“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule

“You Had Your Input”

More than seven years ago, then United States Vice President Dick Cheney had an interesting response when ABS News’ Martha Raddatz told him how recent polls showed that two-thirds of the U.S. populace thought the U.S. war in (on) Iraq was “not worth fighting.”

Cheney smiled as he replied, “So?”

“So…you don’t care what the American people think?” Raddatz pressed.

“No,” Cheney elaborated: “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls.”

Justifying Cheney’s blunt remarks shortly afterwards, White House spokesperson Dana Perino was asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. policy. “You had your input,” Perino proclaimed. “The American people have input every four years and that’s the way our system is set up.”

As Steven Kull, director of Program on International Policy Attitudes, noted four days after Cheney’s remarks, the preponderant majority of Americans disagreed with this undemocratic sentiment. A remarkable 94 percent of U.S. citizens said that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections – a massive repudiation of the authoritarian notion that elections are the only time when the citizenry’s opinion should have influence.

“You Have the Right to Change Things”

The problem continues when Democrats hold down the White House no less than when Republicans do. Speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the summer of 2012, five months before the last presidential election, US Vice President Joe Biden (D) told his hosts to “remember…what this organization at its core was all about. It was about the franchise. It was about the right to vote. Because when you have the right to vote, you have the right to change things.”

Really? Millions of Black and other Americans utilized the franchise (what Biden said the NAACP “was all about”) to vote for Biden’s boss in the name of progressive change. They got something very different. Staffed with agents and allies of the rich and powerful, the first “hope” and “change” Barack Obama administration gave the nation a great tutorial on who really rules America beneath the charade of popular governance. Beyond its monumental bailout of financial overlords, its lack of mortgage relief for the unjustly foreclosed and debt-burdened, and its refusal to nationalize and cut down the financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, it further defied majority progressive U.S. opinion and advanced the corporate agenda by passing an explicitly Republican-inspired health reform bill that only the big
paulstreetinsurance and drug companies could love; cutting an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds; undermining desperately needed global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011); refusing to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise); green-lighting offshore and Arctic drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices; rolling over Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich; freezing federal wages and salaries; cutting a debt ceiling deal that was all about cutting social programs; disregarding numerous promises to labor (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) and other popular constituencies; failing to embrace the remarkable Wisconsin public worker rebellion even in its major party-electoral phase; acting to crush (while trying to co-opt) the Occupy Movement; keeping the U.S. imperial “machine set on kill” (Alan Nairn), much to the bottom line satisfaction of the nation’s opulent “defense” contractors.

And what does Obama hope to make the signature policy accomplishment of his second term? The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and business-captive government officials for at least a decade. This arch-corporatist measure is all about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards (something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards). It’s about multinational corporations “getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process” and “set[ting] up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere” with “investor-state dispute settlement tribunals” that will guarantee “a real bonanza for business” (economist Dean Baker). It’s quite contrary to technically irrelevant public opinion.

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP under wraps. It is also no wonder that Obama pressed Congress (successfully this summer) to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.

A Poor Substitute for Democracy

Biden might want to examine the NAACP’s history and the history of progressive change in the U.S more closely. The nation’s pioneering civil rights organization formed and worked around many issues, including ant-lynching, legal defense and desegregation, not just voting rights. At the same time, the Vice President badly exaggerated the power of the ballot box when it comes to winning progressive change in U.S. history. As Noam Chomsky noted nearly eleven years ago, the national presidential election obsession misses the significantly greater relevance of social movements:

“Every four year yeas 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, every day, not just once every four years…election …choices…are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the anti-Vietnam War movement hardly waited for election dates and the sympathy of politicians to “change things.” They undertook powerful non-electoral direct actions like the sit-down strike wave of 1936-1937, the courageous lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1960-62, and the many mass mobilizations for peace that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. Slaves and abolitionists didn’t wait for the 1864 presidential election to force President Abraham Lincoln’s hand (along with the military victories of the Confederacy) on emancipation.

