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Regular CounterPunch readers will recognize in my title allusions to recent articles by two top CP staffers, chief editor Jeffrey St. Clair and managing editor Joshua Frank, pooh-poohing Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. Namely, “Bernie and the Sandernistas” by St. Clair and “The Wheels Fell Off the Bernie Sanders Bandwagon” by Frank. Though intended to rebut both, my response here is not the sort of Bernie-awed talkbalk CP readers might expect; it’s certainly not the spittle-flecked outrage of a Bernie-bedazzled “Sandernista.”
Instead, I strongly agree with St. Clair and Frank that the conventional ways of supporting Sanders, unaided by something sharper-edged, are doomed to failure, perhaps not even the memorable failure that would make Sanders at least a “beautiful loser” in Leonard Cohen’s sense. But I, as both leftist and regular CounterPunch reader, sense the left is making a tragic mistake in not recognizing Bernie Sanders as a unique presidential candidate, running under unique historic circumstances, who could reap unprecedented gains for the left—provided our support is tailored to the singularity of both candidate and circumstances. Both conventional Sanders supporters and the Sanders-skeptical left suffer from a common fault: thinking “inside the Bernie box.” Revolt Against Plutocracy, the revolutionary movement I represent, has concocted a viable way of supporting Sanders while working “outside the Bernie box.” CounterPunch readers deserve this chance to hear and assess our strategy.
As you’ll quickly see, my rebuttal is light-years away from branding Joshua Frank a “fucking ass-wipe,” as some Sandernistas apparently have, for daring to criticize their idol. Indeed, a certain criticism of Sanders is implied in our strategy, which repudiates his “friend” Hillary Clinton to a far greater extent than he’ll ever dare. Indeed, we’d rather appeal to the Sanders-skeptical left than middle-finger it, since our movement is premised on a fair bit of radicalism among Sanders supporters—considerably more than they’ve yet shown. Enlisting a larger sector of the left in support of Sanders is critical to increasing radicalism among his devotees. And that radicalism, in turn, is utterly essential to securing leftists “bang for our Bernie buck.”
Finding Sanders Worthy—of “Critical Support”
As a CounterPunch habitué, I find much to agree with—and use for activist purposes—in its pages. For example, CP regular Andrew Levine has contributed a crucial concept to my present case. In a timely, insightful article, Levine argues that the left should “dust off” the long-neglected concept of critical support for candidates. I couldn’t agree more.
Given how much corporate and plutocrat agendas shape our candidate selection pool, and propaganda by consolidated corporate media shapes “mainstream” attitudes, the probability of leftists finding an electable candidate who is in all or most ways satisfactory now approaches zero. So the trick is to find an electable candidate who’s satisfactory on one or two of the most crucial issues and to support that candidate’s election, reserving the right to otherwise disagree openly with that candidate and to pressure him or her to adopt more of your views. Naturally, most of the disagreement should be expressed behind closed doors or after the election, since a candidate who’s right about even one or two of society’s most critical issues is probably already a considerable underdog.
Almost perversely, Levine applies his impeccable critical-support logic to unelectable Jim Webb (based on his intelligent, experienced-soldier’s caution about U.S. militarism), when the most fitting subject for his leftist logic is obviously Bernie Sanders. Were I asked to title an “executive summary” of Levine’s critical-support idea, I’d feel compelled to write “Brilliant Idea, Wrong Issue, Wrong Candidate.”
Now, in asserting that U.S. militarism is the wrong issue, I’m decidedly not saying that war-and-peace issues are unimportant, either to me personally or to Revolt Against Plutocracy. Rather, I’m making the obvious point that they’re not the “sexy” issue of U.S. political discourse and are unlikely to become so anytime soon. Why? The best way to explain this is by examining the last time war-and-peace was our nation’s central issue: roughly the late 1960s and early 1970s, when protestors had successfully elevated the Vietnam War to the headline story of U.S. politics. Four significant differences between then and now scream for attention: (1) our military was not professional and was based on the draft; (2) the economic lot of the average middle-class person was, relative to the rich, vastly better and allowed the leisure essential to citizenship; (3) college education was vastly more affordable and less governed by business interests; and (4) the press was far less conglomerated, meaning that there was more adversarial journalism that opposed the interests of the rich and powerful. Perhaps a fifth difference should be added: that there were fewer of the escapist diversions—especially the electronic ones—that now divert people’s attention from their comparative political impotence.
