The Limits of Acceptable Debate

shutterstock_328825151 (1)

“Nothing Real Will Happen”

I happened, purely by accident (while looking for a basketball game), upon the fourth and final Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina last Sunday.   I didn’t expect to stay with it, but I did. When I tuned in, Bernie Sanders was doing a decent job of helping the arch-neoliberal Hillary Clinton expose herself as a deeply deceptive Wall Street Democrat. That’s not a difficult task. Hillary’s bellowing endeavor to pose as a people’s progressive fighting to help working families over and against the wealthy few are transparently absurd. They are downright creepy in light of the millions in dollars in campaign contributions and speaking fees she has received from big corporations and financial firms – as Bernie did not shy away from pointing out.

Hillary’s furious defense of the tepid Dodd-Frank financial reform and the openly corporatist so-called Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) paled in populist potency before Sanders’ calls for the breaking up of “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions and for the introduction of single-payer, Medicare-for-All health insurance. Hillary’s claim to be “tougher” than Sanders on the nation’s reigning financial and insurance firms was shamelessly outrageous.

But that is all fairly standard for Mrs. Clinton. Nothing new there. What was novel in Hillary’s last debate stand against the social-democratic (not actually socialist) “Sanders surge” was the significant extent to which she wrapped her attacks on Sanders in the supposedly progressive flag of the neoliberal incumbent Barack Obama. She accused the Senator from Vermont of (basically) being mean to the president (who like Hillary has long enjoyed posturing as a “progressive who knows how to get things done”) for having the elementary decency to occasionally observe (such audacity!) that Obama has disappointed the Democratic Party’s base by recurrently accommodating the rich and powerful. The fact that His Hopeyness the Dollar O’bomber has done precisely that again and again (as predicted by a hardy cadre of non-bamboozled Leftists between 2004 and 2008) is beside the point. Hillary’s defense of Obama (who she and her husband privately loathe) was a tactical play to racial identity politics in South Carolina, home to the second Democratic primary, and other states with significant Black populations. The Clinton’s are relying heavily on Black votes to defeat Sanders.

It was neat of Martin (or is it Michael?) O’Malley to call Hillary out for using her association with Obama to “justify her cozy relationship with Wall Street” – and to remind viewers that she previously tried to use 9/11 for the same purpose.

The line of the night went to Sanders: “We have to deal with the fundamental issue of a handful of billionaires who control the economic and political life of this country. Nothing real will happen unless we have a political revolution when millions of Americans finally stand up” (APPLAUSE). That statement underestimates the problem of class inequality and corporate-financial dictatorship, which goes deeper and wider than “a handful of billionaires.” And we need a social revolution, not merely a political one. Still, I appreciate the Senator’s sincerely (I think) populist sentiment.

Perverted Priorities

Things became less enjoyable, however, when the focus shifted abroad and the debate turned into, well, a non-debate. While there were some interesting and substantive fireworks between the candidates on domestic policy (guns, banks, campaign finance, health insurance and the like), meaningful conflict and difference ground to a halt when the topic shifted to “national security,” “defense,” and foreign policy. And that, I am afraid, is largely because Bernie Sanders is (as numerous Left commentators have noted) pretty much fully on board with the American Empire Project.

Sanders foreshadowed the chilling imperial consensus between the Democratic candidates when he was asked (still during the domestic policy portion of the event) how he would pay for the social programs he advocates. While calling (reasonably) for progressive taxation, he said nothing about the need to take taxpayer dollars from the nation’s preposterously outsized “defense” (empire) budget, which:

* Accounts for half the world’s military expenditure

* Devours 54 percent of U.S. federal discretionary spending

* Maintains 1000 or so military bases across more than 100 “sovereign” nations

* Fuels mass violence that murders and maims millions

* Functions as a giant public subsidy to corporate America

* Advances a deadly, hyper-masculinized and sociopathic culture of bloodshed at home and abroad

Sanders did cite problems with U.S. “defense” (empire) budget “priorities” but only to say that Uncle Sam spends too much on obsolete Cold War weapons systems and not enough on methods and means of (unmentionable imperial) destruction appropriate for the so-called war on (of) terror. That was ironic in light of Sanders’ fervent support for the F-35 fighter jet (thanks to the jobs created by an F-35 base in Vermont, showing that Bernie’s much-lauded Keynesianism extends to the military variant). When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. denounced the nation’s “perverted priorities,” he called for a redistribution of public money from the war machine to programs of social uplift and healing, not for new directions of force projection within the Pentagon system.


