Notes From an Ultra-Radical Perfectionist

When “Berniebros” attack it can be disturbing. It’s been a bracing experience to be told by older white male leftists that I (no spring chicken myself) am some kind of “ultra-radical” “purist” attached to “abstract notions of perfection” (just a few of the charges I’ve gotten from Sanders supporters via e-mail) because I have refused to align myself with a United States Democratic Party presidential candidate – Bernie Sanders – who:

*Calls Edward Snowden a criminal and Hugo Chavez (a social democrat) a “dead communist dictator.

*Embraces Barack Obama’s arch-terrorist drone war.

*Falsely claims to have been independent of the Democratic Party prior to the current presidential campaign.

*Supports the reckless U.S. provocation of Russia in Eastern Europe.

*Calls for the arch-reactionary and fundamentalist Islam-sponsoring state of Saudi Arabia to step up its already mass- murderous military role in the Middle East

*Helped rationalize Israel’ criminal mass killings of Palestinian children in Gaza (over the opposition of properly nauseated peace activists in his home town of Burlington, Vermont).

*Backed the Clinton administration’s criminal and unnecessary bombing of Serbia.

*Has worked to undermine third party politics in Vermont.

*Called police to arrest activists occupying his Burlington, Vermont Congressional office to protest “Bomber Bernie’s” Serbia policy.

*Called police (when Sanders was Burlington’s mayor and at the leftmost stage of his political career) to arrest peace activists occupying an industrial plant owned by the leading, blood-soaked military contractor General Electric.

*Pushed and voted for the mass-murderous and wasteful F-35 jet program (a classic Pentagon boondoggle) because it meant “jobs for Vermont.”

*Calls the racist British imperialist Winston Churchill (who embraced the racist gassing of Arabs) his favorite non-American leader in world history (he could at least have said Nelson Mandela).

*Backs the standardized testing mania that has wreaked such terrible havoc on schools and children.

*Dilutes the radical tradition, mocking his purported hero Eugene Debs by (among other things) calling himself a socialist while embracing private, for-profit ownership of the means of production and distribution.

*Voted for the racist-mass-incarcerationist 1994 federal crime bill – a reactionary $30 billion measure that “created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces” (Michelle Alexander).

*Fails to call for the giant rollback of the United States’ gargantuan “defense” (Empire) budget his progressive domestic social agenda requires.

*Leaves the Pentagon system almost completely without criticism when asked how he would pay for good things like single-payer health insurance.

*Says that we should learn from Denmark and other significantly social-democratic Scandinavian countries without bothering to note that those nations have tiny military budgets.

*Has repeatedly referred to the cynical corporatist and arch-imperial war hawk Hillary Clinton as his “good friend.”

*Dismisses Black calls for reparations as “as ‘divisive,’ as though centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, ghettoization, and stigmatization aren’t worthy of any specific acknowledgement or remedy” (Michelle Alexander).

*Absurdly refers to the arch-corporatist and ridiculously complicated Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) as a good first step on the path to single payer (to Medicare for All).

*Aligns himself with the National Rifle Association against the parents of children murdered by an assault weapon-wielding maniac in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

*Fails to advance a serious and substantive attack on the longstanding racism, corporate-neoliberalism, and imperialism of the Clintons, thereby calling into question the sincerity and resoluteness of his claim to represent a left-progressive challenge to the long rightward drift of the Democratic party.

*Repeatedly and absurdly suggests that the U.S. wasn’t a corporate- and high finance-ruled plutocracy until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

*Badly over-focuses on plutocratic campaign funding (a very real anti-democratic problem, of course) as the source of the nation’s ongoing subservience to big capital.

*Fails to exploit Hillary Clinton’s very real e-mail and Benghazi scandals, leaving them to the Republican right and questioning thereby the seriousness of his declared goal of capturing the Democratic nomination.

*Promises in advance to back the “eventual Democratic Party presidential nominee” (Hillary) without conditions, without demanding anything as the price of his Lesser Evilist loyalty.

“In the US,” the left Australian commentator, author, and filmmaker John Pilger notes in an essay on the ominous signs of a coming Washington-provoked world war, “Bernie Sanders has promised to support Clinton if or when she’s nominated. He, too, has voted for America’s use of violence against countries when he thinks it’s ‘right’. He says [the stealthy imperialist] Obama has done ‘a great job.’”

