Left critics of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign inside the dismal, dollar-drenched, corporate-neoliberal and imperialist Democratic Party were born out by the first Democratic presidential debate in Last Vegas last week. In his first exchange with the CNN host Anderson Cooper and Hillary Clinton, Sanders spoke in terms consistent with Bruce Dixon’s early identification of Sanders as a “sheepdog” candidate – a “contender” whose basic mission is to rally reasonably disaffected voters and non-voters to the corporate and military Democrats by fueling the illusion that meaningful progressive change can be achieved by voting for history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party. Here’s the exchange, initiated when Cooper challenged the notion that a self-declared “socialist” could be electable in a U.S. presidential race:
COOPER: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?
SANDERS: Well, …we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.
COOPER: Denmark is a country that has a population — Denmark is a country that has a population of 5.6 million people. The question is really about electability here, and that’s what I’m trying to get at. You — the — the Republican attack ad against you in a general election — it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist. Doesn’t — doesn’t that ad write itself?
SANDERS: Well, first of all, let’s look at the facts. The facts that are very simple. Republicans win when there is a low voter turnout, and that is what happened last November. Sixty-three percent of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. Eighty percent of young people didn’t vote. We are bringing out huge turnouts, and creating excitement all over this country. Democrats at the White House on down will win, when there is excitement and a large voter turnout, and that is what this campaign is doing.
COOPER: You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?
SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.
COOPER: Just let me just be clear. Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?
CLINTON: Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history…
COOPER: Senator Sanders?
CLINTON: … of the world.
SANDERS: I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation. We have got to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-sized businesses. But you can have all of the growth that you want and it doesn’t mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. So what we need to do is support small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of our economy, but we have to make sure that every family in this country gets a fair shake…not just for billionaires.
I am struck by seven ugly things in this give-and-take. First, there is the former CIA employee Cooper’s ridiculous neo-McCarthyite identification of past opposition to the CIA and Reagan administration’s bloody and illegal war on Nicaragua as proof of one’s un-electability. As Robert Naiman noted on the Huffington Post, “Millions of Americans ‘supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’ in the 1980s…..Opposing the CIA’s illegal war in Nicaragua was a mainstream, popular position at the time, as shown by the passage of the Boland Amendment by Congress. It’s only in the pro-war, pro-Empire bubble of big US media that having opposed the illegal CIA war on Nicaragua could be portrayed as an electoral liability without any evidence. The big media use of the term ‘electability’ is a convenient carrier for pro-war, pro-Empire prejudice…” Indeed.
Second, there is the inanity of Cooper reducing Sanders’ opening comments on social-democratic policies in “every other major country” to just “Denmark” – and of Sanders’ depressing failure to correct him on that inanity (though it should be noted that Sanders is wrong to claim that “every other major country provid[es] health care to all people as a right,.”)
Third, there is the childishness of Cooper’s suggestion that there is something odd about Sanders not considering himself “a capitalist.” As the historian Laurence Shoup reminds us in his latest book, “The two major classes in the United States today are a numerically small capitalist class and a very much larger working class. The capitalist class is characterized by ownership of large amounts of capital, obtained mainly though investment in and control of organizations that organize production, distribution, and financing of the economy. The working class lacks such ownership and needs to the labor market to secure employment.” The capitalists, Shoup notes, “are a very small percentage of the population.” They are certainly less 2 percent of the population, if that high. It doesn’t get much more basic than that,
Fourth, there is Sanders’ enfeeblement of the meaning of the phrases “socialism” and “democratic socialism.” By any meaningful historical gauge, democratic socialism is about collective property and popular self-governance with workers’ control and real participatory democracy. In Sanders’ diluted Wonder Bread branding, democratic socialism means the existence of decent welfare programs, universal health insurance, and reduced economic inequality in an “entrepreneurial” (capitalist) nation with high voter turnout.
Fifth, there is Sanders’ admission at the end of his second comment that what “this [his] campaign” is about is increasing voter excitement and turnout for the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party. Translation: Bernie is running to help the militant corporatist Hillary Clinton and the rotten, Wall Street-captive and imperial Democratic Party practice what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens caustically but all-too accurately called (in his 2000 book on the Clintons) “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.” It’s about sheepdoggery. Sanders said nothing in his response to Cooper about how the struggle for social justice goes beyond major party mass-marketed-big money-big media-candidate-centered and quadrennial electoral extravaganzas. He utterer not a word about how that struggle requires a powerful grassroots popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the periodic, money-drenched, and highly time-staggered elections that pass for “politics” – the only “politics that matters” – in the U.S..
