History Lessons: “Ultra-Radical” Reflections on Hillary, Bernie and U.S. Politics


No Surprise

In a recent Guardian column arguing that nominal socialist Bernie Sanders’ majority support among Democratic voters below the age of 50 shows that the United States is entering a new progressive politico-ideological phase, the liberal French economist Thomas Piketty notes that “Hillary Clinton… appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.”

She appears like that, someone might want to tell Piketty, because she is like that. For Hillary as for her NAFTA-signing husband and Trans Pacific Obama, there’s a useful translation for “a progressive who knows how to get things done”: a corporate neoliberal who manipulates populist and liberal sentiments in dutiful service to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. These “pragmatic” Democrats stand to the right of 1950s U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who accepted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as an inviolable part of the national, corporate-liberal consensus.

Is it any wonder that a Wall Street Democrat with a long corporatist-“New Democrat” (Republican-lite) track record like Hillary Clinton’s [1] is having a harder time than she expected locking down the Democratic presidential nomination? It shouldn’t be. Not in a time when the big money-sponsored rightward shift of both reigning, dollar-drenched political parties helps usher young adults into a New Gilded Age of rampant economic precarity and hyper-inequality – into a society where the top 1% percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90% and gets pretty much whatever it wants from government and politicians regardless of which party holds the White House and/or Congress.

Is it surprising that Sanders is doing better than the Clintons, the Democratic National Committee, and probably Sanders himself expected he would? It shouldn’t be. Sanders is a social-democratically inclined liberal Democrat whose barrel-chested rhetoric about reducing inequality and “the billionaire class’s” control of the nation’s politics more properly matches the savagely plutocratic times. He’s much closer than Hillary to what a Democrat is supposed to be in the populism-manipulating rhetoric their party still rolls out for each long quadrennial electoral extravaganza. His platform is consistent with longstanding majority-progressive and social-democratic sentiments. He’s also a much better and angrier, more convincingly populist campaigner than the wooden and lackluster Hillary, whose wealth, world view, and record stand well to the right of public opinion. That’s to Sanders’ advantage with a Democratic electorate that has shifted to the liberal and “very liberal” left since 2008.


Still, the dismal Eisenhower Democrat and former Goldwater Girl Hillary – a moderate and hawkish Republican at leftmost – clings to a stubborn lead over the Franklin Roosevelt-ian Sanders in the polling data. Her victory of Sanders in Nevada two days ago is likely to be the first in a string of victories that will carry her to the nomination with some help from party “super-delegates” (the 20 percent of Democratic Party presidential delegates who are absurdly unelected).

How does she do it? Part of the answer is pure and simple deception. Consistent with the “mainstream” Democratic Party playbook through both the corporate-liberal and the corporate-neoliberal eras (and arguably before), she is posing as a progressive and even sometimes as a populist even though she is neither. Witness her preposterous Orwellian pose of taking offense at Sanders referring to her as “a moderate,” a term she readily uses to describe herself when speaking to affluent audiences.

There’s nothing new there. In a 1999 book on the Clintons, a still left Christopher Hitchens usefully described the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” Bill Clinton was a textbook practitioner. So, in his own way, has been Obama.

Generational Differences

Sanders’ elementary and insistent observation that the nation’s economy and politics are “rigged” on behalf of the wealthy few – including people like 35 year-old Chelsea Clinton, recently married to a flush investment banker (see her giant new $10.5 million Manhattan condo here) – resonates more with young Americans. Hillary is doing better with older and more affluent Democrats who accumulated savings, homes, and pensions earlier in the neoliberal era, when the unrestrained precarity, inequality, and plutocracy imposed by financialized global capitalism was somewhat less intense and maddening than today. Many of these older Democrats certainly identify the Clintons with the consistently expanding if highly flawed and un-egalitarian U.S. economy (the so-called “Clinton boom”) of the years 1992-2000.

The kids missed the neoliberal “Clinton boom,” such as it was. They are confronting a miserable and skewed job market, stagnant incomes, devastating debt, daunting prospects for home ownership, and shredded benefits, not to mention a dangerously deteriorating ecology and a permanent war of (“on”) terror advanced by fake-humanitarian regime-change addicts (see the Diana Johnstone volume discussed in my first endnote) like Hillary.