What on Earth do such imperial commitments have to do with being a socialist, a label to which Sanders stubbornly clings when asked? Nothing. As Chris Hedges explained last September:

“You cannot be a socialist and an imperialist. You cannot, as Bernie Sanders has done, support the Obama administration’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and be a socialist. You cannot, as Sanders has done, vote for military appropriations bills, including every bill and resolution that empowers and sanctions Israel to carry out its slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian people, and be a socialist. And you cannot laud, as Sanders has done, military contractors because they bring jobs to your state. Sanders may have the rhetoric of inequality down, but he is a full-fledged member of the Democratic Caucus, which kneels before the war industry and their lobbyists.”

I do not, however, want to suggest that Sanders would merit backing from Leftists if his positions and record were more radical left.  For I agree almost completely with something that the brilliant law professor Michelle Alexander wrote in The Nation (no left-radical magazine) last month:

“The biggest problem with Bernie, in the end, is that he’s running as a Democrat – as a member of a political party that not only capitulated to right-wing demagoguery but is now owned and controlled by a relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires. Yes, Sanders has raised millions from small donors, but should he become president, he would also become part of what he has otherwise derided as ‘the establishment.’ Even if Bernie’s racial-justice views evolve, I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”

“Of course, the idea of building a new political party terrifies most progressives, who understandably fear that it would open the door for a right-wing extremist to get elected. So we play the game of lesser evils. This game has gone on for decades. W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, shocked many when he refused to play along with this game in the 1956 election, defending his refusal to vote on the grounds that ‘there is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I do or say.’ While the true losers and winners of this game are highly predictable, the game of lesser evils makes for great entertainment and can now be viewed 24 hours a day on cable-news networks…” (M. Alexander, “Hillary Clinton Does Not Deserve the Black Vote,” The Nation, February 10, 2016, emphasis added)

I prefer Upton Sinclair’s 1904 metaphor “two wings of the same bird of prey” to DuBois’s characterization but the basic point stands: movements for transformational progressive change will have to come from outside and against the Democratic Party and its latest hopey-changey candidates, even ones who (deceptively) call themselves socialists. (I say “agree almost completely” above because I think Bernie’s imperial myopia may be an even bigger, if obviously related difficulty with Bernie).

This is not a matter of purist perfectionism but rather simple harsh reality. It is something that Sanders’ purported hero Eugene Debs understood very well.

Berniebros protecting their Left flank can go after Hedges or me or others on the “ultra” left all they want. No problem. They’d do better to focus their ire and energy on Hillary and her many hitmen, including the ridiculous Hillary “socialist” Paul Starr (see Doug Henwood’s excellent response to Starr here) and the sneering liberal Paul Krugman, who has used his privileged perches at Princeton and the New York Times to claim that Sanders’ eminently moderate calls for the breaking up of the big banks and for single-payer health insurance are “politically unrealistic” and excessively “radical.” Krugman has levelled the absurd charges that Sanders’ health care proposal “looks a bit like a standard Republican tax cut plan” and that Sanders supporters have an extreme “contempt for compromise.” Taking the gloves off, Krugman accuses Sanders of embracing “deep voodoo” economics and “unicorn” politics. How fascinating to see the supposed “progressive” Democrat Krugman report for duty as a prizefighter for the arch-neoliberal Clinton machine against the New Deal progressive Sanders. (I recently responded to Krugman here).

Less surprising, perhaps is the ridiculous Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner’s recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton, a power-mad sociopath who Wenner feels to be “on the side of the angels” (tell it to her many victims at home and abroad). Wenner claims that Sanders represents nothing more than a merely “magical” politic of powerless populist “anger.” Wenner, some may recall, went quite childishly Kim Jong-il on behalf of His Hopeyness the Dollar O’bomber in 2008.

It’s been entertaining recently to watch Hillary and her backers do some of real Leftists’ work for them by alienating younger Bernie voters (how about Mrs. Clinton’s horrific AIPAC speech the other day?), many of whom are going to be unwilling to follow Sanders’ command to “play the game of lesser evils” (Alexander) and back the arch-imperial Queen of Chaos this November. Jill Stein, anyone? Which reminds me: many of the older left Bernie supporters currently steamed at “ultra-radicals” like yours truly for telling too much truth about Sanders will be lecturing young folks on their supposed duty to vote for that mad dog killer Hillary Clinton in the general election. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

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