Second Thoughts on Bernie’s Viability

I am starting to think that I may be off base on one of my political calculations. In the course of arguing that Hillary Clinton would be more electable than Bernie Sanders in a general election contest with Donald Trump next November (whatever match-up polls may say now), I have reasoned that big corporate and Wall Street campaign money originally earmarked for Hillary Clinton would flood over to the noxious Republican candidate if Sanders won the Democratic nomination. My thesis was that big donors who normally back the Republican presidential candidate would be too put off by Trump’s campaign populism and global isolationism (more on that below) to back him and would logically bet their election investments on the Clinton machine, which has a long record of Republican-lite neoliberal fealty to Big Business along with aggressive imperial globalism beneath its standard progressive campaign posturing. But with a leftish progressive and nominal socialist who rails against economic inequality and “the billionaire class” at the head of the Democratic ticket, I figured, a determinant lion’s share of One Percent political money would pick Trump.

Trump v. Domestic Legitimacy and Authority

Now I’m starting to wonder about that. As I suspect many halfway intelligent One Percenters know, Trump may represent a bigger threat to their interests than Bernie. The outlandish and preposterous, Twitter-addicted Trump is a wacky, uber-narcissistic wildcard who threatens to make the United States domestically ungovernable while wrecking the United States’ image and brand abroad. With a white-nationalist, arch-misogynist buffoon, television personality, and potential fascist like The Donald in the White House, Americans’ already pronounced lack of confidence in their nation’s reigning institutions would plummet to new lows. Stephanie Kegielski, the top strategist for Trump’s short-lived Make America Great super-PAC recently wrote that Trump “is the presidential equivalent of Sanjaya on ‘American Idol.’ President Trump would be President Sanjaya in terms of legitimacy and authority.”

Sanjaya with an ugly hint of Mussolini and Hitler. You want to see chaos in America? Imagine a Trump presidency. It’s not for nothing that left anarchist friends of mine relish the possibility of a Donald White House. (I’d be lying if I denied that a street-fighting part of me doesn’t share the sentiment.) If you want to see people hit the streets and shut things down on a regular basis, provoking police state repression and escalation, bring on The Donald. The predominantly non-white people of the nation’s cities would not stand for a Trump administration. Look at what happened on the Near West Side of Chicago three weeks ago.

“Career-Threatening for The Military-Industrial Complex”

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam would get a big public relations black eye, maybe even worse than when George Cowboy Bush invaded Iraq, and Islamist terrorists will have a recruiting field day. With the loudmouthed star of “The Apprentice” in the Oval Office, with his short fingers on the nuclear button, the United States will become a planetary laughingstock. U.S. power would be dramatically and further delegitimized and the U.S. populace would be mocked as a hapless throng of racist and nativist, reality show-addicted morons. None of that would be good for Big Business rule as usual.

Also problematic for smart elites atop the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire are Trump’s foreign policy statements to date. A recent column in The Nation by the venerable left-liberal commentator William Greider is titled “Trump Could be the Military Industrial Complex’s Worst Nightmare.” As Greider wrote last week:

“This week, while people everywhere were fretting over his violent talk, the candidate [Trump] came to Washington and dropped a peace bomb on the neocon editorial writers at The Washington Post and the war lobby. Trump wants to get the United States out of fighting other people’s wars. He thinks maybe NATO has outlived its usefulness. He asks why Americans are still paying for South Korea’s national defense. Or Germany’s or Saudi Arabia’s… ‘I do think it’s a different world today and I don’t think we should be nation-building anymore,’ Trump said. ‘I think it’s proven not to work. And we have a different country than we did then. You know we have $19 trillion in debt. We’re sitting probably on a bubble, and, you know, it’s a bubble that if it breaks is going to be very nasty. And I just think we have to rebuild our country’… this sort of thinking is mega-heresy among the political establishment of both parties. The foreign-policy operators consider themselves in charge of the ‘indispensable nation’…This new Trump talk is definitely career-threatening for the military-industrial complex.”