Another part has to do with identity politics, which holds remarkable power in the United States. Undaunted by the fact that seven years of having a Black face in the ultimate high place, the White House, has brought no real gains for Black America (Black net-worth has actually been halved relative to white wealth under Barack Obama), millions of female and some male and transgendered voters are backing Hillary Clinton for the simple, in-and-of-itself reason that she is female and “it’s time to have a woman as president.” Never mind the terrible impact of the Clintons’ domestic and foreign policies on women (poor and nonwhite women especially) at home and abroad – from the vicious 1996 welfare “reform” (the elimination of poor families’ prior entitlement to basic federal cash assistance, heartily applauded by First Lady Hillary) to the U.S. wars on Iraq (voted for in advance by US Senator Hillary), Libya (championed by Secretary of State Hillary) and Syria (led by Madame Secretary Clinton).

This pure and simple gender identity argument for Hillary (“it’s time”) may resonate less with younger than older women because of the generational difference in overall economic prospects and because the partial victories of feminism may have tempered sexism in American schools and workplaces to some degree. As the feminist political scientist and foreign policy commentator Stephen Zunes recently noted on Counterpunch, “a major reason for the strong support Clinton enjoys among older progressive women may simply be a reaction to the omnipresent sexism in American society. Indeed, older women have likely experienced more institutionalized sexism in the workplace and elsewhere than their younger counterparts. To the extent that their support for Clinton is based on identity politics, that’s no big surprise in a nation that’s had nothing but male leaders at the helm for its entire 240-year history.”


There’s also the highly organized identity politics of race, whereby the supine, sold-out Black-bourgeois “mis-leader” class atop urban Black Democratic political machines and Congressional districts corral the Black vote for corporate and police-state Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel, Obama, Charles Schumer, Cory Booker, and the Clintons (just to name a small handful). In Nevada’s Democratic Caucus this last Saturday, Hillary won Black voters 76 percent to 22 percent, just slightly smaller than Barack Obama’s margin with those in the 2008 Nevada caucus. And Sanders’ racial and ethnic identity politics problem is only going to worsen in coming weeks. With the very disproportionately white states of Iowa and New Hampshire (both with strong progressive white middle- class Democratic primary bases) fading in the rearview mirror, the nomination battle has shifted to states with significantly more Latino/a and Black voters, whose racial and ethnic concerns are linked to “pragmatic” support for the good old Clinton machine (a supposed friend of Obama) over the relative unknown “idealist” and old white guy Bernie Sanders.

Never mind the specially magnified horrible impact on Black America of the corporate-neoliberalism and the related “post-racial” mythology that such Democrats embrace. Never mind the ugly and racist (not-so “color blind”) nature of the Clinton-Gingrich “welfare reform” and the globally unmatched and racist mass incarceration and criminal marking regime that the Clintons furthered in the name of “law and order” during the1990s. And never mind the deeply racist nature of the global militarism that Hillary embodies and promises. Forget the steep budgetary and cultural cost of that militarism on the nation’s capacity and willingness to address the costs of endemic societal racism. And never mind Hillary’s revealing historical comment in Iowa, telling a white voter why Abraham Lincoln was her favorite past U.S. president:

“he was willing to reconcile and forgive.  And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly…But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.  We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant… I really do believe [Lincoln] could have …put us on a different path.”

That was a remarkably racist take on the nation’s halting and all-too short-lived efforts to attack some of the terrible consequences of centuries of Black chattel slavery during the late 1860s and early 1870s. [2]

“History, After All, Should Count for Something”

Another factor underpinning Hillary Clinton’s continuing lead is the widespread conviction that she is more viable in the general election, related to a sense that the “socialist” Sanders (who stubbornly refuses to drop the label even though he is no such thing and in in fact a pale liberal reflection of his purported hero Eugene Debs) is “too radical” to win the general election.

If I was advising Sanders, I would tell him to take the Identity Politics concerns seriously. I would counsel him to tell voters how and why Hillary’s record on women’s rights and racial justice is no less flawed than her record on economic justice. I might suggest recruiting the esteemed American and Reconstruction-era historian Eric Foner to help write a history-focused speech on the long record of racial oppression in the U.S. (a speech that would include pointed references to Hillary’s horrific reflections on the post-Civil War years).