“The really critical thing,” the great American radical and historian Howard Zinn noted after George W. Bush was first installed in the White House, “isn’t who’s 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 an essay on and against the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” in the year of 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…” Zinn acknowledged that he would likely support one major-party candidate over another “for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” But then he said the same thing as Cheney, but with a very different meaning: so? “Before and after those two minutes,” Zinn wrote:

“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…. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism…Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …. Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Campus Town Blues

All of which brings me to the nominally socialist Bernie Sanders and his disproportionately white and middle-class fans and supporters. Many of those fans and supporters would undoubtedly express disgust at Cheney’s and Perino’s authoritarian comments. Still, living in a bright blue “liberal”-Democratic campus/company town full of professional and Caucasian Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders fans – Iowa City, Iowa, home of the University of Iowa – I can’t help but notice a curious commonality between many liberals’ and progressives’ take on what passes for meaningful democratic politics and Cheney and Perino’s take seven years ago (along with Biden’s take four years ago). Here as in other liberal locations across the country, liberal and “left” folks flocked to the campaign events of Obama in 2007 and 2008. Iowa’s progressive and liberal Democrats did the pre-scheduled once-every-four-years two-hour thing (the Iowa presidential Caucus) and then (eleven months later on the calendar of “that’s politics”) the two-minute thing (voting in the general presidential election) for him in the name of hope and change. The strictly time-staggered rituals were repeated by most of them on the appointed dates four years later.

Now many of Iowa’s remarkably Hillary-averse (good for them) progressive and liberal Democrats are fired up and “feeling the Bern” – right on the quadrennial schedule – for the nominally democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Sanders is drawing big and enthusiastic throngs in Iowa, New Hampshire, Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Some in the crowds think (unrealistically) “Bernie” has a serious shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. Others seem to believe (just as unrealistically) that Sanders will push presumptive Big Money candidate Hillary Clinton (who Sanders calls a “good friend”) “to the left.” Yet whatever they think can be accomplished by the Bernie campaign, most of them seem to believe that the easy politics of participating in the “personalized quadrennial extravaganza” constitutes a more meaningfully democratic form of popular “input” into the shape of their society and policy than the difficult day-to-day political work of building popular movements. Where were they when the Occupy Wall Street movement – a very significant popular rebellion against the richly bipartisan oligarchy – broke out in New York City and then in hundreds of U.S. cities coast to coast? When the Black Lives Matter movement broke out in response to an escalating string of racist police murders last year? When protests occurred against Obama’s bombing of Libya and his plans to attack Syria? With few exceptions, most of them were missing in action, consistent with the reigning political culture’s privileging of the four-year-two hour (in caucus states)-four minute (primary and general election) presidential candidate spectacle over Chomsky’s “urgent task” and Zinn’s “critical mass.”

Three years and three months ago I joined a crowd of radical and populist Occupy protesters who chanted, “We are the 99 Percent” as they marched past the Iowa City Farmers’ Market on the way to a downtown rally.  Hundreds of liberal white middle- and upper-middle- class people (including many strong supporters of Barack Obama) were shopping for pricey local and organic foods at the Saturday market.  They glanced warily and wearily at our ragged procession. They offered no shouts of encouragement or applause. They made no raised fists or thumbs up signs.  None of them joined in, despite friendly invitations. There was no love for a populist movement in the streets from a very liberal campus town’s mostly university-based professionals, consistent with skeptical and cynical chatter I’d been hearing from those elites about Occupy picking up in the local coffee shops and food coop. The Farmers’ Market crowd clearly did not feel one with us as part of “the 99%.”

Many from Farmers’ Market crowd are now part of the Bernie Sanders crowd.   Marching with people in the streets and occupying public space in opposition to the nation’s savage class inequalities and richly bipartisan plutocracy (deeply entrenched in the Obama White House) did not strike them as a meaningful, reasoned, or proper form of politics.  Supporting a presidential candidate who is running for the nomination of one of the two reigning Wall Street-captive U.S. political parties and who is very careful to tailor his oratory to middle class sensibilities is another matter. The Farmers’ Market people feel safe with that. I have little doubt that most of them will fall dutifully into line when Sanders tells them to give their support to his “good friend” the arch-corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton.

It isn’t just Occupy where I haven’t seen many of my local community’s large number of liberal and progressive “Sandernistas” (Jeffrey St. Clair’s clever term) joining in. The same could be said for the brief local civil rights movement that started and sputtered after a local country sheriff’s deputy unnecessarily shot to death a young Black man (John Deng) in downtown Iowa City in the summer of 2009, when (in 2007) Iowa peace activists occupied the Cedar Rapids offices of Iowa Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley to protest those “representatives”’ support of Iraq war funding), and last year when young marchers hit the streets of Iowa City to protest racist police murders across the country.