But Trumpian “America first” isolationism is also a dilemma (“career-threatening” if you like) for the broader political economy of U.S. capitalism, which hinges fundamentally on a global class system imperialism, multi-state repression, and multinational corporate rule backed by the U.S. military empire. And that is why, as Rob Urie recently noted on CounterPunch, “American ‘progressives’ make a deal with the devil when they dissociate Mrs. Clinton’s support for Wall Street [which Sanders’ backers openly oppose, P.S.] from her hawkish foreign policy and her opportunistic (and structurally racist) carceral policies [things few Sanders backers press their hero to challenge, P.S.].” American Empire and class inequality are dialectically inseparable at home and abroad.

It’s not for nothing that establishment Republicans are scrambling to cancel Trump’s scary leap from reality television to real television politics by trying to jam him up at a brokered Republican National Convention this summer.

Reasons to Cut a Ruling Class Deal with Bernie

Compared to the specter of a Trumpenstein in the White House, the pretend socialist Bernie Sanders might actually be preferable to the deep state capitalist and imperial rulers who govern the nation behind the fake-democratic surface cover of electoral politics. No, the One Percent and its media don’t like Bernie’s talk about progressive taxation and Scandinavian-style social democracy. It dislikes Sanders’ populist rhetoric against the nation’s savage, New Gilded Age inequalities. It can’t stand how often Sanders mentions and denounces the ugly facts that the top U.S. hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom U.S. 90 percent – and that six Wal-Mart heirs have as much net worth together as the bottom U.S. 42 percent. It has no taste for single-payer health insurance, big green jobs programs, significantly increased minimum wages, free college, and broken-up, tightly regulated financial institutions and the rest.

But the masters know they and their deep-capitalist state can block these policy dreams. They know they can cut a deal with the neo-New Dealer Bernie, who is nowhere near as left or radical as many of his supporters and enemies think and who has made sure to remind folks that his definition of “socialism” includes the continued poisonous (eco-cidal in fact) and private, for-profit ownership of the means of production, investment, and distribution – now so globalized as to render calls for a new New Deal largely mute.

Empire Man

Perceptive wealth and power elites know that Sanders has made sure to exempt the giant American global military empire – an intimate partner of, and leading profit source for the nation’s capitalist ruling class – from his jeremiads against concentrated power and privilege. Bernie is no internationalist or peacenik. After all, he: calls Edward Snowden a criminal and Hugo Chavez (a social democrat) a “dead communist dictator; embraces Barack Obama’s arch-terrorist drone war; supports the reckless U.S. provocation of Russia in Eastern Europe; calls for the arch-reactionary and fundamentalist Islam-sponsoring state of Saudi Arabia (a leading U.S. military client) to step up its already mass-murderous military role in the Middle East; backed the Clinton administration’s criminal and unnecessary bombing of Serbia (over the opposition of sickened antiwar activists); rationalizes leading U.S, military client Israel’s murder of Palestinian children in Gaza; called police to arrest activists occupying his Burlington, Vermont Congressional office to protest “Bomber Bernie’s” Serbia policy; called the police (when Sanders was the mayor of Burlington) to arrest peace protesters 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;” fails to call for the giant rollback of gargantuan U.S “defense” (Empire) budget (which accounts for roughly half the world’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 U.S, military bases across more than 100 nations) that his genuinely liberal-progressive domestic social agenda would require; leaves the Pentagon system to stand almost completely without criticism when asked how he would pay for good things like national 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.

To call Sanders’ “soft on imperialism” (to quote Andrew Levine on Counterpunch last weekend[1]) is to make quite an understatement about the Vermont Senator’s commitment the U.S. global project. Make no mistake: Bernie is an Empire Man through and through.

