that is wired for the endless upward distribution of wealth and power and also, frankly, for the ruination of livable ecology. This is all very different from Eugene Debs, to say the least. (It may even be somewhat different than Norman Thomas, though here I don’t really know.) Sanders rails against “the billionaire class,” against economic inequality, against the paulstreetRepublicans, against FOX News, against the Citizens United decision, and especially against those terrible Koch brothers. He’s running as a strident populist Democrat. In that regard, he’s not really all that different from Dennis Kucinich in 2003-04, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and even John Edwards in 2007-08, all of whom struck strong populist chords in efforts to reach the Democratic Party’s “progressive base.” I’ve been struck by how reluctant Sanders has been to mention the corporatized Democratic Party as part of the nation’s oligarchy problem. Crazy John Edwards fulminated consistently against “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” when he ran in the Iowa Caucus eight years ago. During the first Sanders talk I heard last winter, it was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his liberal audience that the dismal dollar Democrats and their power-serving president are as much a part of the ruling class assault on equality, democracy, and livable ecology as the Republicans.

Of course the crowds are big! As Sanders notes, the top 10th of the top 1 percent nearly owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. The Walton family has a bigger net worth than the bottom 40 percent. Poverty and inequality and joblessness and yet overwork work plague the populace, whose not-so democratically elected officials are shockingly beholden to the wealthy few. The media is in the hands of the 1 percent, with deadly results. The Republicans are in fact pathological on numerous levels. The arch-plutocratic Koch brothers are beyond disgusting. The citizenry has been angry about the nation’s savage class disparities and abject oligarchy – America’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) – for many years. I saw Edwards blow the roof of one Iowa town hall after another – to large and enthusiastic crowds – by denouncing the same national plagues in 2007. The Occupy Movement rapidly became a coast-to-coast sensation because of the citizenry’s anger over the New Gilded Age we currently inhabit. Any effective public figure who speaks honestly, knowledgably, and angrily about and against the current reigning corporate and financial oligarchy is going to draw some big and enthusiastic crowds right now.

McReynolds: “I have heard some on the Left criticize Bernie’s determination not to take part in personal attacks on Hillary. I think that is a refreshing stand on his part – I salute him for it.”

Street: It’s way beyond not making personal attacks. I have (in an Iowa City bookstore last winter) heard Sanders call Hillary Clinton “a good friend.” I was taken aback. What kind of democratic socialist is “good friends” with the corporatist and imperialist Hillary Clinton? And what’s so refreshing and salutary about not attacking her? In his bitter but valuable book No One Left to Lie To (a study of the Clintons written in 1999), the late and formerly Left Christopher Hitchens’ volume contained a chapter documenting Mrs. Clinton’s richly triangulation-ist history along with much to suggest that she (like her husband) is a power-mad sociopath.  Especially memorable was Hillary’s response, in her role as head of the White House’s health reform initiative, to Harvard medical professor David Himmelstein, head of Physicians for a National Health Program.  Himmelstein told her about the remarkable possibilities of a comprehensive, single payer “Canadian style” health plan, supported by more than two-third of the U.S. public.  Beyond backing by a U.S. citizen super-majority, Himmelstein noted, single-payer would provide comprehensive coverage to the nation’s 40 million uninsured while retaining free choice in doctor selection and being certified by the Congressional Budget Office as “the most cost-effective plan on offer.”

“David,” Hillary commented with fading patience before sending him away in 1993, “tell me something interesting.” Along with the big insurance companies the Clintons deceptively railed against, the co-presidents decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” (Obama would of course do the same exact same thing in 2009.)  What she advanced instead of the social democratic Canadian system that bored her was a hopelessly complex and secretly developed system called “managed competition.” Mrs. Clinton’s plan went down in flames, thanks in no small part to her inflexible arrogance.

