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What Does Bernie Want?

Last week’s Democratic “debate” was – surprise! surprise! — a multi-candidate infomercial. It was also a game changer because Hillary Clinton “won.” The pundits said so, just as soon as the candidates exited the stage and the last pixel faded from the video monitors.

Impartial observers could have reasonably concluded that Bernie Sanders put on the better show. But, in debate-land, reality is what the commentariat declares it to be.

Hillary did do OK.   She didn’t flub – how could she, with all the practice she has had? — and that was enough. Therefore, she won, and her “victory” changed the dynamics of the race – maybe for the duration.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, things had not been going well for her. Her campaign wasn’t on the skids, but neither was it appealing to hearts and minds. Donors and Party bigwigs were openly wondering what to do. The situation was so bleak that the prospect of a Joe Biden candidacy was floated. The Party is that desperate.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is drawing enthusiastic crowds, like Barack Obama did in 2008. Obama was a Rorschach inkblot in which people saw what they wanted to see. Sanders has a message, a progressive one that a great many people are eager to hear.

His message is flawed; more on that later. But it is still the best, left-most message of any major party candidate in recent memory. This would include Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich.

Because it is a progressive message, and because Sanders, unlike Clinton, has energized a large following, the center of gravity within the Democratic Party has shifted leftward: on trade and energy policies especially, and on inequality.

Sanders is the only one actively calling for a revitalized welfare state (by another name, of course), but all the others, even Hillary, are now speaking warmly of the progress achieved in the New Deal-Great Society era, and of more far-reaching advances introduced in other capitalist countries decades ago.

Because neoliberal globalization is a mortal enemy of the welfare state, one would think that this would give the Clintons pause. After all, with Hillary by his side, Bill did as much as anybody on earth to develop and secure the neoliberal world order whose “blessings” we now enjoy.

Yet Hillary says that she is a progressive too, like Bernie; the difference is that she “knows how to get things done.” Sanders’ fondness for Scandinavian social democracy is fine with her; but, to hear her tell it, she is not quite the naïve enthusiast that he is because she understands how hard it can be to move a country as complicated as the United States from here to there.

Clintons lie, of course; it is in their DNA.   Also their opportunism rivals Donald Trump’s. Nevertheless, it is pleasing to hear one of them praise progress.

For decades, Hillary has been too busy war-mongering and pandering to “the donor class” to say much of anything that the Democratic base would want to hear – except, of course, when she gets a chance to blabber on about how much she cares about women and children.   Oh, and sometimes also gays and people of color. But, of course, where they are concerned, there is that pesky problem of getting from here to there.

The New Model Hillary seems to have latched onto a tale confabulated by her cheerleaders at The Nation, MSNBC, and other liberal venues. This Hillary is a progressive at heart who got off-track after Law School because she had to be a First Lady, in Little Rock and then in Washington DC, and because it was incumbent upon her as a Senator and a Secretary of State to be a team player.

But now, the story goes, she is coming around full circle. No matter that the constraints on a Presidential candidate and on a President are more severe than on a Governor’s or President’s wife. And no matter that Hillary started out in politics as a Goldwater Girl.

Full circle, indeed! A more plausible explanation is that she, like the Donald, says and does what she must to get what she wants.   What she wants now is for Bill to take his turn as First Sir, while she, following Obama’s lead, wields the drones, shelters the banksters, and hands whistleblowers their due.

In the debate that the pundits said she won, there were some facts of life that nobody mentioned, but that weighed over the proceedings like the proverbial elephant in the room.

One is that no matter how brightly he shines and no matter how numerous and enthusiastic his supporters may be, Sanders will not be the Democrats’ nominee. The movers and shakers will not allow it. If, for some reason, Clinton craps out, some other corporate ass kissing, war-mongering Clintonite will get the nod.