Right on Schedule

Along with others on the “radical Left,” I have written and spoken a fair bit on what I dislike about the 2015 Sanders sensation. My topics have included:

* The profound limits of Sanders’ progressivism when it comes to the Pentagon system, which eats up 57 percent of U.S. federal discretionary spending, accounts for nearly half of all military spending on Earth, and (by the way) carries the single largest institutional carbon footprint on the planet.

* Sanders’ record of supporting Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s brazen U.S. militarism and imperialism in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine and vis-a-vis Russia and China.

* Sanders’ failure to acknowledge basic and fundamental budgetary, moral, and cultural contradictions between the progressive domestic policy agenda he supports and the United States’ murderous and expensive global empire.

* Sanders’ soul-chilling defense of Israel’s repeated assaults on Palestinian children and other civilians in Gaza.

* Sanders’ role in helping put fake-populist lipstick on the plutocratic pig that is the dismal dollar-drenched Democratic Party and the U.S. major party and elections system.

* Sanders’ advance announcement that he will back the right-wing Democrat Hillary Clinton (the real meaning of his recurrent statement that he will “not be a spoiler”) in the general election – this without any hint that he might demand anything for “the middle [working?] class” in return for his support.

* Sanders’ reluctance to criticize the corporatism (not to mention the imperialism) of the nation’s top Democrats (even John Edwards did that in 2007 and 2008) and his refusal to forthrightly call out the Clinton machine as a socio-pathological outrage.

* Sanders’ obsession with the Supreme Court’s admittedly terrible 2010 Citizens United decision – a fixation that omits how thoroughly capitalism had already incapacitated democracy in the U.S. long before that horrible ruling was handed down.

* The duplicity and deception in Sanders’ claims to “fight the military industrial complex” (false) and to have been an “independent” politician for the last three decades (he’s been a de facto and damn near de jure Democrat since at least 1990).

I have yet, however, to fully articulate what may depress me most about the Sandernistas. It is their tendency to accept the masters’ incredibly constrained and impoverished schedule and focus for “politics.” Despite Sanders’ own laudable stump-speech statement that “it wouldn’t matter who the next U.S. president was” in the absence of a great popular movement ready to fight corporate plutocracy, many of his fans eagerly accept the deadly notion “that the most important act a citizen can engage in” it to participate in the nation’s very intermittently scheduled presidential and other major party and candidate-centered elections. Wrong. The most important act a citizen engage in is to work steadily to build and use popular organizational and direct action pressure and power for fundamental reform and revolutionary change around issues that matter. Ultimately the goal is “the radical reconstruction of society itself” (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters): citizen rule, not merely citizen “input.” Zinn’s 2008 statement (published at the height of Obamania) bears repeating: voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

Four Thoughts on Alternatives

For the First Female U.S. President

“But what’s your alternative, mister radical know-it-all smarty pants?” I’ve gotten this question via email and “social networks” more than once this year. I try to fashion a polite and serious response with four basic components. I begin at the very secondary level of candidate-centered presidential politics by reminding my Sandernista correspondents of the existence of the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein, who combines calls for single payer health insurance and a Green New Deal with demands for major cuts in the U.S. military empire. I look forward to the minor satisfaction of protest-voting (without illusion) for Ms. Stein “to become the nation’s first female president” (no, it won’t happen – I know) in 2016. It will take me two minutes.

Not Really About Bernie

Second, I tell my correspondents that the main thrust of my critique of the Sanders sensation isn’t actually about their beloved Bernie. It’s about U.S. electoral politics and political culture and Sandernistas’ entrapment in “that’s politics’” narrow ideological, organizational, and (of special significance in the present essay) temporal confines. I remind my correspondent of Sanders’ own suggestion that it “wouldn’t matter who the next president was” without grassroots organization for progressive change beneath and beyond – before and after – elections. (A progressive Democrat friend in Iowa City recently said the following to me after I expressed my sense that, while nothing is certain, Hillary Clinton is very likely to become the Democrats’ presidential nominee: “Say it ain’t so! We’re screwed!! Bernie’s our only and last hope!” It’s hard to imagine a more graphic statement of citizen fecklessness – as if the people cannot defend and advance our collective interests and defend and advance the common good in the absence of political candidates who ride in to save us like shining white knights in armor).