Selling the Myth of U.S. Democracy and Keeping Folks Off the Streets

A Bernie Sanders presidency would do wonders for helping Star Spangled oligarchs and their many advance agents across the media and intellectual culture sell the great fairy tale that the United States is a shining beacon of democracy. (How could it be? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis rightly channeled the wisdom of great thinkers like Aristotle and John Dewey when he observed in 1941 that Americans must “make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both”). Letting an old Jewish guy from Brooklyn who calls himself a socialist become president might even be symbolically better than letting a Black family occupy the White House when it comes to re-rebranding the U.S. corporate plutocracy as a magnificent model of popular self-governance.

At the same time, a Sanders White House would do immeasurably more than a populace-inciting Trump presidency – and more also than a Hillary Clinton administration (see below) – to keep people off the streets and pacified by the deadly notion that progressive change is best achieved through major party electoral politics once every two and four years. It would help sell what the radical U.S. historian Howard Zinn called (in the year of the “progressive” Obama passion) the “Election Madness…the election frenzy [that]… seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls” and mark ballots for candidates from one of “two [major party] wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904).

I am aware of course that Sanders has said repeatedly that a Sanders presidency would need to be backed by a great citizens’ movement to take on “the big money interests, Wall Street, corporate America, all these guys [who] have so much power that no president can defeat them unless there is an organized grassroots movement making them an offer they can’t refuse.” But here’s the thing: Sanders would organize no such thing once he got in the White House. Bernie and the people around him are partisan, major party electoral politicos. They wouldn’t know a revolutionary, grassroots social movement until it bit them in the ass and when it does they can be counted on to do their best to coopt and/or crush it like Obama and Occupy. Once they reached the symbolic apex of the political establishment they claim to oppose they would act keep popular movements weak and marginalized in the name of political “realism,” “pragmatism,” “getting things done” and, of course, blocking and defeating the Republicans. Bernie’s on the record saying that his campaign doesn’t believe in disrupting anything.

None of which is to deny that white nationalists can be expected to engage in no small disruption after Trump or whoever else the Republican Party puts is defeated by Sanders or – far more likely – by Hillary Clinton next November.

As Zinn noted in 2007, by which time Bernie was voting to “support the [U.S.] troops” in Iraq: “We who protest the war are not politicians. We are citizens…. Except for the rare few…our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth.”

Discrediting Socialism

There’s an added benefit for smart ruling class strategists capable of long-game thinking to anticipate in a Sanders presidency: the discrediting of socialism. Behold the impressive big-picture reflections of Gary Leech on Counterpunch last January:

“There is little doubt that the social democratic policies advocated by Sanders will redistribute some wealth to benefit poorer Americans…. the Keynesian policies that he is advocating are by far the most progressive that have been put forth by a serious presidential contender for many decades…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).

That strikes me as a properly dark analysis flawed by the assumption that a President Sanders would have any success getting his social-democratish policies enacted. Many-sided global capitalist power within and beyond the political class would surely work to block such measures (progressive taxation, the break-up of big financial institutions, single-payer health insurance) from happening as well as to make sure that Bernie (who would be one year short of eighty years old in 2020) got just one term in office (if he survived his first four years). But that would hardly prevent the ruling class and its vast propaganda apparatus from blaming “Sanders’ failures” on – guess what? – “socialism.” Think “Bernie Sanders, America’s last socialist president” – and he he wasn’t even a socialist.

Electorate Reflections: Bernie v. Hillary in the General Election

Moving down from the ruling class to the electorate, let me add some additional reflections in support of Sanders’ viability in a general election contest with Trump. When you look closely at the exit polling data from the Democratic presidential primaries so far, three key differences stand out in order of magnitude. The first and most remarkable fracture is generational, with Sanders hugely out-performing Hillary with younger voters (the younger the voter, the better he does) and Hillary running away with voters 45 and up (and the older the voter, the better she does). The second most glaring difference is race, with the well-recognized Hillary doing far better than the gruff Brooklyn-born Sanders (who hails from 97% white rural Vermont and reminds many Black urban residents of a pissed-off landlord or social service functionary) with Black voters who do not know Sanders particularly well and tend to think of him as less likely to prevail over the racist KKK-accommodator Donald Trump. The third thing that leaps out is gender, with Hillary prevailing overall with the female vote and especially with older female voters.