Sixth, there was the absence of any meaningful definition of capitalism. An amoral, sociopathic, accumulation-mad, growth-addicted, and inherently chaotic, eco-cidal system of class rule, capitalism is distinguished by private ownership of the means of production and finance and their operation for private profit. It has a long run default tendency towards the increased concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. It is a system unworthy (to say the least) of public rescue. It is actively ruining livable ecology and poses severe and active, ongoing threats to the American middle class (which has been disastrously attacked and weakened by capital in the U.S. over the last four), to the broad working class majority, and indeed to life itself. Lacking any serious, deeply rooted definition or critique of capitalism as an historical political economy, Sanders had nothing substantive to say in properly critical response when Mrs. Clinton said that capitalism built “the greatest middle class in history” (whatever that means) and argued that the system should be “saved from itself.”
These are not small and merely semantic matters. Humanity is currently at a juncture where it either saves itself from the profits system or dissolves into ever deeper barbarism and environmental self-annihilation. The problem with capitalist “growth” isn’t just how its outcomes are distributed. It also and relatedly what that growth is doing does to livable ecology, which amounts to environmental self-annihilation by all serious scientific accounts now. That’s not just a difficulty with “casino capitalism” – the hyper-financialzed neoliberal and global capitalism of the last four plus decades – that Sanders feels save denouncing. It’s a problem with any and all phases and forms of capitalism, including even and indeed especially the anomalously high-growth Keynesian capitalism of the post-World War II era, when U.S.-led world capitalist expansion brought humanity to the precipice of full environmental catastrophe. These are basic facts of species life and death that Sanders cannot or will not publicly acknowledge.
Seventh, there is the apparent agreement of both Sanders and Clinton with the thoroughly deceptive. U.S. Chamber of Commerce-promoted myth that small business provides “the backbone of the U.S. economy.” Small and medium-sized business do no such thing. The U.S, economy is hitched above all and by far and away to the fortunes and designs of big monopoly and finance capital, as Mrs. Clinton and her self-described “good friend” Mr. Sanders both certainly know. Consistent with his misplaced paean to small business, Sanders called in Vegas for the break-up, not the nationalization (the obvious and longstanding, actually socialist position) of the nation’s giant financial institutions.
The watered-down nature of Sanders’ status as a “self-described socialist” (self-described indeed!) was further demonstrated when he said in Las Vegas that the United States was being turned into “an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United.” The revolting Citizens United ruling is of course a horrific and authoritarian low-point in the odious history of plutocratic jurisprudence. But no remotely thoughtful leftist should share the senator’s continuing obsession with a 2010 Supreme Court decision that was made long after the onset of neoliberal capitalism restored abject and unabashed plutocracy in the U.S. (not that actual plutocracy had ever gone away in the U.S.). And here he might want to revisit the high court’s horrible 1976 Buckley-Valeo decision which absurdly established big plutocratic political money as “free speech.”
The deeper reality is the underlying conflict between capitalism (seriously understood as an inherently wealth- and power-concentrating system of class rule) and popular self-governance. “We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louise Brandeis wrote in 1941: “We may have democracy in this country or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” If Sanders actually believes that the contemporary version of this problem in the U.S. dates from Citizens United (I doubt that he does), then he is very badly mistaken. The regressive and de-regulated, post-Keynesian/”post-Fordist” neoliberal era that has brought us to the current New Gilded Age dates from at least the middle 1970s. It’s guiding authoritarian and “free market” doctrine is, as Shoup has recently reminded us, “capital’s default position, the direction that the system always pushes toward, taking into account the level of class struggle from below.”
The most remembered line of the debate was Bernie’s statement that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary Clinton’s] damn e-mails.” Here Sanders further demonstrated his sheepdog commitment to the dollar-drenched and neoliberal party of Robert Rubin, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the arch-neoliberal Barack Obama. A left candidate who was serious about defeating the Clinton machine would hardly be in the business of helping provide Hillary cover on her criminal and classically neoliberal use of a private corporate e-mail server for public sector (the State Department no less) communications. He would not have allowed himself to be badly outflanked on his portside by Mrs. Clinton on gun control and the NRA.
And, no small point, he would not have let Hillary – a reigning historical She-Wolf of neoliberal capitalism (second in that regards perhaps only to Margaret Thatcher) – get away scot-free with her deeply deceptive description of herself in Vegas as a lifelong true-“progressive” friend of working people and the poor. The historical record does not remotely match her claim, as Sanders certainly knows:
* Clinton applauded her husband’s vicious presidential elimination of public family cash assistance for poor families through a vindictive welfare “reform” (elimination) that has had disastrous consequence for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
* As early members of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the co-strategists and operatives Bill and Hillary Clinton helped trail-blaze the development of the neoliberal “New Democrat” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to abandon its last lingering commitments to labor unions, racial and social justice, and environmental protection.
* Hillary voted (as a US Senator) for legislation advanced by Wall Street to make it more difficult for poor families to use bankruptcy laws to get out from under crushing debt.
