The Bernie Fade Begins

“The 2016 presidential election,” Diana Johnstone recently wrote, “is shaping up as a contest between the two most hated people in America.” Bernie Sanders has called it quits. That’s what it means when your campaign says, as Bernie’s did two nights ago, that it looks forward to going to the Democratic National Convention to fight over the party’s platform, not over its presidential nomination. There’ll be no contested convention on the Democratic side. So what if Hillary Clinton is a “right wing fanatic” (Arun Gupta), a close friend of Wall Street, a backer of so-called free trade deals, and a spine-chilling war monger?

Nobody should be surprised. As the left commentator John Stauber noted on CounterPunch last week, it’s a very old story. “It’s the Democrat’s political equivalent of the Bill Murray movie classic Groundhog Day,” Stauber writes, “except the progressive candidate never wins the girlfriend, that is, the nomination, in the end.  Instead, the Bernie Sanders, the Howard Deans, the Pat Browns, and the Jesse Jacksons, the progressive champions of their election cycle, change themselves from guard dogs to lap dogs, ensuring that cynical and outraged progressives follow their champion-cum-Pied Piper to become advocates for defeating the Republicans in November…The Democratic apparatchiks who run Bernie’s campaign,” Stauber ads, “are preparing their masses for the inevitable…for death and resurrection as a saintly rationalizing army of Hillary Clinton supporters.”

Trump is a truly disruptive and rebellious force on the rightmost side of the party system. He’s tearing the Republican Party apart, most clearly at the presidential level. He’s off the elite capitalist neoliberal and imperial Council of Foreign Relations leash in ways that a lot of angry and alienated working class and lower middle class white voters like. That’s why a fair portion of the elite capitalist Republican establishment is trying to prevent him from getting the GOP nomination and won’t back him in the general election if he survives the Convention with the nomination. One of the Koch brothers has even recently suggested that he’ll go with Hillary Clinton over Trump, along with Henry Kissinger and leading foreign policy neocons like Robert Kagan. That is quite remarkable.

On one hand, Trump channels some nasty things that have long been part of the Republican playbook. He elicits ugly strands of frustrated white nationalism, nativism, and male chauvinism that the GOP has been cultivating for decades. On the other hand, however, he often sounds remarkably populist in ways that white working class Trumpenproletarians appreciate. He has been critical of things that elite Bush and Romney Republicans (and elite corporate Clinton and Obama Democrats) hold dear, including corporate globalization, “free trade’ (investor rights) deals, global capital mobility, cheap labor immigration. He questions imperialist adventures like the invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Libya, the destabilization of Syria, and the provocation of Russia. He has on occasion threatened to bolt the GOP and to launch his own campaign outside the Republican Party. He boasts that he is so wealthy that he doesn’t have to rely on establishment corporate and Wall Street funders. He has this nasty habit of attacking other top Republicans in bizarrely adolescent and personal ways. Add to all of that his high public disapproval numbers, especially among women, and it’s no wonder that the RNC has been trying to de-rail him.

Things are different on the not-so leftmost side of the party divide. Sanders is much, much less threatening to his party, the Democrats, than Trump is to the Republicans. Sanders may talk about leading what he calls a “political revolution.” He may on occasion be willing to let himself be called a democratic socialist. He’s raised some embarrassing points about Hillary Clinton when it comes to her Wall Street funding profile, her Goldman Sachs speeches, her longstanding support for the Trans Pacific Partnership, and her sickening vote for the Iraq War.   Still, Bernie’s challenge to the Clintons and the DNC has been tepid and cowardly on the whole. He’s not about to lead a real progressive rebellion in his party. Sanders said from day one that he would “of course” back the eventual corporate Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, with no questions asked and no conditions demanded. He’s an Empire Man who refuses to make substantive criticisms of the U.S. permanent global war of terror and the giant Pentagon System despite the fact that his liberal domestic social agenda would have required massive cuts in the nation’s globally and historically unmatched war machine.

Bernie’s been very careful not to go for the kill against Hillary. If he had been serious about preempting her coronation, he would have gone after her e-mail scandal and her terrible conduct in Libya, Benghazi included, and in Syria, and maybe even in Honduras. Seriously contesting Hillary’s anointment would have meant going after the global Clinton Foundation, which is an imperialist and neoliberal capitalist atrocity. It would have meant highlighting the early and leading role the Clintons played in turning the Democratic Party further to the pro-Big Business right back in the 1970s and 1980s. It would have involved going hard at the role of the 1990s Clinton administration in deregulating Wall Street and passing the arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade agreement and in passing the viciously poor-bashing and racist so-called welfare reform of 1996. And it would have involved a much more intelligent, honest, and radical approach to Black America and the problem of racial oppression. That would have required Bernie to call out the cruel, underlying mass-incarceration-ist racism that has always been at the heart of the neoliberal Clinton project.

Recently on CBS and NBC, leading up to the New York Primary, Bernie contritely exonerated Hillary for her revolting 2002 Iraq War vote. He told Charlie Rose that “of course I do not hold her accountable” for “Iraq War deaths” (with Iraq War deaths defined of course to mean the nearly 5000 U.S. troops who died in the invasion, not the 1 million plus Iraqis who lost their lives). How’s this for a campaign slogan: “Hold Democrats Accountable for War Crimes? Never!”