I’d also recommend that Sanders remind squeamish Democrats that he is significantly out-performing Hillary in match-up polls against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. [3] (Truth be told, insofar as Sanders really might be unelectable, that has to do more with anti-liberal/anti-progressive biases in U.S. party, election, and media systems than with voters’ fears [real or imagined] that the [actually not-very-radical] Sanders is too left to be president.

But why would an actual socialist advise the longstanding imperialist and de facto Democrat and imperialist Bernie Sanders? As Chris Hedges reminds us in a recent Truthdig essay titled “Bernie Sanders’ Phantom Movement,” “No movement or political revolution will ever be built within the confines of the Democratic Party.” Hedges notes that “the repeated failure of the American left to grasp the duplicitous game being played by the political elites has effectively neutered it as a political force. History, after all, should count for something.” As Hedges elaborates in a passage that merits lengthy quotation:

“The Democrats, like the Republicans, have no interest in genuine reform. They are wedded to corporate power. They are about appearance, not substance. They speak in the language of democracy, even liberal reform and populism, but doggedly block campaign finance reform and promote an array of policies, including new trade agreements, that disempower workers. They rig the elections, not only with money but also with so-called super-delegates—more than 700 delegates who are unbound among a total of more than 4,700 at the Democratic convention.”

“If Sanders is denied the nomination—the Clinton machine and the Democratic Party establishment, along with their corporate puppet masters, will use every dirty trick to ensure he loses—his so-called movement and political revolution will evaporate. His mobilized base, as was true with the Obama campaign, will be fossilized into donor and volunteer lists. The curtain will come down with a thunderclap until the next election carnival.”

“The Democratic Party is a full partner in the corporate state. Yet Sanders, while critical of Hillary Clinton’s exorbitant speaking fees from firms such as Goldman Sachs, refuses to call out the party and—as Robert Scheer pointed out in a column in October—the Clintons for their role as handmaidens of Wall Street. For Sanders, it is a lie of omission, which is still a lie. And it is a lie that makes the Vermont senator complicit in the con game being played on the American electorate by the Democratic Party establishment.”

Empire Man, Capitalist Man

Also like Hedges and numerous others on the supposed (so Sandernista “realists” say) “ultra-radical” left, I am simply unwilling to forgive and forget the ugly and ongoing imperial record of Sanders, who:

* Has endorsed Obama’s terrorist and mass-murderous, jihad-spreading Drone War, vowing to continue it (with more careful targeting) under a Sanders presidency.

* Embraced the F-35 Jet Fighter boondoggle (because it “creates jobs for Vermont”).

* Calls the heroic anti-surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden a criminal.

* Rationalizes Israel’s terrible attacks on Palestinian civilians trapped in the open-air apartheid prison that is the Gaza Strip.

* Dismissed the great Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez as a “dead communist dictator”

* Ran over Vermont peace activists (earning the nickname “Bomber Bernie”) in Burlington, Vermont, to embrace Madeline Albright and Bill Clinton’s unnecessary and criminal “humanitarian” bombing of Serbia.

* Calls for the most reactionary government on Earth – the U.S. Empire’s noxious, head-chopping client state Saudi Arabia, the major power behind the spread of Wahhabist fundamentalism – to step up (!) its murderous militarism

* Tells America to be more like Scandinavia while deleting the comparatively tiny nature of Scandinavian military budgets.

* Can’t elementarily include “massive cuts in the imperial Pentagon budget” in his answer to how he will pay for things like free college tuition and single payer health insurance and the like.

“You’ll notice,” Shamus Cooke recently noted on CounterPunch, “that Bernie isn’t advocating the slashing of the military budget during the debates, even though the vast majority of people would enthusiastically support such an idea, especially if it meant funding the programs Bernie is promoting” (emphasis added).

This is a very important point. Large U.S. public opinion majorities have long supported a social-democratic peace dividend. And Sanders cannot pay for his progressive domestic agenda without going in a big way after the U.S. “defense” (Empire) budget, which accounts for half the world’s military spending along with 54% of U.S. federal discretionary spending.

