“Berning” for a Progressive Realignment? Not Without a New Congress and Foreign Policy


There has been much talk lately of Bernie Sanders leading a progressive realignment of American politics. Indeed public support for Sanders’ domestic program such as free post-secondary education, paid parental leave and single payer health care represent the political criteria necessary for such a shift. The groundswell Sanders’ has triggered expresses the desire of tens of millions of Americans for far-reaching change.

Sander’s domestic economic reforms, if legislated, would vastly improve the lives of working class and poor Americans. Sanders’ says he can win a majority of their votes in the general election. Based on match up polls Sanders is doing just that as he does as well or better than Clinton against GOP contenders. This is evidence he has tapped into an existing constituency for progressive realignment, but the question remains can it be done inside the Democratic Party, a right-of-center institution beholden to corporate interests?

To Sanders credit he has responded to pressure from Black Lives Matter activists stretching his program to include a critique of police brutality invoking the names of those killed at the hands of police. Clearly he is not trying to win the law and order vote that Bill Clinton pandered to in his 1992 campaign. Sanders has also taken a principled stand against violence and hate speech directed against immigrants and Muslims. His anti-one percent agenda challenges both the GOP’s rightwing politics and the neo-liberal policies of the Democratic Party.

However, we must ask, is realignment on the domestic front possible without pursuing a change in foreign policy? Can we win free tuition, paid parental leave and single-payer health insurance and ignore the U.S. imperialist drive reeking havoc on tens of millions of people and draining our national resources?

On the issue of foreign policy Sanders is much less clear with his supporters and the American people than on domestic issues. He likes to say, to his credit, that he voted and lobbied against the Iraq War calling it on the campaign trail the greatest U.S. foreign policy blunder in history. Yet beyond that vote the evidence he would lead a progressive realignment on U.S. foreign policy is thin. In fact, he supported intervention in Libya, which by his Iraq criteria he should be calling the second worst blunder.

The responsibility to push him further weighs heavily on his supporters who oppose the long-standing bi-partisan imperialist foreign policy. No doubt, such foreign policy realignment requires a majority of Americans to back it. Bernie may not be sure this support is firm enough to risk the potential backlash. And in light of the recent terrorist attacks and the upsurge of ISIL the slim anti-war majority has likely ebbed somewhat.

Yet, taking such a risky step may be his only chance to wrest the nomination away from Hillary. The public knows she is a war hawk; and for this reason young people in particular, have embraced Sanders in hopes he will be less likely to take the country to war.

Sanders refrained from challenging Clinton on foreign policy for months until December when he charged during a debate she had been too quick as senator and Secretary of State to support the use of military force. Since then his support rose from 30 percent, where he had plateaued for months, to as much as 38 percent among Democratic voters nationwide. While evidence of a direct correlation cannot be proven, it may be an indicator of an opening for realignment on foreign policy.

If Sanders were to take a few more steps toward challenging U.S. foreign policy might he convince more voters? Is he willing to? On Super Tuesday, March 1, voters in 10 states will show their cards. At this time, polls show Clinton will win 60-plus percent of the delegates in these states. Without Sanders taking as clear a stance against war as he has against the oligarchs of capitalism his chance of recruiting more voters appears slim.

His remaining bet among those he has already made would be to mobilize the ‘we are tired of war vote.’ Yet, so far he has been unwilling to make a clean break with the Democratic Party’s long history of supporting an imperialist foreign policy under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

What might such a break entail? Perhaps a statement such as this:

It is time to acknowledge that the bi-partisan decision to carryout a military response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has led to an exponential growth in terrorism. Shortly after 9-11, U.S. intelligence officials estimated al-Qaeda members numbered less than 500. Today, al-Qaeda and groups it spawned, like ISIL, Boko Haram and the Al Nusra Front, have recruited tens of thousands and operate in a dozen countries.

Today I am taking a stand with a majority of Americans who are tired of war with no end. I know this majority is slim, especially given the recent terrorist attacks and the rise of ISIL. Suggesting a pullback from a military strategy could cost me support. Yet, I cannot in good conscience any longer go along with the war on terrorism. I suggest for discussion the following ideas for changing course.

1 Announce, as a confidence building measure, ending all U.S. drone attacks. Drones kill civilians as often as the intended targets. This causes resentment and fuels the recruitment of terrorists. It is counterproductive.

