Where Presidents and People Make History

Progressives at home and abroad are happy about how far “left” the campaign debates and rhetoric have gone in this year’s Democratic Party presidential primary race. But five harsh realities suggest that such enthusiasm should be qualified.

First, the debates and rhetoric have been nowhere nearly as radical as required in a time when the capitalist profits system (endorsed by the nominally socialist presidential contender Bernie Sanders) is generating an environmental catastrophe that has emerged as the biggest issue of our or any time. (The cultural theorist Frederic Jameson has written “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” The irony is that capitalism is quite tangibly, materially, and empirically – no imagination required – ending livable ecology).

Second, the times require not leftish-sounding presidential hopefuls but rather a grassroots revolutionary movement beyond candidate-centered major party electoral extravaganzas that function to sidetrack, divert, contain, and marginalize the populace.

Third, the likely Democratic nominee and general election winner Hillary Clinton is a dedicated, longstanding, and dyed-in-the-wool corporate neoliberal, however much public opinion and the Sanders insurgency might have nudged her rhetoric in a populist-sounding direction. The Clinton team knows that manipulative populist mimicry is smart neoliberal politics in the current New Gilded Age.

Fourth, the Sanders-led leftward tilt of Democratic Party presidential politicking is almost completely restricted to domestic policy. It shows little sign of extending to foreign policy or challenging the core global myopia and imperial autism of U.S. political culture. Bernie Sanders, the “champion of the left,” may advocate some genuinely progressive (if insufficiently radical) domestic policies (increased taxation of the rich, single-payer health insurance, and free college, etc.) but he does little in the same vein when it comes to Washington’s deadly role in the world. As the veteran Left foreign policy and political writer Diana Johnstone recently noted in a letter on CounterPunch:

“Bernie Sanders has said little about foreign policy. The radical shift in domestic    advocated by Bernie implies drastic cuts in military spending, but he has not been spelling this out. Despite his strong opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he has been susceptible to the ‘humanitarian’ war cries of the liberal interventionists, who would certainly strive to take charge of his foreign policy should he miraculously be elected…. What is still lacking in this campaign is clear denunciation of the very worst of Hillary Clinton’s many negative traits: her eagerness to go to war.  And it is not merely Hillary who needs to be defeated: it is the entire militaristic power structure she represents.”

Fifth, liberal U.S. presidents don’t make much of a mark in the domestic realm. The American executive branch’s main agency and power comes in foreign affairs. Reflecting on her recent Counterpunch letter, I turned back to some powerful reflections Ms. Johnstone made in her indispensable book Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton:

“When it comes to domestic legislation, no truly progressive or egalitarian policies are feasible. However much they quarrel, both [U.S. major] parties have accepted that domestic politics must conform to the interests of financial capital, ‘the markets.’…presidential power is very limited on the domestic scene…However, the President of the United States is able to exercise enormous power abroad (p.2).”

“On the domestic front, almost nothing is possible other than small tweaks. But on the world stage, U.S. military power offers enormous prospects for ‘doing something’: from rousing speeches against ‘dictators’ to bullying whole countries, punishing them with sanctions, overthrowing their governments…all the way to big wars. History can be made here (p.130).”

If Johnstone is correct (and the record bears her out), the Sanders difference with Hillary Clinton comes in a realm of politics and policy where presidents don’t make much difference or history: domestic policy.

But Queen of Chaos was written a year ago, before the unpredictable rise of Donald Trump and the more foreseeable successes of the Sanders insurgency. Does it matter that Trump criticizes the reckless imperial “nation-building” (more like nation-wrecking) to which Hillary is so attached or that Trump rejects her and other U.S. foreign policy elites’ dangerous jihad against nuclear Russia? Probably not very much. The Donald is unelectable and, as Johnstone notes in her CounterPunch letter,

“Trump is a lone wolf. Many of his supporters seem more excited by style than by content. Their multiple incoherent grudges against the system do not add up to an anti-war movement. Trump is unpredictable, and it is hard to see where he would find the foreign policy team and the support needed to overthrow the entrenched foreign policy elite.”

What about Bernie, who has an even slighter shot at the presidency than Trump? Here is where I diverge from Ms. Johnstone. “One hopeful sign,” Johnstone writes in her CounterPunch note, “is the resignation from the Democratic National Committee of Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard in order bring her strong voice against ‘regime change’ wars into the Sanders campaign. There is a chance that as it develops, anti-war sentiment may grow more explicit in the Sanders movement, influencing Bernie himself and providing the social force needed to confront the liberal interventionists within the Democratic Party.” (emphasis added)

I agree that antiwar and anti-imperial voices could (and should) become more vocal and influential among Sanders backers for reasons both practical and moral. Bernie’s ambitious social agenda requires huge cuts in the Pentagon budget. The American Empire and war machine is a mass-murderous spiritual atrocity. It is all-too quietly and privately opposed by many in “the Sanders movement.”

