Ruling Class Games and Qualifications: on and Beyond the Bernie-Hillary Spat

He Said, She Said

The recent “not qualified” spat between the progressive Democrat Bernie Sanders and the neoliberal Democrat Hillary Clinton reminds me of something you often see in National Hockey League games. Time and again, a hockey player is sent to the penalty box for responding roughly to a nasty assault. The referee sees the retaliation and blows his whistle. When you watch the replay, however, you see that the official missed the initial penalty. Usually, the response is worse than the initial attack.

That’s what happened with Bernie and Hillary last week. It started when Mrs. Clinton said the following about Sanders on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show on Wednesday, April 6th, one day after Sanders won the Wisconsin primary: “I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions.”

A Washington Post article reporting Hillary’s comments on MSNBC was titled “Hillary Questions Whether Sanders is Qualified to be President.” Actually, however, Mrs. Clinton never said “unqualified” or “not qualified” in connections with Sanders. Most of the Post report was dedicated to Hillary questioning whether Sanders was a “real Democrat,” not whether he was up for the White House.

Still, it was all pretty insulting. And it all followed in the wake of the New York Daily News’ publication on Monday, April 4th of a nasty interview it conducted with Sanders on Friday, April 1st. The interview portrayed him as less than a finely tuned policy wonk regarding some of his leading campaign promises, Sanders’ retaliation came later on Wednesday, April 6th. Speaking to a large crowd at Temple University in Philadelphia, Brooklyn-born and raised Bernie wasn’t about to let Hillary’s cross-check go unanswered. In a wildly applauded swing-back, Sanders pointed to Hillary’s support for unpopular “free trade” (investor rights) deals that work to upwardly concentrate wealth and income and to her terrible vote in support of authorizing George W. Bush to criminally invade Iraq: “She has been saying lately that she thinks I am quote, unquote ‘not qualified’ to be president. I don’t believe that she is qualified…through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest funds… I don’t think that you are ‘qualified’ if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC. I don’t think you are ‘qualified’ if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are ‘qualified’ if you have supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement.”

It wasn’t just a momentary, one-day outburst. The day after he made these comments in front of thousands of supporters at Temple University, Sanders spoke at a press conference in Philadelphia alongside labor leaders in town for the national AFL-CIO’ convention. The brass-lunged Bernie increased the heat:

“If you want to question my qualifications, then let me suggest this: Maybe the American people might wonder about your qualifications, Madam Secretary, when you voted for the war in Iraq—the most disastrous foreign policy blunder in the history of modern America. They might want to wonder about your qualifications, when you supported virtually every trade agreement—trade agreements which are costing the American worker millions of decent paying jobs. The American people may want to wonder about your qualifications when you’re spending an enormous amount of time raising money for your super PAC from some of the wealthiest people in this country and from the most outrageous special interests.”

The following morning of Friday, April 9th, Sanders and his advisers woke up to read the New York Times’ “liberal” icon and Hillary Clinton hit man Paul Krugman writing that Sanders had “gone over the edge.” Krugman clucked that “Mr. Sanders is starting to sound like his worst followers. Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.,” marred by “a streak of petulant self-righteousness.” In Krugman’s slimy hands, the content of Sanders’ critique of Clinton’s “qualifications” was left out along with the initial attack by Hillary.

The first deletion makes sense since it is embarrassing and revealing that the “progressive” Krugman has chosen the nefarious corporate-neoliberal and arch-imperial Clinton machine over the neo-New Deal Sanders insurgency. The second deletion makes sense because hacks will be hacks and Krugman (beneath his extreme elite credentials) is a hack.

“Of Course She Doesn’t Bear Responsibility”

But by the time Krugman’s column hit the newsstands, Bernie was already reversing course. In an interview with the talk show host and Council of Foreign Relations member Charlie Rose broadcast on CBS News on Thursday evening, Sanders refused to call Mrs. Clinton unqualified and added that “We should not get into this tit for tat. We should be debating the issues facing the American people.”

And that wasn’t all, unfortunately. The CFR’s Rose noted Sanders’ criticism of Clinton for her October 2002 U.S. vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq and asked, “is that going too far to say she bears responsibility for Iraqi war deaths?'” Sanders actually said the following in response: “Of course she doesn’t bear responsibility. She voted for the war in Iraq. That was a very bad vote, in my view. Do I hold her accountable? No.”