* Hillary said the following in her role as the head of the Clinton administration’s failed corporatist health reform initiative to a leading national physician and health care activist when he told her in 1993 that Canadian-style single-payer health insurance (a key part of Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform) was supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace and was certified by the Congressional Budget Office as the most cost-effective plan on offer: “David [Himmelstein], tell me something interesting.” Along with the big insurance companies the Clintons deceptively railed against, the “co-presidents” Bill and Hillary Clinton decided from the start of their 1990s reign to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” (Obama, for whom Sanders expresses great admiration, would do the same exact same thing in 2009).
* As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called the arch-corporatist, regressive, anti-worker, secretive, authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she now claims to oppose, just as Bill Clinton once deceptively claimed to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement) “the gold standard in trade agreements” for “open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
This and much more is consistent with the fact that Hillary Clinton “operates in a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” (the New York Times last spring) while fraudulently posing as a “populist” who is “in touch” with the concerns of everyday working Americans and who is bothered that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich. She has given speeches to leading Wall Street firms (and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income – as part of her effort to build a preemptive “money machine” meant to block rivals from making serious primary and caucus challenges.
Any leftist who has paid the slightest serious attention to U.S. politics since the early 1990s should have heard loud alarm bells ringing when Hillary Clinton described herself in Vegas as “a progressive…[b]ut a progressive who likes to get things done [and who] know[s] how to find common ground… even dealing with Republicans [with whom she]… found ways to work together.” Sound familiar? It should. It is straight out of the spurious, fake-progressive, arch-authoritarian, and neoliberal Bob Rubin-Bill Clinton-Barack Obama-DLC-Hamilton Project-Brookings Institute-Council of Foreign Relations playbook, written by and for the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. The key phrase is “likes to get things done” – a way of consigning the basic and reasonable social-democratic programs and economic justice measures long and irrelevantly supported by most Americans to the realm of non-viable, pragmatically unrealistic, “extremist: and “do-nothing” fantasy.
Sanders clearly went into last week’s debate with no intention of calling out Mrs. Clinton on the coldly callous disingenuousness of her progressive and populist pretensions, which are richly consistent with Hitchens’ dictum. The nominally socialist candidate’s silence in this regard matches Dixon’s description of him. It fits Sanders’ early promise not to be a “spoiler” who “helps the Republicans” by damaging the Democrats’ front-runner.
I won’t bother to go into any great length on Sanders’ and Clinton’s hopelessly imperial, militarist, and American- exceptionalist comments in Las Vegas on U.S. foreign relations.. I don’t have time or space here to properly examine those horrible remarks, which were all-too predictably consistent with the debate’s sponsorship by Lockheed Martin and with its opening with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner by the leather pants-clad Sheryl Crowe. I will note, for what it’s worth, that Sanders described the U.S. invasion of Iraq (supported by War Hawk Hillary) as a strategic “blunder” but not as what it also and more significantly was: a pitiless petro-imperialist and arch-neoliberal crime that massacred a million Iraqis and maimed and displaced millions more. This is what passes in the reigning narrow spectrum of elite U.S. foreign policy debate as the sentiment of a “dove”: the notion that monumental and mass-murderous U.S.-imperial crimes like the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) in the 1960s and 1970s and the invasion and occupation of Iraq were at worst strategic mistakes.
Did Bernie get in some decent, progressive jabs Vegas? Sure. It was neat that he scoffed when Hillary claimed (absurdly) that she would be tougher on Wall Street than he would. It was funny and correct when he said that “Wall Street regulates Congress, Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street.” “Casino capitalism” is in fact a nightmare, of course, and it was entertaining to hear Sanders rail against it in the nation’s biggest casino town. If I were in the audience I would have applauded when Sanders said that climate change, not Russia, Iran, China (the ridiculous Jim Webb’s obsession) or even the (unmentionably U.S.-manufactured) Islamic State pose the single greatest threat to American national security.
Sanders received understandable and deserved applause when he denounced contemporary savage economic inequalities and advocated decent things like single-payer health insurance, genuinely progressive taxation, free college tuition, paid maternal and family leave, and big federal jobs programs. These are things that, as the corporate media never admits, a great majority of the United States’ invisibly progressive citizens have long supported. Along with the astonishing depth and degree of economic inequality in the U.S. today, that is why I have been unsurprised by the large crowds Sanders has drawn to his rallies and by the large number of small campaign donations he has received. Droves of progressive and liberal voters understand correctly that Sanders stands closest among all major party presidential candidates to actual if technically irrelevant public opinion on domestic social and economic policy.
Still, the larger reality beneath the harmony in Vegas was Sanders’ loyal service to Hillary and the Democratic Party’s Hitchensian mission (“the manipulation of populism by elitism”) and the accuracy of Bruce Dixon’s early description of the longtime de facto Democrat Bernie Sanders as a “sheepdog” for his closeted real party and thereby for the underlying capitalist empire that party serves in accord with its longstanding role as one of “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904).