Everybody also knew that the Democratic candidate is a sure bet to win the general election – because she, or he, will be running against Donald Trump or, if the GOP’s movers and shakers somehow manage to stop him, someone even more hideous. There is not a Republican in sight who could beat any Democrat in November; they are all too ridiculous.

The hucksters behind Hillary don’t want that obvious point to register; they want to keep their marks in line by scaring them with the thought that Hillary is all that stands between them and a Commander-in-Chief who will make even George W. Bush look good.   They want Democratic primary voters to buy into the horse race obsessions of the commentariat, even when there is no real horse race afoot.

Neither Sanders nor any of Hillary’s other rivals pointed this out, though it would have been very much in their interests to do so.

***

Insights are not the forte of David Brooks, The New York Times’ premier conservative columnist. But sometimes even he says something worth taking seriously.

An example is a remark he made last week on one of those gabfests he has with the Washington Post’s purported liberal, E.J. Dionne, on National Public Radio. He said that a major difference between the Republican and Democratic debates is that the Republican contenders really do want the nomination, while none of the Democrats do – except Hillary.

What he meant is that nice guys finish last and that all of the Democrats, Sanders especially, were committed to playing nice with the front-runner, even as she gave them opening after opening to tear her apart.

He didn’t elaborate, but here are two examples that come to mind:

Libya: while it is well and good to express exasperation, as Sanders did, at the numbskulls who will not let up on Hillary’s emails and on the 2011 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, somebody could have made the obvious point that the Clinton State Department was culpable on many levels for the murder and mayhem then, and for the instability that has afflicted Libya ever since.

Someone might even have pointed out that rafts of refugees and bounty crops of new terrorists are among the consequences of Hillary’s bungling.

Obama’s entire foreign policy establishment is responsible too; the “humanitarian” interveners especially. But his former Secretary of State does have a great deal to answer for. Her ineptitude is only part of the story; her quick-on-the-draw militaristic predilections and her imperialistic worldview are factors too.

Someone might even have raised the question of just what the CIA et. al. were up to in Benghazi. This would have been a far more constructive thing to do than deriding the shenanigans of Republican imbeciles in Congress.   However, shedding light on the CIA’s machinations smacks of whistleblowing, and whistleblowing can be a perilous undertaking in the Age of Obama.

It is also hard to do while making nice with Hillary. Even with her “progressive” turn, she is and always has been more opposed to transparency than Obama himself. She should be; she has more to be embarrassed about.

Iran and Israel: Sanders and the others let it pass when Clinton said that she is proud of making enemies in Iran; an odd thing for someone who boasts of diplomatic experience to say. However, it is a very natural thing for someone to say who is dialing for dollars in precincts put off by her (unavoidable) support for the deal that the Obama administration, along with the governments of five other world powers, struck with Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite “existential threat.”

A Democrat worth voting for would, at that point, have seized the initiative; there are so many waiting to be seized!

What an opening for calling for a nuclear free Middle East; in other words, for Israel, a state far more warlike than Iran, to be relieved of the two to four hundred nuclear weapons that it keeps at the ready!

Or, if that is too much to expect of an American politician, notwithstanding the recent setbacks suffered by the seemingly omnipotent Israel lobby, what about at least making the obvious point that, whatever the Israeli government and its de facto allies in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies think, Iran has as much right as any other state to attend to its own national interests?

And there is, of course, the equally obvious point that the United States has no sound geopolitical reason to placate the Israelis with yet more arms and diplomatic support, as the Obama administration is about to do – with Hillary egging them on.

Don’t count on Bernie to say anything like that, however. Whether out of (ethnocratic) sentimentality or because he thinks that he too might someday want to dial for dollars the way that the Clintons do, he is as eager as the next Democrat to get back on the Bibster’s good side.

***

It is wonderful to rage against inequality and to propose bringing social programs in the United States up to levels that have been commonplace in other capitalist countries for more than half a century. It is wonderful too to legitimate talk of “socialism,” even if all you mean by that is old-fashioned social democracy.