It was a remarkable and, for any serious left progressive, sickening comment. Just like that, Saint Bernard, “hero of the Left” (in dominant media coverage and commentary) went from principled criticism of his Democratic rival to mind-numbing, jaw-dropping exoneration of her abject, mass-murderous, and imperialist evil. How’s this for a campaign slogan: “Hold Democrats Accountable for Criminal Wars? Of Course Not!”

An Ironic Win for Hillary

On Friday morning, Sanders went to on the Today Show to tell NBC’s cartoonish Matt Lauer that “of course” Clinton was qualified to be president and that he would of course honor his longstanding promise to support against a horrid Republican. This created space for Hillary to seize the high road. She smiled as she called Sanders’ heated Philly comments “kind of a silly thing to say” (leaving the usual charges of politically incorrect sexism to others backing her campaign) and claimed that that she would of course support Bernie against Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Only “petulant” Sanders fans seemed to remember or care that she and friends at the Daily News had slammed Bernie into the boards before he swung his stick at her.

And that’s how a week that should have belonged to Sanders because of Wisconsin ended with a sense of victory in the Clinton camp, which hopes that Sanders’ outbursts in Philadelphia will prove to have been his “Dean Scream” moment. Wyoming, Shmyoming.

A Startling Readiness to Dismiss and Alienate

I find three things particularly noteworthy about last week’s he-said, she-said episode, whatever its horserace implications. First of all, there’s the fact that a large number of Sanders’ disproportionately young and angry supporters think about Hillary in very much the same terms as those used by Bernie for two days in a row in Philadelphia. Bernie might have taken back his words by Friday morning, but it’s hard to put a genie like the one he let out for two days back in the bottle and many of his supporters would prefer that he be unrepentant. A poll conducted before Hillary started calling Sanders “unprepared” and “not really a Democrat” showed that at least 25% of Sanders supporters will never vote for Mrs. Clinton.

The Clintonistas bear some responsibility for this. I’ve been struck throughout this campaign by the willingness of many commonly older Clinton supporters to join Krugman and even on occasion Mrs. Clinton in being quite staggeringly disdainful and condescending towards Sanders and his disproportionately youthful supporters. They’ve been remarkably ready and willing to alienate Bernie’s backers. The dismissive barbs and put-downs from the wealthier and older Democrats have been relentless and nasty. It’s as they don’t know or care that they will want and even need millions of Sanders’ backers to follow his call for them to vote for the Lesser Evil – Hillary and not Trump or Cruz or some other terrible Republican – in November. Sometimes it seems like they’re almost daring Bernie’s fans to reject his promised counsel to them: vote for the eventual Democratic nominee (the delegate math still says Hillary) in November. That strikes me as a little stupid and way too optimistic about their ability to kiss and make up with Sanders’ base during and after the Democratic National Convention.

The Game of Lesser Evils

Here a Clinton fan who follows my writing (if such a person exists) might object that I too have been harshly critical and sometimes even downright mean-spirited in my writings on Sanders and his campaign. I am guilty as charged and fairly unrepentant about it (okay, I may have gone a little overboard at times). But there’s a big difference: my critiques have come from well to Sanders’s left, from a perspective that rejects the notion that progressive change can be achieved through the Democratic Party and indeed through the U.S. party system and electoral process as currently constituted. I don’t have any horses in the interminable major party U.S. candidate-centered election spectacle and I do not go for Lesser Evil politics. I have never been remotely impressed by Bernie’s promise from the outset to back Hillary in the general election, with no conditions attached. And I concur with something that the brilliant law professor Michelle Alexander wrote in The Nation (no left-radical magazine) last February:

“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…”

Last week’s he said-she said Bernie Hillary spat was certainly part of the rolling cable entertainment package.

Contrary to a standard narrative among my fellow left radicals, the Republican and Democratic parties are not identical and indistinguishable. They are, however, “two wings of the same [corporate and imperial] bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904) and, as such, they both deserve to perish. The Republican Party is currently undergoing epic factional implosion. Good. Let the Bad Cop party die. And let its demise be followed by the collapse of the Still But Less Bad Cop party, itself caught in a perverse relationship of dialectical co-dependency with the rightmost political organization. It’s long past time for a viable Left party and for a new party and elections system that might U.S. electoral politics worthy of passionate citizen engagement.