Still, Rep. Gabbard (D-Ha.) may have turned against the “liberal” arch-interventionism of Hillary, but she is a strange champion for the “Peace Party” that Ms. Johnstone would understandably like to see arise in the U.S. A proud Iraq War veteran who is still an active Military Police Officer with the Hawaii National Guard, Rep. Gabbard is a Hindu Islamophobe. She is strongly connected to India’s right wing, anti-Muslim Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Since her election to Congress,” AlterNet’s Zaid Jiliani noted last year, “Gabbard has tied herself closely to this party, which has a history of condoning hatred and violence against India’s Muslim minority. Many of her stateside donors and supporters are also big supporters of this movement, which disdains secularism and promotes religious sectarianism.”

Ms. Gabbard is an imperial warrior. She became a FOX News darling because of her criticism of Barack Obama for not being tough enough on Islamic jihadists. She has told CNN that Obama needs to develop a closer relationship with Israel’s right-wing, Arab-butchering Prime Minister Netanyahu. She has been a keynote speaker at a conference held by the right wing U.S. lobbying organizations Christians United for Israel.

At the same time, I’m not sure it makes much sense to call a major party candidate enthusiasm conjured up on quadrennial and Constitutional schedule (Bernie) the head or symbol of a “movement.”

The jury is out, I suppose, on whether Sanders will leave behind a grassroots social movement beyond the election spectacle, but thinking that that will naturally happen (as many Sandernistas seems to believe) is nearly akin to expecting a Bluegill to lay Salmon eggs.

I also don’t see all that much chance of the longstanding de facto Democrat turning against his party’s reigning imperial interventionism. I could be wrong about that and would be glad to be so, but Sanders is a military-Keynesian Empire Man. Bernie may have shied away from foreign policy in the 2016 campaign but he has said and done more than some might think in accord with the American Empire Project. He:

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

*Embraces Barack Obama’s horrific drone war, which has been accurately described by Noam Chomsky as at “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”

*Supports the reckless Hillary Clinton-led 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, shouting down disgusted antiwar activists in Burlington, Vermont as he offered his brass-lunged voice to the cause of NATO’s vicious and imperial assault on Yugoslavia.

*Called police to arrest activists occupying his Burlington 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).

* “Support[s] the Obama administration’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen” (Chris Hedges)

* “vote[s]s 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” (Hedges).

“Confront the liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party”? In an interview broadcast on CBS News eleven days ago, the talk show host and Council of Foreign Relations member Charlie Rose incredulously asked Sanders if he seriously held Hillary Clinton responsible for “Iraqi war deaths” since she voted for George Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq in 2002. With deep contrition written across his face, Sanders 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, giving mind-numbing, jaw-dropping exoneration of the war hawk Hillary’s abject, mass-murderous, and imperialist evil. How’s this for a campaign slogan: “Hold Democrats Accountable for Criminal Wars? Of Course Not!”

But, of course, strange things happen. As Jill Stein said to me earlier this year, “who knows what goes on in Bernie’s mind?” Politicians have been known to change their positions under pressure from their supporters.

Thanks to the significant destructive power held by the White House on the global stage, I suppose we have no choice but to care what goes in on the minds of those vying to be the next U.S. president. Who among the current top four candidates has the scariest mind when it comes to prospects for expanded global war? It’s a tie between the rabid “liberal” war hawk Hillary Clinton and the maniacal evangelical Christian Crusader Ted Cruz. And Hillary is the still the smart money favorite to win the White House horse race.

However the election season plays out, the global myopia and imperial autism of U.S. political culture on display in the seemingly interminable presidential pageant is chilling to behold. Unless one wants to seriously and absurdly see the doomed and wacky white nationalist Trump as a peace candidate, the nation’s bipartisan War Party is receiving no challenge whatsoever. On the not-so leftmost wing of the narrow two-party spectrum, where one might most expect peace sentiment to be audible, the progressive electoral “movement” is focused almost exclusively on the domestic side of the imperial American System and linked to a progressive Democrat who shows little sign of possessing the inclination and/or the courage to question Empire. And the irony here is that, as Johnstone notes, the domestic side is precisely where “liberal” U.S. presidents are least empowered to make policy and history

Just how much do we on the Left really want to focus on the endless electoral burlesque? Real progressive people’s hope has little to do with major party politicians and their electoral dramas, the outcomes of which are largely beyond our sphere of influence. It rests in the citizenry and the possibility that it will form a great organized social and political movement against capitalism and its evil siblings imperialism, racism, sexism, and ecocide. The most urgent political task of all is to create and expand such a movement beneath and beyond the hopelessly corrupt electoral spectacle, whatever its outcomes. That spectacle is simply no place to go looking for justice, much less for revolution. “The really critical thing,” Howard Zinn once said, “isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens.”

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