Right Here in Iowa, Presidential Ground Zero

Third, I ask my critic to focus on some issues that concern them nationally or on the (very important) state or local levels and to search out already existing organizations that are trying to mobilize dedicated citizen involvement around those matters. There is, of course, no shortage of important issues around which to center one’s noble impulses for progressive activism and citizen “input.” I like to give the example of my current home state Iowa, which happens to be ground zero for the quadrennial national presidential election madness thanks to the first-in-the-nation primary/Caucus scheduled for the first Tuesday in January of 2016) (the campaign staffers and journalists are all over the state now, right on schedule). Here in Iowa, we’ve got some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the nation, thanks to corporate agriculture’s chemical addiction and stranglehold over local and state politics. We’ve got a newly minted drone war air base just outside Des Moines. We’ve got one of the worst racial incarceration disparities in the U.S. We’ve got widespread mistreatment and exploitation of workers (including a large proportion of immigrant laborers). We’re confronting corporate and state government plans to build a giant eco-cidal pipeline (the Bakken Pipeline) to carry fracked oil through seventeen Iowa counties from North Dakota to a port on the Mississippi River in Illinois. There’s currently a welcome effort to pass a minimum wage ordinance at the county level in Johnson County, Iowa.

I am often astonished at how little attention Iowa progressives seem ready to give to such key matters in their own state compared to the interest and engagement they show when it comes to the national presidential extravaganza that bivouacs in their state for six or so months before the actual election year once every four years. Here they go, along with campaign staffers and reporters from all over the country, running to a rally for national politicians like Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Bernie over local rivers that are unfit for swimming and fishing, past local jails and prisons that contain a grotesquely disproportionate share of the state’s Black population, and over the paths of a proposed pipeline that will cause horrific damage to the local environment and planetary ecology. “Isn’t it exciting? CNN was there!” (Which reminds me of something: if he hadn’t decided to undertake his late-life presidential quest, Sanders could likely have become the governor of Vermont and redeemed single-payer health insurance in that state. That would arguably have been an arguably significant progressive accomplishment with positive national implications.)

There’s no absence of decent grassroots and progressive organizations to join and support in Iowa. The recently formed Center for Worker Justice in Eastern Iowa does excellent and courageous work on the minimum-wage question, wage-theft, immigrant workers rights, and on numerous other work and labor-related issues. At the state level, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) works diligently and heroically on and against water pollution, the Bakken pipeline, wage-theft problems, and numerous other issues. Iowa Veterans for Peace and the Catholic Worker chapter in Des Moines protest and provide policy alternatives on military issues within and beyond Iowa.

An especially urgent task now for activists here and across the nation is to knit together groups and activists working on one or two “single issues” and at various geographic levels. At the end of the day, they are all up against the same great concentrations of organized wealth and power – the same unelected dictatorships of money, power, inequality, and empire. If they are going to seriously fight and ultimately overthrow those dictatorships, I think, they (like the Sandernistas) will have to deepen their radicalism in terms of tactics, strategy, and vision.

The Politics of Changing Electoral Politics

Fourth, I suggest that my correspondent join others in demanding a radically new kind of electoral and party politics in the U.S. – voting and party systems beyond the current money-soaked plutocracy. Here we confront the need for fundamental, constitutional change in the rules of the game of U.S. politics (something much deeper than repeal of the Citizens United decision that Sanders’ denounces again and again on the campaign trail), including (but not limited to) the full public financing of elections and proportional representation to permit vibrant and policy-relevant third and fourth parties. Going beyond the insulting and authoritarian notion that the U.S. citizenry gets its deserved “input” into policy for two minutes in a narrow-spectrum voting booth once every two or four years means embracing social movement politics beneath and beyond – and before and after – Big Money-big media- major party-candidate-centered election spectacles. But there’s no reason that social movements should not demand changes in electoral politics to make such politics democratic and thus actually deserving of passionate citizen engagement. “The way our [political] system is set up” (Dana Perino) right now is a bad, ever more transparently oligarchic joke. Until that and more changes, progressive electoral efforts are unlikely to win much if anything that matters.

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