An excellent article by the Left commentator Doug Henwood in Harper’s Magazine last November provides a clever and concise catalogue of Mrs. Clinton’s conservative, corrupt, corporate-neoliberal, and imperial record from her years at Yale Law and the Arkansas governor’s office (held by Bill for all but one 2-year term between 1978 and 1992) through her stints in the U.S. Senate (2001-2009) and atop the Department of State (2010-2013). Henwood’s essay is particularly valuable on how the Clintons during their tenure in Arkansas helped “lay…the groundwork for what would eventually hit the national stage as the New Democrat movement, which took institutional form as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).” The essence of the DLC was dismal, dollar-drenched “neoliberal” abandonment of the Democratic Party’s last, lingering commitments to labor unions, social justice, civil rights, racial equality, the poor, and environmental protection in abject service to the “competitive” bottom-line concerns of Big Business. The Clintons helped launch the New Democrat/DLC juggernaut by assaulting Arkansas’ teacher unions (Hillary led the attack) and refusing to back the repeal of the state’s anti-union “right to work” law – this while Hillary began working for the Rose Law firm, which “represented the moneyed interests of Arkansas” (Henwood). Connection with one of the sleazier players among those interests, a Savings and Loan charlatan named Jim McDougal, got them involved in the Whitewater scandal, which involved the Arkansas Governor’s spouse (Hillary) doing legal work at Rose (work about which Hillary lied upon outside investigation) for a shady land speculator (McDougal) who had enticed the governor and his wife (the Clintons) to foolishly invest in a badly leveraged development project.

When the Arkansas-based community-organizing group ACORN passed a ballot measure lowering electrical rates residential users and raising them for commercial businesses in Little Rock, Rose sent Hillary into court to argue a business-backed challenge. As Henwood notes, Hillary “helped to craft the underlying legal strategy, which was that the new rate schedule amounted to an unconstitutional ‘taking of property’…now a common right-wing argument against regulation…”

Is it a “personal attack” to recount this history? No, it’s just factual reporting. If Sanders did criticize Hillary on a personal level, it would probably be politically unwise but it would also be pretty darn understandable. While I tend to resist the tendency to describe the nation’s political and economic elites as sociopaths and evil (I have argued in Z Magazine and elsewhere that the nation’s deeper and more relevant socio-pathology and evil is institutional), I have no doubt that both terms are accurately applied to both of the Clintons.

McReynolds: “Others on the Left feel that Bernie is leading voters into the trap of supporting Hillary when he doesn’t, himself, get the nomination. They feel he should run as an independent if he loses the race for the nomination.”

Street: Well, Sanders has repeatedly said he will “not be a spoiler” and will therefore back the mainstream corporate Democrat (HRC in all likelihood) who wins the nomination to run against the Republican nominee in the 2016 presidential election. Having signed up for the Democratic Caucuses and primaries, Sanders cannot practically run as a serious third party candidate in the general election. Anyone who thinks they can talk him into trying to do that (as a write-in candidate perhaps) is being delusional. Sanders makes no secret of his readiness to lock progressive voters down into the standard old Stockholm-Syndrome Lesser Evilist holding cell. In that and other ways, he is part of what the brilliant writers and activists at Black Agenda Report call a Hillary-Bernie “tag team.”

I do think Sanders should have chosen to run outside the two party system – for the governorship of Vermont under the ticket of the Progressive Party. Had he gone that route, he would win that election and then very possibly redeem single payer health insurance (shamefully abandoned by the state’s Democratic governor) in Vermont – something that would qualify as a great progressive triumph.

McReynolds: “Let’s have a little sense of history here – independent candidates for President might help throw the election to one or the other major party candidate but they have absolutely no chance of winning election. Go back to the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, to the later efforts by Barry Commoner, John Anderson, Ralph Nader. (I leave aside the campaigns of the truly minor party candidates, of which I was one, and of which Norman Thomas was the most distinguished example, because such campaigns were not aimed at winning the office but at providing a platform for dissenting views). These were good men but the enthusiasm of their supporters did not reflect the reality of American politics. In 1948 I  was a student at UCLA, the Cold War had just begun, Henry Wallace has been a Vice President under Roosevelt, and his supporters (at least those on campus) were convinced he might win – in the end he didn’t carry a single state (though I think he helped push Truman to the left on domestic issues)…Bernie is not running as a spoiler, but as a serious candidate, reflecting that part of the Left which is, in my view, most important – it is not locked into any of the small ‘officially Left groups’ but it is there, a sometimes almost invisible left in the labor movement, among the elderly, the youth, the people who know our politics is rotten and really want a change.”