From the outset, Sanders explicitly admitted that his real role in this election was to help expand turnout for Hillary Clinton and the mainstream Democrats – to help the dismal Dollar Dems bring more young and understandably disaffected voters into the major party electoral process. It’s what Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon called Bernie’s “sheepdog” role and what I have called his “Judas Goat” role: to herd reasonably alienated voters back into the corporate-managed social movement cemetery and radicalism-butchering slaughterhouse that is the Democratic Party. Again this summer and fall as every four years, progressives and leftists will get the usual liberal lectures on the need to back the corporate Democrat as the Lesser Evil in the presidential contest with the dastardly Greater Evil that is the Republican nominee.

In coming weeks and months, as Sanders ever more explicitly endorses the arch-corporatist war monger Hillary Clinton as promised, Bernie’s operatives will also make three further self-justifying claims to their more radical supporters. The first claim will be that Bernie “moved Hillary Clinton and the presidential campaign to the left.” The second claim will be that Bernie is engaged in a meaningful struggle to shape the Democratic Party’s policy platform. The third claim will be that they are planning to build a meaningful grassroots popular and grassroots movement to pressure Hillary and Washington beyond the election cycle. This last assertion will be accompanied by the misleading claim that “Sanders is as much a movement leader as he is a politician.”

Plans are in fact already underway. The People for Bernie PAC and its allies in the top-down activist community including Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America, 350 dot org, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have called for a 2-day so-called People’s Summit to be held in Chicago sometime between the California primary in early June and the Democratic National Convention’s Hillary coronation in late July. It’s there they claim that the social movement will be hatched.

Each of these claims is a joke. You don’t actually move a dyed-in-the wool corporate neoliberal Goldman Sachs top-of-the Ivy League certified Council of Foreign Relations Eisenhower Democrat like Hillary or Bill NAFTA Clinton or Barack TransPacific Obama to the left. All you can move somewhat to the populist portside is their campaign rhetoric.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce knows this very well. It recently noted that Hillary will be on board with the TransPacific Partnership once the election is over. The Chamber understands that she has no choice right now but to pose as an opponent of the measure as part of her unavoidable election year job of impersonating someone who cares about the working class majority.

At the same time, it doesn’t take a Bernie Sanders or a Jesse Jackson or a Dennis Kucinich to move a contemporary corporate-Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign rhetoric to the left. It just takes longstanding majority progressive and populist public opinion to do that. And it’s nothing new. . Sixteen years ago in a useful book on the Clintons titled No One Left to Lie To, the still left Christopher Hitchens correctly described the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” From William Jennings Bryan through Woodrow Wilson and FDR and JFK and LBJ in the Progressive and New Deal eras through Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the neoliberal era, Democrats have been playing that manipulative role with aplomb.

The second claim – the party platform claim – is ridiculous. Nobody pays attention to major party platforms. Presidents certainly don’t. The third claim – the social movement claim — is also a farce, and it’s a dangerous one. The so-called People’s Summit will be no such thing. It will be an exercise in upper middle class-coordinated Astroturf: fake-grassroots movement-building captive to the partisan and electoral agenda of the Democratic Party, which means subordinated to the corporate and militaristic Clinton machine and the Democratic National Committee. It will be absurdly over-focused on the irrelevant Democratic Party platform, not actual social movement-building.

You don’t form meaningful social movements from the top down, in two days. And Sandernistas are the last people you want to see organizing a social movement beyond electoral politics.

Just how successful Bernie will be in convincing his supporters, and especially his young socialist-leaning backers to line up with the Clinton machine is an open and fascinating question. The enthusiasm his campaign has garnered among young people went far beyond anything that Bernie anticipated and far beyond what Hillary expected when she happily welcomed Sanders into the race. Those young people are frankly unimpressed both with the major party duopoly and with the game of Lesser Evils – a game that has delivered little if anything progressive under eight years of Barack TransPacific Obama. I don’t doubt that many of Bernie’s supporters would vote for an actually left and socialist third or fourth party if America was a multiparty nation. I don’t doubt that many of them would rather sit the election out or vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein or a more radical and Marxist candidate than mark a ballot for Hillary Clinton. And I suspect that a certain significant number of older independent voters for whom Bernie Sanders was their first choice will now vote for Donald Trump in the general election.

All of which is very interesting. But just how much do we on the Left really want to focus on the endless and debasing electoral burlesque? Real progressive people’s hope has little to do with U.S. politicians and their electoral dramas, the outcomes of which are largely beyond our sphere of influence. It rests in the majority working class 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 rigged, candidate-centered 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.”

The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Noam Chomsky said when asked about the Sanders campaign last Fall, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.” Sandernistas claim that they are organizing a relevant and desirable popular movement along those lines, but they’re lying and even if they weren’t they’re not the people we want to do the job. They are simply not to be trusted in that regard. That role needs to fall to actual and serious Left radicals – to people who understand that democracy and a decent future are impossible under capitalism deeply and properly understood.

“If voting made any difference,” the great American left anarchist Emma Goldman once said, “they’d make it illegal.” Elections, candidates, and parties come and go, though now the electoral extravaganza seems to last forever. Their outcomes are largely beyond our control. What is not outside our sphere of influence is the ability to build radical and durable people’s and workers’ power organizations that are ready, willing, and able to undertake what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced: the radical reconstruction of society itself.”

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