Real socialists don’t embrace racist imperialism, the House of Saud, Israeli apartheid and terror, the Democratic Party, the Pentagon System, and, by the way, private ownership of the means of production (which Sanders openly supported in fleshing out his milquetoast definition of “democratic socialism” in a speech to a college audience in New Hampshire last November).

My problem with Sanders not actually being a socialist would be a smaller deal if capitalism wasn’t currently driving humanity and other living things off the ecological cliff at an ever escalating and frankly catastrophic pace. It’s eco-socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky, to paraphrase Istvan Meszaros.

History Lesson Coming Due

Still, give Bernie some credit. It’s good and useful to see the Sanders surge help prick the cancerous, puss-filled boil of neoliberal Obama-Clintonism. It’s commendable that he’s helps spark or, perhaps the better word is channel, a generational rebellion in the ranks of the decrepit, wealth- and power-serving Democratic Party. The rebellion will not find satisfaction in that rotten political organization. Recently the Green Party put up a meme on Facebook: “How Long Will a Counter-Revolutionary Party Support a Revolutionary Campaign?” The party’s 2012 presidential candidate and likely 2016 contender Jill Stein was initially unenthusiastic about running the slogan online. But she was pleasantly surprised: “It went viral.”

Hillary Clinton, Stein notes, has considerably less capacity to deceive and bamboozle progressive and young Americans than Barack Obama in 2007-08. “Obama,” Stein notes “was fairly new on the scene. Hillary,” by contrast, “has been a warmonger who never found a war she didn’t love forever.”

Mrs. Clinton’s right-wing corporate and militarist record is long and undeniable. It’s thoroughly predictable shame that Sanders hasn’t done much to expose his “good friend” Hillary’s extensive history of corporate-serving perfidy and deception. And it’s revealing that Bernie has refused from the beginning to wield the threat of an independent campaign in the general election, thereby surrendering in advance any bargaining chip that a progressive insurgent might brandish in the United States’ all-or-nothing elections system. (Donald Trump is different on the other side because he doesn’t need the Republican Party to do his thing, whatever his thing is. Bernie thinks he’s nothing without the Democrats.)

A lot of young adults may be “wild about Bernie” right now, Stein says, but the passion will fade as they “go through the ringer” for the first time. They face a useful lesson when Sanders tells (as promised from day one) his followers to vote for the dismal, demobilizing dollar Democratic nominee and the party moves to turn his “mobilized base” into “fossilized…donor and volunteer lists.”

And that reminds me of a different generational distinction. Middle-aged and older left Americans can tell terrible and, one would hope, instructive (since “History, after all, should count for something”) stories about the hopelessly corporate, imperial, and populace-betraying nature of the Democratic Party going back to JFK (who embraced corporatist “pragmatism” in proto-neoliberal ways at the height of the long New Deal era [4]) and before. Younger progressives are fresher to the ugly, populism-manipulating essence of U.S. major party and candidate-centered politics.

The younger generation’s likely first date with “the ringer” in this election cycle comes this spring, if and in all likelihood when Bernie has to tell his followers – as he pledged from the announcement of his candidacy – to cower under the revolting canopy of the socio-pathological and corporatist war-monger Hillary Clinton in the pathetic name of Lesser Evilism. That could be very educational, indeed.

Besides his “allegiance to the juggernaut of the U.S. military-industrial complex,” Cooke notes, “another indication that Bernie would be willing to join hands with the 1% is his stated willingness to support Hillary if he loses. If he is so anti-establishment,” Cooke asks, “why would he campaign for one of its most notorious figures? As author Diana Johnstone shows in her new book Queen of Chaos [see endnote 1 – P.S.], Hillary is a quintessential member of the ruling class, representing everything that Bernie claims to be against” (emphasis added).

The American major party political and elections system, “as many Sanders supporters are about to discover, is immune to reform. The only effective resistance,” Hedges argues, “will be achieved through acts of sustained, mass civil disobedience. The Democrats, like the Republicans, have no intention of halting the assault on our civil liberties, the expansion of imperial wars, the coddling of Wall Street, the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry and the impoverishment of workers. As long as the Democrats and the Republicans remain in power we are doomed.”