2 Call on international conflict resolution organizations, independent of nation-states, to initiate any and all possible negotiations in conflict areas. The U.S. or any other nation militarily involved cannot provide mediating services given they are party to the conflict.

3 Announce the U.S. intends to gradually withdraw its forces from conflict areas on a timetable it will set in consultation with mediators, allies and regional humanitarian organizations and governmental leaders.

4 At the same time, announce the U.S. is prepared to halt all offensive military operations for a trial period to encourage ceasefire talks among warring parties.

We cannot know where such an approach might lead, but testing alternatives is long overdue. These initiatives would signal to moderate political forces and to the citizens of the region that the war on terrorism will end and destiny is in their own hands.

The people of these nations and the region are capable, smart and industrious and they will find a way to quell the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism if we end the war on terrorism. Our military strategy makes their efforts more difficult. Millions of Americans now realize the war on terrorism has made us less safe. In light of this it would be foolhardy to stay the course.

Sanders could make a lasting contribution to American politics were he to open this discussion. Sound unrealistic? Perhaps. Yet for many Americans it might appear more realistic than recent plans announced by U.S. military and political leaders to enlarge U.S. combat roles, including sending ground troops to Libya and adding to the 3,400 troops already re-deployed to Iraq.

However, such a challenge to U.S. foreign policy will not be taken lightly by the military-industrial complex of bankers, contractors, weapons manufacturers and fossil fuel giants. They reap the profits of war. They are well connected with the leaders and backers of the Democratic Party. Look no further than the long list of Democrats who as Secretaries of Defense and State were the managers of U.S. imperialism. Obama’s current Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, is ideologically little different than Democrat Robert McNamara of the Vietnam War era or even Donald Rumsfeld under G.W. Bush.

To build a movement strong enough to defeat the power behind such people will be a protracted struggle of historic proportion. It will not be resolved in one election cycle. It will take an overwhelming peace majority in Congress with the power to subdue the military-industrial profiteers. And to do so, will take a sea change in American thinking and understanding.

Toward a congressional strategy to further Bernie’s political revolution

What might be done? For starters, delegations of Sanders supporters could meet with their House and Senate representatives. Where do they stand? With Clinton’s wing or the insurgent Sanders? Can they be persuaded to support Sanders’ program? If not, recruit a challenger. Elementary perhaps, but this, and Sanders’ weakness on foreign policy, are the missing strategies at the top of the campaign.

A political revolution sufficient to pass Sanders domestic program, let alone win a peace majority, will require electing 200 or more new house and senate members to replace corporate Democrats and any and all Republicans. At least publicly, the Sanders’ campaign has no such strategy. However, Sanders grassroots supporters have the organizational capacity to do so independently.

Such an effort is a key ingredient in moving toward the hoped-for progressive realignment. And whether or not Sanders secures the nomination, the grassroots organizational capacity built around the campaign can be mobilized to challenge GOP incumbents and right of center democrats. Without such work, once Sanders looses the nomination, assuming he does, politics as usual will go on.

It would be a shame to lose the momentum behind Sanders if he doesn’t win. Instead, channel it into congressional races. Take on the GOP and conservative congressional democrats. Run against them. Even in districts where it might seem unlikely to win, the groundswell around Bernie could become a deciding factor. It takes fewer than 200,000 votes to elect a House member. There are nearly that many Sanders’ voters in some districts.

I don’t mean to spoil the Bern for Bernie enthusiasm, but I don’t think he will get the nomination. I cannot imagine a party in the grips of some of the largest corporate money bags in the nation and a party as an institution that has largely supported every invasion, covert action, coup and military budget for decades is going to trust Bernie Sanders with their dough and their imperialist project. This is all the more reason to enlarge the opportunities his campaign spawned.

A congressional strategy is the most tangible, visible and practical means to advance the political revolution Bernie ignited. Even small steps toward independent politics would be instructive. It can be done. The skills, enthusiasm and organizational capacity of Bernie’s campaign can recruit progressive Democrats, Green Party and even left of center candidates to further Bernie’s insurgency inside and/or outside the Democratic Party’s electoral process.

Whether or not he wins the nomination, go for it. Be a thorn in the side of the establishment and keep the Bern burning. Then perhaps in the years ahead we can forge a real party of the people, to challenge the politics as usual of both parties that Sanders has so forcefully called into question.

That would be a real political revolution.

Wayne Nealis, writer and activist, is the author of “Which Way Forward?: Challenge the Two-Party Capitalist System,” recently published by the press he founded, Adonde Press.