True Blue Bernie

Second, I find it fascinating that Clinton would question Sanders’ identity as a “real Democrat.” As her top advisors certainly know, Bernie’s “independent” status over the years has only been slightly less nominal than his declared “socialism.” He has Caucused for more than 15 years with the Democrats in Congress. He holds de facto Democratic Party seniority status for Congressional committee assignments. He has conspired with Democrats against serious left third party efforts in his home state of Vermont. His platform is in accord with progressive Democratic Party liberalism in the long New Deal tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He’s a true blue Democrat in the tradition of my liberal grandparents and parents. What’s really going on is that for the Clintons and their neoliberal ilk, a “real Democrat” now is a party member who embraces the rightward, Big Business-friendly turn that the party took ever further away from labor, civil rights, and environmentalism in the late 1970s and 1980s. The turn was partly trail-blazed by the Yale Law graduates Bill and Hillary in Arkansas. It amounted to a reconfiguration of the mainstream Democratic Party as essentially and at best moderate Republicanism in the mode of the smiling Dwight Eisenhower and the snarling Richard Nixon.

Hillary is Eminently Qualified in “The Hidden Primary of the Ruling Class”

Third – and this something that I would very much like to see Bernie’s young and in-motion supporters wrestle with – Sanders got something very important very wrong for two days in Philadelphia. Sure, it sounded cool and progressive when he said that Hillary’s backing by super-wealthy elites and her support for neoliberal trade agreements and her vote for terrible imperial things like the invasion of Iraq make her unqualified for the U.S. presidency. But the opposite is true. It is precisely those and other terrible, power-serving attributes that make Mrs. Clinton deeply qualified for the presidency. The incisive left historian Laurence Shoup explained things very well in Z Magazine eight years ago:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

As Edward S. Herman and David Peterson noted seven years ago, “an unelected dictatorship of money vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.”

A longstanding member of “Wall Street’s think tank” (Shoup)The Council of Foreign Relations (which pushed for and backed the arch-criminal invasion of Iraq), Hillary Clinton is perhaps the ultimate example of a candidate who has been vetted by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of empire.

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”

Does she deceive, pretending as numerous Sanders supporters complain, to be a progressive and even a populist friend of everyday working people? Yes, of course she does. That’s the game. Welcome to the machine! Fifteen years ago, the then still left Christopher Hitchens published a short and pungent study of Bill and Hillary Clinton titled No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family. The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the duplicitous “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted, “which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’ of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”

Nobody understands this harsh reality better, perhaps, than Hillary’s big supporters in reigning high finance. A report in the widely read insider online Washington political journal Politico last spring bore a perfectly Hitchensian title: “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explained:

“Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president…Indeed, many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay — right down to the complaints from critics that such arguments are rich coming from someone who recently made north of $200,000 per speech and who has been close to Wall Street since her days representing it as a senator from New York.”

One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm even told Politico that Hillary’s politically unavoidable populist rhetoric was “a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. The fact is, if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later.”

These reflections from “liberal” elites atop the “unelected dictatorship” speak volumes about the nation’s descent into abject plutocracy and the limits of progressive change permitted under elections and through parties subject to “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” They are also a monument to the continuing relevance of Hitchens’ properly cynical take on the manipulative “essence of U.S. [electoral and major party] politics.”

“A Serious Error”

Solutions to this sorry state of affairs are not going to be found in electoral politics and certainly not through the Democratic Party. They are going to be won first of all through a politics that (to paraphrase Howard Zinn) is about who’s sitting in the streets (and the workplaces, town-halls, campuses, offices, etc.) not about who’s sitting in the White House or Congress or the Governors’ mansion.

Here’s the best thing Bernie Sanders has said on the campaign trail. Last summer he told Wisconsin progressives the following:

“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is about you. It is about putting together a grassroots movement of millions and millions of people who stand together and make it clear that we need fundamental changes in the economics and politics of this country so that government works for all of us and not a handful. We need an unprecedented grassroots movement. A politically conscious grassroots movement. The big money interests, Wall Street, corporate America, all these guys 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. And this is what this campaign is about. A political revolution in America, a revolution which takes on the greed of Wall Street and corporate America.”