How would these differences play out in comparing how Bernie and Hillary would do in the general election? Sanders’ race problem would pretty much go away in a general election. He would rock the Black vote, and the Latino vote too, in a contest with the racist, white nationalist and nativist, immigrant-bashing Trump. Black voters might have some cultural, viability, and familiarity with Sanders right now but those deficits would largely disappear in a general election pitting Sanders (who got arrested protesting racial segregation in Chicago during the early 1960s) against a Trump or a Cruz or just about any other Republican.

Sanders would also get the female vote, except for some die-hard Clinton women who couldn’t forgive him for defeating Hillary’s bid to become the first female president. That is thanks to his own politically correct feminist credentials in office and above all to the hideous sexism of Trump, who has been outed even in his own party as a vicious, spine-chilling misogynist.

Sanders might struggle to keep older Democrats on board at first but I’m pretty sure he’d do very well with them by general election time with calls for strengthening Social Security and keeping the awful Republicans at bay. It doesn’t hurt that Bernie is really old.

By contrast, Hillary’s generational problem in the primaries would not go away as easily as Sanders’ racial, age, and gender deficits in a general election match-up with Trump or another Republican. Many of the young Americans whose ongoing radicalization (dating back at least as far as the time of Occupy Wall Street) by neoliberal capitalism has been tapped by Bernie are going to be unwilling (like this middle-aged writer) to poke a ballot hole for a neoliberal and imperial monster like Hillary Clinton. A good percentage of these twenty- and thirty-something “Bernie or Busters” are going to be unmoved by the usual and standard “lesser evil” argument – the scaremongering over Republican arch-malevolence – on behalf of the de facto “moderate” Republican war hawk Hillary next November. As Levine notes, “If Hillary becomes the Democrats’ nominee, the Greens would have an enormous pool of [younger – P.S.] Sanders supporters from which to recruit.”

Bernie’s main problems with the Democratic electorate would go away in a general election. Hillary’s main difficulty with the changing Democratic base could be much stickier.

Reasons Not Get Too Depressed About a Hillary Clinton Presidency

Of course, the American ruling class would rather avoid both the noxious white nationalist and potential isolationist Trump and the domestically progressive if globally imperial Bernie. It always favors the path of least resistance. It prefers venerable neoliberal “third way” represented by the fake-progressive Hillary Clinton, a dedicated globalist and imperialist (far more aggressively imperial and military than both Trump and Bernie) who joined with Bill Clinton and other Democratic Leadership Council types to help trail-blaze the rightward, Big Business-friendly turn of the Democratic Party more than a generation ago. It could well deep-six the embarrassing and dangerous Trump phenomenon (causing no small white nationalist, Trumpenproletarian rage, as Donald has warned) this summer. And the smart money is still on Hillary (with the big arrow on her campaign logo properly pointing to the right) getting the Democratic nomination (despite her recent string of lop-sided embarrassments) and then the presidency, though nothing is for certain in this wacky New Gilded Age of savage inequality and mass alienation and anger.

Like all good leftists, I hate the Clintons, including the ones with two x chromosomes – and that includes young Chelsea, with her giant new $10 million condo complex in Manhattan (whose cheerful advertisement across the Internet must surely offend young adult voters who have “played by the rules” but find themselves stuck in the “precariat” by the endless economic and environmental nightmare that is contemporary neoliberal capitalism). I probably loathe them with greater passion than any Bernie Sanders fan. Still, I do not await the likelihood – to repeat, not the certainty – of a Hillary Clinton administration with undiluted trepidation. Pardon my middle-aged cynicism, but it is my observation that it’s always better for the Left and for the development of the dedicated day-to-day grassroots social movement(s) that we so desperately need to have a corporate Democrat than a corporate Republican in the White House.