Of course, much of the responsibility for the vapidity of the foreign policy component of the last Democratic “debate” lays also with the NBC News moderators. Functioning like caricatures of Noam Chomsky’s reflections on “the narrow parameters of acceptable debate” atop imperial culture, NBC’s functionaries served up one softball and nationalistic question after another. They floated up one softball question after another, nothing that might have compelled any of the candidates to confront the aggressive, provocative, blood-drenched, and imperialist record of the Obama administration. This bloodless and clueless framing left Sanders free to pin the rise of the Islamic State (IS) completely on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, giving a free pass of Orwellian omission to the critical role that Obama and Hillary’s imperialism in Libya, Syria (above all), Iraq and across the Muslim world has played in the emergence of IS. And this time, Sanders didn’t even bother to remind voters and viewers that War Hark Hillary voted eagerly for Bush’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous occupation. Sanders did manage yet again to call for Saudi Arabia – the most reactionary government on Earth, currently engaged in a savage military assault on Yemen – to increase its military role in the Middle East. That’s a fascinating foreign policy position for a supposed “democratic socialist” to take.

Against the Charge of Perfectionism

This is typically the point at which a “progressive Democrat” or a “realistic” leftist accuses me of wanting a “perfect” presidential candidate. “Okay,” the line goes, “so Sanders is pretty progressive and decent on domestic policy but imperialist on foreign policy. Hey, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can’t have everything, and remember – he’s running for president, to be the next commander in chief of the American Empire. Geez!”

There’s a three-fold response to this standard defense of Sanders against supposedly perfectionist Left criticism. First of all, as progressive as he may be, Sanders’ domestic social program is nowhere nearly as Left as what is required to put the nation and world on a decently just, equitable, and sustainable path. It leaves basic societal commanding heights decisions, ownership, investment, and managerial prerogatives in the hands of big business (chiefly financial) elites who are running the world into ever-accelerating social and ecological ruin. Only actual socialism (preferably democratic and necessarily eco-socialist) can liberate and indeed save us from those bourgeois masters. And more than merely not being a socialist (Sanders is a social democrat and hence a capitalist), a Sanders presidency (pretty hard to imagine under existing political circumstances, though not impossible) would very possibly damage to the socialism we need. As Gary Leech recently noted on CounterPunch:

“Sanders’ policy proposals represent a welcome and long overdue challenge to the right-wing neoliberal rhetoric and policy agenda that has dominated US politics since the Reagan years. But not only aren’t Sanders’ policies socialist, they actually pose a threat to socialism. If elected, Sanders’ policies would likely moderate the capitalist model both domestically and globally, but they would leave intact the fundamental global injustices inherent in the capitalist system. And when those capitalist policies implemented by a self-proclaimed socialist ultimately fail to address these global injustices in any meaningful way, it will be socialism that will be discredited” (emphasis added).

Indeed. Partial and merely political socialism-lite “revolutions” grease the path to counterrevolution.

Second, at the risk of re-stating the obvious, there’s the little and timeworn matter of “guns versus butter.” Sanders simply cannot pay for his progressive domestic policies without taking serious whacks at the Empire (“defense”) budget. He shows no signs of understanding this really critical point. None. His attachment to empire and the warfare state – intimately related to his attachment to capitalism (Leech reminds us that “from its birth capitalism has required an imperialist global structure”) – cancels out his dream of a Denmark-like welfare state in America.

Imagine a Functioning Democratic Society

Third, serious Left political action isn’t really about backing presidential candidates inside the two party system. Far more meaningful is the development of powerful rank and file social movements for both radical reform and revolutionary change beneath and beyond the quadrennial candidate-centered major party electoral extravaganzas that pass for “politics, the only politics that matters” in the U.S. If one wants to vote for a president, which takes about 10 minutes more or less once every for 4 years, why not dedicate that moment to punching a ballot hole for an actually Left candidate who wants (among other things) to fund a “Green New Deal” with money taken not only from plutocrats but also from the permanent and plutocracy-feeding/-protecting war machine that is the Pentagon system – someone like Jill Stein, who will be on the ballot in many states this November?

Anyway, the sooner the candidate madness fades the batter, as there are numerous grave issues and problems around which to organize serious Left movement action beneath and beyond quadrennial big money electoral spectacles. Here in Iowa (where I will not be surprised if Sanders wins the Caucus), we have some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the nation, the worst racial disparity in rates of incarceration, rampant wage theft, a new Drone War air base outside Des Moines, plans to build the eco-cidal Bakken Pipeline (to carry fracked oil and gas through 17 counties), and numerous other pressing issues that demand popular attention. For many months well in advance of the actual presidential election, thousands upon thousands of “progressive” Democrats have been obsessed with the seemingly endless election and candidate madness: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Hillary, Hillary, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Hillary, Caucus, Caucus, Caucus, on and on and on and on and on and on and on some more. It almost seems to never stop. I am reminded of something Chomsky said to Occupy Boston in the fall of 2011:

“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you”….

“What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

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