The key result of these differences for war-and-peace issues is twofold. First, lack of a military draft severely curtails Americans’ interest in U.S. militarism, because they literally don’t “have skin in the game.” Secondly, without that skin in the game, today’s Americans fighting militarism on disinterested, principled grounds is far less likely, because their lack of leisure (time untroubled by economic stress) and lack of unbiased political information (due to corporate takeover of media and college curricula) severely cripples their ability to act as free citizens devoted to the common good. So, unsurprisingly, the economic issues that thwart both life prospects and responsible citizenship, along with the endemic political corruption that thrives on economic inequality and mass political castration, move to the political front burner. And if Bernie Sanders generates an excitement that’s simply inconceivable for Jim Webb, it’s because he—and he alone among presidential candidates—has the central political issues of our times nailed.
And supporting Bernie pays an incredible dividend: beyond his solidity on the economic-inequality and political-corruption issues that form the lynchpin of all current political progress, he’s the gold standard among current presidential candidates on climate change action. Precisely because he’s uniquely unbeholden to corporate oligarchs—fossil fuel oligarchs very much included—he’s uniquely positioned to heed the best science and not Shell’s or Exxon-Mobil’s bottom line when devising energy policy. By his impeccable resistance to corporate and plutocratic domination, he’s empowered to protect humanity from an evil, entailed in corporate domination, latently far more dangerous than corporate domination itself.
So clearly, there’s zero hope of success for candidates who make U.S. militarism their signature issue, and it’s not even clear that Webb, now that he has entered the presidential race, will do so. Which strongly hints that the left, in rifling through prospective grounds for critical support, should get behind the most popular candidate who’s solid on the lynchpin issues of economic inequality and political corruption—and who’s an unimpeachable climate hawk to boot. And even as regards U.S. militarism, Sanders’ basic priorities (unlike those of Hillary Clinton and most Republicans, with their vested interest in U.S. imperialism) point by their inner logic toward peace. Funding for Sanders’ costly proposed infrastructure makeover has to come from somewhere, and the metastasized cancer of our military budget (toward which he has expressed skepticism) is the most obvious source. Moreover, a president who’s not aggressively imposing corporate donors’ will on foreign citizens has considerably less need of “boots and bombs.” When an indirect peace dividend is the absolute best peace activists can currently hope for, Bernie’s implicit offer of one seems yet more ground for critical support.
Our Strategy: Bernie as Dynamite for Democrats’ Fault Lines
So crucial is Levine’s notion of critical support to Revolt Against Plutocracy’s support for Sanders that it’s at the very heart of our Bernie-based political strategy. By operating in absence of that notion—by acting as if uncritical “Sandernista” support is the only type possible—both St. Clair and Frank miss the unique opportunity Sanders now offers the left. And in that they share common ground with many Sanders supporters, especially Democrat loyalists who simply prefer him to Clinton but will dutifully vote for “Madam President” should she beat Bernie for the party nomination. In truth, St. Clair, Frank, and conventional Sanders supporters share the common fault of thinking “inside the Bernie box.” In other words, because Bernie, to cite Chris Hedges’ words, “cut a Faustian bargain” in running for president as a Democrat, they assume his supporters must act as Bernie does and accept the same Faustian deal.
Hedges, St. Clair, and Frank, in short, castigate Bernie for his Faustian bargain with Democrats, while never raising the serious question of whether, for Bernie personally, any better bargain was available. And frankly, I think their bias against Democrats (a bias Democrats substantially merit) has blinded them to the sheer impotence and futility Bernie would have embraced by running as an independent or for a third party. If there’s now so much excitement over Bernie, it’s precisely because Bernie, by running as a Democrat, gains instant ballot, debate, and media access he wouldn’t otherwise have achieved; his election, while perhaps unlikely, certainly seems possible. And, while corporate mainstream media has certainly not been Bernie-friendly, it has been forced to cover him as part and parcel of typical “horse race” politics: the highly profitable creation of drama around a primary race. Contrast that with the deadly silence—or the “freak show” ridicule—with which mainstream media would have treated a Sanders Green or independent campaign. The best he could have hoped for was to be “Ralph Nader on steroids,” and as Bernie astutely realized, Democrats’ resentment of him as a spoiler—and clampdown on his publicly valuable Senate career—would have been equally “steroidal.”
Revolt Against Plutocracy therefore assesses Bernie’s decision to run as a Democrat as an utterly sound one—the best of the universally bad options available in a deeply corrupt system. And in a sense, we feel Hedges, St. Clair, Frank, and the “hard-ass left” aren’t cynical or hard-ass enough: they treat Sanders’ candidacy as an undeserved legitimizing of Democrats and not as an opportunity to be exploited—by leftists with more radical agendas than Bernie. We feel that Bernie, in his utterly sincere opposition to domination of our nation by corporate and plutocrat money (a sincerity vouched for his refusal to take it) is sheer political dynamite. And we intend (whatever Bernie himself does) to exploit that dynamite in a revolutionary way: to blast open the very real fault lines between corporatists and populists in the Democratic Party.
But explaining our strategy in detail is a big topic and will require the space of a second article.