Those are great sentiments. I’ll ignore for now the fact that we desperately need an at once social and environmental anti-capitalist revolution, not merely a social-democratic political revolution. For God knows we need to roll back – overthrow I would say – the power of Wall Street and corporate America in the current Hellish New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject plutocracy. But what does the call for a great populist and organized grassroots movement have to do with electoral campaigning for a major party presidential candidate? Not much. As the leading U.S. left intellectual Noam Chomsky noted nearly 12 years ago, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election:

“Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centers of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…sensible [electoral] choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (emphasis added).

Chomsky’s sentiments were echoed four years later by his good friend Howard Zinn, who reflected on the “the election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left.” It was nothing new, he observed:

“the election frenzy…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 sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. … But before and after those two minutes [in a voting booth], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”

How is Bernie doing when it comes to fostering this deeper politics of the streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods beneath and beyond the “quadrennial electoral extravaganza”? Last Fall, Chomsky was not impressed. In a teleSur English interview that progressive Democrats misleadingly touted as a ringing endorsement of Sanders’ campaign, he said the following:

“Take, say, the Bernie Sanders campaign, which I think is important, impressive. He’s doing good and courageous things. He’s organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election’s over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error. The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle. It’s an extravaganza every four years.” (emphasis added).

A Mediterranean radical has a different take from the heart of European antiquity. By his analysis in a recent email, “the Sanders campaign and more importantly the movement being organized around it, in my humble opinion IS one of the most important political events happening on the planet right now…. I sincerely believe that Bernie Sanders does genuinely want to build a social justice, progressive political movement that begins to contest elections as well as doing social movement or civil society work, so I don’t think this will fall apart like Jesse Jackson’s electoralist Rainbow Coalition after the primaries.”

He believes that on the basis of what? Faith. Well, there’s nothing wrong with faith, properly situated in reality. Who knows: maybe 2016 is different and can deliver a great popular sociopolitical movement dividend beyond “electoralism” for Chomsky’s “serious political action,” beneath and beyond “electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.” It is up to us to learn how to think and seriously act beyond the American ballot box, once described by the radical historian Alan Dawley as “the coffin of class consciousness.”

Concession and Revolution Hopes

These are things it would be useful to hear Sanders talk about when he has to make his concession speech and tell his supporters the candidate he recently and incorrectly described as “not qualified” for the corporate-imperial U.S. presidency. I hope he can resist the party pressure to help Hillary play the Hitchensian game by selling her as some kind of fighting progressive champion. Hillary Clinton is a status quo neoliberal oligarch and a dangerous, arch-imperial war monger (who describes the mass-murderous Henry Kissinger as a friend of peace and democracy) to boot. If Bernie must, as pledged, endorse her – and he absolutely will, of course – then let him endorse her as the Lesser Evil (let him actually use that phrase) and let him mention the importance of people developing a great grassroots social movement not merely as an adjunct to major party electoral politics (or as a follow up to a presidential election) but as something to function and fight independently of the election cycle and to struggle (this is certainly asking too much of the not-very-radical Sanders) as an agent of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called near the end of his life the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”

At the same time, I hope that Bernie’s many young and turned on, in-motion supporters would not have to get the word from Sanders or any other politician to move in that radical direction. Bernie has been tapping and riding their egalitarian energy and anger this year, trying to harness it to the outwardly kinder and smarter wing of Upton Sinclair’s “bird of prey.” But Sanders did not create the terrible economic inequality, abject plutocracy, endemic precarity, endless war, and the related unfolding environmental catastrophe that underlies and fuels that energy and anger. The profits system (which Sanders has endorsed) did all that. It is the horrific and soulless performance and essence of capitalism – and not just of neoliberalism (which is really just capitalism returning to its savagely unequal, authoritarian, and repressive long duree norm) by the way – that has made millions of young (and other) Americans so newly open to the words “democratic socialism” and “revolution.” Capitalism and its evil twin imperialism are the enemies that can never be named and properly joined together by major party politicos, including Bernie Sanders. But we the people, the workers and citizens, are different. We are not politicians and we can name, fight, and overthrow those enemies. And we must before an uncontested profits system brings about the common ruin of all.

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