But the fact is that as long as global capital calls the shots, and as long as Congress is bought and paid for, there is very little that an American President can do to make the domestic scene more equal and less austere.

Ironically, though, thanks to decades of executive branch encroachments upon Congress’ Constitutional responsibilities, the prospects for changing America’s foreign and military policies are less constricted. In these areas, a bold, progressive President actually could make a difference.

But neither Sanders nor any of Hillary’s other rivals are talking about that.

In Sanders’ case, there are two plausible explanations for the yawning silence – one arguably redounds to his credit, the other not so much. The two are hard to square, though not strictly inconsistent; and both seem at least partly true.

The more commendable explanation is that Sanders believes, as many thoughtful people do, that “the power structure” would shut him down in an instant, the moment its leaders feel their power and privileges threatened. “Power structure” is C. Wright Mills’ name for the nexus of political and social institutions that superintend the capitalist order under which we live.

Sanders probably believes, as I do, that, were his star to rise high enough for him to be perceived as a threat to the status quo that he would become the power structure’s Public Enemy Number One.

The Democratic Party’s establishment leadership would function as the power structure’s first line of defense. Who can blame Sanders for not wanting to cross the Democratic National Committee? DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a piece of work.

It is the same with Trump and the GOP. But Trump may actually have enough money and gumption to prevail over the forces arrayed against him. Sanders has neither.

Sanders probably also thinks that even if he could somehow win the nomination, that the entire ruling class would pull out all the stops to keep him from getting elected; and that if he were elected nevertheless, that they would see to it that he would be unable to govern or to implement even a hundredth part of any progressive program he might pursue.

In comparison, the treatment Obama has been getting from Tea Partiers and Freedom Caucusers and their gaggles of fellow travelers in the Republican Party would seem like an easy ride.

Sanders understands, though, that as long as his talk doesn’t seriously threaten the status quo, the Party establishment will be content to let him speak out. They may not like what he says and they may fear that his opposition to neoliberal economic policies makes their party’s money sources nervous, but at least it helps keep the base on board.

And he certainly believes, quite rightly, that making use of the bully pulpit provided to candidates whom the media deem serious, can still do a lot of good, even if, in the end, nothing more comes out of it than talk. If nothing else, it can get people thinking in ways that could lead to more fundamental changes at some future time, when conditions are more propitious.

And, as is already happening, it could shift the center of gravity of our decrepit political culture a few notches to the left.

Therefore, Sanders may be thinking that the longer he stays in the race as a credible Clinton rival, the more good his campaign will do, no matter how little effect it will have on what Clinton will do once she becomes President.

Sanders no doubt believes too, again quite rightly, that he should be able to stay in the race until almost the bitter end – so long as he doesn’t rattle too many cages.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from the “political revolution” he talks about when he campaigns. But anything that could make a Clinton voice even vaguely progressive sentiments in a not too fatuous way is not to be despised.

To the extent that this explanation for Sanders’ refusal to tear into Clinton in Las Vegas and elsewhere is on track, it is plain that, in his own mind at least, he is not just in the running to keep Democrats on board for Hillary. He is a man trying to move the political conversation in the United States forward, making the most of the hand he has been dealt.

The less benign explanation, which also has merit, is that he and Hillary are more or less on the same page; that, while he may be more of a social democrat on domestic issues than she is, on foreign affairs and on military and “national security” policies, he is basically just a garden variety Democrat.

That part of a President’s job, the part upon which the fate of the world depends, only barely came up in the first candidates’ debate. But anyone who watched or listened to what those candidates had to say the few times that it did will appreciate how appalling garden variety Democrats can be.

To be fair, Sanders was better than average on Iraq, especially when George Bush was in charge; and he has been consistently less awful than most Democrats on some of the more noxious, post-9/11 refinements of America’s national security state practices and institutions that have been afflicting us now for nearly a decade and a half.