Street: “Spoiler” is a deceptive and unduly pejorative term for Nader, Jill Stein, and others who have tried run for the presidency outside the corporate-captive two party duopoly. Speaking about lessons of history, maybe really addressing and changing “our” “rotten” politics and society is not about running as a “serious” (or silly) candidate for president under the existing U.S. electoral regime. The best thing that can be hoped from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is that it might remind people yet again that, in the words the great radical American historian Howard Zinn, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.” As Zinn elaborated in a 2008 essay on “the election madness engulf[ing] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…. Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”

Now, to the candidate’s credit, Sanders’ current stump speech shows some solid understanding of this very basic and critical point (though he does not address “matters of war”). He has been saying that corporate plutocracy is so entrenched that it wouldn’t matter who the next U.S. President was without a mass grassroots movement for social and economic justice and ecological sustainability. Of course, that raises the question of why he is focusing people’s energies on a vitality-sucking run as a major party presidential candidate in the latest of “these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas” that Chomsky has described with reason as “yet another method for marginalizing the populace.”

McReynolds: “Bernie has been properly criticized for not being perfect on all issues. I agree with that, he is not perfect. He has a record of supporting some of the worst aspects of the Military/Industrial complex, and, while not nearly as uncritical a supporter of Israel as some think, he has been silent when he should have spoken out. I urge my friends in the Jewish peace movement to reach out to Bernie and try a serious dialogue (not shouting) about why the US links to Israel should be ended (or at least weakened).”

Street: “Not perfect” strikes me as quite an understatement in light of Sanders’ foreign policy record. Bearing in mind that Sanders has supported U.S. client state Israel’s repeated mass murder of Palestinians trapped in the Israel-imposed open air apartheid prison of Gaza, McReynolds should reconsider this statement after going to a quiet place to read aloud the name of some of the 504 children Israel slaughtered with U.S. weapons last summer. Recalling the democratic socialist Michael Harrington’s failure to oppose the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s phrase at the time) in the middle and late 1960s, think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looking at photographs of burned and murdered Vietnamese children in Ramparts Magazine in 1965. The dead Gaza children’s names are listed here.


Beyond that grave moral question (also relevant to Sanders positions on U.S. military actions in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya), Sanders’ ambitious “homeland” agenda is undermined in a practical political-economic sense by his silence on Empire. This is no small and peripheral matter. It is not an afterthought that only slightly qualifies the overall excellence of Sanders’ candidacy. It’s a huge and central problem, for Sanders’ ambitious and genuinely progressive domestic and environmental agenda cannot possibly be enacted without the conversion of the military industrial complex to peaceful and sustainable production and infrastructure. The veteran peace activist Bruce Gagnon notes, progressive social and environmental policy “victory won’t be within their grasp unless we can talk about the US imperial war project that is draining our nation, killing people all over the world, and helping to increase climate change as the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet.  Sure taxes on Wall Street speculation will help some, but until we get our hands on the Pentagon’s pot of gold nothing really changes around here.”

McReynolds: “The peace movement should also dialogue with Bernie. He should not get a free pass from any of us.  And it is urgent that the “Black Lives Matter” movement meet with Bernie. But let’s be real – the candidate who can prove right on every one of the issues which concerns us is not going to have a very wide base of support.”

Street: I’m really not sure why this passage puts the onus on peace and racial justice activists to initiate discussion with Sanders. Those activists are not purporting to run for the White House. Sanders is. If he’s serious about peace (not likely) and racial justice (probably), then it’s on him to reach out to movements. But here’s another and perhaps more important thought: if you really have to sacrifice the issues of peace and/or racial justice in order to win mass support in a U.S. presidential race, then maybe “serious” U.S. presidential politics isn’t a particularly useful avenue for morally serious Left activism. The great democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked by antiwar and antiracist progressives to consider running for the U.S. presidency in 1967. He turned them down since (among other things) he was unwilling to take the moral short-cuts involved in that kind of politics.

McReynolds: “Bernie is dealing with what I think are the real issues – the control the 1% has over the country, the obscene power of money in our elections, the massive disparity between the handful of the ultra-rich and the millions who live in genuine poverty. I’m delighted Bernie is doing so well – much better than I had thought he would.”