Sanders has made it abundantly and unambiguously clear that he will support Hillary if he does not get the nomination. He will not be a “spoiler.” When the moment comes, Hedges notes, “Sanders will become an obstacle to change. He will recite the mantra of the ‘least worst.’ He will become part of the Democratic establishment’s campaign to neutralize the left.”

A number of lefties I know and like reject this elementary, historically informed analysis. “This times things are different,” they want me to know. God bless them, but they’re high.

If Bernie’s Magical History Tour defies the smart-money odds and wins the nomination and even the presidency, Sanders will still put his progressive revolution dreamers up against the wall one way or another. The Empire can strike fatally against Sanders now or in November or it can also cut a deal with him as president. Given his underlying commitments to the Pentagon System and (explicitly) to private ownership of the means of production, the “socialist” as U.S. chief executive (a fantasy, but let’s run with it) would have to move against those who rightly sense the urgent need for actual revolutionary and socialist change – for the “radical reconstruction of society itself” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., identified as “the real issue to be faced” after breaking publicly with the U.S. military empire that Bernie continues to embrace.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

1 I cannot reprise here the voluminous details of Mrs. Clinton’s longstanding alignment with the corporate, financial, and imperial agendas of the rich and powerful. Readers who have the stomach for reviewing that miserable record can turn to two recent, short, and highly readable volumes: Doug Henwood, Her Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (OR Books, 2015); Diana Johnstone, Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (Counterpunch Books, 2015). The first book is more focused on Hillary’s alliance with Big Business in domestic policy and politics. The second concentrates above all on Hillary’s reckless global, pseudo-humanitarian militarism. Together, these two readable volumes do (in less academic fashion) what I did for the current neoliberal president in Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, June 2008): expose her as an abject corporatist and imperialist guaranteed to betray her progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric and marketing. For my own writings on Hillary Clinton’s hideous past, see Paul Street, “Hillary Clinton and the Manipulation of Populism,” ZNet, May 12, 2015; “Bernie and Hillary: The Sheepdog and the She-Wolf in Vegas,” Counterpunch, October 23, 2015; “Quotations From Madame Hillary,” Counterpunch, January 29, 2016; Paul Street, “Special Places in Hell: For Madeline, Hillary…and Bernie,” Counterpunch, February 15, 2016

2 Hillary’s creepy take on Reconstruction earned her a critique from the faux-radical Black writer and history buff Ta Nahesi Coates, writing from Paris in the pages of the neoliberal Atlantic: “Clinton … is retelling a racist…version of American history Sometimes going under the handle of ‘The Dunning School,’ and other times going under the ‘Lost Cause’ label, the basic idea is that Reconstruction was a mistake brought about by vengeful Northern radicals. The result was a savage and corrupt government which in turn left former Confederates, as Clinton puts, it ‘discouraged and defiant.’…Notably absent from [this racist account] is the fact that Lincoln was killed by a white supremacist, that Johnson was a white supremacist who tried to curtail virtually all rights black people enjoyed, that the ‘hope’ of white Southerners lay in the pillage of black labor, that this was accomplished through a century-long campaign of domestic terrorism, and that for most of that history the federal government looked the other way, while state and local governments were complicit…the fact that a presidential candidate would imply that Jim Crow and Reconstruction were equal, that the era of lynching and white supremacist violence would have been prevented had that same violence not killed Lincoln, and that the violence was simply the result of rancor, the absence of a forgiving spirit, and an understandably ‘discouraged’ South is chilling.” Indeed it was.

3 Look at the following data from February 18th match-up polls:

*FOX News survey: Hillary/47% v. Trump/42% (Hillary +5); Sanders/53% v. Trump/38% (Sanders +15!)

*Quinnipiac survey: Hillary/44 v. Trump/43 (Hillary +1); Sanders/48 v. Trump/42 (Sanders+6)

*Quinnipiac: Hillary/43 v. Ted Cruz/46 (Hillary-3); Sanders/49 v. Cruz/39 (Sanders +10!)

4 See the following forgotten classic New Left political science text: Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (Longman, 1979).

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