“Exploiting” Bernie to Dynamite Democrats’ Fault Lines

To a properly prepared mind, Bernie Sanders is political dynamite. And that’s a good thing, because our political system suffers enough internal rot, enough dangerously sagging beams and rafters, that it could use—at minimum—some serious controlled detonations. I see Revolt Against Plutocracy, the revolutionary movement I represent here, as having gathered and organized exactly the right sort of prepared minds—but hardly yet enough of them—to set off the needed explosions. And frankly, I see our best hope of recruiting our next set of demolition engineers, the most nearly prepared minds for our style of pyrotechnics, among denizens of the skeptical left. Which makes me grateful Jeffrey St. Clair was open- and fair-minded enough to let me rebut his own views at CounterPunch, in defense of our Revolt Against Plutocracy strategy.

I intend in this article, the follow-up to my “We’re Not Sandernistas” piece, to explain in detail the strategy I could only sketch in that “spadework” article. But before detailing our strategy as promised, I’ll perform one last bit of essential spadework, aimed at making harder leftist minds more receptive soil for our Revolt Against Plutocracy strategy. Namely, I’ll briefly sketch what I consider the chief dividing difference between typical CounterPunch and Revolt Against Plutocracy mindsets.

Hermeneutics of Suspicion vs. Hermeneutics of Opportunity

It’s high time the left took a page from Rush Limbaugh. If one thing characterized Rush in his heyday, making him the glory of his “ditto heads” and a blustering, self-worshipping boor to everyone else, it was the unshakable belief that his side was right and therefore deserved power. Now, I have no desire to inculcate in the left Rush’s cocksure self-righteousness, which made him look all the more pathetic when history proved him wrong; the left needs to keep its characteristic, bracing skepticism, even (or perhaps especially) about self.

But I do think we’re entitled, at this point in history, to a firm conviction of our rightness, the kind that motivates leftists, without embarrassment or hesitation, to seize political power with greedy, open hands. To quote the Rolling Stones, “Time, time, time is on my side, yes it is” words every leftist should take to heart. Citing the notoriously randy Stones seems appropriate here, since the political left, precisely because Rush and his ilk have so spectacularly failed, is now poised for a virtually endless roll in the hay with the political Zeitgeist.

Consider, for example, Naomi Klein’s masterpiece This Changes Everything, a work not without its flaws, but a masterpiece precisely because the climate justice agenda it specifies is an utterly convincing—to my mind, irrefutable—charter of leftist vindication. Nor is our case finished there. We’ve got Piketty. We’ve got Mann and Ornstein. We’ve got Gilens and Page. We’ve got Occupy. We’ve got Manning and Snowden. We’ve got the polling numbers. We’ve got the Dalai Lama. Hell, we’ve even got Pope Francis; in his enlightened progressive views we’ve got not merely a papal dispensation—but an outright papal blessing—for for our roll in the hay with the Zeitgeist.

In short, when all the serious intellectual and spiritual energy of the planet is on the side of the political left, we’d be damned fools—and morally irresponsible to boot—not to keep vigilant, even leering, eyes peeled for our shot at seizing power. And should the unabashed lust for political power—meaning the translation of our legitimate aims into law and policy—seem morally amiss, recall that moral legends like Gandhi, King, Mandela, or the many honored activists of the feminist movement, never sought anything else. To cite what’s now an entrepreneurial cliché, success is when preparation meets opportunity. The activists of Revolt Against Plutocracy feel we have exactly the right preparation for the unimaginably big opportunity Bernie Sanders represents. Nothing short of the political left, after long years of brutal exile, “coming in from the cold.” But trusting an incumbent, mainstream pol like Bernie—hardly fully, but to just the right extent—as vehicle for our revolution requires a fundamental change in our leftist optic.

In many ways, CounterPunch is the ideal forum for this debate, because it’s perhaps the chief bastion of the leftist optic we now need to modify. Now, I hardly mean “chief bastion” in a spirit of derision, for when I was cutting my teeth as a latecomer political activist, I learned a great deal from the characteristic CP optic, which I think can be fairly described as a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In other words, everything that emerges from our political system deserves to be treated with skeptical suspicion, as representing the covert interests of the wealthy and powerful. On the one hand, this optic deserves a certain perennial reverence, because, unless we succeed in enlightening the great mass of humanity to a fundamental human failing, the characteristic CP optic will always apply to human history. On the other hand, considering the timing of CP’s founding (1993), in the wake of years of Republican misrule and directly amidst Bill Clinton’s devil’s bargain with Wall Street, the “hermeneutic of suspicion” optic could hardly have been more relevant. It’s hardly surprising, in that context, that CounterPunch won widespread renown for its muckraking journalism.