This is for two key reasons different from those given in the self-fulfilling, viciously circular Lesser Evil argument many progressive intellectuals and activists (including some of the left’s best and brightest) make every four years. First, the presence of a Democrat in the nominal top U.S. job is always usefully instructive for young workers and citizens. It helps demonstrate the richly bipartisan nature of the American plutocracy and Empire. The people need to see and experience how the intolerable misery and oppression imposed by capitalism and its evil twin imperialism live on when Democrats hold the White House. Second, the presence of a Republican in the White House tends to fuel the illusion among progressives and others that the main problem in the country is that the wrong party holds executive power and that all energy and activism must be directed at fixing that. (In other words, if McCain had won in 2008, we wouldn’t have gotten the briefly remarkable Occupy Movement but rather a big Get the Vote out for Barack or Hillary movement in 2011. It’s the same perhaps for Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter if Mitt Romney had won in 2012.)

There is, yes, I know, the problem of Democrats in the White House functioning to stifle social movements and especially peace activism (the antiwar movement has still yet to recover from the Obama experience). But there’s more good news here about a Hillary presidency. Not all Democratic presidents are equally good at shutting progressive activism down. As the likely Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (for whom I expect to vote) recently noted in an interview with me, Hillary Clinton will have considerably less capacity to deceive and bamboozle progressive and young workers and citizens than Barack Obama enjoyed 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!” Hillary’s corporatist track record – ably documented in Doug Henwood’s book My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (her imperial track record receives equally impressive treatment in Diana Johnstone’s volume Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton) – is also long and transparently bad. And I’m not sure that a Hillary presidency wouldn’t be preferable to a Sanders presidency – which would, to be clear, be an imperial presidency – in this regard. Bernie has shown a remarkable capacity to bamboozle people into thinking that the Democratic Party is an appropriate vehicle for popular revolution (it isn’t) and that endless quadrennial, candidate-centered major party electoral crusades and spectacles are preferable to social movement-building and action when it comes to making history and revolution from the bottom up (they aren’t).

The Clintons and the DNC initially welcomed his entrance into the primary because they expected his campaign to dutifully play that “sheep dog” and/or “Judas Goat” role. Now he has helped channel [2] something that he himself would have to contain for the Empire were he to become president – something that he’d probably be better at containing than Hillary.


1 “The only people Sanders’ ‘democratic socialism’ seem[s] to bother,” Levine writes in his generally (and as usual) brilliant and entertaining article, “[are] doctrinaire leftists who keep harping on the obvious: that Bernie is a New Deal-Great Society liberal, not a real socialist, and that he is soft on imperialism. All true; and all worth pointing out – but not more than, say, a couple of dozen times.” But all of that is “obvious” only or at least primarily to well-educated and mostly older left intellectuals. “Soft on imperialism” is an egregious understatement. And I’m not sure the distinction between real and fake socialists/socialism can be made often enough (just 24 times seems lazy to me) in a time when the profits system now clearly threatens the not-so distant extinction of the species and has already put a decent future for humanity and other living things at very grave risk. See John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), a book which leads me to say thank God for “doctrinaire leftists.”

2 Left Bernie fans tend to give Sanders far too much radical street cred. “One good thing about Bernie,” a radical Sanders supporter (herself deeply and properly cynical about the Democratic Party) wrote me to say, “is that he’s making everyone class-conscious.” You heard it here first: neoliberal global capitalism (which is really just capitalism returning to its brutally unequal and repressive historical norm over the last four decades) hasn’t made people class conscious and open to words like socialism and to struggles against “the 1 percent.” No, Bernie Sanders did it. A Facebook meme someone enthusiastically sent me proclaims “Bernie: He’s Not Just a ‘Candidate,’ He’s a Revolution.” That is bombastic Sandernista delusion on a grand, Obamanistic scale.

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