Street: Why does the imperial warfare state – the Pentagon system that accounts (to repeat) for more than half the nation’s discretionary federal spending and creates the largest single institutional carbon footprint on Earth – not count among “the real issues”? Why not here give Sanders credit for speaking out strongly against anthropogenic global warming, arguably (actually) the single biggest issue of our or any time? And why the surprise at how well Sanders is doing? His big crowds and energy should be absolutely no surprise (for reasons explained XX paragraphs above). The same was true of John “Two Americas” Edwards in Iowa in 2007.

McReynolds: “There are a couple of practical questions. If he doesn’t get the nomination, what will he have accomplished? He will have done something very important, and God help the left sectarians who don’t understand this: he will have made it possible to discuss socialism. He will have made it respectable to use the term. He will have shown there is a mass of people willing to hear a genuinely radical attack on the current corporate structure.”

Street: Here McReynolds gives way too much credit and praise to his friend Bernie Sanders. “Socialism” (rather vaguely understood) has been rising in popularity for some time now in the U.S. The causes include the end of the Cold War, the horrendous performance of U.S. and global capitalism, and even the FOX News’ ironic dissemination and dilution of the term and its meaning. Occupy showed the existence of a “mass of people willing to hear a genuinely radical attack on the current corporate structure.” At the same time, again, Sanders isn’t really talking about socialism (or, for that matter, about capitalism) on the campaign trail. His critique of corporate and financial power is populist, not socialist or radical.

McReynolds: “And what happens if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination and Hillary does? I do not personally dislike Hillary – I’ve never met her. But she has no principles other than power.” 

Street: “If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination” – that’s a good one! For a democratic socialist and pacifist like McReynolds, wouldn’t it be enough to know that someone (a) is a warmonger (Hillary is an open Hawk) and (b) “has no principles other than power” to dislike that person? I’ve never met Hillary either. I hope I never do! I’ve certainly learned more than enough about to cultivate a healthy dislike. (Obama, by the way, I met. Couldn’t stand him.)

McReynolds: “I think it will be profoundly outrageous if, in November, the choice is between a Bush and a Clinton.”

Street: Nothing is certain, but those are certainly the Dollarocracy betting odds. Welcome to the oligarchy, comrade. Bernie’s not going to fix it. Let’s hold a new Constitutional Convention to draft a new governmental charter for popular sovereignty (the U.S. Founders’ ultimate nightmare) in the U.S.

McReynolds: “Those of us in the ‘lucky states,’ where the electoral votes are already sure to go one way or the other, can vote our conscience (as I voted Green in New York when Obama ran, and as I will vote Green in 2016) …Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will be as sure to carry New York as the Republican candidate will carry Texas. But, in swing states, conscience is not so easy to satisfy – because the next President will have Supreme Court nominations to make, and in this country, those nominations are deeply important.”

Street: So lucky McReynolds get to protest-vote for Jill Stein (she of the urgently needed and many sided Green New Deal) but I (in Iowa) don’t. I’d like to see leftists who make the “safe state/contested state” argument move to a contested state and actually mark a ballot for a corporate war Democrat. I can’t do it, personally; conscience won’t let me. But the more relevant point goes to Zinn and Chomsky: “before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools” (Zinn). Far better to spend the lion’s share of one’s activist energies on “the urgent task” of social movement-building beneath and beyond the quadrennial personalized major party “electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (Chomsky).

McReynolds: “So yes, in this imperfect world I happily support the man who is not perfect on every issue, but very good on some key ones – and that is Bernie Sanders, a decent, smart, and very serious fellow. So serious that he has even taken to using something on his hair to keep it from flying off in all directions.”

Street: See my comments above on “not perfect.” Harrington had better hair. Debs had none at all. I agree that Bernie seems decent and (very) smart for the most part, but I just can’t shake all those names of murdered Palestinian children that appear in the back of my mind every time I think of Sanders. They just don’t go away. But it’s not really about supporting any specific man or woman, any candidate or politician. We are citizens, not politicians and it’s about issues, institutions, and (as Sanders seems to sense, to his credit) grassroots organization beneath and beyond leaders and elites.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).