Now, speaking for both Revolt Against Plutocracy and myself, the characteristic CounterPunch optic needs to be updated. Not, of course, that CP should forget for one second its characteristic deep suspicion of the wealthy and powerful. Rather, it should recognize that the left is now so positioned to win—due to both the Zeitgeist and Democrats’ desperately weak grip on legitimacy—that we should exploit, rather than summarily dismiss, what that establishment party is offering us. So desperately do Democrats clutch their least shreds of progressive legitimacy that they now tolerate someone as potentially subversive as Bernie Sanders (a self-proclaimed socialist who has, after all, called for political revolution) as a presidential candidate. Sure, to seasoned leftist taste buds, both Sanders’ “socialism” and his “political revolution” seem pretty weak water. And undoubtedly, the Democratic Party leadership does intend to exploit him as their progressive-herding sheepdog. But what law dictates that Democratic Party leaders get to be the only “exploiters” of such a precious resource?

In holding off from “exploiting” Bernie, based on their loathing to deal with Democrats, leftists strike me as piranhas harboring reservations about the tastiness of their prey. And properly viewed, the Democratic Party—in its present, disgustingly compromised form—is primed to become our prey. In view of the left’s perennial bloodlust for Democrats, why hesitate one second to launch a feeding frenzy? With Democrats conveniently served up on Bernie’s “revolutionary” platter.

Why Bernie Is Political Dynamite

By raising the hopes of citizens long unjustly frustrated in their legitimate aspirations, Bernie Sanders is potentially a world-historical figure, in exactly the same sense Mikhail Gorbachev was. Skeptical leftists who find Bernie unworthy should take consolation in that parallel, since Gorbachev was—as Bernie could well be—overtaken by the historical juggernaut he set in motion. And while our dysfunctional corporatist system differs immensely from Gorbachev’s senescent, moribund Soviet Union, the two systems share a common “explosive” factor: both frustrated the governed majority’s legitimate aspirations for a long time. Indeed, only the sheer horror of George W. Bush, followed by Obama’s cynically broken promises to clean up Bush’s gargantuan mess, could have engendered even the prospect of someone as comparatively radical as Sanders running as a Democrat.

Both Truthdig’s Chris Hedges and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi offer insights critical to grasping RAP’s revolutionary strategy. In articles not focused on Sanders, they indirectly explain why Bernie is such revolutionary dynamite. Their context is exactly the one Gorbachev faced: a system that had frustrated popular aspirations for a cruelly long time. As Hedges asserts, with frightening historical insight, democratic institutions, politicians, and staff face a potent—indeed, a potently malignant—blowback when they fail in their assigned role of mitigating the worst abuses by the powerful overlords of a society. Historically, such toothless liberals have routinely been swept away by fascist movements; our task, via Sanders, is to focus that latent rage against Democrats constructively before outright fascist rule becomes an imminent prospect.

Matt Taibbi contributes to our strategy from a different standpoint: he insightfully grasps that Democrats now have zero excuse, given Republicans’ current inability to field presidential candidates who aren’t public laughingstocks, to prematurely circle their wagons behind corporatist “lesser evil” Hillary Clinton and not seriously debate the sweeping reforms Bernie Sanders proposes. Revolt Against Plutocracy exploits those two factors—people’s latent explosive rage at Democrats and Dems’ utter lack of excuse to prematurely coronate “lesser evil” like Hillary Clinton—to launch a ruthless frontal assault on the party’s corporate wing. And our battering ram for that assault, whether he himself approves or not, is outsider presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Fired by our conviction of leftists’ entitlement to political power, sensing the latent rage against Democrats for their corporatist betrayals, and feeling Dems’ lesser-evil excuse is more threadbare than ever, we judge Bernie Sanders, as a superior outsider, the needed explosive to shatter the fault lines among today’s Democrats. For Democrats are unsustainably divided—like an active earthquake fault—between their corporatist Obama/Clinton wing and their populist/progressive Warren wing, and posing newcomer Bernie as Democrats’ minimum acceptable performance standard is the perfect means for blasting this unstable party apart. An essential task, since Democrats’ leadership seeks, sleazily citing Republican misrule as pretext, to impose a toxic party unity that exploits its progressive pols as mere window dressing. Dems’ corporatist leadership values the Warren wing—and Sanders, now running as a Democrat—as “sheepdogs” who’ll herd disgruntled progressives into the Democratic fold, but with zero intention of ceding to them more than piddling table scraps of policy power. Democrats’ unity is premised on leftist capitulation—so Revolt Against Plutocracy, insisting on Bernie as Democrats’ minimum acceptable performance standard, seeks to shatter that toxic unity by rejecting everyone in the party who’s not with or like Bernie. Our concrete tactics are merely logical fulfillments of that strategy.

A Brief Excursus on Paul Street

To better grasp the concrete functioning of that strategy, we can do better than contrast the revolutionary narrative we propose with the unintentionally counterrevolutionary one proposed by Paul Street. Now, believe me, I know there’s almost palpable irony in my branding Street’s narrative “counterrevolutionary,” when he, if I recall, considers himself a Marxist while I base a revolution on such a comparatively lame barricade-stormer as Bernie Sanders. But I believe Street, another victim of the CP “hermeneutic of suspicion” optic now needing update, misreads history, as frequently happened, in questions of concrete prediction, with his master Marx himself. Simply put, one makes the revolutionary hay one can, and a more radical figure than figure than Bernie would hardly serve the left’s haymaking at all under American’s political sun.