But on Kosovo and Afghanistan (especially at first), Sanders was par for the course. He is probably less likely than Clinton to go out of his way to provoke Russia or China or to give Israel carte blanche to do as it pleases to Palestinians, but then the bar is set so low that it hardly matters.

On supporting the Saudis and other despicable but US-friendly governments, he is again par for the course — maybe even a little more gung ho than most.

In a word, cross a border or an ocean, and Sanders’ progressivism dissolves into thin air.

It bears mention, though, that genuine internationalism has always been a rarity on the Left, except in revolutionary moments. The more usual situation is that progressives at home are imperialists abroad.

But because an imperialist foreign policy doesn’t come cheap, the combination works well only when there is ample money around for both guns and butter. This was the case with Great Britain in the Empire’s heyday, and with the United States for the first few decades after World War II. But then, as Lyndon Johnson found out to his dismay, no country can have it all forever.

Vietnam brought the Great Society down – at a time when the United States was a far more dominant economic power than it is today.

Sanders would no doubt be a more cautious imperialist than JFK or LBJ. Even so, he would have to change America’s role in the world radically for anything like the changes he proposes to become economically and politically feasible.

In the conditions the American empire faces these days, domestic and foreign policy comprise a seamless web. Sanders doesn’t get that, however; and neither do some of his most enthusiastic admirers.

A new relation to the world, one that could bring the American empire down with a soft landing, is not on his agenda.   Even more than obstacles that the power structure might throw his way, this is why Sanders’ talk about a political revolution is and will remain nothing more than talk.

***

Yet, for all its flaws, Sanders’ politics is better by far than any other Democrat’s.

There is therefore reason to care about how he and his politics fare over the next year. He has almost no chance of becoming President, and he knows it. But he is still a player, and what he wants matters.

What, then, does he want? The most likely answer is the one that gives him the most credit: he wants to move the center of political gravity leftward and to make “progressive” thinking respectable again.

And so, he has – to such an extent that, on at least one issue, gun control, two of Sanders’ rivals, Clinton and Martin O’Malley, proudly situate themselves to his left.

To be sure, there is less there than meets the eye – partly because in practice the candidates’ programs are not very different, and partly because Sanders, a Senator from a state with a hardy gun culture, has a record – not much of one, but a record nonetheless — to live down.

But gun control is basically a public health issue. Common sense is emphatically not on the side of Second Amendment absolutists; neither is sound jurisprudential reasoning, the views of Republican Supreme Court Justices notwithstanding.   In a slightly less unreasonable political culture, controversies over gun control would be like controversies over, say, mandatory vaccinations for school children.

For any of a variety of reasons, they might sometimes take on a cultural aspect that could affect persons inclined to identify with the Left or the Right differently. But in themselves they have nothing to do with left-right divisions.

People tend not to see this nowadays because, over the many decades that they have been a factor in American politics, the Clintons, with help from their friends, effectively denatured liberalism – leaving only its cultural aspect behind. Had they and their co-thinkers not made pallid goody-goodyism the be-all and end-all of liberal politics, no one today would even think of characterizing sensible positions on gun control as “liberal” or “left.”

It bears mention too that while the Sanders’ campaign does partly explain why Hillary and the others now feel comfortable describing their views in left-right terms, it is not the reason why she and the others no longer cower before the gun lobby to the extent that they formerly did.

The reason for that is increasingly evident public disgust at out-of-control gun violence, and at the role played by Republican knuckleheads and the National Rifle Association in aiding and abetting it. The Clintons understand that for scaring the hell out of everyone not so dumbed down by Fox News and other rightwing media that they are beyond the reach of reason, these developments are a godsend.

Even so, the fact that a Clinton would take pains to point out that she stands to the left of a self-proclaimed socialist on a matter of public concern is significant.

So, three cheers, or maybe two and a half, for Bernie! What he wants is good, even if it falls short of what many of his supporters would like; and the longer he keeps on getting what he wants, the better off we all will be.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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