Now, Street strikes me as intelligent, and I, as a leftist, share several of his criticisms of Sanders. But nobody’s narrative is composed solely of indisputable facts; every narrative is structured by interpretation, and the best historical ones are those that find the deepest human significance in a selectable set of historical data. So my quarrel with Street, as with CounterPunch’s prevailing editorial standpoint, is a question of hermeneutics: in his overemphasis on a perennially valuable “hermeneutic of suspicion,” he misses the unique revolutionary opportunity Sanders, given a little trust, now represents.

So, embracing a better, because timelier, optic—a hermeneutic of opportunity rather than mere suspicion—Revolt Against Plutocracy selects its salient facts about Sanders and his supporters in a radically different fashion from Street. Considering political revolution potentially imminent (Street evidently doesn’t), we select our salient facts about Bernie and his supporters—the points we emphasize in our narrative—in ways calculated to promote that revolution. First, we emphasize the ways in which Bernie is verifiably and importantly from Democrats (for these are the stuff of revolution), whereas Street stresses his tedious similarity to Democrats, making Bernie an agent for the status quo. Second, we hypothesize in a sufficient number of Bernie’s followers a seething anger against the Democratic establishment and Hillary Clinton that will hardly let them “sheepishly” vote for her should she beat Bernie for the Democratic nomination. Now, of course, we don’t in fact know whether the number of “non-sheep” Sanders supporters is sufficient for our revolution; every revolution is an experiment with reality and must make behavioral hypotheses reality itself will ultimately test. But Street, like Bruce Dixon before him, assumes Bernie’s supporters will act as his passive sheep.

Such are the differences between a revolutionary “hermeneutic of opportunity” narrative and a counterrevolutionary “hermeneutic of suspicion” one.

Petition and Pledge: the Two Fists of RAP’s Revolution

Our revolution intends to be multifaceted and flexible, like any seeking success, so we can’t say in detail every tactical initiative we plan to undertake. But two key initiatives are already closely associated with Revolt Against Plutocracy. Since they’re both means of exerting force against the enemies of reform within the Democratic Party, we like to think of them as the “two fists” of the RAP revolution. And since these two fists are different, but mutually reinforcing, I’m inevitably reminded of unnamed coal miner’s two fists in the American folk classic “Sixteen Tons”:

One fist of iron, the other of steel

If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will

Our “fist of iron,” more properly conceived as part of our upcoming “Show Me the Bernie” campaign, is our petition demanding that Elizabeth Warren and members of the Congressional Progressive Congress endorse Bernie Sanders for president. In line with our overall strategy of making support for Bernie the test of progressive legitimacy for Democrats, the petition is worded to imply that endorsing Sanders for president should be a “no brainer” decision for real progressives. The “Show Me the Bernie” campaign will up the ante in reinforcing that same message, bombarding Warren and Congressional progressive Democrats with e-mails, letters, and phone calls stating that we take endorsement of Bernie damn seriously and that they—Democrats’ sole existing source of progressive legitimacy—risk losing all support from rank-and-file progressive if they fail to get behind him. A staggering risk for Democrats, since exposure of its sole source of appeal to progressives as political cowards kills all lingering progressive legitimacy the party has. Meaning a mass exodus of progressives from the party becomes, at long last, a viable prospect.

Our other fist, our “fist of steel,” is our “Bernie or Bust” pledge, perhaps Revolt Against Plutocracy’s most distinctive contribution to politics, and the chief identifying mark of our movement. For with this pledge to write in Sanders in the general election should he lose the nomination, we take seriously Matt Taibbi’s insight that the excuses for Democrats’ lesser-evilism have worn thin; we progressives refuse to take the blame for Democrats’ insistence on shoving down our throats candidates who are corporate tools. If Republicans win as a result of our pledge, it’s Democrats’ fault; indeed, if the “greater evil” has become so evil, it’s precisely because Democrats, by their own blameworthy actions, their own dilution of moral conviction by corporate money, have lost all moral high ground for renouncing Republican evil. The fact that Jeb Bush, a major war criminal’s brother, is running for president rather than hiding his head in familial disgrace, is due precisely to Obama’s broken campaign promise to investigate the Bush war criminals. We hasten to remind Democrats of Chris Hedges’ insight that pent-up resentment against toothless liberals poses dangerous risks of fascism. By channeling that resentment against Democrats now, by insisting on a candidate, Bernie Sanders, who at least threatens the iron grip of malignant plutocrats, we stand to ward off a far graver danger later.

Patrick Walker can be reached at: pjwalkerzorro@yahoo.com.